War of 1812Events and Locationsfrench

British in the Bay: The Washington Campaign

Further Reading

An Overview of the British Attack on Washington and Baltimore

The Americans Prepare to Defend Washington and Baltimore

The British Attack Bladensburg and Move Onto Washington

The American Defeat at the Battle of Bladensburg

The British Attack on Baltimore

The American Defense of Baltimore

George Gleig, British Officer


Washington Burns

The British 3rd Brigade, with General Ross and Rear Admiral Cockburn at its head, is the first to enter Washington. Snipers fire on them from a house and kill a British soldier and Ross’ horse. A group of soldiers smash down the house’s door. They discover the snipers have fled, so they burn down the house with Congreve rockets in retaliation. The retreating Americans blow up the navy yard at almost the same instant.

The British soldiers now turn their attention to the Capitol. The government building is made almost entirely of stone and will not be easy to burn. The soldiers do their best, however, they chop up shutters and doors and add rocket powder, eventually managing to start a fire in every room.

The House of Representatives contains better fuel; it burns so intensely that glass melts, stone shatters, and marble is burned into lime. The Treasury is next, followed by the President’s mansion, where the soldiers discover a table set for forty people. The meal is apparently intended as a victory dinner, and Ross and Cockburn decide to sit down to the feast. They toast the Prince Regent and then set the mansion on fire.

The pillaging goes on for two days. A number of private homes also go up in smoke. On the second day, Cockburn goes to the offices of the anti-British National Intelligencer with the intention of putting it to the torch, but a number of neighborhood women beg him not to because they fear the flames will spread to their own homes.

Cockburn agrees not to burn the building. Instead he orders the contents moved out onto the street and burned. “Make sure that all the C’s are destroyed,” on the presses, he tells his soldiers, “so that the rascals can have no further means of abusing my name.”

After the second day of the occupation, the inhabitants of Washington are ordered to remain inside to avoid the risk of death. New fuel is added to the fires to ensure they will burn all night. The British troops surreptitiously make their way by twos and threes to the edge of town where they form up and withdraw. Four days later they are back aboard ship.

The British succeed to a certain degree, in diverting American leaders’ attention away from other theaters of war. The American government is in shambles and will be thoroughly incapable of efficiently directing the war effort for the next several weeks.