Put to the Torch — The Burning of Washington Through the Eyes of the British

British soldiers, sailors and Royal Marines leave the burning U.S. capital carrying sacks of plunder. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)“The burning of Washington remains a singular moment in American history. It constituted an existential threat to the young republic, marked the only real invasion of American soil by a foreign enemy, and can be said to have been the nation’s first day of “infamy.”
By Robert P. Watson

THE BATTLE OF Bladensburg, fought in Maryland in the blistering heat of August 24, 1814 was an embarrassment to the American military.

Though possessing superior numbers to the invading British, the hodge-podge collection of U.S. regulars, sailors, state militiamen, and government clerks was routed by a disciplined enemy force, many of whom were part of the army that had recently bested Napoleon in Europe.

Of the battle, it was said that the Americans “ran like sheep chased by dogs” and the only thing that prevented the British from utterly destroyed their foes was the weather—unaccustomed to Washington summers, the British were simply too exhausted to give chase. Indeed, some redcoats “died without sustaining a scratch,” succumbing to the scorching heat. However, the humiliation was about to get worse.

After the lopsided victory, the British general Robert Ross rested his weary army. The battle was so quick and decisive that much of the main force was still in the rear and had yet to move into position. Moreover, a few hundred soldiers collapsed during the march and after the battle.

“Out of the twelve hundred men who bore the brunt of the battle, nearly one-half had fallen,” recalled Lt. George Gleig, who was a part of the fighting. “Of those who survived, and were fit for duty, many were absent for the purpose of attending to the wounded, and burying the dead.”

An 1815 illustration of the American rout at Bladensburg. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)Ross worried about whether his army was in a condition to strike Washington, yet he wanted to press his advantage and deny the Americans the chance to regroup. The city was a mere seven miles away and nothing stood between it and the invaders.

Gleig had taken a musket ball but was alive. “My wound,” the lieutenant noted, “though not severe, began about this time to trouble me.” He realized his limb was stiff, and the exertion of walking had produced some inflammation. However, since “the surgeons were all too busy” Gleig did not want to distract them from rendering more urgent care. So, he “cleaned… and dressed the wound” then, exhausted, sat down on the ground and was asleep “right away.”

While part of the army slept and others tended to the wounded and dead, Ross ordered a few men to loot area farms. They needed to restock their dwindling food supplies and assure that everyone had enough drinking water to deal with the heat. The army had, on Ross’s orders, marched with only three days of supplies in order to move quickly. They would live off the land.

Gleig was awakened when the “bugle gave notice” to fall into formation. Ross announced that Baltimore, just a few miles north and one of the planned targets of the invasion, would be set aside for the moment. With the Americans on the run, it was on to Washington! Soldiers erupted into cheering and “congratulations and hearty greetings” were passed through the ranks, while also chastising the “timidity of the enemy.” The commander’s orders imbued the army with a renewed sense of purpose and “lively” bravado, remembered Gleig.

A map of the Chesapeake region during the War of 1812. The British near Benedict on the Patuxent River and advanced on to Blanensburg, marching into Washington from the northeast. (Image source: https://www.ncpedia.org/media/map/chesapeake-bay-area-1812)As the sun began setting, a haunting silence fell across the city of Washington. Lanterns and candles were dark, homes were empty, and few people were seen on the streets. An occasional carriage clamored by on its way out of town. That is when the looting started. Paul Jennings, President James Madison’s 15-year-old enslaved servant, remained behind and alone at the Executive Mansion, hiding in the stables with a horse. He watched with dread as “a rabble, taking advantage of the confusion” ransacked homes and government buildings. They were doing the work of the enemy, he reasoned.

The British army arrived in the capital shortly after 8 p.m. Facing no resistance upon entering the city, Ross suspected a trap or ambush ahead. Why else would trees not be felled, bridges be left standing, and no trenches dug? None of the usual defensive measures—earthworks, skirmishers, rifle pits—were present. Nor were the city’s leaders there to offer terms or muster a defense, or even care for their residents or protect property. Astonished, Ross observed that American “officers of state and local magistrates, regardless of all but their personal safety, took to their heels by common consent and left the public buildings to their fate.”

Arriving by the main highway into the city, they headed toward the Capitol, rising majestically over the surrounding homes and federal departments. Reports of the British advance had been circulating through the city for days, prompting the residents to evacuate. A few refugees could still be seen heading in the other direction out of town.

The first to enter the city were Ross and Admiral George Cockburn, the two commanders leading the invasion. Ross had prepared a personal message for the president and the city’s residents, expecting them to be there to accept the terms of surrender. They were not. As such, the conquerors proceeded through the city, expecting to meet resistance at any moment. They were joined by Cockburn’s aide, Lt. James Scott, who recorded that a small “truce party” led by Ross and Cockburn and “accompanied by a small guard” moved in front of the army carrying white flags that announced their interest in a “parlay.”

When a few residents finally and sheepishly made an appearance, Ross announced that no one was to be on the streets. The general assured the small crowd that, should they surrender, he would spare them and their property.

“As fear renders most men obedient, the order was punctually attended to,” Gleig recalled.

The goal of the operation was only to “cause havoc” in the American military command by seizing the capital and destroying government buildings, then proceed to Baltimore, a far larger target. The British had insufficient numbers and artillery to hold the city.

The smoke damaged presidential mansion. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)The advance force moved through the empty streets, with the only sign of life being a few young slaves running in front of the army warning anyone who would listen that the British were here.

A 20-year-old sailor named Robert Ratliff was part of the advance force and remembered the feeling of nervousness and excitement as they “Entered the Town” from Maryland Avenue which was “quite Dark at Night.” That was when, Ratliff recalled, shots rang out on their right. Even though they carried the flag of truce, the sailor complained “the Dam[n] rascals Fired out of a most elegant House & hollered out here comes the English Bug[g]ers!”

From the large brick home previously owned by the Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin, “they shot the Generals Aide de camp[‘s] Horse from under him,” described Ratliff, “and killed a corporal [and] wounded Private & shot the Trumpeter[‘s] Horse.”

Another account suggests the corporal and private were the first two shot, then the third shot claimed Ross’s horse, sending the general tumbling to the ground.

Ross had wanted to refrain from any assault on civilians or private property, but the Americans had fired first at a party carrying the flag of truce.

“Accommodations were laid aside,” claimed Cockburn, who ordered his sailors to retaliate.

A volley of fire poured into the home. Five sailors, led by Cockburn’s adjutant, Lieutenant Scott, were then sent into the home. One of the sailors was Ratliff, who wrote that “I and 4 Sailors burnt this House with Everything in it by order of Cockburn.”

Scott added that they found both sides of the “home barricaded,” so they threw burning torches into the windows, setting it ablaze.

The residents, however, had fled out the back door. Scott recorded that the house on the opposite side of the street was also burned, as he believed one of the shots may have originated there.

Scott defended charges that the decision strike private property was “barbarian” and “Goth-like” by noting that these were the only homes destroyed in the entire city.

The Capitol, as it looked in 1814. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)The army marched to the Capitol and stood in awe of the massive structure with its 67-foot-high twin buildings—the House chambers on the south side, Senate on the north. It dominated everything around it. The two wings were connected by a 100-foot-long wooden walkway. It, like much of the capital city, was still unfinished. Construction on the “Hall of Congress,” as it was sometimes called, had been halted when the war began in 1812. Lieutenant Scott could not help but be impressed with the structure, declaring it “a beautifully arranged building.” The Capitol contained numerous elaborate embellishments such as fluted Corinthian columns and an enormous marble statue of Liberty seated on a pedestal, her right hand embracing the Constitution and her left hand holding a cap. Scott noted with irony that the building lacked the “republican simplicity” professed by Jefferson and Madison. Rather, he mused, it reflected “an unseemly bias of monarchical splendor.” The commanders ordered the Union Jack flown atop a flagpole on Capitol Hill.

At around 9 p.m., men carrying Congreve rockets were ordered forward. Lieutenant Scott recalled that the aggressive Cockburn roared to his conquering force: “Shall this harbor of Yankee democracy be burned? All for it will say, Aye!”

Rockets were fired onto the roof. However, because it was covered with sheet iron, it did not ignite. The admiral ordered sailors and soldiers into the Capitol to gather furniture and pile it in the two main chambers and elsewhere through the building. Meanwhile, Cockburn looked for mementoes to loot.

Congreve rockets. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)What they saw inside the building was equally impressive. “The interior accommodations were upon a scale of grandeur and magnificence,” Lieutenant Scott gushed, which he found surprising from such a young nation. Scott was taken by the arched entranceways and large stone interiors, but particularly with a “handsome clock, surmounted by a gilt eagle with extended wings and ruffled crest, looking towards the skies, emblematic, it is to be presumed, of the rising greatness of the young nation.” Scott remembered its hands pointing to 10 p.m. when the fire was started.

The sailors hurried through the building, gathering wooden chairs and desks to use to build the large pyres. There was less furniture on the first floor, so they tore out window frames, knocked down doors, then chopped them into kindling. While ransacking the building, they discovered the Supreme Court chambers in the North Wing by the Senate. Cockburn ordered a pile of furniture be ignited there as well. Room by room, the British looted then set fires.

Once anything combustible was dragged to the main rooms, the piles were doused with flammable powder used for lighting the rockets and then set on fire with torches.

Rafliff was one of the sailors chosen to light the first fire. He wrote that Cockburn’s orders were simply, “Burn the Congress & Sennet house.” The House chamber was set ablaze first, then the committee rooms, followed by clerks’ offices, which were in the basement.

A dramatized depiction of the burning of Washington. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)One of the rooms burned was the Library of Congress, which was at the time housed upstairs in a high-ceilinged room. The books and papers not rescued by the clerks prior to the city’s abandonment, ignited quickly. The library’s records, large desks, elaborate drapery, thick carpet, and many wooden shelves still filled with books, maps, and manuscripts were engulfed in flames within minutes. The large windows designed to take advantage of natural light served another purpose that night—gusts of wind whipped the flames through the building.

In a matter of minutes, the entire building was burning, and flames shot out through the shattered windows and snaked to the roof. The heat was so intense and the fire raging so completely out of control that the soldiers and sailors had to hurry out of the building. Everyone backed well away from the searing heat. The roof collapsed and caved into the burning structure.

The fire was so massive that it was seen for miles in every direction. Residents still fleeing the city and those in neighboring towns watched the bright lights as the summer sky glowed orange and red.

The main British force, still outside the city and on the road, saw it too. One of them was Lieutenant Gleig, who recorded hearing “heavy explosions” before they saw the fires. As they marched close to the capital, Gleig was shocked by the “sheets of fire which quivered through the air” around the Capitol. Overwhelmed, he wrote in his journal: “The very waving of the flames heard in the stillness of night to an extraordinary distance—formed altogether such a scene as I have no words adequate to describe.”

The burning of Washington remains a singular moment in American history. It constituted an existential threat to the young republic, marked the only real invasion of American soil by a foreign enemy, and can be said to have been the nation’s first day of “infamy.”

Robert P. Watson, Ph.D. is the author of When Washington Burned: The British Invasion of the Capital and a Nation’s Rise from the Ashes (Georgetown University Press, 2023). He holds the titles Distinguished Professor of American History and Avron Fogelman Research Professor at Lynn University in Florida.

Frequently Asked Questions

What year was the first army of the United States of America established?

The American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) saw the founding of the First Army. The Continental Congress approved an army of 20,000 under George Washington's command.

The army was created from the existing militia units. Its mission: to defend the colonies in the face of British invasion. The army received very little training and was ill-equipped.

The Declaration of Independence was adopted on June 14, 1776 by the Continental Congress. This document declared that the thirteen American states were independent of Great Britain. It also called on them "secure these rights" for their descendants. The Continental Congress adopted on July 4th a resolution calling to create a continental arm.

Initially, the newly constituted army consisted mostly of untrained militiamen. Washington took over command of the army on August 17, 1777. Washington began to recruit troops from local militias, and also enlisted foreigners. His force consisted of nearly 10,000 men, by early 1778.

In March 1779, the army fought its first major battle, at Saratoga, New York. Although the Americans lost that battle, it marked a turning point in the war. General Burgoyne was defeated and the British army surrendered.

After the war ended in 1783 and the army was disbanded by the Continental Congress, though there would be some short-lived efforts to create permanent national militaries.

Who were the first people to use guns in warfare?

For thousands of years, humans have used guns.

They were initially used only by the wealthy and powerful, but they became more popular with common people.

The Qin Dynasty (221 BC to 206 BC), for example, introduced the first gunpowder weapons into China.

Also, until 1406, Mongols used bows or arrows. They then adopted firearms.

King Francis I of France, in 1522, issued a decree that all must have a musket.

And finally, in 1526, Henry VIII ordered every man between 18 and 60 to learn how to shoot a weapon.

What is the difference between Military History and other areas of study?

There are many similarities between military history and other disciplines, such as economics, politics, sociology, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, literature, etc.

All of these subjects share one thing: they all deal with facts. They detail what took place at specific times. They describe what happened, and who won or lost. They explain why things happened the way that they did.

Two important differences distinguish military history from other disciplines are:

  1. It focuses on the past. Its focus is on the past, not the present. It tells what happened before we were even born.
  2. It focuses only on the actions and motivations of individuals. This means it examines the thoughts of individuals and not abstract ideas like money, power or ideologies.

Therefore, military history can be defined as a branch that studies the consequences of armed conflicts on society.

It explains how wars were fought, why some countries won while others lost, and how world history changed over time.

A unique set of characteristics can also be found in military history.

It involves studying many sources. Official reports, letters, diaries, interviews, photos, films, maps, and paintings all contribute to the story on World War I.

It provides detailed information on battles campaigns strategies and tactics. It explains how armies move, attack, defend, retreat, consolidate their positions and counter-attack.

The third is military history. It reveals the motivations behind wartime decisions. What motivated generals to defend or attack certain cities? What were the strategic reasons for these decisions?

Fourth, the military's history shows how people respond to stress. Soldiers needed to adapt to new situations and learn new skills. How did they react when faced with the enemy? Were they afraid? Did they panic or were they able to cope? Did they show courage Did they flee? Or did they flee?

Military history can also be used as a teaching tool. Students will read books on conflicts in the past and then have discussions with their classmates. Finally, they will write papers summarizing what they learned. This allows students to gain an in-depth understanding of history from firsthand experiences.

What is the importance of military history?

Over the past few decades, there has been an unprecedented rise of conflict around the globe. There seem to be no shortage countries that are currently involved in armed struggle, including Ukraine, Syria and Libya. Why do these conflicts continue? Why do we keep experiencing war after war? Can humans live in peace and harmony within such close quarters?

Our collective memory holds the answer. We may not realize it, but when we look back on the events of the 20th century, we find ourselves living in a world where violence between nations is commonplace. Simply put, we live at a time of great transition.

World War II ended 70 year ago this year. But it was during a time of rapid technological advances, which included the development the atomic-bomb. These advancements led to the creation and expansion of a global economy. This economic system, in turn, created the conditions for a worldwide political movement known as "globalization."

It's easy to forget the progress made since 1945 as globalization continues. The world is interconnected today; nearly 40% of global GDP is now international trade. Most Americans rely on foreign goods in their daily lives.

Despite the huge changes caused by globalization however, humanity continues to struggle with a fundamental problem: Conflict cannot be avoided. It is understandable to want peace and prosperity for all nations. However, this is not realistic. As long human beings are alive, they will seek power as well as wealth.

We must learn from our mistakes. If we hope to prevent future conflicts, we must recognize the underlying factors that lead us to fight each other.

We need to know the history and consequences of war in order to devise strategies to prevent future conflicts. Let's take a look at World War II. How did it start? How did it get started? Was it the war's main cause?

What happened to the Ottoman Empire after World War I?

After WWI Turkey lost most of its territory in Europe and was made an independent country. The empire continued until 1922 with the Treaty of Lausanne ending the war between Greece & Turkey. This treaty gave back the majority of the lands they had taken during the conflict. Turkey received much-needed money and support from the West in exchange for these territories. This resulted in a period of economic development and modernization.

The Turkish Republic existed until 1923, when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was elected president and transformed the country into a secular state. He also abolished a caliphate. This was the beginning of modern Turkey.

Because Ataturk helped establish modern Turkey, he is one of the greatest leaders in history.


  • According to Peter Fraser Purton, the best evidence of the earliest gun in Europe is the Loshult gun, dated to the fourteenth century. (en.wikipedia.org)
  • Of military historians, 0% are Socialist, 8% are Other, 35% are Liberal, and 18% are (en.wikipedia.org)

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How To

Which countries were involved with the Korean War?

In 1950, the Soviet Union backed communist North Korea. Meanwhile, the United States and other allies backed the capitalist Republic of South Korea.

China reached a separate deal with the Communist North Koreans following the outbreak of fighting.

China sent troops through the 38th Parallel as support for their ally. This led to the Korean War.

By 1953, the war was over. The North Korean forces retreated into China.

The Armistice Agreement was signed on June 25, 1953. Both sides agreed to withdraw armies.

However, the agreement was never fully implemented. In July 1955, fighting resumed.

It ended on 27 July 1953. All hostilities stopped when a truce was signed.

The conflict resulted in the deaths of an estimated 3,000,000 men. It is the deadliest war since World War II.