1814 White House Fire
The 1814 White House Fire was a monumental moment in United States history – one where the nation’s seat of power was literally brought down by its enemy. It was the culmination of an ongoing war between the United States and the British Empire and would ultimately set the stage for the nation to rise again.
Not two weeks after the burning, the United States forced a turning point in the war at the Battle of Baltimore; and exactly four months after the blaze on December 24, 1814, the Treaty of Ghent was signed in the Netherlands – a peace treat that restored relations between the U.S. and England to status quo ante bellum. Immediately following, restoration of the White House, the nation’s capital, and the United States as a whole would get underway.
Events of the 1814 White House Fire
The burning of Washington D.C. changed the tone of the War of 1812. Up to this point, the war had consisted of skirmishes along the Great Lakes and East Coast, including Canada. However by August 1814, a British army of 4,000 strong began marching towards the capital. Their intent was to sack the city and send a clear message to the nation and its government.
As Washington D.C.’s residents fled, President James Madison remained steadfast, refusing to leave the city. On August 22 though, matters would quickly change. Needing to visit his generals on the battlefield, President Madison left his wife Dolley Madison in charge of the White House and its valuables. If necessary, she was instructed to vacate the palace, take cover, and wait for him in Maryland.
The First Lady anxiously waited. News was dispatched twice from the battlefield; the last informing her of the American defeat at the Battle at Bladensburg. The British were coming. Though she wished to wait for her husband, circumstances would force Mrs. Madison to leave.
She gathered as many official papers and documents as possible. In addition, she was determined to save a full-length portrait of George Washington. Writing to her sister, Mrs. Madison explained, “I insist on waiting until the large picture of General Washington is secured, and it requires to be unscrewed from the wall. This process was found too tedious for these perilous moments; I have ordered the frame to be broken, and the canvas taken out. It is done! and the precious portrait placed in the hands of two gentlemen of New York, for safe keeping.”
With only moments to spare, Mrs. Madison finally left the White House. British soldiers would arrive not long after. Their intent was to burn the house down in retaliation for the American sacking of the Canadian city of York and its Parliament in 1812. The 1814 White House fire, along with the burning of surrounding government buildings, would be a powerful blow to the American spirit. Yet, the nation would not be down for long.
Two weeks after the burning, the United States would send their own message back to the British Empire, turning formidable forces back in the Battle of Baltimore. This battle and its symbolic victory – the subject of Francis Scott Key’s Star Spangled Banner – would be the inspiration the United States needed to soldier on until the war’s end, some four months later.
Rebuilding the White House
After the Treaty of Ghent was ratified in February 1815, the nation’s rebuilding process began in earnest. The first priority? Seeing the White House restored to its glory. Though Congress had discussed moving the capital elsewhere, President Madison urged them to keep it in Washington D.C. Instead of starting over, the nation could simply rebuild.
Original White House architect James Hoban returned to oversee the mansion’s reconstruction. It was to be rebuilt exactly the same. The project would take three years to complete.
During this time, President Madison and First Lady Dolley Madison resided in the Octagon House. The White House would not be complete until the next president’s term in office. James Monroe would be the first president to reside in the reconstructed White House, moving in, in the fall of 1817.