Who had burned down the original White House building in 1814? And why?

The burning of Washington was because of the invasion by the British of Washington city. It was and still is the capital of the United States. In 1814, the British forces had defeated the Americans in the Battle of Bladensburg, under the command of Major General Robert Ross. As a result, he ordered multiple buildings to be set on fire, including the White House, as it was the only thing worthy of being noticed in the city.

It was the only time when a foreign power had captured and occupied the United States’ capital after the revolutionary war. The history of White House’s reconstruction and its overall importance as the only official office for the president is very much important today as well. Therefore, let us discuss how important the building is and the events that led to its reconstruction.

Constructed over a period of eight years at the cost of 2,32,371 dollars and completed in the year 1800, the White House is considered as the best residential address in the entire USA. (See photo.) It is situated amidst a sprawling 18-acre estate in Washington and has six stories, including the basement. This photogenic building has 135 rooms, 412 doors, 147 windows, eight staircases, three lifts, two porticoes, and one cinema theater spread over 5,100 square meters (55,000 square feet) carpet area. But today’s White House is its second incarnation because the original building was burned down in 1814.

A conflict was known as ‘war of 1812’ had broken out between Great Britain and the USA as the former wanted to establish hegemony over the latter in maritime matters during the Napoleonic Wars. The British army was garrisoned in Canada, so the US army invaded Canada and destroyed its parliament house in the ensuing battle. The British army under General Robert Ross retaliated by capturing the US capital, Washington DC. The British soldiers set fire to the US parliament house and then turned their attention towards the White House. President James Madison and his wife had already escaped to safety. But the British army pillaged the sculptures, paintings and other valuable items from the White House and then set it on fire. After the end of the war in 1815 both, the House of Congress, as well as the White House, were reconstructed on such a vast scale that they hardly resemble the original buildings.

The Burning of the White House

At the time of the British invasion, President James Madison and his family had already fled to safety. They took refuge for a night in Brookeville. The British had intended to burn the building to the ground. Therefore, they put fire to every wing of the house, but certain things managed to survive. First lady, Dolley Madison, ordered her staff and slaves to save the valuables from the British, but since they could be expected any moment, there was not much to be saved.

The Savior of Washington

Less than four days of the attack, a sudden, a very heavy thunderstorm occurred, which helped put out the fire. It is believed that the storm made the British retreat due to their actions prior to the storm. Meanwhile, on the other hand, the storm created additional problems for the already severely damaged structure. Heavy pouring cracked the already charred walls and ripped away from the structures as well. Therefore, on the one hand, it saved Washington from the fire, while on the other, it added to the damage already caused by the British.


Many countries, especially Europe, condemned the burning of Washington. This was a country, which had experienced repeated occupations during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars but never preferred destruction. Furthermore, the majority of the British were shocked as well to see the capital burning. Although the President and military officers returned after the British left, the congress, however, was not able to return for three and a half weeks. Several discussions were held to relocate the building for security purposes, but eventually, it was decided that the location would remain the same.


The reconstruction of the White House took longer than it was expected. In total, the Capitol took twelve years to complete. A committee brought in place to investigate the damage to the District stated that it would be cheaper to rebuild the already existing structure rather than building an entirely new one. Ultimately, President Madison and the Congress approved to borrow $500,000 to repair public buildings. As reconstruction took place, the value of the land increased significantly, paving the way for the expansion of the city.