Online Primary Sources for American History: The Burning of Washington, D.C.

In August of 1814, partially in retaliation for the depredations committed by American troops in their abortive incursion into Canada, the British landed and proceeded to put Washington to the torch. Of course, Congress being Congress shortly thereafter had a committee report published – Report of the Committee appointed on the twenty-third of September last to inquire into the causes and particulars of the invasion of the city of Washington by the British forces in the month of August 1814. An appendix to the Annals of Congress, 13th Congress, 3rd Session contains letters exchanged between James Monroe, Secretary of State and the commanding British admiral Alexander Cochrane. Volume 5 of the Writings of James Madison details his exploits during this tumultuous time; don’t forget Dolley Madison’s account, either.This 1849 work – A sketch of the events which preceded the capture of Washington, by the British, on the twenty-fourth of August, 1814 has an appendix containing numerous primary sources; this 1857 work by a veteran of the war uses major excerpts from contemporary sources as well as a separate appendix of documents to retell this episode –History of the invasion and capture of Washington, and of the events which preceded and followed. These eyewitness accounts – Unwelcome Visitors to Early Washington, August 24, 1814 – are found in the Records of the Columbia Historical Society, 1(#2, 1895): 55-118. Volume 6 (March-August 1814) of Niles Weekly Register opens with labeling the British “…a new race of Goths, outraging the ordinances of God, and the laws of humanity….” And the National Intelligencer is replete with reportage of this event.

We have this 1821 recollection of a young British officer to see the other side: A narrative of the campaigns of the British army at Washington, Baltimore, and New Orleans, Under Generals Ross, Pakenham, and Lambert, in the years 1814 and 1815; with some accont of the countries visited. By a officer who served in the expedition. The London Gazette issue for September 27, 1814 gives the first announcement of this event in England.

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