August 25, 2010
On the night of August 24, 1814, British troops led by Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn marched on Washington, D.C. and set fire to most of the city. Dolley Madison famously saved the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington and a copy of the Declaration of Independence before she fled to nearby Georgetown. The British didn’t stay long, though; their occupation lasted just 26 hours. What happened?
Current Washingtonians will recognize this scenario, as we’ve had a wild summer of heavy heat and damaging storms. But August 25, 1814 was even worse. The day of the invasion had been hot, 100 degrees. With much of the city aflame the next day, British soldiers kept moving through, lighting more fires. They didn’t notice the darkening skies, the thunder and lightning. City residents knew a bad storm was on its way and quickly took shelter. The British, though, had no idea how bad a D.C. storm could get.
The clouds began to swirl and the winds kicked up. A tornado formed in the center of the city and headed straight for the British on Capitol Hill. The twister ripped buildings from their foundations and trees up by the roots. British cannons were tossed around by the winds. Several British troops were killed by falling structures and flying debris.
The rain continued for two hours, dousing the flames. The British decided it was time to leave. Local meteorologists later wrote in their book Washington Weather:
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.”
Was the admiral right, or did the storm stop the British rampage?
President Madison returned to the city on August 27, and a peace between the two nations was signed the next year. Though Congress briefly considered abandoning Washington to make a capital somewhere else, the city was eventually rebuilt.
Tornadoes are rare in D.C., which makes the 1814 incident even more amazing. Three struck that day in 1814 (they may have all been the same one, though) and only seven others have been reported since. The most recent occurred in 1995; it whipped through the National Arboretum. Damage was limited to uprooted trees.
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