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Sometimes strange, unaccountable things happen, and because of them, the course of history is changed. This is the story of a natural disaster that helped stop a potential tragedy that would certainly have changed the course of history in ways that we don't even want to think of, certainly not as Americans.
The time was August 24, 1814. The place was Washington, D.C. and it was the second year of an on again-off again war between the young American democracy and its old nemesis, Britain. This second war with Britain began in 1812 as the result of Britain's failure to honor its treaty obligations from the end of the Revolutionary War, where they had agreed to give up certain western territories in the Americas, along with the original thirteen colonies. They had not yet done so. They were also engaging in naval terrorism by taking some American merchant ships and illegally conscripting their crews to fight on British ships. The British had recently defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Trafalgar and were now able to send more battle seasoned troops to do battle with the upstart Americans.
Previously, the war had been a series of minor engagements. In 1814 the British sailed up Chesapeake Bay with a large naval fleet and marines to attack Baltimore and Washington, D.C. To the south, British forces proceeded to Blandensburg, Maryland where they overwhelmed the American volunteers. This left the route to Washington, D.C. wide open. President James Madison was present at the battle to witness the U.S. military in combat. He retreated to Virginia, just outside of the Capitol. His wife, Dolly Madison, supervised the abandonment of the White House, saving everyone, as well as Gilbert's famous full length portrait of George Washington in the process.
August 24, 1814 was one of those very hot, humid, dog-days of late summer that are still quite common in D.C. today. The temperature hovered around 100 degrees when the British forces entered the city. Off in the distance, the skies were growing angry and dark with an impending thunder storm.
British forces found the White House dining room set for a formal dinner and sat down to devour the hastily abandoned meal themselves. After sating their hunger they proceeded to set fire to the White House. British troops also set fire to the then unfinished Capitol Building, and several other government edifices, as well as some military targets. While they were engaged in these efforts, the force and power of a violent thunderstorm rushed down upon the city with its terrible thunder, lightning, and torrential rains. This was a particularly fierce storm, more mean than the common thunderstorms of August.
Then a monstrous tornado descended suddenly from the tumultuous skies. It is said that it was one of the most destructive tornado events in history up to that time. Some say it may have actually been two tornados. The raging funnel tore through the city. It ripped huge trees up by their roots tumbling them across roads. It lifted entire buildings off of their foundations and set them down yards away. It also tossed some of the British heavy cannons up into the air like tin toys. One officer, who refused to dismount his horse, was unceremoniously, along with his horse, lifted up and violently dashed to the ground. It is said that more British soldiers were killed that day by that storm than by the American military forces. The rains that came with the storm were so heavy that they doused the flames that the British had set in many of the Capitol buildings.
The British had hoped that the destruction of the Capitol would demoralize the Americans. Instead, the American populace was outraged and thousands of men volunteered to help defend Baltimore against the further British invasion efforts. The Americans successfully repelled every British attack for the remainder of the war.
The final battle of that war took place near New Orleans on January 8, 1815. There, General Andrew "Stonewall" Jackson led a ragtag force of some 4,000 volunteers against some 8-9,000, well-trained British troops under the command of Sir Alexander Cochrane. At the end of the battle, the Americans reported the loss of 13 killed, 58 wounded, and 30 captured. For the British, the losses were far greater. They reported 291 killed, 1,262 wounded, and 484 captured/missing. It was the most one-sided land victory of the war.
I believe we have to be reminded of our history now and then. America came close to losing everything it holds dear on that August day in 1814. Though Mother Nature was involved, it was the indomitable American love of freedom and the voluntary, willing sacrifice of everyday Americans serving in the military that would eventually save the nation once again. This is the same spirit that our fighting men and women live out of today. We have always risen to the challenge in the past. We must always be ready to do so, now, and in the future.