Robert Watson: When Washington Burned

When Washington Burned by Lynn University Robert Watson narrates and examines the British campaign and American missteps that led to the fall of Washington, DC during the War of 1812. Read on for a Q&A with the author to learn more about why this event was significant, how the US responded to the crisis, and what we can learn from it.

What is the significance of August 24 in US history? Why is this history important?

Long before the January 6 insurrection; the terrorist strike on 9/11; the attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii; or the Confederacy’s surprise attack on Fort Sumter that started the Civil War, there was the burning of the capital city in 1814. The conflagration during the War of 1812 was a pivotal moment in US history for several reasons, including that it was perhaps the first major test—or crisis—confronting the new and fledgling republic, is the closest the nation came to being conquered, we nearly lost our founding treasures (the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, etc.) to the flames, and the event tested the resolve of the people and nascent government. There were calls to relocate the capital city, just as there were questions about how, from the ashes, the government could afford to rebuild. Likewise, fingers were inevitably pointed—in many directions. But, in the event, the site of the seat of government remained, the city’s public structures were rebuilt, the nation endured, and the bitter loss but subsequent victories afterward helped imbue the people with a sense of national pride. Ironically, the American experiment was strengthened as a result of this “second war for independence.”

How did US forces respond to the crisis? Can you describe what they did right and what they did wrong?

There were many mistakes made and this event marked one of the low points in American history. And there was plenty of blame to go around. The previous president—Thomas Jefferson—had gutted the military and not prepared for war. The sitting president—James Madison—had likewise done little and was pushed by war hawks in his own party into a war he did not want and we were utterly unprepared to fight. Southern rabble-rousers and their representatives in Congress beat the drums for war, while simultaneously defeating measures to prepare for war. They showed themselves disinterested in cooperation or compromise, or even in listening to more seasoned and experienced members of Congress. Several military leaders showed themselves to be, at best, incompetent, and at worst, cowards. The nation’s small, poorly trained, and ill-equipped military underperformed and was routed at nearby Bladensburg in Maryland by a smaller British force, thus leaving the way to the capital city wide open.

However, immediately after losing the capital city to British forces, state militias and federal troops managed three major upset victories—at Baltimore/Fort McHenry, Plattsburgh/Lake Champlain, and New Orleans. Perhaps the main victory was the resolve to keep the capital city in Washington and manage to avoid the divisive political bickering that would have prevented the rebuilding and renewal of the nation.

What can we learn from this episode in US history that can be applied today?

The politics at the time were somewhat divisive, dysfunctional, and disruptive, not unlike today. Despite deep political divisions and the crisis of having the capital city invaded and burned, the government and public managed to come together to rebuild and renew American democracy. Of course, it always seems that we never truly learn the lessons of history. The saber-rattling, uncompromising, uncivil actions of many members of Congress and many southerners in the lead up to the attack on the capital should provide a cautionary tale for the tone of our politics today.