Battle of Washington
"Superior numbers, however, rushed upon them, and made their retreat necessary, not, however, without great loss on the part of the enemy."
"I determined to march upon Washington, and reached that city at eight o'clock that night. Judging it of consequence to complete the destruction of the public buildings with the least possible delay, so that the army may retire without loss of time, the following buildings were set fire to and consumed..."
The Battle of Washington D.C. (also termed the Battle of Bladensburg), and the subsequent burning of the parliament buldings was one of the most debated and denounced events during the entire war. Washington was the first target in a line of major raids by the British, designed to frighten as well as draw attention away from the invasion of a vulnerable Canada. In addition, Sir George Prevost wanted a retaliation for American attacks on settlements in Upper Canada - hence the burning of buildings in the capital.
To British advantage, Washington was poorly fortified. In July 1814, Brigadier General William Winder was appointed to maintain the city's defences. Because of poor co-ordination between the General and the United States Secretary of War, John Armstrong, insufficient action was taken to fortify Washington - there were almost no prepared gun positions, and the American defense force consisted mainly of militia. Armstrong reasoned that Baltimore rather than Washington was crucial to the military. However, it was said that his poor effort in the defense of the capital was largely due to his dislike of General Winder, whose appointment Armstrong resented.
This was the situation when the British army, numbering around 4,000 soldiers led by Major General Robert Ross landed in Benedict on August 19 and headed north towards the capital along the Patuxtent river. The British fleet, under the command of Admiral Sir George Cockburn, followed the ground troops on the river. The force met almost no resistance in their progress toward Washington.
The American defense force destroyed their own gunboats on the Patuxtent river to prevent their capture by the British. While General Winder desperately tried to increase his militia force, numbering a mere 1,700 of the 15,000 supposed to be at his disposal, the British army advanced, unhindered, to village of Bladensburg, east of Washington. By the time of the Bladensburg confrontation, the American force consisted of under 1,000 regulars, 400 sailors from the destroyed American ships, and about 6,000 militia.
The British force rushed across the bridge on the road from Bladensburg, and the disorganized American militia could not hold the assault for long. Because there was no precise defense plan, General Winder split his troops, unsure if the British would attack Washington, or Baltimore, as Armstrong predicted. Frightened by British rockets, the majority of the American force soon fled, with the exception of the sailors who fought on until the British flanked them. When the news of defeat reached President madison, he left the city, while American officers set fire to the Navy Yard.
Without an army to protect the city, the British entered Washington at 8:00 p.m. and on the night of August 24, they burned the Capitol, the President's house, the Treasury, the War Office, and the office of the National Intelligencer. Then, on August 25, they retreated from the capital, and were back in Benedict by August 29.
The burning of Washington was highly denounced both in North American and Europe. However, as many historians agree, the event may have been exaggerated. Burning and looting the property of the enemy had become commonplace in the War of 1812, as demonstrated by the destruction of parliament buildings of York, the capital of Upper Canada, by American forces, and the burning of the town of Newark (known today as Niagara-on-the-Lake).
In the aftermath, the burning of Washington united Americans in their fight against the British and lowered their morale at the same time. John Armstrong resigned his position as Secretary of War which was filled a month later by James Monroe, at the time also the Secretary of State.