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The Burning of Washington

Anthony S. Pitch (1998) 

In The Burning of Washington: The British Invasion of 1814, author Anthony Pitch (a British-born, naturalized American) recounts the events that led up to and followed this defining moment in the coming of age of the United States. Pitch brings this key episode to life by using firsthand sources, such as personal stories from letters, diaries, and journals, and newspaper accounts. Debates, military strategy, heroic acts of rescue, and dastardly acts of cowardice and betrayal are all portrayed here. This is the story of the people who shaped the events, from President James Madison to the White House servant who helped save Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington. An example of one of Stuart's portraits of Washington is in the Senate art collection today.

Many remember the famed story of Dolley Madison rescuing priceless treasures from the White House amid the chaos as the British approached. Pitch recounts her bravery, but also regales us with the fetching tales of lesser-known individuals, such as the young and inexperienced clerk who fate had left in charge of the archival materials of the U.S. Senate: "All around him were signs of 'doubt, confusion, and dismay.' [The young man gave] his superior an ultimatum: help get the documents out of Washington immediately, or he would act alone." The young clerk and an African American office messenger were able to confiscate a wagon, survive numerous mishaps and accidents, and successfully save the valuable documents constituting the only copy of the Senate's quarter century of history. The Senate and the government survived, to rebuild at a later date under the supervision of the Secretary of the Senate Charles Cutts.

For want of wheeled carriages, much of Congress' priceless papers were destroyed in the fire. Unable to be saved was the collection of 3,000 books that comprised the congressional library, at the time housed in a lofty room in the north wing of the Capitol. The library was later re-established with the purchase of Thomas Jefferson’s private book collection, which eventually became the Library of Congress.

After the fall of Washington, D.C., when all seemed lost, the twists of fate put victory into the hands of the young republic with the exhilarating defeat of the British at Baltimore’s Fort McHenry. Pitch recounts the event that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the national anthem. Key had set about by boat to negotiate the release of his friend, a prisoner on board the British flagship. Upon returning to his own boat, he was forced to wait out a night of bombardment under British guard. In the early dawn hours after a tortuous night's battle, upon seeing the flag still flying above Fort McHenry, Key was inspired to write the lyrics to the Star Spangled Banner.

We know how the story ends: the Americans ultimately routed the British at the Battle of New Orleans under the command of Andrew Jackson. In the meantime, after much heated debate, members of Congress decided to continue their work in the ruined capital city rather than move the seat of government elsewhere. The House and Senate found emergency quarters until the Capitol was repaired. The Treaty of Ghent to end the war was signed on December 24, 1814 and was ratified on February 16, 1815 when Senators agreed to the question: "Will the Senate advise and consent to the ratification of this treaty?" Joyous celebration ensued, peace prevailed, the Capitol and the White House were restored–and the little nation survived.