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Portrait of Admiral George Cockburn, by John James Halls

The burning of Washington forms the background of this portrait of the naval officer who led Britain’s attack in 1814.

© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, BHC2619

Portrait of Admiral George Cockburn, by John James Halls

Up in Flames

America’s second war with Great Britain flared in 1812. U.S. forces invaded Upper Canada the following year, burning the governor’s house and legislative hall in York (now Toronto). Britain retaliated, sailing troops up the Patuxent River to destroy Washington’s public buildings.

After a brief battle, the British entered the nearly deserted city on the evening of August 24, 1814. They attacked the Capitol, armed with gunpowder and torches. The north wing, occupied by the Senate, Supreme Court, and Library of Congress, took the heaviest damage. The south wing’s first-floor rooms survived, but the House Chamber was destroyed. Many of Latrobe’s great neoclassical designs—built under Jefferson’s supervision—were lost. The nation had suffered a humiliating blow to its honor.