August 24, 1814
A British soldier describes the burning of Washington:
“As it was not the intention of the British government to attempt permanent conquests in this part of America and as the General was well aware that, with a handful of men, he could not pretend to establish himself for any length of time in an enemy’s capital, he determined to lay it under contribution and to return quietly to the shipping. Nor was there anything unworthy of the character of a British officer in this determination. By all the customs of war, whatever public property may chance to be in a captured town, becomes, confessedly, the just spoil of the conqueror; and in thus proposing to accept a certain sum of money in lieu of that property, he was showing mercy rather than severity to the vanquished. It is true that if they chose to reject his terms he and his army would be deprived of their booty, because without some more convenient mode of transporting it than we possessed, even the portable part of the property itself could not be removed. But, on the other hand, there was no difficulty in destroying it; and thus, though we should gain nothing, the American Government would lose probably to a much greater amount than if they had agreed to purchase its preservation by the money demanded.
Such being the intention of General Ross, he did not march the troops immediately into the city, but halted them upon a plain in its immediate vicinity, whilst a flag of truce was sent forward with terms. But whatever his proposal might have been, it was not so much as heard; for scarcely had the party bearing the flag entered the street, when it was fired upon from the windows of one of the houses, and the horse of the General himself, who accompanied it, killed. The indignation excited by this act throughout all ranks and classes of men in the army, was such as the nature of the case could not fail to occasion. Every thought of accommodation was instantly laid aside; the troops advanced forthwith into the town, and having first put to the sword all who were found in the house from which the shots were fired, and reduced it to ashes, they proceeded without a moment’s delay to burn and destroy everything….connected with Government.
In this general devastation were included the Senate house, the President’s palace, an extensive dock-yard and arsenal, barracks for two or three thousand men, several large storehouses filled with naval and military stores, some hundreds of cannon …and nearly twenty thousand stand of small arms…also two or three public ropewalks, a fine frigate…just ready to be launched…several gun brigs and armed schooners with a variety of gun-boats and small craft. The powder-magazines were set on fire and exploded with a tremendous crash, throwing down may houses in their vicinity…while quantities of other shot, shell and hand-grenades were cast into the river.
All this was as it should be….But, unfortunately it did not stop here; a noble library, several printing offices and all the national archives were likewise committed to the flames which thought no doubt the property of Government might better have been spared.
…While the third brigade was thus employed, the rest of the army removed the wounded into Bladensburg (and) began its march towards Washington. Though the battle had come to a close by four o’clock, the sun had set before the different regiments were in a condition to move; consequently this short journey was performed in the dark. The work of destruction had also begun in the city before they quitted their ground; and the blazing of houses, ships, and stores, the report of exploding magazines and the crash of falling roofs, informed them as they proceeded of what was going forward. It would be difficult to conceive a finer spectacle than that which presented itself as they approached the town. The sky was brilliantly illumined by the different conflagrations; and a dark red light was thrown upon the road, sufficient to permit each man to view distinctly his comrade’s face. Except the burning of St. Sebastian’s, I do not recollect to have witnessed at any period of my life a scene more striking or sublime.
….I need scarcely observe that the consternation of the inhabitants was complete, and that to them this was a night of terror. So confident had they been of the success of their troops, that few of them had dreamt of quitting their houses or abandoning the city; nor was it till the fugitives from the battle began to rush in, filling every place as they came with dismay, that the President himself thought of providing for his safety. This gentleman, as I was credibly informed, had gone forth in the morning with the army, and had continued among his troops till the British forces began to make their appearance….having ridden through the ranks, and exhorted every man to do his duty, he hurried back to his own house, that he might prepare a feast for the entertainment of his officers, when they should return victorious….the feast was actually prepared, though instead of being devoured by American officers, it went to satisfy the less delicate appetites of a party of English soldiers. When the detachment sent out to destroy Mr. Madison’s house, entered his dining parlour they found a dinner table spread and covers laid for forty guests. Several kinds of wine…spits loaded before the fire, pots, saucepans ….and all the other requisites for an elegant repast were in the exact state which indicated that they had been lately and precipitately abandoned….these preparations were beheld by a party of hungry soldiers with no indifferent eye..They sat down to it…and having satisfied their appetites ….and partaken pretty freely of the wines, they finished by setting fire to the house which had so liberally entertained them….
…the streets were …crowded with soldiers and senators, men, women and children, horses, carriages, and carts loaded with household furniture, all hastening towards a wooden bridge which crosses the Potomac. The confusion thus occasioned was terrible, and the crowd upon the bridge was such as to endanger its giving way. But Mr. Madison…having escaped among the first, was no sooner safe on the opposite bank of the river than he gave orders that the bridge should be broken down;…the rest were obliged to return and to trust to the clemency of the victors………
(description of strategic and tactical errors at Bladensburg and the defense of Washington)…In maintaining themselves, likewise, when attacked they (the Americans) exhibited neither skill nor resolution. Of the personal courage of the Americans there can be no doubt; they are, individually taken, as brave a nation as any in the world. But they are not soldiers; they have not the experience or the habits of soldiers. It was the height of folly, therefore, to bring them into a situation where nothing except that experience and those habits will avail; and it is on this account that I repeat what I have already said, that the capture of Washington was more owing to the blindness of the Americans themselves than to any other cause.”