Washington has fallen

Michael Forest
5 min readJul 16, 2018

This is not a Sci-Fi story or alternative history. The capital of today’s most powerful nation really fell to the enemy. Two hundred years ago it was sacked and burned by a British Army, and suffered a similar fate as many European cities — Berlin, Moscow or Warsaw — in their tragic past.

British Burning Washington

In the year 1812 United States of America was celebrating their 36 birthday. Although pains and fears brought about by the birth of a new nation were mostly distant past, America had a fair share of domestic and foreign troubles. Napoleonic wars that waged in Europe had led to a great decrease of American export. Ten years after Thomas Jefferson bought vast territory of Louisiana from the French the settlement on those lands was still scarce, due to the wars with their native inhabitants.

Along with the economic stagnation of 1812, the political situation in Washington also sagged. President James Madison was in a clinch. In Congress, the conflict between believers in a strong national government and advocates of state rights was getting really savage. Stuck in the straddle between two parties, Madison searched for a solution that would let him unite all Americans in a common cause.

Where logic had failed, one of the worst human advisers, pride, got her voice. Government of the The United States, just like a new kid in school, decided to look for a fight to elevate his self-esteem. An enemy for such a brawl was found almost instantly. It was the British Empire, former sovereign of
America, which still held Canada in the north.

Washington found many reasons to fight the British. Their ships were intercepting American vessels that sailed to Europe (including impressment of US sailors to his royal majesty’s navy service). Besides London was very keen to support the Indians from Ohio Valley — the place almost red from the blood of US soldiers and settlers. But it was holding Canada in bondage, that
aggrieved American patriots the most. They wanted to bring the banner of freedom and liberty to the Canadians, even if they weren’t really asking for it.

Many factors played in favor for the Americans. British soldiers and sailors were occupied, fighting French troops in the Peninsular War. Besides US Army, although small, would be fighting close to home, while for their British counterparts it was to be a distant colonial war. Having taken all those factors
into account, Congress of the United States declared war on the United Kingdom on 18 June 1812.

What was supposed to be an easy victory has changed into a complete and utter disaster for the USA. The American army wasn’t ready for a war with such a seasoned opponent. Even the first battles with Canadian militia proved a complete failure for weak US forces. Americans lost battles for Detroit and Queenston Heights. Planned with great expectations offensive on Montreal never fully materialized. Empowered by British victories, Ohio Indians started an anti-American uprising, led by a brave war chief, Tecumseh.

James Madison — fourth President of the United States

US Navy had little more luck, but few small victories on the sea could not overturn the fatal outcome. The worst was still to come. Along with the first abdication of Napoleon Bonaparte in April 1814, British had their hands free, and now a great armada of Royal Navy ships set sails for America. They’ve blocked the Chesapeake Bay, the main US anchorage and trading center. The largest harbor of the USA, Baltimore, was now in range of British cannons, while whole American coast was pillaged by raids of enemy’s marines and German mercenaries. Even the US capital was endangered. The stage for the future tragedy was set.

Washington, D.C. was United States capital from not so long past. First Congress meeting took place there in the year 1800. Even fourteen years later the city was relatively small by European standards. It had almost 20.000 inhabitants. Apart from small buildings only Capitol and the White House, the center of American political life, really stood tall.

On 24 August 1814, all the District Columbia citizens were shocked to know that army dressed in red uniforms is heading towards the American capital. Those were experienced soldiers led by General Robert Ross. They’ve had no trouble in dealing with the militia sent against them in Bladensburg battle
(encounter known know even today as a day of shame for US Army).

Reading the news about this debacle, President James Madison and his cabinet members left the capital in a hurry. On the same day, Washington, D.C. citizens were to see British forces enter the city. General Ross had entered the US capital as a conqueror. His objectives were simple — the complete destruction of the public and military infrastructure in D.C. This was seen as a way to terrorize the American populace and bullying the US government into peace talks.

At first general, Ross soldiers had put fire on the Capitol building. Flames devoured most of the internal rooms, along with priceless pieces of documents, books, and paintings. Next, British soldiers directed their steps to the White House, Office of the President of the United States. As the “redcoats” were coming near, US first lady, Dolly Madison, was still evacuating valuables from the premise. In just a nick of time, her slaves rescued the great portrait of George Washington painted by Gilbert Stuart.

The White House was consumed by fire bit by bit until the evening. When the flames started to fade out, British soldiers set them ablaze again. Other targets for destruction were Washington’s harbor and ministerial buildings (along with the Treasury Department, although soldiers were disappointed
they have found no money there, only debt papers). Luckily for the citizens, general Ross was an English gentleman and spared private buildings after cries of civilian women and clergymen reached his ears.

But for Washington D.C. this was only a short respite. At night came a great hurricane which destroyed the rest of the city. British soldiers left the remainders of the US capital on the next day. Ross had little time to enjoy his
victory. He was shot dead during the siege of Baltimore a few weeks later. It was the same battle that gave Francis Scott Key inspiration for creating a later national anthem — “The Star-Spangled Banner”.

Battle of New Orleans

Meantime the war was slowly coming to the end. The American side was almost at the end of its strength but managed to score few victories — like battles at Plattsburgh and New Orleans. On 24 December 1814 both sides signed a peace treaty at Ghent, leading to slow burning out of the hostilities. The result of the war was a draw — none of the combatants gained any ground, although the real losers were the Ohio Indians who failed to secure their political goals. Thus ended the last armed conflict between the United Kingdom and the United States of America. Washington D.C. was never again conquered or destroyed by an enemy force.