On this day in 1814, a fire rages through Washington, D.C. Our country was then still in the grips of its second war against Great Britain. The British had marched upon and attacked our capital.
You may remember these events because the British occupation of D.C. during the War of 1812 prompted First Lady Dolley Madison to flee the White House with a portrait of George Washington. But did you know that a sudden hurricane—perhaps coupled with a tornado—may have saved the city on this day so long ago?
“[T]he British sacked the District of Columbia,” Rob Crotty writes for the National Archives. “They were, in turn, sacked by a tornado.”
Or was it the other way around? At least one officer thought the storm hurt Americans more than the British.
“Great God, Madam!” a British Admiral allegedly said to a lady in Washington as the storm hit. “Is this the kind of storm to which you are accustomed in this infernal country?” The lady responded: “No, Sir, this is a special interposition of Providence to drive our enemies from our city.” The admiral disagreed: “Not so Madam. It is rather to aid your enemies in the destruction of your city.”
The British were having a tough time of it, though. True, they’d managed to enjoy a festive meal at the presidential mansion on the night of August 24, just before they set that building ablaze. But they’d also suffered when British soldiers tried to throw 130 barrels of American gunpowder down a well. A stray spark had set off a huge explosion, leaving 30 British soldiers dead and dozens more badly wounded.
The British set fire to public buildings such as the Library of Congress, the U.S. Treasury, and the Capitol. To their credit, they were convinced to leave the Patent Office untouched because so many of its items were considered private, not public, property.
The fires blazed through the night of August 24 and were still going when the sun rose on August 25. For a time, it must have seemed that the fires would destroy everything.
That’s when the storm hit.
“[T]he sky grew suddenly dark, and the most tremendous hurricane, ever remembered by the oldest inhabitant in the place, came on,” one British soldier wrote. He thought it “impossible for one who was not an eye-witness” to understand the strength of the wind. “Roofs of houses were torn off by it,” he described, “and whirled into the air like sheets of paper . . . . together with the noise of the wind and the thunder, the crash of falling buildings, and the tearing of roofs as they were stript from the walls, produced the most appalling effect I ever have, and probably ever shall, witness.”
Houses were picked up, and trees uprooted. The British had shown mercy to the Patent Office, but now its roof was torn off. A cannon was picked up like a rag doll and thrown around, taking out those in its path. The chain bridge across the Potomac was rendered useless. British soldiers lay flat on their faces in the street, not knowing where else to take cover from the ferocious wind.
The storm lasted for hours. But would things have been better or worse without it? True, the flames were finally extinguished, but now buildings lost roofs and chimneys. Walls cracked under the pressure as hot flames clashed with cold rain. Many were killed.
The British left that same night, “the general devastation being completed,” as one officer concluded. The confusion created by the storm covered their departure.
The British occupation of D.C. had lasted just over 24 hours. It was both the first and the last time that a foreign army would ever occupy our capital.
Enjoyed this post? More stories about the
Anthony S. Pitch, The burning of Washington : the British invasion of 1814 (1998)
Evelyn Dole, A tornado that saved a city and defeated the enemy (U.S. Air Force: 557th Weather Wing; Feb. 26, 2007)
George Robert Gleig, The Campaigns of the British Army at Washington and New Orleans, in the Years 1814-1815 (3d ed. 1826)
Kevin Ambrose, The thunderstorm that saved Washington (Wash. Post; July 15, 2010)
Rob Crotty, Tornado saves capital, scares British (National Archives; Aug. 24, 2010)
Sarah Zielinski, The Tornado That Saved Washington (Smithsonian Mag.; Aug. 25, 2010)
Steve Vogel, Five myths about the burning of Washington (Wash. Post; June 28, 2013)
The Diary of Michael Shiner: Entries from 1813-1829 (Naval History and Heritage Command)