Things got worse in April 1814. Great Britain, to our advantage, had been fighting two wars at once. But when Napoleon surrendered to the Russians and was exiled to Elba, the Napoleonic Wars had, for the time being, ended. Now Great Britain could devote tens of thousands of battle-hardened veterans to the war against the United States. Thus far, we had been fighting demoralized British troops stationed in Upper Canada, many of them eager to desert. Now, grizzled men who had served under Wellington and fought against Napoleon would be invading our shores. This was a very different type of soldier. With this influx of veterans, Great Britain would finally go on the offensive.
One of the first targets in August 1814 was primarily a psychological one. Many British officers were pushing for the burning of Washington D.C. There were certainly more important strategic objectives. But there was a desire to avenge the plundering that Americans had committed in York (now Toronto) and strike a massive blow to American morale.
Landing in Benedict, Maryland on August 19, 1814, a British force of roughly 5,000 men marched towards Washington. An American force of roughly 7,000 led by Brigadier General William Winder made a largely pathetic attempt to stop the British at the Battle of Bladensburg, Maryland on August 24. I hesitate to use that word because there was some courageous fighting there on the part of some Americans. But the battle was so poorly planned, the American forces so confused, it turned into an awful rout very quickly. And the road to Washington lay wide open to the British.
Once in Washington, the British burned the White House (after sitting down to eat a large feast that Dolly Madison and her staff had prepared for cabinet members before they were all forced to flee). The War Department, the State Department, the Treasury department and many other government offices were burned. And, of course, the Capitol building, with the original Library of Congress, was destroyed.
The policy was to leave private property alone. However, the conflagration of many public buildings threatened to spread out of control. The city was in jeopardy.
The next day, August 25, as fires still raged, a massive storm hit Washington. The driving rain put out most of the fires threatening the city. Perhaps more important, the invading British were so battered and demoralized, the storm played a large role in the decision to cut short the occupation of Washington.
The storm was so fierce that it tore buildings apart, literally lifting them off their foundations. The winds uprooted trees and knocked men to the ground. A number of houses collapsed, killing the British soldiers taking shelter therein. One British officer reported seeing cannons lifted off the ground and thrown through the air. Redcoats out on the streets of Washington, trying to enforce a curfew, were forced to lie prostrate in the mud.
Based on the first hand accounts, weather historians generally agree that the storm that struck Washington on August 25, 1814 sparked one or more tornadoes. I can’t possibly imagine being one of these soldiers, completely exposed, with no choice but to cling to mother earth in the midst of a tornado.
As the storm began to subside, one of the British officers in command of the invasion emerged from his shelter and said to one of the inhabitants of Washington, “Great God, Madam, is this the kind of storm to which you are accustomed in this infernal country?!”
She responded, “No, sir, this is a special interposition of Providence to drive our enemies from the city.”