Britain Captures Washington

What was going on in 1814?

In 1812, America had declared war on Britain. At the time, Britain had colonies in Canada and had many friendly Native American tribes in the American West. Britain wanted to stop the expansions of United States into the West. On the other hand, America wanted to stop Britain from interfering in its internal matters. This led to the war which continued all the way until 1815.

How did Britain capture Washington D.C.?

The Battle of Bladensburg took place on August 24, 1814. In the battle, British forces were victorious and the American forces fled the battlefield. This left the city of Washington undefended. The British army marched into the city without any opposition. President James Madison and other important officials of the government were in the city just before the British arrived. They quickly moved out of the city.

Burning of White House

After the British forces had the city under their control, they decided to burn down important buildings. Actually, earlier in May the same year, an American army had attacked the British-controlled Port Dover in Upper Canada. They destroyed many private houses and other property during this raid which angered the British.

So when the British forces were in Washington, they decided to do the same. At that time, the most important building in Washington was the U.S. Capitol. The British army burned down the building. Then they proceeded to the Presidential Mansion which they also burned down. No one was harmed in the burning of buildings since the buildings had been evacuated. Other buildings such as the United States Treasury and the United States Department of War were also burned down by the British troops.

The Storm that saved Washington

An interesting thing happened at the time. A very severe storm began one day after the British had started burning buildings in Washington. This was followed by heavy rainfall which put out the fire. This was very fortunate because the fire could have spread to other buildings and caused a lot more damage than it did. The storm also probably forced the British army to evacuate the city only 26 hours after they had occupied it. For this reason, the people of Washington started calling it ‘The Storm That Saved Washington’.

Where was American government at the time?

Washington was the seat of American government in 1814. So when the British forces were about to enter the city, most American government officials included President James Madison were present in Washington. They had to quickly evacuate the city or the British would have captured them as prisoners.

President and other officials of the government accompanying him went to Maryland where they stayed at Brookeville. The town is today called ‘United States Capital for a Day’. Fortunately, the British soldiers were forced to leave within 26 hours and it was safe for President to return to the city.


There was a mixed reaction to the burning of buildings in Washington. Many people in Europe were outraged and thought that was a disgraceful act. But many in Britain saw this as a just revenge against the American raid on Port Dover.

Learn More about the Battle of the Thames at Wikipedia

The Darkest Day: The Washington-Baltimore Campaign During the War of 1812