On August 19, 1814, during the War of 1812, British troops under the command of Major General Robert Ross and Rear Admiral George Cockburn landed at Benedict, Maryland, on the shores of the Patuxent River. The British fleet, under the command of Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, had chased U.S. Commodore Joshua Barney’s flotilla into the Patuxent River, but the true goal was the capture of the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. — only a few days march away. At the same time, Vice Admiral Cochrane ordered Captain James Gordon to sail other British warships up the Potomac River towards Washington which was defended only by Fort Warburton (later renamed Fort Washington) on the east bank of the river, twelve miles south of the nation’s capital. News of this British onslaught caused panic in Washington and many of its residents fled.
Commodore Joshua Barney commanded an assortment of small, quick gunboats, galleys, and barges that for weeks prior had outmaneuvered the larger British ships in the shallow Chesapeake waters. However, after being forced up the Patuxent, Barney and his men abandoned and destroyed their flotilla, linked up with a contingent of marines, and marched to Washington. Unsure of where the British would attack, American volunteers and militiamen from Maryland, Virginia, and Washington also scrambled to the capital and its outskirts. When word reached them that the British were marching towards Bladensburg, the American forces moved there to take up defensive positions.
Although the Americans outnumbered the British at Bladensburg, they were poorly trained compared to the well-disciplined professional soldiers under the command of Major General Ross. On August 24, after thousands of American militiamen had retreated, only a small contingent of the flotilla—men and marines under Barney’s command—managed a valiant but futile counterattack. The British troops then continued on to Washington.
Before leaving the city, First Lady Dolley Madison ordered that White House possessions be packed and removed from the city — silverware, books, clocks, curtains, and most importantly, Gilbert Stuart’s full-length portrait of George Washington. President James Madison escaped only hours before the British entered the city. In order to prevent the British from capturing it, the Americans set fire to the Washington Navy Yard. Upon entering the city, the British set fire to the White House, the Capitol, and many of the other public buildings. The Patent Office, however, was saved from destruction by the Superintendent of Patents, Dr. William Thornton, who convinced the British of the importance of its preservation. The burning of the Capitol destroyed the small library of Congress that was housed in the building. In order to reestablish a library of and for Congress, Thomas Jefferson, offered to sell his private book collection to the government.
The Battle of Bladensburg and the burning of Washington were humiliating defeats for the United States. Within a few days, however, citizens were able to return to the decimated city. The British left Washington as swiftly as they had entered, moving on to capture the city of Alexandria and lay siege to Baltimore.
- Read more about the War of 1812 in these Today in History features:
- Search on Battle of Bladensburg in the collection A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875 to read petitions regarding compensation for wounds and damages received at the Battle of Bladensburg. Also, search on burning of Washington or Fort Warburton for similar petitions.
- Learn more about the city of Bladensburg. Search on Bladensburg in Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey . Although some of the photographs have not yet been digitized, the data pages concerning the buildings in Bladensburg provide background information about the city and the people who lived there. Also search this collection for buildings that were burned in Washington, D.C., such as the White House, and buildings that were saved, such as the Patent Office.
- View several maps for the period by searching the phrase “War of 1812” in the Map Collections.
- Access the series of Web guides for additional digital and print resources about Primary Documents in American History such as the Treaty of Ghent and the War of 1812.
- The James Madison Papers, 1723 to 1859 contain a wealth of documents pertaining to the War of 1812 and the burning of Washington. Search under the name John Armstrong for Madison’s correspondence with this secretary of war.
- To learn more about Jefferson’s library that reestablished the Library of Congress after the burning of the Capitol, see the Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson; Compiled with Annotations by E. Millicent Sowerby. Washington, D. C., The Library of Congress, 1952-59. (5 volumes), Rare Book & Special Collections Division.