BREAKING: British Burn Washington ... 2 Centuries Ago

Aug 21, 2014
Originally published on August 21, 2014 8:15 pm

Two hundred years ago this week, during the War of 1812, invading British troops destroyed two of the nation's most important buildings — the White House and the Capitol. The war had started over issues of tariffs and the taking of American sailors on the high seas; by the summer of 1814, British fighters were in middle of a campaign burning and looting along the coast.

Unfortunately, there was no recorded sound from that time, so for help in our storytelling we imagined how NPR might have covered the burning of Washington, D.C., had we been on the scene two centuries ago. This is definitely one of the stories that you'll want to listen to — click the play button above to hear it.

This re-enactment of the siege is based on Steve Vogel's book Through the Perilous Fight: From the Burning of Washington to the Star-Spangled Banner, the Six Weeks That Saved the Nation.

Our cast of characters:

  • "War Department" Correspondent Tom Bowman, embedded with the invading British forces
  • "President's House" Correspondent Tamara Keith, reporting from the White House under siege
  • Congressional Correspondent Ailsa Chang, reporting from the soon-to-be burned U.S. Capitol
  • WAMU's Armando Trull, embedded with the District of Columbia militia
  • E.J. Dionne and David Brooks with their regular weekly analysis of the 1814 news
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British forces are marching on Washington, D.C.


President James Madison is rushing back to the executive mansion from Maryland. Here in town, citizens are fleeing on horseback and by foot into Virginia.

SIEGEL: Two-hundred years ago this week, invading troops destroyed two of the nation's most important buildings. Unfortunately, there was no way for us to find sound from that time, so for help in our storytelling, we're going to imagine how NPR would have covered the British burning of Washington two centuries ago had we been there.

NPR's war department correspondent Tom Bowman joins us now.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hello, Robert.

SIEGEL: And Tom, tell us where you are?

BOWMAN: Well, Robert, I'm embedded with the invading British forces. We're on Capitol Hill. And I'm a bit far back with the horses and wagons, but what I can see, the British have formed a line - muskets at the ready, and then they're on the march toward the Capitol building itself.

SIEGEL: And have you been able to find out much about their plans, Tom?

BOWMAN: Well, the seizure of Washington, Robert, is as much about humiliating the American government and its officials and sending a message as anything, but I have learned that they'll target federal and military buildings but leave the civilian population alone. And I just overheard one soldier, a real blackard (ph), saying that they plan on burning the Capitol. They seem very happy about doing that.

CORNISH: But Tom, I mean, have we seen any sign of American troops - anyone trying to repel this?

BOWMAN: No, not really. There have been some snipers, Audie, from some of the nearby houses, and there were some U.S. troops coming in. They fired a volley and then scattered back into the woods.

SIEGEL: Are they any match for the Brits, Tom?

BOWMAN: No, they're not. The British are in a large size - force - very good arms, some cannon, well led. The Americans are just hopelessly outnumbered and frankly not very well led.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's war department correspondent Tom Bowman. Thank you, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Robert.

CORNISH: And just to remind folks, we're following the big breaking story here in Washington today. Obviously the biggest story of this year - 1814 - the British invasion of the city and burning of both Houses of Congress.

SIEGEL: And in the studio with us is Steve Vogel, author of "Through The Perilous Fight."

STEVE VOGEL: Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: And tell us what's happening in the city right now in 1814?

VOGEL: Well, earlier today, the British force did soundly defeat the American militia that was set up at Bladensburg just outside the border to Washington, D.C. And American troops are retreating and the British forces moving towards the city.

SIEGEL: Steve Vogel, thanks.

CORNISH: Now, to NPR's congressional correspondent Ailsa Chang. She joins us from the Capitol building. Ailsa, can you hear me?


CORNISH: And you've just entered the building. Tell me what's going on there.

CHANG: Right now I'm standing in the gangway that links the two halves of the partially-finished U.S. Capitol structure.

CORNISH: And what are the British doing?

CHANG: Well, right now it looks like sailors are rubbing gunpowder paste on all the wood work around the doors and the windows. And now they're telling all of us we have to leave the building immediately...

CORNISH: That's NPR's Ailsa Chang. Ailsa, we're going to keep an eye out for her.

SIEGEL: If you've just tuned in, we're following news of this week in 1814, providing continuous live coverage of the British incursion into Washington, D.C. And in the studio with us is Steve Vogel, author of "Through The Perilous Fight." What happened to the defenses in the city?

VOGEL: Well, certainly there was plenty of warning that the British were coming. Almost a week ago, they arrived in the Chesapeake Bay. They've done a very clever job of disguising their movements. And the result has been that the American commanders have been absolutely paralyzed, uncertain what to do. And by the time they tried to put their forces in Bladensburg, it was too late.

SIEGEL: And they're confronting an army and a navy that are - these are the warriors who defeated Napoleon in Europe.

VOGEL: Yeah. Some of them are known as Wellington's Invincibles - very capable veteran troops. They've had lots of experience fighting Napoleon's forces. And they're kind of upset at being sent across the Atlantic Ocean now to fight in another war.

SIEGEL: Well, Steve Vogel, my director is telling me that there's news from the executive branch. Audie?

CORNISH: Joining us now from the executive mansion, NPR correspondent Tamara Keith. Tam, what is the scene there?

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: It is chaotic. Minutes ago, a lone rider galloped down Pennsylvania Avenue and he waved his hat and he cried clear out.

CORNISH: How are people taking this?

KEITH: Well, the president's wife, Dolley Madison has been telling the staff to load a wagon with valuables. I'm right here. I can see silver plates, china, books. There's a small bronze clock. They are all being hauled out.

CORNISH: Is the president's wife going to wait for her husband before fleeing?

KEITH: No, Audie. I don't think MRS. Madison is going to wait around for him. Sources tell me the administration is expected to operate out of the city. I guess they will rendezvous in Virginia.

CORNISH: NPR's president's house correspondent Tamara Keith on the scene. Tamara, thank you so much.

KEITH: You're welcome.

CORNISH: Again, we're following the British invasion of the city and burning of Congress.

SIEGEL: We have reports now that both the president and his wife have definitely left the city, although separately. What remains of the tattered district militia has moved to the edge of the city, defeated and discouraged. They plan to regroup to the west of the nation's Capitol. At the moment, they're on the River Road headed into Maryland. And on the scene is member station WAMU reporter Armando Trull.

ARMANDO TRULL, BYLINE: Thank you, Robert. I'm standing just outside Tenally's Tavern on River Road. I'm touching one of the six-pound guns the District of Columbia Militia were able to salvage from Bladensburg before being rioted by the British. The bronze is cold. Obviously, it hasn't been used. The cost of that route is written it black smoke and reddish flames over the skies of Capitol Hill.

The two houses of Congress have been put to the torch by the British. Heavy black smoke is also coming from the Navy Yard. The Commandant and a handful of naval officers set it ablaze to keep American supplies and ships from falling into British hands.

And, oh my goodness. Now, I see yet a third column of smoke and flames, and I believe it's coming from the president's house. With me is Brigadier General Walter Smith of the District militia.

General, that's not water in that mug, is it?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Smith) Oh, no. It's whiskey. I'm drowning myself from the pain.

TRULL: A crowd has gathered here at the highest vantage point in Washington. And like me, they stare in stunned disbelief as invaders burn our city. Carole Watson is the chairwoman who works in Georgetown.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Watson) It is humiliating to have our public buildings burn.

TRULL: Now we don't know how long the Redcoats will be our uninvited guests here in Washington, or if Baltimore might be their next unwelcome visitor.

General, I'll have some of that whiskey now.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Watson) Here you go. Here you go.

TRULL: From Tenleytown in Washington, I'm Armando Trull for NPR News.

CORNISH: All right, we're going to return now to NPR's war department correspondent Tom Bowman. Tom, can you hear me?

BOWMAN: Yes, Audie. I'm with the British troops and we're now in the president's house. When we first got here, we found the table in the state dining room was set for a meal. There was mutton set out and beef, and it's still warm. And there was fine wine chilling in cut glass decanters.

CORNISH: I can't imagine the scene. I mean, I imagine things did not stay that way?

BOWMAN: No, it's just horrible now. Soldiers are roaming the house, and the British are offering exuberant toasts. They lifted their glasses and declared peace with America, war with Madison.

CORNISH: Did that mean they ended up looting the place?

BOWMAN: Well, no, they didn't. They just took some small souvenirs. I'm now seeing a soldier walk away with a cushion under his arm smiling and laughing. And they also were pulling some pictures from the wall.

CORNISH: Well, how far did they take this?

BOWMAN: Well, after an hour of feasting and roaming about with their muddy boots, they sent some soldiers to get fire from a beer house across the street. Sailors moved through the mansion igniting everything. So just as we're speaking now, Audie, some of the wall hangings are actually burning now and they're starting to see flames. They seem to be having a wonderful time. They're throwing rocks and they're smashing with their muskets. And it's just a horrible scene.

CORNISH: Tom Bowman, thank you so much for your reporting.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Audie.

SIEGEL: Well, I can't think of a worse week in the nation's capital. And to make sense of these terrible developments, we're joined now by our regular guests to analyze what it all means. Welcome to EJ Dionne.

E.J. DIONNE: Hello, Robert.

SIEGEL: And David Brooks.


SIEGEL: EJ, the Capital Building and the White House are in ashes. The president and first lady have fled the town - not a good week here.

DIONNE: This is a horrible week for our country and as somebody who has been very unenthusiastic about this war, I just want to say at the outset that I hope a couple hundred years from now somebody will be able to write that there - it was something of a miracle that we emerged intact from this war, and I think we can. But when you look at what's happened - we were deeply polarized going into this war. Congress was split. It was 79-49 in the House - 19 to 13 in the Senate. That's not much of a basis for taking the country to war with the most powerful country in the world.

SIEGEL: David?

BROOKS: You know, I disagree. We entered this war because the British imposed trade restrictions brought about by the British war in France. They impressed our merchant sailors into the Royal Navy. The British supported Indian tribes against American expansion out of the Northwest Territories. So we really need to fight for that honor. We're the underdog here. We need to stand up and establish a sense of honor for ourselves and so other nations will respect us around the world.

DIONNE: I'm - I am sorry that I have to disagree with David on that. It's not great to disagree at a time of war, but I do hope that after this terrible period of polarization - my part of the country up in New England almost is succeeded over this war. But I hope that after a period like this we might - and it sounds idealistic - we might someday enter an era of good feelings where we can put some of these divisions behind.

SIEGEL: David Brooks?

BROOKS: I take a much more positive view of what led us into war, what forced us into war and where we're headed after the war. Obviously we've had a setback but as Alexander Hamilton said at the founding of our country, we have the makings of a mighty empire. We'll look back I think from hundreds of years from now as a hiccup in our history - a hiccup that will be marked by growth and expansion and really a dominant presence of the world based on ideas that we just defended.

DIONNE: Yeah, I agree with David on that.

SIEGEL: Well, thanks EJ Dionne and to David Brooks for summing up a truly devastating week here in Washington D.C. - the last week of August, 1814. Steve Vogel - we're back in 2014 and not a moment too soon. So we know that Washington D.C. remains the capital of an independent United States. It's not - it's not occupied by the Brits to this day. What happened after the British burned the executive mansion and the capital? Did they win - did they lose the war? What do you say?

VOGEL: Well, the British felt by humiliating Madison's government, they'd accomplish their most important goals. And they only held the city for 24 hours. They had a small force. They had other cities they were hoping to attack. So when Madison comes back to Washington, he finds the city that's - every federal building had been destroyed except for one. There are a lot of calls for surrender, for abandoning the city altogether, and this is when Madison really makes a show of strength and insists that Congress reconvene in the city and that Washington not be abandoned, and that this word get out immediately, not just to the United States, but also across the ocean to Europe.

SIEGEL: How long was it before the Capital and the White House were rebuilt and functioning pretty normally?

VOGEL: Well, James and Dolly Madison never spent another night in the White House. It wouldn't reopen until early in 1818 when James Monroe was president. And the Capital, which wasn't quite as badly damaged, still was unable to reopen for Congress and the Supreme Court until 1819. So there is quite extensive damage.

SIEGEL: Steve, thanks for - for doing this with us.

VOGEL: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: This is Steve Vogel. Our reenactment of the siege of Washington is based on his book "Through The Perilous Fight - From The Burning Of Washington To The Star-Spangled Banner, The Six Weeks That Saved The Nation." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.