Historical Event of the Week: Burning of Washington, DC

This week’s historical event was a product of the last war between the USA and Britain, and is important only as a historical note for most people, though of late, it has been an element of pride in common Canadian culture. The War of 1812 was a war fought for misguided reasons by the Americans against the British Empire, an Empire entirely distracted by the Peninsular War in Spain against Napoleon. During the war, York (now Toronto) was captured and the Parliament there burned. So in return, the English decided to strike back and perform:

The Burning of Washington

At the time, Washington, DC wasn’t quite what it is today. The government of the US was oft spread, as travel times from the capital to the states wasn’t a train or a plane ride, but oft a long slog down the coast on a ship, or a horse or wagon ride of a lengthy period of time. There was no Pentagon at the centre of American military operations to strike out, and none of the famous memorials or museums had of yet been established.

Yet the English undertook to attack Washington – to damage the credibility of the young American state, and to prove to them what sort of fools they had become. In order to understand why this move was important, we must quietly examine the War of 1812 and what it came from – especially important for my European friends.

The War of 1812 was fought over the right of America to trade with Europe, free of the restrictions of the massive European wars that had raged on the continent since the arrival of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. In addition, the Royal Navy had been impressing US sailors who were supposedly escaped or mutineed men from the RN. Then the British had also been supplying arms to Native Americans fighting American expansion into the eastern frontiers.

Some said the war’s real motivation was to snag the land now comprising Ontario and Quebec, as well as the lucrative and powerful British base in Halifax, whilst the British were busy fighting the French. Many Canadian historians have this opinion. My opinion is that the Americans simply wanted to prove they could fight the English, and probably wanted to secure their expansion westward, rather than northward. However, as the men who were the chief masters of the war never left any real indication, we’ll likely never truly know.

What we do know is that nobody really won the war, because all it ended up being was a series of short-lived invasions on each side. The English never conquered anything of note in the US (just Detroit, nothing important at all); the US never held any English/Canadian territory for very long. Indeed, the most lasting legacies of the war have been symbols – the Star Spangled Banner is about the defense of Baltimore by the Americans, the USS Constitution was a famous frigate in the war, and Canadians have latched onto the concept of burning down the White House as a defining moment in our combined history.

Of course, the entire war was viewed by the English as a distraction; when Napoleon was captured in 1814, they actually started to send over regulars. The Americans quickly decided to look for peace once Napoleon was out of the war. The first, and only large-scale engagement of the British Army was at New Orleans, a battle easily won by Andrew Jackson. However, there can be no doubt that if the full scale of the British Army and Royal Navy was brought to bear on the US after Waterloo, that men like Wellington and his hardened regulars would have shown, and the US may very well have been crushingly defeated. I don’t blame them for pussying out.

Pussers!

Anyway.

Washington was literally undefended. It was a civilian capital, and landing and occupying it was easy. A few partisans shot at the Brits, and that enraged the soldiery. The torches came out.

Some buildings were spared. The US Patents Office was spared by the impassioned pleas of its superintendent, who said the contents were important to both Americans and British. The Marine Barracks were spared because, unlike the rest of the American soldiers, the Marines were seen as honourable foes.

Everything else was put to the torch. White House? Burned. Capitol? Burned. Treasury Building? Ooohyeah she burned. Navy Yards? Burned like a bitch, including the USS Columbia, currently under construction. Basically anything the government built went up in flames.

A hurricane came through the next day, spawned a tornado, put out most of the fires and killed a few soldiers, convincing the English to gtfo. Really, no major military victory came from the attack – at most, it was a minor embarrassment to the USA. But in recent years, it has been seized upon by Canadians as a point of pride.

Here’s the rub: we didn’t do it. It was the English.

So, let’s take it for what it was. A burning of an enemy capital that wasted time and lives and accomplished nothing militarily. The end.

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