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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 07/15/2010

The thunderstorm that saved Washington

By Kevin Ambrose

* Heat & humidity thru the weekend: Full Forecast | UnitedCast *

Lightning flashes across the sky of Washington. Source: The book "Washington Weather"

Of all the weather-related stories of Washington, this ranks as one of the more interesting. Washington weather historians will have to dig deep to find information on this storm event.

But, before I begin, you may wonder how any storm could possibly save a city? Here's a hint: If an invading army sets fire to a city's buildings, a drenching East Coast thunderstorm is extremely helpful in putting out the flames.

This is what happened to Washington in the summer of 1814. The invading army was the British, our city was burning, and a severe thunderstorm helped to extinguish the fires. The storm also produced serious wind damage in Washington, but that was far less destructive than the fires that burnt down the Capitol and White House.

Keep reading for a wild story of severe weather and war that took place right here in Washington...

The British army invaded Washington and set fire to the city on August 24, 1814. A day later, a severe thunderstorm spawned a tornado in Washington that killed several British soldiers and helped extinguish the fires that burned throughout the city. Source: The book "Washington Weather"

During the summer of 1814, British warships sailed into the Chesapeake Bay and headed towards Washington. The warships continued sailing 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 made the fighting more difficult.

After the battle, the British Army marched quickly into Washington while American soldiers, United States government officials, and Washington 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 homes were burning.

The City of Washington burns at the hands of the British, August 24-25, 1814. Source: The Library of Congress

On the morning of August 25, Washington was still burning. Smoke was reported to be visible in Baltimore. Throughout the morning, the British soldiers continued to set more fires in the city and destroy ammunition supplies. As the soldiers spread fire and destruction, the 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.

The center of the storm with a small tornado tore through Washington and directly into the British occupation. Several buildings were lifted off of their foundations and destroyed. Other buildings were blown down or lost their roofs. Feather beds were blown out of homes and scattered about. Trees were uprooted, fences were knocked down, and the heavy chain bridge across the Potomac River was buckled and rendered useless. It was noted that cannons were tossed into the air. The 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 rains quenched 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 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.

The occupation of Washington lasted 26 hours. President Madison and other government officials returned to Washington and began the difficult process of setting up government in a city damaged by fire and wind.

By Kevin Ambrose  | July 15, 2010; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Education, Local Climate, Photography  
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Great story!! Thanks!

Posted by: GrayDawn | July 15, 2010 11:05 AM | Report abuse

I remember reading about this storm that the winds stopped, and then started up again from the opposite direction, suggesting it might have been a hurricane. What is the original source of the accounts of this storm? I can't seem to find any.

Posted by: Langway4Eva | July 15, 2010 11:42 AM | Report abuse

What makes a chain bridge a chain bridge?

Posted by: saracooper | July 15, 2010 1:09 PM | Report abuse

I had heard that the date was Aug. 24 which happens to be my mother's birthday.

Two questions or issues arise...First, is there a record of the direction from which the thunderstorm appeared? If it arose from the south or southeast, it may have indeed been tropical in origin. However if this thunderstorm moved in from the southwest, west, northwest or north, it was probably a frontal mesoscale convective system or bow-echo derecho, albeit a very strong one such as that of June 4, 2008. Generally storms of this nature, moving in from the Midwest or Kentucky, often tend to die out over the West Virginia Appalachians, though we may get a few rain showers this far east.

Secondly, did the British keep a record of how many of their troops died as a result of the tornado or associated downburst winds? This should be an important statistic, as it was Washington's first and, so far, only deadly tornado in the weather records.

It would also be interesting to know if General Pakenham was involved on the British side. For those who aren't up on their history, Pakenham was the British general defeated and, I believe, killed in Jan. 1815 at the Battle of New Orleans won by Gen. Andrew Jackson; neither the British nor the Americans knew the Treaty of Ghent had been signed the previous month ending the War of 1812.

BTW,as a Nichiren Buddhist, I subscribe to the "Act of Providence" theory; the event reminds me vividly of the "Kamikaze" or "Divine Wind" event of autumn, 1274 when an approaching typhoon scattered the invading fleet of the Mongol/Chinese emperor Khubilai Khan who was attempting to invade and conquer Japan. The Japanese tried to revive the "kamikaze" concept to stop the U.S. Navy in 1945 with their suicide air attacks, but with far less spectacular results. The kamikaze attacks may have influenced President Truman's decision to drop the A-bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as they indicated that Japan would fight to the last man in resisting an invasion of the home islands.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | July 15, 2010 1:46 PM | Report abuse

"...the fires that burnt down the Capitol and White House."
Ummmm...."burnt" down, or "burned" down?

Regardless, the buildings were burned and heavily damaged, but were NOT burned down. That implies both would have had to be rebuilt from scratch, which they were not. They were repaired, not redone.

Posted by: silencedogoodreturns | July 15, 2010 3:03 PM | Report abuse

The original sources of this post were the books, "Washington Weather" and "The Burning of Washington: The British Invasion of 1814". The accounts of the storm event indicate a thunderstorm, not a tropical storm. It occurred well before official weather records so it will always be open to debate.

Posted by: Kevin-CapitalWeatherGang | July 15, 2010 3:54 PM | Report abuse

Great story... another interesting tidbit is that Dolley Madison is credited with saving a GW portrait and original drafts of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution from the White House.

SaraCooper: This site has some good background on Chain Bridge.

Posted by: spgass1 | July 15, 2010 6:06 PM | Report abuse

Kevin: An account of the 1814 storm was recently aired on the History Channel's "America, The Story of Us." I'm glad you clarified that the storm was not a hurricane. That sounded too dramatic and simplistic to me.

Don Lipman
Capital Weather Gang

Posted by: Weatherguy | July 15, 2010 8:08 PM | Report abuse

saracooper: No big deal but, as a weather speaker, I've done a feature many times (as I will do in these spaces) about the weather factor and the military. Kahn's (final) attempted Japanese invasion is generally attributed to the year 1281, the year that the typhoon decimated his sailors. But what's a few years among friends.

Don Lipman
Capital Weather Gang

Posted by: Weatherguy | July 15, 2010 8:18 PM | Report abuse

Bombo47jea: Sorry, my comment to SaraCooper should have been to you.

Don Lipman
Capital Weather Gang

Posted by: Weatherguy | July 15, 2010 8:22 PM | Report abuse

silencedogoodreturns: The stone walls of the Capitol and White House remainded after the fire. Here's a sketch of the Capitol after the fire:

Posted by: Kevin-CapitalWeatherGang | July 15, 2010 9:14 PM | Report abuse

Interesting story.

It was not a hurricane although it is easy to understand the confusion. The terms "hurricane" and "tornado" were often used interchangeably back in 1814. Any windstorm that caused significant damage might be termed a hurricane or tornado even if by today's definition it was the other or simply a severe thunderstorm.

The British were familiar with hurricanes and the sequence of weather that heralded such storms. British accounts of the attack and occupation of Washington do not mention anything about a hurricane.

Posted by: ricschwartz | July 17, 2010 12:25 PM | Report abuse

The foundation of the White House is still blackened from the fire of that day. If you walk around the outside (which the general public cannot do) there are places which still show burn marks on the stone.

Posted by: MKadyman | July 17, 2010 8:43 PM | Report abuse

This site has a bit more on the tornado and others.

"August 25, 1814: This tornado struck Northern Virginia and Washington, DC during the burning of the Capitol by British soldiers in the "War of 1812." It was first documented in Leesburg, Loudoun County where a tornado injured two people. The Washington newspaper wrote that there was much forest damage. It is not known if this tornado moved southeast into Washington or if more than one tornado occurred. In Washington the tornado blew off roofs and chimneys through the residential areas. The swirling debris killed and wounded more British soldiers in the city then the American troops did.

In addition to David Ludlum's research, many of the following accounts prior to 1950 were obtained from the book "Significant Tornadoes 1680-1991" by Dr. Thomas Grazulis. Published by The Tornado Project of Environmental Films, St. Johnson, VT., July 1993."

Posted by: spgass1 | July 18, 2010 3:40 PM | Report abuse

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