The burn­ing of Wash­ing­ton

Au­thor con­tex­tu­al­izes War of 1812 sack­ing

The Washington Times Daily - - METRO - BY ERIC ALTHOFF

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.

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