I was thinking about the Tea Party, and that naturally got me thinking about the burning down of Washington, but when our enemies did it, in August of 1814. And I found myself pondering the unlikely combination of coincidences and accidents required to make that (or any) historical event happen. In short, the odds are never in favor of history turning out quite like it did. This particular case ended with a 1 in 5,000 event, but it started 35 ½ million years ago when a mile wide chunk of rock traveling at about 70,000 miles an hour, crashed into the Atlantic Ocean just off the Virginia shore. I mean, what were the chances of that happening? Well, about one in 182 trillion, actually.
Now, between the rock's first contact with the atmosphere 100 miles up, and its stopping point 7 miles deep into the continental crust, the journey took less than a second. And stopping several million tons of hurtling rock so quickly generated a great deal of heat, enough to vaporize several billion tons of sea water and earth rock. Another several billion tons were displaced. Tsunamis swamped the Blue Ridge Mountains and millions of living creatures were incinerated. It was a very unlikely event that given enough time becomes inevitable. Then about 10,000 years ago the rising ocean poured into this wound, flooding the Susquehanna River valley, beyond and forming the 200 mile long Chesapeake Bay. And on the oppressively hot Tuesday, August 16th , 1814, this allowed 50 British warships to sail through the Chesapeake Channel, centered over that crater, and into America's vulnerable interior.
Commanding that fleet from aboard the 74 gun HMS Royal Oak was 56 year old Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Forrester Inglis Cochrane. His family had been intimately involved in America for the last half century. In 1776 his brother-in-law, John Pitcairn, had commanded the party that opened fire on the Minute Men on Lexington Green, starting the American Revolution. And coincidentally, six years later, Cochrane's older brother Charles had been killed at the battle of Yorktown, which effectively secured American independence. And now, 33 years later, Cochrane spent the summer raiding American towns, capturing American ships, and more importantly freeing 4,000 American slaves. That threatened the very foundation of the economy of Virginia and the Carolinas, and made the War of 1812 with Britain very unpopular there. Cochrane hoped this August to subject New England to a similar argument. But the new commander of his ground troops favored a different target.
Six months earlier the 48 year old Brigadier General Roger Ross had been a colonel, leading his brigade in what he thought was the main assault against the little village of St. Boes in southern France. Ross captured the town on the first rush. But unbeknownst him, his commander, the Duke of Wellington, abruptly shifted the main effort to the other flank. So when the French counterattacked, Ross's men had no support. While desperately fighting to hold the church in the village center, shrapnel had smashed and slashed open the left side of Ross's jaw. He dismissively refereed to it as a “hit in the chops”, but the odds of surviving such a wound were pretty slim - an inch lower and he would have bleed to death – and once the bleeding was stopped, he stood a good chance of dieing from infection. His survival was a miracle. As it was he would bear physical and emotional scars for the rest of his life. Ross had lost the village, but Wellington won the battle, and the war. As a reward for his devotion and unlikely survival, the Duke promoted Ross and gave him command of the 4,500 ground troops in Chesapeake Bay. .
Ross saw the capture of Washington as a way to quickly make a name for himself. And Admiral Cochrane needed little convincing. The British were not looking to reconquer America, just convince the upstarts to end the war. Peace talks were already going on back in Europe. All that was needed was a little shove in the right direction. And surprisingly, General Ross's and Admiral Cochran's greatest ally in moving America to make peace would be the American Secretary of War. That doesn't seem very likely, does it?
It is hard to think of something nice to say about John Armstrong. His personality was once described as “obstinacy and self-conceit.” His enemies were not nearly as kind. Armstrong was disliked because he was arrogant and smug. His hubris drove the most successful American general, William Henry Harrison, to resign, and it drove Armstrong's boss, President James Madison, to disaster. When Maryland officials begged for help with their undefended coast, Armstrong snapped he could not defend,“every man’s turnip patch”. And when his President asked if it was not at least possible the British might try to capture the capital, Armstrong snorted, “What the devil will they do here? No! No! Baltimore is the place, sir. That is of so much more consequence.” He was right, of course. In 1814 Washington was a village of about 8,000 people. It had no industry, no harbor – it wasn't even on the main road. And yet, the British came. What were the odds of that happening?.
The invaders stepped ashore 15 miles northeast of Washington on Friday, August 19th, and in 100 degree heat marched on the capital. After brushing aside a scratch American force at Bladensburg on Wednesday, the 24th, and chasing Dolly Madison out of the White House on Thursday the 25th, they ate the meal intended for President Madison and his cabinet before setting fire to the building. They did the same with the Treasury and every other government building in town. They used the 289 foot high Capital Hill as their base, and wanted to burn the unfinished capital as well, but it was made of stone. So they had to content themselves with piling its fittings and furniture outside and kept those fires burning all night long. The next morning, Friday, August 25, 1814, as the British were finishing up their destructive work, the final unlikely event in our story occurred.
The heavy sweltering surface block of air oppressing Washington had become trapped beneath an advancing cold front . It was a conflict in motion, the humid air rising, cooling on contact with the invading antecedent, dropping its moisture as rain, until it broke against the desiccated cold front and was shoved forward, back to earth. As these atmospheric coils rolled faster across the land, each successive wave was driven higher until they punched through the roof of weather, six miles up, where a loop in the jet stream was scrapping 100 mile an hour winds northeastward across the tops of these skirmishes. Friction with the jet stream twisted the vertical battles into the horizontal. And that happens in only 1% of all thunderstorms in North America. But it happened here.
Eighteen year old British Ensign George Rodgers Gleig was there, and he later noted, “towards morning a violent storm of rain, accompanied with thunder and lightning, came on...The flashes of lightning vied in brilliancy with the flames which burst from the roofs of burning houses, whilst the thunder drowned for a time the noise of crumbling walls, and was only interrupted by the occasional roar of cannon, and of large depots of gunpowder, as they one by one exploded.” .
As the invaders formed up for their return to the fleet, the rear of the storm approached, The rain began to pound down even harder. And out of the lowering clouds, a finger of sheer catastrophe touched the surface. First the heavy chain bridge across the Potomac River was buckled and twisted. Then several homes along the tidal basin lost their roofs, or were reduced to kindling. Feather mattresses were sucked out of windows. Trees were torn up by their roots and left scattered. Brick chimneys were shattered and collapsed. And with a “frightening roar”, the twister climbed Capital Hill, and plowed through the center of town..
Soldiers fell flat in the streets or ran for shelter before the monster's sudden advance. Two British 150 pound brass cannon were lifted and tossed like kindling. Invaders and civilians were buried as houses collapsed atop them. One officer and his horse were lifted and slammed down into the mud. And then, just as quickly as it had come, the monster was gone. Like most tornadoes, this one had lasted less than five minutes.
One newspaper crowed afterward that the tornado killed more British than the Americans had at Bladensburg, and described the storm as divine retribution. But that was probably wishful thinking.
It is probable that some invaders were killed in the storm. It is certain many were injured. It is also certain, the rain doused most of the fires still burning. But it is unlikely any of that made much difference. Most of the destruction had already been achieved before the storm arrived. But it is also clear that this abrupt assault did quench much of the exhilaration felt by British troops.
While the ashes of Washington were still smoldering, President James Madison fired Secretary of War John Armstrong. The conceited fool retired from politics, retreated to his farm in Red Hook, New York and wrote history books until his death in 1843. Meanwhile, the shaken British army moved on toward the target Secretary Armstrong had predicted all along - Baltimore. But that was where they were stopped. Their bombardment of the harbor defenses at Fort McHenry only inspired the “Star Spangled Banner”, and while scouting the town's land defenses, General Roger Ross's luck ran out. He was cut down by a sniper, and this time it killed him. Baltimore was deemed too strong, and the British retreated without a ground assault.
The navy stuffed Ross's body into a barrel of Jamaican rum, and shipped it north to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where the General was buried in September of 1814. In January of 1815 most of his little army was thrown against the defenses of New Orleans, but again they were stopped. As hard as it may be to understand, the Duke of Wellington blamed the defeat at New Orleans and the death of General Ross at Baltimore, on Vice Admiral Cochrane. The sailor spent a decade shuffled aside and unemployed. But eventually they found him a job, and he died a full Admiral in 1832, at the age of 73.
Not that the defeats at Baltimore and New Orleans really mattered, because the burning of Washington had accomplished its goal. A month before the Battle of New Orleans, the peace treaty had been signed and this silly war was over. Just a century later the United States would join the first of two world wars as a British ally, and at every White House visit since, the President and British Prime Minister exchange bad jokes about that August day when the British came, bearing torches. Such an alliance must have seemed impossible in 1814. It was, of course, not impossible, merely very unlikely. And given enough time it was actually, inevitable.
Just something to think about the next time you start thinking the future can be predicted with any degree of certainty.
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