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Friday, August 29, 2014

200 Years Ago: Washington in Flames

Last weekend marked the 200th anniversary of the burning of Washington during the War of 1812. British troops entered Washington in the afternoon of August 24, 1814 and set fire to the government buildings, including the White House and the Capitol building. The goal in sacking the city was symbolic rather than strategic; as Robert Ross, the British general in charge wrote, “They feel strongly the disgrace of having had their capital taken by a handful of men and blame very generally a government which went to war without the means or abilities to carry it on." The following day brought more havoc as violent storms wracked the city, further damaging the public buildings as well as many private ones. The British occupation lasted only twenty six hours and and President Madison returned on August 27.

In addition to the serious commemorations, this past week has seen some humorous takes on the events, including the British embassy's (in)famous sparkler cake and a great "breaking news" segment from NPR, live from 1814.

Here is British satirist George Cruikshank's take from 1814, entitled "John Bull making a capital bonfire& Mr. Madison running away by the light of it."

George Cruikshank, John Bull making a capital bonfire& Mr. Madison running away by the light of it. 1954.0546. Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

The print depicts Madison (in black) worrying "Oh dear, Oh dear..what the devil shall I say to the people" as he flees the city along with a Quaker (in brown)  and several others. Napoleon looks on from Elba, commenting "Its no use contending with John Bull, see what he has brought me to." The exile of Napoleon in April 1814 had freed up the British to focus more attention on the American conflict and Cruikshank clearly envisions an equally satisfactory conclusion here.  As it turned out, the successful defense of Baltimore three weeks after the Washington attack changed the momentum and restored American pride (and gave us our national anthem). Ultimately the War of 1812 ended up as a draw.

If you're looking to get in on the 1812 action, it's not too late. There's going to be a huge party in Baltimore in September to celebrate, so mark your calendar. I also recommend the 1812 episode of the BBC program In Our Time as a quick and painless way to bone up on the war.

Kathy Haas is the Associate Curator at The Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia
and the primary poster at the Rosen-blog.

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