Tornado saves capital, scares British

Today’s post comes from National Archives Office of Strategy and Communications staff writer Rob Crotty.

The Taking of the City of Washington by the British Forces Under Major General Ross on August 24, 1814... the public property destroyed amounted to thirty Million of Dollars. (148-GW-478)
“The Taking of the City of Washington by the British Forces Under Major General Ross on August 24, 1814… the public property destroyed amounted to thirty Million of Dollars.” (148-GW-478)

One hundred and ninety-six years ago today, the British sacked the District of Columbia. They were, in turn, sacked by a tornado.

In 1814, the British wanted revenge. U.S. troops had burned the legislative building,  government structures, and private warehouses in the Battle of York (modern-day Toronto), and the Brits were inclined to teach their former colonies a lesson in how to properly sack a city.

Their charge on the American capital city was led by British Maj. Gen. Robert Ross and Adm. George Cockburn, who burned the Capitol, the White House, the Treasury Department, and plenty of other government buildings without losing a single soldier.

Cockburn was, well, a cocky fellow. Aside from burning much of the District, he did it with an unapologetic gusto. He supped on the dinner that had been prepared for President James Madison before burning down the White House.

While marching back through the city, he also made a stop at the National Intelligencer, where the editor had been “telling some tough stories” about him, and later had all the c’s removed from the press so the editor could no longer spell his name. As a testament to Cockburn’s ego, when he returned to camp after burning much of the District, he left a single soldier to guard the captured city overnight.

Unfortunately for Cockburn, day two of sacking the U.S. capital did not go so well. First, a dozen of his soldiers were killed when gunpowder and ammunition was accidentally ignited at modern-day Fort McNair. Then a tornado struck.

While historians and meteorologists can’t quite commit to whether D.C. experienced a serendipitous hurricane, tornado, tropical storm, or severe thunderstorm, they all agree that the weather turned quite nasty on the redcoats.

According to one British account from George Muller’s The Darkest Day:

Of the prodigious force of the wind it is impossible for you to form any conception. Roofs of houses were torn off by it, and whisked into the air like sheets of paper; while the rain which accompanied it resembled the rushing of a mighty cataract rather than the dropping of a shower.

The darkness was as great as if the sun had long set and the last remains of twilight had come on, occasionally relieved by flashes of vivid lightning streaming through it; which, together with the noise of the wind and the thunder, the crash of falling buildings, and the tearing of roofs as they were stript from the walls, produced the most appalling effect I ever have, and probably ever shall, witness.

This lasted for nearly two hours without intermission, during which time many of the houses spared by us were blown down and thirty of our men, besides several of the inhabitants, buried beneath their ruins.

Our column was as completely dispersed as if it had received a total defeat, some of the men flying for shelter behind walls and buildings and others falling flat upon the ground to prevent themselves from being carried away by the tempest…

The storm did its damage to the city, but the deluge also helped extinguish the flames of the burning capital. The District was abandoned after just 26 hours, and the War of 1812 would stretch on until the Treaty of Ghent. As for Cockburn, his return to England in 1815 was short-lived, as he was immediately assigned the task of conveying (former) Emperor Napoleon to Saint Helena, where he served as the French ruler’s jailer.

For more on the War of 1812, including naval battles, duels, and diplomacy, read our Prologue article.

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