The Man Who Burned Washington D.C.

By Peter Snow

The only time other than 9/11 that an outside force has attacked the United States capital (Washington D.C.) was on 24 August 1814. And one man more than any other was responsible for it: George Cockburn, a Rear Admiral in the British Royal Navy. Strange, you might think, that an Admiral was the driving force in an attack on a city some way from the ocean, but George Cockburn was a very unusual admiral.

He had been despatched from Britain to do as much damage as he could to American lives and property in 1813, a year after the outbreak of the War of 1812 between Britain and America. President James Madison set the declaration in motion, exasperated by British interference on the high seas. His strategy wasn’t a great success; US forces had failed to break through in their attempt to invade British Canada, although they had managed to burn down the parliament building in York (now Toronto) the capital of Upper Canada. Britain found the war a deeply irritating sideshow just as they were struggling through a major conflict with Napoleon’s France. And so, Cockburn (pronounced ‘Co-Burn’, though the Americans called him ‘Cock-Burn’) was sent across to make the United States pay a heavy price–and they did.

George Cockburn, a fiery seaman since he joined the navy in his early teens, had played a role in several great sea battles with France since he caught the eye of Britain’s formidable Admiral Nelson in the 1790s. When he began causing havoc in the Chesapeake in 1813, he was soon condemned by Americans as a ‘brutal monster’ and ‘a disgrace to England and human nature’. He attacked towns and villages, setting them alight and killing any who resisted his attacks. The United States offered a huge reward for his capture – alive or dead – and even 500 dollars for each of his ears.

However painful Cockburn’s depredations were, he believed the only way to force the Americans to see that the war they were fighting wasn’t worth pursuing was to lead a large force against the US capital itself. He got his way in August 1814, after the first abdication of Napoleon and peace with France. An army of 4,500 veteran British troops who’d fought the French for the last 20 years, anchored in the lower Chesapeake under the command of Major General Robert Ross. Cockburn immediately persuaded the overall task force commander, Vice Admiral (a rank above Cockburn and Ross) Sir Alexander Cochrane, to disembark the army and target Washington. Ross had his doubts about the wisdom of leading his men so far from the ships. It was some fifty miles to D.C. from the spot where they landed, Benedict on the Patuxent, but Cockburn never doubted they would succeed.

There were at least two occasions on the march when Robert Ross expressed his doubts about proceeding. Admiral Cochrane himself ordered the army to return to the ships, but Cockburn was unshakeable. He promptly urged Ross to ignore Cochrane’s orders. Ross, under persistent pressure from Cockburn, finally conceded that the best way to carry out London’s orders to give the Americans ‘a good drubbing’ was to attack a major US city. He agreed with Cockburn to turn a deaf ear to the orders from their C in C. Both men were aware that by disobeying Cochrane, they risked court martial.

Portrait of George Cockburn, standing against the flames of Washington. Image is in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The outcome was an extraordinary military achievement and one of the most shameful defeats in US history. Accompanied by Cockburn Ross marched his army to the town of Bladensburg on the eastern branch of the Potomac and scattered the hastily gathered US force – mainly militia – arrayed on the west bank. Then Ross, with Cockburn at his side, led his men to Washington, which he found abandoned, and ordered them to set fire to public buildings. Congress was the first to go up in flames: even its magnificent library wasn’t spared. It was an action that provoked doubts even in some British hearts. When the news reached London, one Member of Parliament remarked that even the Goths didn’t behave like that when they attacked Rome; though, most Britons approved and Cochrane, the canny C in C, was quick to claim credit for an action he formerly sought to abort.

Ross and Cockburn were unrepentant, and their next stop was the President’s mansion, already called the White House by some. The door was open, the President’s dinner on the table, meat roasting on the spits. Cockburn was delighted. Sitting the men down, he helped himself to a glass of Madison’s favourite Madeira wine off the sideboard, and toasted ‘Peace with America and down with Madison’. Then, the men ate their first hearty meal since they’d left their ships, piled the chairs in the table and set fire to the place. With Cockburn urging him on, Ross then ordered the torching of the War Department, the State Department and the US Treasury. One of Ross’s staff remarked that if it hadn’t been for Ross, who urged caution, Cockburn would have burned down the whole city.

With Washington ravaged, Cockburn now pressed Ross to march immediately on Baltimore, a far larger and richer target than the US capital. This time he didn’t prevail. The army marched back to the ships, allowing the people of Baltimore under the wise counsel of their veteran military commander General Sam Smith to prepare for the worst. The attack came three weeks later, and Baltimore was ready. Ross lost his life in the advance on the city, and the British failed to suppress Fort McHenry, which stood guard over the entrance to Baltimore harbour. Its garrison held out, and Cochrane, the overall commander, concluded that further fighting would be futile: it would cost too many British lives. Cockburn was for pressing on with an all out night attack on the city. But his advice was ignored and the British returned to their ships – to the delight of the young American poet and lawyer Francis Scott Key. Astonished to see the US flag still flying after the massive British bombardment of Fort McHenry he wrote the poem –‘Oh say can you see by the dawn’s early light…’ that later became the US national anthem.

It was a sad day for George Cockburn as the army turned around and marched back to the ships. Baltimore would almost certainly have fallen if his earlier plan had been accepted and the army had marched straight from Washington. The destruction of Baltimore would have been another humiliation for America, but it would not have altered the essential strategic reality: this was a war neither side could win.

Still, George Cockburn could proclaim with pride that without him one of the most audacious offensive enterprises in military history would never have taken place.

Read more about the burning of the White House here.

PETER SNOW is a highly respected British journalist, author and broadcaster. He was ITN’s Diplomatic and Defence correspondent from 1966 to 1979 and presented Newsnight from 1980 to 1997. His latest book is When Britain Burned the White House.

Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Military History, Modern History

The History Reader Newsletter