Bicentennial of the invasion and burning of Washington


“The Taking of the City of Washington in America,” depicting the burning of the city on August 24, 1814

Joel Achenbach offers a lively narrative review of the War of 1812 and the invasion and burning of Washington, D.C. in the Washington Post today, the two-hundredth anniversary of the attack.  He spends an unaccountable number of column inches on the Battle of Bladensburg (?), but has some funny and touching stories towards the end about President James and First Lady Dolly Madison wandering around separately in nearby Virginia and Maryland for the first few days after the invasion and destruction of the President’s House, hoping to find some sympathetic locals to take them in.

Achenbach name checks some famous bro-storians, but for my money the funniest and most entertaining account of the torching of what we now call the White House is Kariann Yokota’s account of it in the closing pages of her 2011 book, Unbecoming British:  How Revolutionary America Became a Postcolonial Nation, on pages 226-27 at the beginning of her Conclusion.  She reviews the elegant supper enjoyed by British officers on imported tableware, washed down with wine from cut-glass decanters, just before they piled up the furniture to burn it to cinders.

Read it and laugh, knowing that the Republic will endure.

4 thoughts on “Bicentennial of the invasion and burning of Washington

  1. This is kind of redcoated payback for the deconstruction of lieut. gov’r Hutchinson’s place in Boston almost a half-century before, down to the last mahoggany highboy and Havannah seegar. Or an eerie practice run for the Western Appalachigoths’ sacking of the same building (i.e. White House) after the first Jackson innaugural a half generation later. I always said they shooda stood in Philadelphia!

    When I teach through this terrain, as an eye-witness to, and really a survivor of, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and all that, I can’t resist pointing out the irony of Washington and Moscow both getting torched within a couple of years on globally opposite ends of the same basic war!


  2. Thanks, Janice! (Sorry, your comment got held in moderation–I’m declaring a War on Spam this week & hope to have the issue cleared up soon.) I left a comment over at The Past Speaks–I actually thought the Tweet was kind of funny and not offensive at all, but then I’m a historian & not a diplomat, and so I recognize that the protocols for joking around are different.

    U.S. Americans whose panties are in a bunch over this little joke should remember what Washington became and what it remains, versus its only serious occupation and destruction. People who are the citizens of a hegemonic nation sometimes just need to STFU.


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