That Time Britain Burned Down The White House
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That Time Britain Burned Down The White House

– Welcome to Ruining History. Today we’re gonna talk
a lot and learn a little about the War of 1812. Guys, it’s a weird war. – What war was that? – It was the War of 1812. (dramatic intro music) You don’t know the basics of it? – Nothin’! – I know the basics, it was in 1812. – I know nothing about history or why I was invited to talk about it. – Did Al Capone have
anything to do with it? – Al Capone, he comes into
the story a little later. – That’s a century off or so. – This is almost like the
sequel to the Revolutionary War. Is that a better way to pitch it? (dramatic flute music) When it comes to American history, the War of 1812 is kind of an outlier. It was once described as, quote, “The bucktoothed stepsister of
American military victories.” But there’s one aspect of the War of 1812 that probably sticks out to some people, the part where British
troops physically stormed Washington, D.C. and
actually set it on fire. So let’s talk about that. The year was 1812, obviously. And things in the Atlantic
were a bit choppy. – [Napoleon] Bonjour! – [Shane] The British
were locked in a war with Napoleon and the Royal
Navy had made a habit of kidnapping U.S.
soldiers by the thousands and forcing them to
work on their warships. – How the hell did they
kidnap a thousand sailors? – They weren’t capturing
them a thousand at once. – I thought you meant a
ship of a thousand people. And they’re like come on in.
– Me too, I thought they had one of those big Finding Nemo nets. And they would just capture
a gaggle of U.S. soldiers. – I’ve gotta take this off. – All the sailor talk.
– Yeah, woo! – [Shane] International relations
were further intensifying due to Britain’s ongoing
trade competition with France. A snooty British diplomat summed it up. “While we are aiming
blows at the French marine “we want we want elbow room, “and these good neutrals
won’t give it to us “and therefore they get a few side pushes “which make them grumble. “However, I hope that they
will see their interests “better than to seriously
quarrel with us.” – Did people seriously talk like that? ‘Cause I’m exhau– like I don’t know what you just said to me. – He’s just saying, look,
we’re sorting our shit out with France and these
idiot Americans are annoyed because it’s interfering with
their business but obviously they’re not dumb enough
to get into a war with us. If that British diplomat
hoped Americans would remain calm and collected, he
was sorely mistaken. Congressman, future Vice president, and as far as I can tell,
vampire, John C. Calhoun, said that he much preferred, quote, “War with all its accompanying
evils to abject submission.” Apologies to John C. Calhoun. With tensions continuing to
rise, President James Madison, the fourth president of the United States. – The fourth president
of the United States? – He was the fourth, yeah. – Does everyone know
when America was founded? – 1776! – Same, I knew that too! – Did you not know that?! – No! I’m like, wow.
– You’re learning a lot. – We’re really early in American history. This is why I don’t know
why I was invited here. – Let it be known though,
that’s the one thing we knew. – That was the only time
everyone has all chimed in. With tensions continuing to rise, President James Madison declared war against Britain in June of 1812. And America was not stoked. A good portion of the population, Particularly the folks in New England, were still sympathetic to Britain. Many of them were in active
opposition to the war. – So why were the still
on England’s side here? Was this maybe like when
there’s a divorce in the family and some of the kids have to live with mom but they kinda wanna live with dad still? We need Kylo Ren to
scream traitor at them. – Guys, can you stop
talking about Star Wars? – What’s wrong with
talking about Star Wars? – I can’t stop. – [Shane] Many people
wouldn’t even contribute to war loans and instead
invested their money in Britain. So you can understand why a visitor to the White House described
Madison as looking quote, “Miserably shattered and
woebegone, his mind is full “of the New England sedition.” Uh, things will get worse
for him, by the way. – I’m bringing back the word woebegone. – Woebegone’s good. – What the fuck is woebegone? – Just like, full of woe. – Ima use that shit. – Yeah, if you’re having
a day where you’re feeling kinda glum and I run into
ya in the cantina, I say, how you goin, how’s you,
I say, how you goin’? – Then he has a brain aneurysm, guys. – I pass out and then you’ll be woebegone. – How ya do (stuttering) – [Shane] With the fall
of Napoleon in 1814, Britain suddenly had more forces to throw at their ongoing conflict with the U.S. In the early days of the
war, fighting took place near the Great Lakes and Canada, spreading to the
Chesapeake region in 1813. But on August 24th, 1814
in the blistering heat, President Madison would meet
with an emergency war council near the Navy yard after learning
that British soldiers had, five days earlier, landed
Southeast of Washington, D.C. And were making their way up
the nearby Patuxent River. A spy reported 45 large craft
and many more small boats, according to Anthony Pitch. Their enemy, so eagerly
taunted by America’s war hawk congressmen, was on course
to literally march into town. – Old President Madison,
he’s having how long? How much time has elapsed here? – About two years. – He’s having himself quite the term then. – I would retire after that shit. Like yo, fuck this, somebody else do it. – Has that ever happened? A president’s like, ah fuck
this, I don’t wanna do this? – Hopefully soon. – No one’s ever resigned
for the reason being too much work, I’m gonna
go pick some apples? – I’d be pretty woebegone. – [Shane] There were
roughly 4500 British troops to America’s 5500. But the defenders were
in for an uphill battle. Many of the British troops had previously fought in the Napoleonic Wars which left them hardened, real tough boys. At their command were General Robert Ross and Admiral George Cockburn. – Cockburn. – [Shane] Admiral Cockburn in particular was an imposing figure. He was so revered by the British military that he was handpicked
to transport Napoleon to a life of exile on the
island of Saint Helena. – Do you think they became
friends along the way? – No, I actually read
his diary from the trip and he didn’t seem to like him. – Aww. – I imagine it was just
Cockburn and Napoleon which sounds like a really
fun buddy cop drama. – Cockburn and Napoleon. (electronic music) Admiral Cockburn had also made a name for himself stateside. During the war, he became
infamous for his destructive campaign in the Chesapeake region, plundering settlements
and setting them ablaze. According to author
Anthony Pitch, Cockburn was so despised that one American
claimed he would pay $500 for each of the admiral’s
ears and $1000 for his head. – Damn. How much is that at today’s rate? Can you, uh…
– I don’t. – Do you have that?
– I don’t. – You don’t have that in there? – I don’t. – Maybe next time do a
little more research. – Have that right there,
pop up right there. – We can tell you how much it is – Wait until I crunch the numbers. – Just keep asking for things to pop up. – Yo, think about it,
$500 back in those days. I would just like, be like, yo, chop people’s ears off for no reason. – Oh, you’d just chop the ears off and say yeah, these are Cockburn’s. – Oh yeah, there’s no way
to prove it, there’s no DNA. – And then you buy yourself a nice yacht. Cockburn was living up to his reputation. Pitch says that, quote,
“His spies and captives “had deepened his already
intimate knowledge of the area, “and he was confident
of a quick conquest.” Admiral Cockburn might have
been even more confident if he knew what he was up against. The state of the American
forces was, uh, not great. Many of the soldiers were
wearing winter clothing even though it was August and many of them were without boots or
flints for their muskets. According to historian Alan Taylor, the soldier’s had only been
trained one day per year, and the day was usually spent
drinking in the local tavern. – We won one war and all of a sudden we think we’re the
fucking belle of the ball? Unbelievable! You know what, we deserved to lose. – [Shane] During that same council, President Madison was also
informed that the enemy troops, moving ever nearer to the capitol, were marching on the town of Bladensburg, located only six miles
North of Washington, D.C. The American generals
rallied their shitty troops and prepared to meet them head on. President Madison himself
rode along with them, carrying two pistols. Pretty cool for a president,
I’m not gonna lie. – Woo! – He thinks he’s fucking Laura Croft. – Yo, that’s what we need. We need the president to
go to war with everybody. – It doesn’t work out that
well, you watch Game of Thrones? – Now what about this Madison riding into battle with two pistols? – It’s pretty stupid
considering the training of the staff he’s riding in with. It doesn’t seem like they’re exactly the best assembled group of soldiers. It’s quite the motley crew. – We are born of idiocy. – [Shane] When American troops
met with the British forces at Bladensburg, it was, um, uh, confusing. For me, as a reader. Look, a lot happened. All you need to know is that the Americans made a series of strategic blunders. Like, they blew it. At one point, the British
military was firing actual rockets over James Madison’s head, which is hilarious. It’s been referred to as the, quote, “Greatest disgrace ever
dealt to American arms.” – I think it’s the only time a sitting president has been under fire. – Time out, I feel like
you’re messing with us. – I’m not! – There’s no way they
had rockets back then. – They did have rockets,
they were just very bad. – Yeah, like Fourth of July fireworks. They were probably firing
Roman candles at his head. – Basically. – Was like, James Madison
just like pissing his pants? – We can’t say for sure, but I would be. – He was pissing his pants. – Yeah, they were urine-soaked for sure. That horse had piss all over its back. – Oh my god, that’s sad. – [Shane] The whole thing resulted in the American military
retreating from the area and essentially rolling out a red carpet for British forces to
head into Washington, D.C. Way to go, guys! Back in Washington, D.C.
Dolley Madison was perhaps not as concerned as she should be. The First Lady had set the
table for a 3 pm dinner expecting her husband and
about 40 other people. Though she had received
correspondence from a woman who was scheduled to visit for
a social call the day before that politely read, “In
the present state of alarm “and bustle of preparation
for the worst that may happen, “I imagine it will be more
convenient to dispense with the “enjoyment of your hospitality today.” – That is a great way to cancel plans. – We’re all going to die, maybe
we shouldn’t get tea today. – Yeah, maybe move book club to next week. – I mean, they also planned a 3 pm dinner. Which like, that’s a
mistake all on its own. – There is sometime serenity
in being totally fucked. Do you know like the folks on the Titanic? They were playing violins
as the ship was going down. – [Shane] That’s true. – You go out on your own terms. – Especially if it was like, you had all the fancy food already. – Why not eat it?
– There’s probably some duck, I’d just crack open that
duck, start eating it. – And if they kill me, I’d be like, well, I had a good meal so you
can’t take that from me, sir. Proceed! – So you mean to tell me nobody here, Shane, you wouldn’t run? – I’d probably be packing my bags. – Thank you, thank you. – No you wouldn’t, you would
join us for duck, I think. – It’s a scary scene that’s unfolding. – Ghosts are scarier. – [Shane] Elsewhere in the city, panic was beginning to take hold. When concerned citizens crowded the mayor and asked what he would do
if the British entered town, he said he would take
arms and defend the city, that he’d rather perish in the streets than give up Washington, D.C. But he also said that if everyone else, along with the military, was
choosing to abandon the city then he would do the same
thing and leave as well. – I mean, at least he’s honest. – I love that.
– I think that’s pretty funny. – He’s like, from my cold, dead hands! Unless everybody leaves,
and then I’m gonna go. With mounting dread, the inhabitants of Washington began to flee the city. When word reached the First Lady, she quickly packed up her
shit and hauled out of there, famously demanding a
portrait of George Washington be torn from its frame and
taken for safe keeping. “Save that picture if possible,” she said. “If not possible, destroy it. “Under no circumstances allow it to fall “into the hands of the British.” – Art fact. – Yeah, they were having a
hard time removing the frame so she told them to just
like, take a knife and cut it. – And now it’s like one of the most famous paintings of all time. – Is it a national treasure? – That’s what I was about
to say, Nicolas Cage. – I’m sure he’ll come up a
lot as we do more of these. The whole affair seems to
have fired up Dolley Madison. As she later wrote to a
friend that she wished she could have remained
and held down the fort. “If I could have had a cannon “through every window, but alas! “Those who should have
placed them there, fled.” – Damn, she felt betrayed. – She said get big. For what it’s worth,
I’d be a coward in war. – Would you?
– Yeah. – Yeah, and you can say
whatever you want about me, I’ll be alive. – My father always told me, don’t have more balls than brains. – Oh, oh.
– Shit. You should embroider that
on a pillow or something. Put it on a mug. – [Shane] Similar preservation efforts were being made by the
staff of Secretary of State James Monroe, who preserved
the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution among
other important documents. By just after sunset, 90% of the residents had fled the city. On his way out of town, one
man walked past the White House and seeing it empty,
recalled feeling, quote, “That the metropolis of our country “was abandoned to its horrible fate.” (ominous music) – How did we come back from this? – This is the one moment in
every disaster or war movie where everyone is just deflated. Like in Independence Day when
the aliens blow our shit up? It’s like, oh, we’re fucked now. – This is the part where
like the ships are positioned above the skyscrapers and
everyone’s just looking at ’em. – Now where’s Will Smith
with a cigar in his mouth? When’s he come in? – More importantly, where’s Jeff Goldblum? – Who the hell is Goldblum? – What? – Jurassic Park. – I like Jurassic Park. Steven Spielberg’s one of my favorites. – Wait a second, what the fuck’s going on? – How do you know it’s– – Oh wait, is that the
guy with the glasses? – Yes! – Oh, you shoulda said it’s the other guy in the ship with Will Smith. – Yeah, yeah, that’s right. Just after sunset, the British
arrived on Capitol Hill. Moving from building to building,
they piled up furniture, covered it in gunpowder,
and set it ablaze. Over the course of the
evening, they would set fire to the Library of Congress,
the Supreme Court, the House and Senate
Chambers, the Treasury, the War and State Department building, and famously, the White House. Pitch describes the sight
through the eyes of an onlooker, quote, “A deafening explosion “resounded across the Potomac River. “He reached a hill and
gasped at the devastation. “The Capitol was burning. “As the flames took hold, the magnitude “of the calamity struck home.” – [Man] Holy shit! – Imagining the White House aflame. – I feel like I haven’t
seen any movies about this. – Yeah. – That is true.
– And this seems like a very badass story to tell. – Well I mean, I guess
like, we don’t really make a lot of movies where America gets smacked around a little bit. – [Shane] The British troops
tasked with burning down the State and House buildings
were allegedly remorseful about burning down what they discovered to be rather beautiful buildings. But they carried out their orders and the fires there melted plate glass and left the columns of the
buildings deformed and shaken. Despite the rampant arson,
the British weren’t monsters. They were ordered to leave
private homes untouched. And this order was mostly followed. The Patent Office was also left untouched because it was argued that
patents were private property. What a respectful argument. – That’s smart, Though.
– So while they’re walking around burning down the whole city, they’re like, this one? No. This one? – Americans would have never not burned these things.
– Everything. – Americans would have been like, fire, fire, fire, fire, fire, fire. And even the British were like, mm, the architecture is beautiful. – But we’re not a country
really known for our restraint. But I do love the fact that
there was some British general that was like, whoa
whoa, wait a second guys. Let’s think about this. – Patents, though. The British also raided the National Intelligencer newspaper office. Admiral Cockburn is said to
have stolen all the letter Cs from their presses to prevent them from printing negative reports about him. Good bit. And for the main event, the White House. Upon their arrival, the
troops were delighted to find that the house
was not only deserted, but that a lovely meal had been set out and completely abandoned. As Pitch describes, quote, “The sight of such abundant food and wine “exhilarated them and
they feasted inelegantly.” – They ate the duck! – See, if you woulda ate the duck earlier, you wouldn’t have given them this luxury. They got a victory meal
that you prepared for them. – I do like that they were so wonderfully surprised by this and decided, alright. – It’s starting to sound
like a Dr. Seuss book. – [Shane] The soldiers were said to have stolen souvenirs and made toasts. “To peace with America
and down with Madison!” One lieutenant even changed into one of Madison’s presumably luxurious shirts. Another stole one of the president’s hats and placed it on his bayonet,
saying that if they couldn’t capture the, quote, “little president,” they could at least show
off his hat back home. – Okay, this is just a fun romp now. – You know what would be a
really fun way for this story to end is if they just don’t
leave the house at all. They’re like, you know what? I kinda like it here. They just stay there, they
rent it out as an Airbnb. – The general just kinda kicked back behind the desk and said, you know what? I could get used to this. – Yeah! – [Shane] Haha, yes sir, a
good time was had by all. And then they set it on fire. A few days later, after
traveling through Virginia and having insults
repeatedly hurled at him, President Madison would seek refuge at a small Quaker community in Maryland. After being turned away from one home, he was welcomed into another. – How badass would it be
to turn away the president? – Yeah, they went to one house
and asked if he could stay there to seek refuge and they said no. – I woulda said no too, just
from a safety standpoint. Like, I don’t wanna put
a big target on my home. – [Shane] One account says that, quote, “Every now and then he
would become very quiet “and ask questions. “At one point he said, do you
think they burned my library? “Someone in the group
said, Your Excellency, “they burned your whole palace.” – He didn’t even ask them about his wife. What a dick. – Dolley’s fine, by the way. – Don’t call it a palace,
I felt sorry for him and then they called it a palace and I said get the fuck outta here. – Yeah, I did find it odd
in this that they allegedly called him Your Excellency,
’cause George Washington specifically told people not
to call him Your Highness. ‘Cause we, at the time,
were obviously moving away from the whole– – Monarchy.
– Monarchy thing. Which is why we say Mr. President. – Well these people who took him in are obviously dummies anyway. – Yeah sure, come on, shack up! What? Oh boy, you got a bunch
of British after you? Whatever. (ominous music) The fires were still burning the next day but things were about to change. As the afternoon rolled around,
the sky began to darken. Thunder and lightning signified
something significant. The storm would hit that afternoon. Based on the descriptions
of its destruction, some have suggested it was a hurricane. It reportedly spawned multiple tornadoes. One British soldier gave a harrowing account of the devastation, quote, “Of the prodigious forces of wind it is “impossible for you to
form any conception. “Roofs of houses were torn off by it, “and whisked into the air
like sheets of paper.” Sure. – So on top of this fire and
war, there’s now a storm. – Yeah, with multiple tornadoes. – So nobody took a picture of this? – [Shane] Nobody took a picture of this. – Nobody snapped this. – But this is a real thing that happened. – Multiple tornadoes that one day? – [Shane] Yeah. – And coincidentally after this war thing. – Some people have called this the storm that saved Washington. – This is where the
aliens come in for sure. – Clearly aliens.
– This is clearly aliens. – This is not aliens. – Aliens.
– Coincidence. – Multiple tornadoes in Washington, D.C.? – It does sound like Independence Day. – It’s not like Independence Day. – That’s how I’ve been
picturing this the whole time. – I mean, it’s fair of you to picture that ’cause there is a lot of destruction. But there are no aliens at all. – It’s nice of you to finally come– – All the history, all
the history was destroyed. – I’m not gonna entertain
this any further. – He’s gonna put it in the episode. – [Shane] British troops and established locals alike were both terrified. Around them, trees were being uprooted. Older buildings were literally being lifted off their foundations and smashed. Soldiers reportedly broke ranks, fleeing. One soldier was thrown from his horse and watched in awe as two
cannons were lifted into the air. It is funny to imagine a
British solider on his horse just being like, whoa! – The cannons flying
around, this is crazy. – I was going to have a funny little model for this where I would set it on fire. They won’t let me have any flames here. So instead I figured we’d
put some of the budget towards just a graphical
representation of this happening. So I’ll just narrate this
and I want you all to react as if it’s happening right here with some very good graphics. So here’s the White House. – Wow, love it.
– Beautiful. – Here come some British soldiers, uh oh! – [Woman] Hut hut hut hut! – They’re marching in,
now they’re in there. – Eating duck. – They’re exiting and
it’s catching on fire. – Whoa, what the fuck?!
– Oh no! – Okay, maybe now it’s
smoldering a little bit. – Put it out! – And they look very pleased.
– Hurray, yay! – With themselves, don’t they? – Man. – But here comes mister tornado. – [Woman] It’s a fucking tornado! – These graphics are amazing! – This is stupid. – React! – Holy shit, a fucking tornado! – [Sara] It’s bedlam, Transformers! – And that’s the end, everybody. – Oh no!
– Yay, that’s good, okay. – You’re a wizard. – Alright, good, thank you. According to one story, Admiral Cockburn exclaimed to a local woman, “Great god, madam! “Is this the kind of
storm to which you are “accustomed in this infernal country?” To which the lady replied, “No, sir, this is a special
interposition of Providence “to drive our enemies from our city.” The Admiral, getting in
one last jab, responded, “Not so, madam. “It is rather to aid your enemies “in the destruction of your city.” The British packed up
their things and left town out of concern that U.S. forces
could block their way out. Days later, Attorney General
Richard Rush suggested that maybe the government
should issue a statement in an attempt to spin the whole occupation as less of an embarrassment
than it actually was. They did so and essentially
reframed the whole ordeal as an act of vandalism and not
a crushing military defeat. Historian Alan Taylor said, quote, “The losers are writing the history “as if they were victors.” – So we did not win this war. Mother nature just came
in and like, helped us. – And you know what? Kudos to them, they got
ahead of the narrative. – I think it’s very commendable
that they were able to recover from this enormous embarrassment. – Yeah, part of me is upset
that they did that and lied ’cause I feel like we’re still
sort of doing that today. And the other part of me is like, if we didn’t have that
like emotional bolstering as a country we probably
wouldn’t have made it at all. – I think it’s badass that we lost and we were still like, nah, we won. And then we said it long
enough and hard enough that we finally believed it. – [Shane] The War of 1812 would
draw to a close a few months later with the Treaty of
Ghent, which basically had all parties agree to return
to the way things were before the whole crazy affair began. The British were exhausted
and America probably had a lot of cleaning up to do
after that hilarious prank those zany British
soldiers pulled on them. Ya know, setting our
entire capitol on fire. – The real bummer to me is
that we stopped speaking so eloquently at some point down the road. And now the history of today is gonna be told through hashtags and shorthand. Bring back woebegone. – The Americans, they weren’t prepared, they didn’t know what was going on, maybe they just needed a kick in the butt to sort of get their shit together. – People have said that
this war is what sort of solidified the American
identity or as a country. – Or maybe did it galvanize
us a little bit, perhaps? – You know.
– Maybe afterwards, everyone was like,
alright, let’s get our… – [Sara] Shit together. – Let’s get our shit
together and be a country. – Like sometimes I go to Taco
Bell, order too much there and I feel like a real
piece of shit after. And I go, you know what? I gotta pick it up after this. – Time for some celery.
– And then you go right back. – And then I go right back after. You know, ebb and flow.
– So it doesn’t work. – Ebb and flow, so you’ll never learn. – I’ll never learn. – [Shane] And that’s the War of 1812. Or at least, a little bit of it. Baby steps. I mean there’s a whole
thing where Andrew Jackson continued to fight it after it was over ’cause he was insane and an asshole. But ya know, maybe we’ll
get to that some other time. For now, that’s been Ruining History. Thanks for learning with us. (dramatic music)


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