A Prelude to Sherman’s Warfare
As Sherman’s criminals did 50 years later in Milledgeville, Georgia by profaning the seat of government in that State, the British accomplished in 1814 in Washington. Actually a retaliation for the wanton burning and destruction of Canadian property and towns (Newark and York) by New York troops in 1812, the British returned an eye for an eye. Newspaper editorials in 1864 encouraging Georgians to resist Sherman’s mercenaries would be echoes of the one below, steeling Washington’s civilian inhabitants for a taste of total warfare.
Bernhard Thuersam, Executive Director
Cape Fear Historical Institute
Post Office Box 328
Wilmington, NC 28402
A Prelude to Sherman’s Warfare
"The approach of the British was the signal for alarm in Washington. General Winder had been mobilizing his troops around Bladensburg. One of the Washington newspapers tried to calm the people: "In a few hours thousands of brave men will be prepared to resist the host of mercenaries that now threaten us. Arrayed in defense of all that renders life a blessing…every arm will be nerved with valour irresistible."
The (British) troops now swarmed into the halls of the Capitol, prepared to carry out the request of the Governor General of Canada to retaliate for the burning of Canadian Government buildings. (British) Admiral Cockburn ascended the rostrum in the House chamber and took the Speaker’s chair. Calling the mob together in mock session, he put the motion: "All in favor of setting fire to this harbor of Yankee democracy, say Aye!"
The vote was unanimous in favor of the affirmative, and the order was given amid the lusty cheers and jeers of the soldiers. Furniture and books were thrown into huge piles and set on fire. Soon smoke was arising from the Capitol, and before long the stately building was in flames. General Ross and Admiral Cockburn now marched with several hundred men to the President’s Mansion. Breaking into the mansion they found plenty of good things to eat and drink. The soldier’s found "a fine dessert set out on the sideboards" and Mrs. (James) Madison’s champagne "in coolers." So the British officers ordered everything appetizing that could be found; and General Ross, standing at the head of the table, drank to the health of His Majesty King George III with the President’s wine.
After the marauders had finished their dinner and ransacked all the rooms, they made ready to set fire to the mansion. When a messenger from the French Minister arrived on the scene with a request that a guard be supplied so that his house not be pillaged, he found "General Ross in the act of piling up the furniture in the White House drawing room preparatory to setting it on fire." This too was soon ablaze.
On that terrifying night of August 24th, 1814, there were put to the torch "the Capitol, the arsenal, the dock-yard, Treasury, War Office, President’s palace, rope-walk, and the great bridge across the Potowmack, in the dockyard a frigate nearly ready to be launched, and a sloop of war." The Americans themselves had set fire to the Navy Yard and Arsenal, resulting in the destruction of immense quantities of stores. General Ross seized more than 200 cannon, 500 barrels of powder, 100,000 pounds of musket-ball cartridges and other ammunition."
(Francis Scott Key, Life and Times, Edward Delaplaine, Biography Press, 1937, pp. 136-146)