The burning of Washington
Author contextualizes War of 1812 sacking
When it comes to evacuating the White House, Jane Hampton Cook is something of an expert — having experienced its second evacuation firsthand during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and having written a book about its first evacuation 187 years earlier.
A former White House webmaster, Ms. Cook recalls seeing an exposed beam in the Executive Mansion’s kitchen that had been salvaged after British forces burned both the president’s home and the nearby U.S. Capitol on Aug. 24, 1814.
“They took off the paint, and you could see the char marks. There’s lots of little reminders inside the White House that made me keep thinking about this story,” Ms. Cook told The Washington Times.
Ms. Cook, a Fort Worth, Texas, native who is now based in Northern Virginia with her husband and children, spent years researching and writing “The Burning of the White House: James and Dolley Madison and the War of 1812,” which was published last year.
What started out as a short story with three main characters — James and Dolley Madison and Rear Adm. Sir George Cockburn, the ambitious British career sailor intent on serving up some payback on the upstart United States — expanded into a portrayal of the young District of Columbia and its residents during the second war between the U.S. and Great Britain.
During the Madison administration, Washington was poorly defended — Congress relied on volunteer militias in the event of an attack, Ms. Cook said.
John Peter Van Ness, who oversaw the militias as a general, had “suggested a rotating system where we always had somebody on duty,” but Congress shot down the idea as “too expensive,” she said.
Congress’ folly was magnified by the nearsightedness of War Secretary John Armstrong, who “thought once [Cockburn’s forces] were coming, all our men would just show up,” Ms. Cook said. “It wasn’t quite that simple.”
Cockburn dismissed the idea of attacking the far more fortified Annapolis or another city along the Eastern Seaboard and convinced his superior, Vice Adm. Sir Alexander Cochrane, that Washington was prime for the taking.
In her book, Ms. Cook shows how Cockburn’s deferential letters to his commanding officers pressed for invasion.
“He keeps coming back to Washington is easy to take. It’s symbolic. Washington is not fortified,” she said. “And he was right in that sense. It was easy.”
Cockburn and Maj. Gen. Robert Ross handily defeated American militias at Bladensburg, Maryland, on Aug. 24, 1814. Madison, who was present on the front lines, hustled back to the White House, where he and Dolley saved what they could — including Gilbert Stuart’s Lansdowne famous portrait of George Washington — before Cockburn’s path of destruction touched the capital hours later.
Ms. Cook’s book includes a John James Halls’ portrait of Cockburn that shows him at foreground in full military regalia as the White House burns behind him.
“In reading between the lines, it was kind of selfmotivated,” Ms. Cook said of Cockburn’s actions, adding that the admiral’s brother later wrote of his having earned “great glory for England.”
Despite his sacking of Washington, British historians — contemporaries of Cockburn and others later — looked unfavorably upon his deeds, Ms. Cook found.
“It was considered barbaric to burn a capital, because only Napoleon had [done so],” she said. “It was one thing to seize or capture another [nation’s] capital, but not to sack it or burn it … because you were burning their architecture, their letters, their history.”
After the war ended in 1815, Louisa Adams, wife
of future President John Quincy Adams, persuaded her husband and other foreign diplomats to shun the British ambassador for Cockburn’s atrocities.
“It really backfired on the British, because the Congress of Vienna to divide up all the territory Napoleon had conquered was going on at the same time that the Treaty of Ghent was being
negotiated,” Ms. Cook said of the peace pact between the U.S. and Great Britain. “The British thought they were going to have the upper hand in Vienna because of … the sacking of Washington.
“They thought it would bring England glory, but it really didn’t. In the end, they said, ‘Let’s just settle this with the Americans and move on.’”
Author Jane Hampton Cook was inspired by her experiences as a former White House webmaster, who was working during the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, to write about the first White House evacuation in 1814.