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.

Burning of the Capitol During the War of 1812

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 Giuseppe Franzoni's life-size marble statue of Liberty seated on a pedestal, located above the Speaker's rostrum.

Latrobe drawing of the U.S. Capitol south wing circa 1804.
Latrobe drawing of the U.S. Capitol south wing circa 1804.

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.

A view of the Capitol after the British burning on the 24th August 1814
A view of the Capitol after the British burning on the 24th August 1814

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."

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?

See the Scene

Corinthian columns adorned with water leaves in the U.S. Capitol's House Wing.
View of east vestibule, Amateis doors and small House rotunda in the U.S. Capitol.
"Corn cob" columns in the U.S. Capitol's Senate Wing.
Column capitals with Water leaves and "corn cobs;" View of east vestibule, Amateis doors and small House rotunda in the U.S. Capitol.

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 (Senate) 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.



Where were the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights stored during the burning of Washington in 1812 ?_x000D_ _x000D_ Mike Minehart_x000D_ _x000D_

In reply to by Michael Mineha… (not verified)

I teach a course in American Foreign Policy at Florida Atlantic University
and we cover the War of 1812 in some detail.
Your information on where the Constitution and Bill of Rights were stored
at this time, shall be greatly appreciated by myself and my students.

This was definitely something to think about.

To have the visual account available for posting was si incredible. At this time in US History the historical account of our capitol's past is incitful and appreciated. Thank you AOC and historians..
6 Jan 2022

Awesome history facts. Love it!

Thank you so much

If the British Troops burned most of Washington, D.C., and many of the Capitol, White House, Library of Congress, etc., is it safe to say they burned the original constitution?

Great historical report; partuculary in these times when the same capitol building was once again breeched by citizens of 2021 United States of America !!!

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