How the British Burned Washington

The British burned Washington 200 years ago today. In the Washington Post Joel Achenbach, with help from Steve Vogel, author of Through the Perilous Fight, tells how the day went, including this description of how thorough and careful the British were:

The British knew how to build a bonfire. You just stacked the furniture, sprinkled it with gunpowder and put a torch to it.

They built multiple fires inside the Capitol, immolating the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress and the splendid chambers of the House and Senate.

Later in the evening, Ross and Cockburn made their way to the White House and helped themselves, amid hearty toasts, to the fabulous meal and adult beverages left by Mrs. Madison and her staff. They took a few souvenirs, and one filthy lieutenant ventured into the president’s dressing room and put on one of the president’s clean linen shirts.

Then they set the fires. Up in flames went some of the most beautiful furniture in the country, including pieces obtained by Jefferson in Paris and the private possessions of the Madisons. The fires left the mansion a gutted, smoldering shell.

The British also burned the Treasury building, and the building housing the War and State departments. They ransacked the National Intelligencer newspaper office, with Cockburn ordering the seizure of all the letter C’s from the presses so that the editor could no longer write nasty things about him. The Americans themselves burned the Navy Yard to keep the ships and stores out of British hands. 

The invaders spared private dwellings. This was to be a civilized sacking; no rapes, no murders, minimal plundering. They even spared the Patent Office after being persuaded that patents were private property.

 One would hate to think that the British army was more respectful of private property rights than the current U.S. government.