What could possibly save a city under enemy occupation? It could possibly be the strength of the people defending it, or maybe outside help from the friendly nations who vowed to defend your city in times of trouble. How about some sort of divine intervention? For the people of Washington, D.C., in 1814, it was the latter that may have saved the city from being burned by the British in the form of a tornado.

War of 1812

The conflict fought by the United States of America and its allies versus the United Kingdom and its allies in British North America was known as the War of 1812. The war began when the US declared war on June 18, 1812. Although, the tensions that led to the war could be traced back to the constant conflict between France and Britain that affected the American interests, as both the conflicting counties wanted to block the United States from trading with each other. The British weren’t quite over letting the Colonies go after the Revolution ended and tended to treat Americans as if they were still British subjects.  The crown wanted to impose a tax on any goods that the United States sold to its enemies and even demanded that the US obtain the permission of the British government before they traded with certain nations. At sea, the gigantic Royal Navy was in the habit of stopping and boarding American merchant vessels and “impressing”(kidnapping) American crew members to serve on Her Majesty’s warships. Finally, the British were stirring up hostility between Indian tribes in the NW Terrority, comprising Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin and settlers in this vast wilderness.

Battle of Bladensburg

On the night of August 24, 1814, a few months before the war ended, Rear admiral Sir George Cockburn led his British troops, and they marched toward Washington, D.C. The War of 1812 was raging on, and they wanted to set fire to the US capitol. They started torching the city, setting ablaze the landmarks and government structures as they went, including the White House and the US Capitol. The Capitol building would luckily survive, although the Senate wing was damaged since it was the oldest part of the structure with wooden floors and books and manuscripts of the Library of Congress, which were all highly flammable.

Portrait of Sir George Cockburn. (John Lucas, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Washingtonians were used to scorching summer heat and damaging storms. That day of the invasion, the temperature was at 100 degrees, perfect timing for the British to burn the city to ashes. Most parts of the city were already set aflame the next day, and the British forces kept moving setting fire to every building before them. Perhaps they were too busy with what they were doing that they did not notice what was coming.

Divine Intervention or Curse?

The skies began to darken, and the sharp lightning was accompanied by the roaring thunders. The Washingtonians, who were used to the extremely erratic weather, knew that what was coming was a bad storm. So, they quickly took shelter in whatever buildings were left. As for the British, who were clueless, as England itself gets lots of rain, but not the violent thunderstorms that occur in the South.

The clouds began to form, and the winds started to kick up. The next thing they knew, a tornado formed in the center of the city, and it made its way through the British forces on Capitol Hill, ripping buildings and uprooting trees as it went its merry way. The cannons they set were also tossed around by the winds like leaves. The British who did not take cover were killed by the flying debris and falling structures.

Colonel Charles Waterhouse’s depiction of U.S. Marines manning their guns at Bladensburg, Maryland, in defense of Washington D.C. against the British on 24 August 1814. (Colonel Charles Waterhouse, U.S. Marines #Marine Corps Art Collection), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Even when the tornado was gone, heavy rains continued to pour for the next two hours, and the structures previously on fire were doused. Now with everything soaking wet, there wasn’t much chance to set the city on fire again.  The British, obviously taken by surprise, decided it was time to leave. As local meteorologists later on wrote in a book Washington Weather,

As the British troops were preparing to leave, a conversation was noted between the British Admiral and a Washington lady regarding the storm: The admiral exclaimed, ‘Great God, Madam! Is this the kind of storm to which you are accustomed in this infernal country?’ The lady answered, ‘No, Sir, this is a special interposition of Providence to drive our enemies from our city.’ The admiral replied, ‘Not so Madam. It is rather to aid your enemies in the destruction of your city.’

There was a debate on whether the tornado spared Washington from the British or if it actually helped them ruin the city. Whichever it was, President Madison never the less went back to the city on August 27, and the peace between the two nations was sealed the next year. Congress thought about abandoning Washington and constructing a capital elsewhere, but they eventually rebuilt the city.  The granite stone of the President’s residence was burned black with soot and it was decided to repair the building and paint it white.  That is how the White House got its name.

Peace negotiations started in the city of Ghent in Belgium in August 1814, as both sides wanted peace since the trade embargo largely impacted the British economy. Hundreds of American Privateers put to sea and were wreaking havoc on the British merchant fleet all over the world.  Public support in the US was also waining, the Federalists assembled the Hartford Convention in December to discuss the grievances of the War of 1812, formalizing their opposition to the war. Peace terms were finally agreed upon in the Treaty of Ghent in December 1814, but the conflicts did not officially end until Congress ratified the treaty on February 17, 1815.

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