When Britain Burned the White House

An anecdotal lesson on the dangers of misplaced trust —

In the summer of 1814, Thomas Swann, a scout stationed at Point Lookout near the entrance of the Chesapeake Bay, gazed in horror at the fifty British warships filling the bay in front of him.  Soon, over 4,000 British troops, veterans of the Napoleonic Wars, would be descending upon the capital of the United States.  All that stood in their way was a handful of regulars and poorly trained militia.

James Madison, the fourth President of the United States, fretted nervously.  The incompetence of his military advisors became clearer as each day passed and the enemy inched closer to the White House doorstep.    

The story is expertly told in the book, When Britain Burned the White House, by Peter Snow.  My mother gave me this book, knowing that I share her interest in early American history.  As a young girl, she lived in Glen Burnie, Maryland, and was familiar with the setting.  She knew the hamlet of Benedict where the troops of British Admiral George Cockburn and General Robert Ross disembarked.  She knew the marshy peninsula along the Patuxent River where the redcoats marched that hot, humid August.  She knew Bladensburg, where the British swept aside the ragtag collection of American defenders.  

As I read, I sensed an emotional shift in me.  It began with a shared, casual interest, but transitioned into a fascination.  I became immersed in the unfolding description of this traumatic and uncertain time in American history.  With my map close beside me, I traced the paths of the British and the disjointed, erratic movements of the panicky American home guard.  The more I read, the more I sensed disbelief, dismay, and humiliation accumulating in my soul.  Washington D.C., the sanctuary of democracy, was being sacked.  Besides Pearl Harbor and 9/11, it was one of only three times in our history that outsiders have successfully struck at the core of American power on our own soil.  

My generation has never known a world in which the U.S. is not a dominant power.  We cannot imagine our government in a humiliated posture, completely at the mercy of a foreign enemy.  We are at ease, certain of our national security, convinced in our impregnability.  Is this period of tranquility a blessing, or a curse?  On one hand, we are blessed to experience freedom to live as we please.  But in a different sense, we are vulnerable to the curse of expectations.  We expect security.  Expectations are dangerous things because any expectation set on an uncertain thing is certain to disappoint.  The only expectation that cannot disappoint is a belief in God and the words and mission of His Son, Jesus Christ.  As Paul says, “whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed” (1).   When we subtly learn to trust in the protections afforded us by our government, and forsake an attitude of utter dependency on the God who owns the nations, we set ourselves up for great disappointment.  

By the afternoon of Wednesday, August 24, 1814, Cockburn and Ross had the British regulars advancing along the six-mile road from Bladensburg to Washington.  They marched completely unopposed.  The dust from their boots rose above the trees, clearly visible to the panicky citizens.  

Two days earlier, President Madison had gone to the fields at Bladensburg without his wife Dolley.  Dolley waited Monday, Tuesday, and into Wednesday evening, waiting, watching out the White House windows through a spyglass for her husband.  As scattered remnants of American troops retreated hastily through the capital, it became clear that all semblance of organized resistance was lost.  The President sent word for the First Lady to meet him at a tavern across the Potomac River.  It was time to fly.  

Daniel Carroll, a family friend, helped Dolley load the wagon with whatever valuables would fit.   Carroll sensed the urgency of the situation, but Dolley kept him waiting impatiently while she had Gilbert Stuart’s Lansdowne portrait of George Washington, by this time already a national icon, removed from the dining room wall, exuberantly urging them to “save the painting!”.  Geo Wash PortraitThe massive frame proved impossible to move, but thanks to the resourceful, quick-thinking of chief steward John Sioussat, the frame was shattered and the canvas, still stuck on its stretcher, was passed down and secured.  With the wagon fully loaded with important keepsakes and papers, Dolley made her escape.   

Cockburn and Ross reached the Capitol building around 8pm.  They found it completely unguarded, not a sign of an American soldier anywhere.  Barging through the doors of Congress, the first and only enemy break-in of America’s legislature, the British were taken aback by the luxurious accommodations and immense, elaborate carvings in both House and Senate chambers.  Designed by Dr. William Thornton in 1793, and decorated by Henry Latrobe, the Capitol featured 26-foot high Corinthian columns of solid freestone.  Over the House Speaker’s chair stood a colossal carved bald eagle, its wings spread wide.  Beneath it was a marble statue of liberty holding the constitution of the U.S.  The British piled chairs and other furniture, library books, and papers on tables and set them to light.  The entire building was soon consumed in flames, along with thousands of volumes in the Library of Congress.  Capitol BurnedAll of the sculptures and columns were destroyed, as were the rich red silk curtains with green lining behind the speaker’s chair. 

A mile away at the grand U.S. Navy Yard, Commandant Thomas Tingey prepared to do the unthinkable.  For ten years, Tingey meticulously nurtured his beloved naval yard into a magnificent, state-of-the-art facility, the pride of the U.S. Navy. It was stacked with vital stores and equipment for U.S. ships, large numbers of heavy guns and small arms, two ropewalks for spinning new ropes, and three brand-new ships near completion including the Argus, the Lynx, and the Columbia.  The latter was a mere ten days from launch, its sails folded neatly and waiting in a nearby loft.  At 9pm, under orders from the Secretary of the Navy, Tingey set fire to the powder trains.  He watched in agony as ten years of love, hard work, and attention went up in flames.

By 11pm, the British were upon the White House, “the supreme sanctum of American power”.  They marvelled at how easily they had advanced into the heart of the enemy capital. Where were the Americans?

Ross and Cockburn entered the magnificent mansion as easily as invited guests.  Occupied since 1800, the White House was clearly the finest, most elegant building in Washington.  George Washington wanted the architect, James Hoban, to build it out of stone, not the fashionable brick of the day.  Its 16-inch thick outer wall was made with sandstone from the Aquia quarries in Virginia, decorated with ornate stonework, and coated with several layers of whitewash sealant.  Twenty-four inches of lathed and plastered clay bricks lined the inside.  

Ross and Cockburn explored this American treasure by torchlight.  Soon after entering, the pleasant smell of cooked food reached their nostrils.  The troops were delighted to find supper  ready and waiting for them.  Meat was roasting on the spit, sufficiently cooked and fit for the President’s company.  Paul Jennings, in service to the Madisons since he was fifteen, had set the meal, laid the damask tablecloth, matching napkins, and a full White House service of cutlery, glasses, and plates for 40 people.  Bottles of the President’s choice Madeira were chilling in ice, arranged on the sideboard.  One weary soldier noted, “never was nectar more grateful to the palates of the gods than the crystal goblet of Madeira and water I quaffed at Mr. Madison’s expense.”   

After dinner, the party scattered throughout the mansion to pilfer our Chief Executive’s personal belongings, including his dress sword, a silk blouse, and one of Dolley’s chair pillows.  Satisfied with their good fortune, Ross ordered chairs piled up on tables, and all furniture stacked.  Fifty sailors were stationed around the exterior, lights in hand. Upon command, the lights were tossed in.  At first, smoke belched from the windows.  Soon the entire building was wrapt in flame.  Within minutes all the main reception rooms Dolley Madison had so carefully adorned were consumed in the raging inferno. So much cost and labour, destroyed in minutes.  White House BurnedThe burn marks are still visible today.  

It is remarkable how quickly our fortunes changed, the speed at which the hallmarks of our nation’s pride were turned to ashes.  It reminds me of other sudden collapses of things once considered great.  The king of the mighty Babylonian empire celebrated with his wives, concubines, and party-animal friends the night his city was ransacked by the Medes.  The glorious Roman empire, the epitome of an advanced civilization in its day, was pillaged by hordes of vandals.  I’m sure the citizens of those kingdoms felt secure in the strength of their government.  But as they quickly learned, no earthly kingdom lasts forever, no matter how strong it may seem.  

It is not men, nor might, nor military power, but God who determines the times and seasons of nations.  It is He who owns the kingdoms of the earth, and He does with them whatever He pleases, to accomplish His purpose.  Nebuchadnezzar, the king who enjoyed absolute authority like no one ever in history, learned that the hard way.  NebAt God’s command, the mighty Nebuchadnezzar was whisked from the rooftop of his palace and made to eat grass like cattle for seven years.  At the end of his sentence, this once-great man lifted up his eyes to heaven and acknowledged God’s sovereignty over men, exclaiming, “He does according to His will in the host of heaven, and among the inhabitants of earth, and no one can ward off His hand” (2).  Remarkable praise from someone who grew up in a hedonistic, godless culture.  

God rules over the nations.  And He designed His people to trust Him, to secure their hopes in Him, to be dependent on Him.  We are to cling to Him like a belt clings to our waist (3).  If we do so, He promises to make us a people of renown, praise, and glory–people who stand out, possessing a different spirit than that of the world.

Security is one of many things we worship subconsciously, to our own detriment.  Our strong military can easily mislead us into a false sense of security.  The inglorious record of the burning of the White House helps us see more clearly.  Things have not always been this way, nor are they guaranteed to remain.  If we’re convinced our government is indestructible, our nation, invincible, then we have no need to cling.  Better to trust in the Reliable One, the Most High God, the Lord.  As He Himself says (4)…

“Cursed is the man who trusts in mankind

And makes flesh his strength,

And whose heart turns away from the Lord.

“For he will be like a bush in the desert

And will not see when prosperity comes,

But will live in stony wastes in the wilderness,

A land of salt without inhabitant.

“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord

And whose trust is the Lord.

“For he will be like a tree planted by the water,

That extends its roots by a stream

And will not fear when the heat comes;

But its leaves will be green,

And it will not be anxious in a year of drought

Nor cease to yield fruit.



  1. Romans 10:11
  2. Daniel 4:35
  3. Jeremiah 13:11
  4. Jeremiah 17:5-8

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