This is an excerpt from the book Washington Weather

The Tornado and the Burning of

Washington, August 25, 1814


During the summer of 1814, British warships sailed into the Chesapeake Bay and headed towards Washington. The warships sailed up the Patuxent River and anchored at Benedict, Maryland on August 19, 1814. Over 4,500 British soldiers landed and marched towards Washington. The British mission was to capture Washington and seek revenge for the burning of their British Capitol in Canada, for which they held the United States responsible. A force of 7,000 Americans was hastily assembled near the Potomac River to defend Washington. During the afternoon of August 24, in 100°F heat, the two armies clashed. The British Army quickly routed the less disciplined American volunteers, mostly due to a series of American blunders and a new British rocket that did little damage, but unnerved the raw American troops with a very loud, shrill noise. President Madison and Secretary of State Monroe, who had led a group of officials to watch the battle, were almost captured in the confusion. It was noted that the 100°F temperatures added to everyone’s discomfort.

After the battle, the British Army marched quickly into Washington while American soldiers, United States government officials, and residents fled the city. There were no officials left in Washington from whom the British could seek terms of surrender. The British admiral ate dinner in the White House, then gave the order to set fire to Washington. Within hours, the White House, the Capitol, and many other public buildings and residences were burning.

On the morning of August 25, Washington was still burning. Throughout the morning and early afternoon, the British soldiers continued to set fires and destroy ammunition supplies and defenses around the city. As the soldiers spread fire and destruction throughout the city, the early afternoon sky began to darken and lightning and thunder signaled the approach of a thunderstorm. As the storm neared the city, the winds began to increase dramatically and then built into a “frightening roar.” A severe thunderstorm was bearing down on Washington, and with it was a tornado.

The tornado tore through the center of Washington and directly into the British occupation. Buildings were lifted off of their foundations and dashed to bits. Other buildings were blown down or lost their roofs. Feather beds were sucked out of homes and scattered about. Trees were uprooted, fences were blown down, and the heavy chain bridge across the Potomac River was buckled and rendered useless. A few British cannons were picked up by the winds and thrown through the air. The collapsing buildings and flying debris killed several British soldiers. Many of the soldiers did not have time to take cover from the winds and they laid face down in the streets. One account describes how a British officer on horseback did not dismount and the winds slammed both horse and rider violently to the ground.

The winds subsided quickly, but the rain fell in torrents for two hours. (There may have been a second thunderstorm that followed quickly after the first thunderstorm.)  Fortunately, the heavy rain quenched most of the flames and prevented Washington from continuing to burn. After the storm, the British Army regrouped on Capitol Hill, still a bit shaken by the harsh weather. They decided to leave the city that evening. As the British troops were preparing to leave, a conversation was noted between the British Admiral and a Washington lady regarding the storm:  The admiral exclaimed, “Great God, Madam! Is this the kind of storm to which you are accustomed in this infernal country?” The lady answered, “No, Sir, this is a special interposition of Providence to drive our enemies from our city.” The admiral replied, “Not so Madam. It is rather to aid your enemies in the destruction of your city.”

Hours later, the British forces left Washington and returned to their ships on the Patuxent River. The journey back was made difficult by the numerous downed trees that lay across the roads. The war ships that lay waiting for the British force had also encountered the fierce storm. Wind and waves had lashed at the ships and many had damaged riggings. Two vessels had broken free from their moorings and were blown ashore.

     President Madison and other government officials returned to Washington and began the difficult process of setting up government in a city devastated by fire and wind. Never again would the British Army return to the city, and only rarely would Washington suffer damaging tornadoes.