The Scot who burned down the White House

Burning of the White House by British forces, 1814

Burning of the White House by British forces, 1814

The Scots have had had a remarkable impact on American history. Less well-known is the Scot who burned down the White House and inadvertently helped inspire the American national anthem,  a “mad, romantic, money-getting” Cochrane.

Two hundred years ago a British force invaded and attacked Washington as part of the often forgotten War of 1812 with America. War was declared by the US for a number of issues with Britain: trade restrictions, the pressganging of American sailors, British support of Indian tribes and rivalry over the British North American territory (part of what was to become Canada).

The war was also partly tangled up with the Napoleonic wars between Britain and France. In April 1814, following the defeat of Napoleon, Britain could now concentrate on its war with America. Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane was appointed in command of the Royal Navy in America and the West Indies and decided to attack Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia. Aside from the psychological impact such raids would have it was also regarded as retaliation for destructive American raids in British Canadian territory.

In July 1814, following orders from Cochrane, Rear Admiral George Cockburn sent in a raiding party to Washington. The approaching British forced the American President James Madison and his party to flee so hurriedly that the raiding forces were able to sit down and enjoy the dinner and wine prepared for him before they burned the White House. They had already burned the Capital and the Library of Congress.

Less than a day after the attack a violent thunderstorm extinguished most of the fires and a tornado forced the British back to their ships. The incident barely lasted 24 hours but caused considerable shock in America and even attracted criticism in Britain and Parliament, although at the time most felt it was justification for the American incursions into Canada.

One myth from the incident was that it gave the White House its name because the walls were painted white to disguise the damage and scorch marks. Although there seems to be various explanations for why the President’s Palace became the White House this is an unlikely one. Some of the scorch marks are still visible to this day where the areas have been left unpainted. With the Capital and the White House in ruins there was subsequent pressure to relocate the capital much further north. Washington businessmen quickly stepped-in and reconstruction of the White was finished in time for President James Monroe’s inauguration in 1817.

White House in ruins 1814 (Image courtesy: )

White House in ruins 1814 (Image courtesy: )

Following the Washington raid Cochrane moved onto the Battle of Baltimore where he directed a bombardment using bomb vessels and rocket ships which inspired Francis Scott Key’s poem that became the Star-Spangled Banner, the US national anthem. However, the bombardment and the battle was considered a failure. Nor did Cochrane enhance his reputation with his role in the failed Battle of New Orleans which was also unfortunately fought after the war had finished, the slow communications of the day bearing the news of peace too late.

Despite his mixed success Cochrane was promoted and knighted and was to eventually die in Paris in 1832. In some ways he was lucky, in 1806 a cannonball blew his hat off his head while he was on the deck of his flagship, HMS Northumberland. He is buried in Pere Lachaise where by coincidence a few years ago I stumbled across his low-key and forgotten grave.

The War of 1812 ended in stalemate after a couple of years. It proved to be of key importance to the American and Canadian growing sense of nationhood, both could draw on myths and victories to write their history. British prestige suffered from some defeats but in truth the war with France was of greater priority and preoccupation. Native Americans suffered the most as they lost British backing and now faced unchecked American expansion and consolidation.

In 1806 the Earl of St. Vincent wrote a marvellous depiction of Admiral Alexander Cochrane and his brothers: “The Cochranes are not to be trusted out of sight, they are all mad, romantic, money-getting and not truth-telling—and there is not a single exception in any part of the family.”

The Earl was to also have run-ins with Cochrane’s nephew, the brilliant and frustrating Admiral Thomas Cochrane, whose madcap and dashing exploits around the world would not have improved his opinion of the Cochranes.

Finally the original ‘Uncle Sam’ is said to be Sam Wilson, a food business operator in New York, whose parents came from Greenock in Scotland. Wilson supplied meat to the US Army during the 1812 War and it was joked at the time that the ‘U.S.’ stamped on the crates stood for ‘Uncle Sam’, in reference to Wilson.

The odd objects looted from Washington DC in 1814

Scotland’s influence on the USA

Burning of Washington

White House Historical Association

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