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“A Most Magnificent Ruin”: The Burning of the Capitol during the War of 1812

Drawing of the U.S. Capitol after burning by the British, George Munger, 1814
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British Burn the Capitol, 1814, Allyn Cox, 1974, Corridor, House wing, First Floor.

Around 8 p.m., on the evening of August 24, 1814, British troops under the command of Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cockburn and Major General Robert Ross marched into Washington, D.C., after a victory over American forces at Bladensburg, Maryland, earlier in the day. The nation was in the midst of war. Word of the approaching forces sent most of the population fleeing, leaving the capital vulnerable. Meeting little to no resistance, British troops set fire to much of the city, in retaliation for the Americans' burning of the Canadian capital at York on April 27, 1813. Those who remained on the evening of August 24, 1814, were witness to a horrifying spectacle. The British torched major rooms in the Capitol, which then housed the Library of Congress, as well as the House, Senate and Supreme Court. The White House, the navy yard and several American warships were also burned; however, most private property was spared.

At the time, the U.S. Capitol was still being constructed and consisted of only the north and south wings connected by a wooden walkway spanning the area intended for the center building. Damage to parts of the wings was severe, but the building was not completely destroyed. Fortunately, architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe had used fire-proof building materials, such as sheet iron, marble, sandstone, zinc and copper. His extensive use of masonry vaulting also proved to be practical as well as aesthetic. As a result, the exterior structure survived and many of the interior spaces remained intact.

The British focused their destructive work on the principal rooms, foregoing the lobbies, halls and staircases, thus securing their escape route. In the south wing, soldiers ignited a giant bonfire of furniture slathered with gunpowder paste in the Hall of the House of Representatives (now National Statuary Hall). The heat from the fire grew so intense that it melted the glass skylights and destroyed much of the carved stone in the room, including Guiseppe Franzoni’s life-size marble statue of Liberty seated on a pedestal, located above the Speaker's rostrum. Downstairs, the Clerk's office was transformed into an inferno of burning documents and furniture; this fire produced a heat so great it forced the British to retreat from the south wing, leaving half of the rooms on the first floor unscathed.

In the Supreme Court Chamber, on the first floor of the north wing, troops piled furniture from nearby rooms to create another great bonfire, severely damaging the Doric stone columns. Upstairs, a large room that then housed the Library of Congress' collection of over 3,000 books served as a ready stockpile of fuel. The space burned so fiercely that it endangered a portion of the exterior stone wall. From the library, winds spread the flames to the Senate Chamber, where the damage to the art and architecture was also severe. Upon seeing the flames of the Capitol from his temporary residence at the Octagon House, French minister Louis Sérurier remarked, “I have never beheld a spectacle more terrible and at the same time more magnificent.”

Today, to see the sandstone areas of the building that survived the fire, make your way to the Small House Rotunda on the second floor of the Capitol and look at Latrobe’s variation on the Corinthian columns adorned with water leaves, installed in 1807. Then, head across the Rotunda and down the stairs to the east vestibule on the first floor of the north wing, where the architect's "corn cob" columns still stand. It was through the original door of this domed vestibule that the British fled the burning building into the night. After members of Congress returned to the city and saw the damage, a number called for the movement of the federal government to Philadelphia or another more established, more metropolitan city. While the option to rebuild proved more popular, one wonders, if the destruction of the Capitol and other buildings had been complete, would those who advocated relocation have prevailed?

 

 

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