196 years ago today, the British Army took up occupation of Washington D.C. and began a conflagration campaign on a number of public buildings, including The White House and the U.S. Capitol.
White House copy of the watercolor
Notes by Kloss, William, et al. Art in the White House: A Nation’s Pride. Washington, D.C.: The White House Historical Association, 2008:
“The burned-out shell of a once elegant and imposing house stands alone in the landscape. It is the White House as it looked following the conflagration of August 24, 1814, the low point of the War of 1812. The fire was the work of British troops, the first–and only–foreign army to invade the capital city of the United States. . . .
“Viewed from the northeast, from the public common, the empty scene is a vivid reminder of the elemental state of the capital city at that date. . . .
“One prominent but puzzling detail is the S-curved shape above the near corner of the roof. It is most readily interpreted as part of a lightning protection system. Not a lightning rod, given its length, but rather part of the metallic conductor that encircled the roof, now torn from its mooring. This record of fact could also be interpreted ironically, since the British had destroyed what thunder and lightning could not.”
“Drawing shows the ruins of the U.S. Capitol following British attempts to burn the building; includes fire damage to the Senate and House wings, damaged colonnade in the House of Representatives shored up with firewood to prevent its collapse, and the shell of the rotunda with the facade and roof missing.” “1 drawing on paper : ink and watercolor” “Historical context: George Munger’s drawing, one of the most significant and compelling images of the early republic, reminds us how short-lived the history of the United States might have been. In the evening hours of August 24, 1814, during the second year of the War of 1812, British expeditionary forces under the command of Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cockburn and Major General Robert Ross set fire to the unfinished Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. All the public buildings in the developing city, except the Patent Office Building, were put to the torch in retaliation for what the British perceived as excessive destruction by American forces the year before in York, capital of upper Canada. At the time of the British invasion, the unfinished Capitol building comprised two wings connected by a wooden causeway. This exceptional drawing, having descended in the Munger family, was purchased by the Library of Congress at the same time the White House purchased the companion view of the President’s House.”