The War Nerd: Today is the 200th anniversary of the wimpy so-called burning of Washington
Editor’s note: This is a slightly edited version of an article first published by NSFWCORP (now part of Pando) as part of The War Nerd’s Guide to the War of 1812.
Today is the 200th anniversary of the burning of the White House in 1814.
People talk about how the British troops “burned Washington” after the Battle of Bladensburg left D. C. wide open, but really, Americans have no idea how easy we got off. The British took it very, very easy on us, just like they did in the Revolutionary War. And for the same, simple reason: We were white, English-speaking Protestants like them. If you didn’t check every one of those boxes—not just white, but English-speaking and Protestant--you were in for a very different experience of British occupation, one that involved portable gallows, burning villages, and liberal use of the bayonet on one and all.
The occupation of D. C. was a simple move, once American forces had run the “Bladensburg Races” away from the battlefield. On August 24, 1814, immediately after the battle, General Ross, commanding British land forces in the campaign, sent a truce party into D.C.. Some hothead fired a few aimless potshots at them from a house, and in retaliation…they burned the house.
There, that tells you right there how easy we had it. One house? The Sri Lankans, who were experiencing British occupation at exactly the same time, would’ve screeched like the chained-up prisoner in Life of Brian: “You lu’ee, lu’ee barsdards! Oi lie awake a’ night dreamin’ of havin’ me house burned!”
After burning the house, British troops occupied the city and set fire to the White House, the Treasury building, and the temporary offices of the Senate and House (the Capitol wasn’t built yet). The only real loss in the burning of Congress’ offices was the book collection of the National Library, and Jefferson later gave his own collection to replace it.
The other story everybody knows, or thinks they know, about the burning of D.C. is “Dolley Madison, the first lady, bravely rescuing that painting of George Washington from the flames.” That name, “Dolley Madison,” always confused me as a kid, because it was also the name of a cheap baked-goods company in California (only they spelled “Dolly” the right way, with no “e”)—sort of a downscale version of Hostess. We always bought Dolly Madison donuts because they were a few cents cheaper than Hostess, especially if you got them day-old, which we generally did, at this lonesome access-road outlet place—we were the kind of family that bought day-old in bulk, and I was the kind of fat kid who reduced the bulk considerable with my nightly forays into the big freezer in the garage. So for me, Dolly means little white-frosted donuts eaten frozen and washed down with warm water straight from the tap…mmm-mmm, high livin’.
Well, it turns out I was right to be leery of the tales about Dolley’s heroism because—wouldn’cha know it—it was the slaves, the White House slaves, who saved the paintings from the flames, not Dolley. Dolley saved one thing and one thing only: her personal silver. I tell ya, these WASPs run true to form. The slaves didn’t get credit until recently when Obama finally had a thank-you ceremony, a mere two centuries late.
The only real victims in D.C. that day were inanimate objects. There’s one story about a newspaper office that shows you how lightly the British were treating us that day. The paper, the National Intelligencer, had been abusing Cockburn, the Rear Admiral who’d been burning ships and harbors along the Chesapeake. The paper had been abusing Cockburn in print, so when Cockburn arrived in D.C. the day after Bladensburg (August 25) he ordered a party of troops to burn its offices. Nothing excessive about that by military-occupation standards, then or now. But a bunch of local women begged Cockburn not to, for fear their houses would catch fire too. Believe me, if those women had been anything but fellow WASPs, they would’ve got a thoughtful musket butt in the face, at the very least, for their reply. But Cockburn not only listened, he ordered his men to dismantle the paper’s HQ, brick by brick, instead of burning it. Just to show what a lighthearted and jolly mood he was in, he added one whimsical little order: he told the men to confiscate all the letter “C’s” in the paper’s type collection, “So that the rascals can have no further means of abusing my name,” yuk yuk. Now that, friends, is a British occupation officer in an almost psychotically benevolent mood.
They weren’t always like that. That’s what Americans don’t get. It’s true for our whole military history: we have no idea how easy we’ve had it, in terms of military occupations. The friggin’ South is still whining about Sherman, when the fact is that Sherman took it way easy on them—on the whites, anyway. It always comes down to that: whether you’re white, whether you speak English, whether you’re Protestant. In America, race trumps everything, but Europeans don’t always see it that way. Tribes can mark themselves by just about anything; Serbs and Croats can’t be picked apart when you look at photos, but when they open their mouths you can tell—and once you can tell, you can separate them into those who are gonna be raped and shot and those who are going to join you in the raping and shooting. Religion, in particular, gets used in Europe to decide who goes on the kill-list, in a way Americans have trouble getting. We keep thinking in terms of skin color, and that’s just not the way it works in the European tradition.
Take British and Irish; look at a hundred photos, half Brits and half Irish, and you couldn’t tell one from the other. If anything, the Irish are whiter than the Brits, whiter, technically, than anybody—some of those micks look downright phosphorescent. But that didn’t soften Imperial policy after the failed 1798 Irish Rebellion. For the 100,000 British troops who stomped over the island putting down that rebellion, every Papist Irish was a rebel, and would look better on the little portable hanging-frames they carried around with them. 50,000 civilians dead in that one—and it’s nothing compared to what used to happen in European wars.
Take the Swedes. Nice, neutral, safe cars and gender neutrality, all that crap…but the Swedes were monsters, flat-out monsters, when they marched across Germany in the early 17th century. Yeah, I’m talking about the Thirty Years War, and people have this vague notion that a lot of civilians died, but they seem to think it was some force of nature that killed them off. It wasn’t. It was the friggin’ Swedes. I’m telling you, an expeditionary force from one of those supposedly nice Northern European countries is the most vicious thing this side of an army of giant weasels injected with pure meth—but only when they’re dealing with non-white, and/or non-Protestant populations.
The Swedes annihilated the entire population of some German regions. By consensus accounts, they destroyed something like 1500 towns, and the notion of sparing the civilian population of those places didn’t even enter their Abba-singing blond heads. It was SOP to kill everybody in the town, rape every woman and girl in the place, steal everything worth taking, and burn every building, be it ever so humble, to ashes. And it wasn’t any sudden attack of conscience that made the Swedes turn peacenik, it was Peter the Great teaching them what happened when you tried to attack the Russians on their own turf.
Sure, you can say that massacring civilians was less commonplace for European armies by 1814—but only when they were dealing with fellow Europeans. In fact, it’d be closer to the truth to say they’d just exported their massacrin’ ways to a whole new world: the colonies. Take Sri Lanka, which Britain did, at just about the time they were pussyfooting around with Washington D. C. They didn’t bother with any little jokes like destroying carefully dismantling newspaper offices, brick by brick. What they did to the Sinhalese there, in putting down revolts that happened at almost the same time as our War of 1812, ain’t pretty at all, so if you want your day spoiled, you can read all about that.
But if you want to feel just vaguely thankful, you can take my word for it: Americans don’t have a clue what it means to be occupied by a victorious foreign power that really doesn’t like us. At least not yet.
Editor's note: This is a slightly edited version of an article first published by NSFWCORP (now part of Pando) as part of The War Nerd's Guide to the War of 1812.