The Deadly Storm That Saved Our Nation's Capitol

Updated on July 6, 2017
harrynielsen profile image

New World history is a rich field that is constantly being analyzed for new material. The complexity of these tales never fails to amaze me.

Rough Times for the Continental Congress

The first capital of the United States was not Washington; it was Philadelphia. The place where our founding fathers first met under the guises of the Continental Congress. Strangely enough, our fledgling federal government survived the military campaigns of the Revolutionary War but somehow was forced to relocate to New Jersey, when a tiny, ragtag group of disgruntled war veterans, backed by the Pennsylvania governor, demanded their back pay for wartime service. This small anecdote in American history is known today as the Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1983.

Fortunately, the lawmakers' exile was short lived, but this minor historical footnote had one big effect. It created a mandate to build a city, outside any state jurisdiction, which could safely house and hold the three federal branches of the government.

An Irritating Rebellion

In 1783 dissatisfied Pennsylvania veterans, demanding back pay, forced members of the Continental Congress to flee Philadelphia to Princeton, New Jersey
In 1783 dissatisfied Pennsylvania veterans, demanding back pay, forced members of the Continental Congress to flee Philadelphia to Princeton, New Jersey

George Washington Picks a Place

After the 1783 fiasco, government officials quickly realized that the federal government needed a new home. And more importantly, they needed one that was outside the jurisdiction of any state, so that any new uprising would cause this kind of problem.

Fortunately, the first president of the U.S. knew of just a place. It was a beautiful unsettled plot of land on the banks of the Potomac, located just upriver from Washington's plantation at Mt. Vernon. George had visited the place many times and was thoroughly convinced that the riverside locale would make for a stately capitol for the new, rapidly growing country.

A Plan Is Drawn

The 1793 plan for Washington, D.C.
The 1793 plan for Washington, D.C.

Congress Hires a Designer

In 1790, Congress approved moving the capitol to the banks of the Potomac and a year later a French designer, Pierre Charles L'Enfant, was hired to plan and lay out the city. Soon thereafter, construction of the new town began, and in 1800, the District of Columbia became the official capitol of the United States, even though many of the important buildings were still under construction. In fact, the new city remained a construction site for many years, as work continued on such large projects, as the White House, the Capitol Building, and the Supreme Court.

The War of 1812

In 1812, war with Great Britain returned to America, in what many historians have nicknamed, The Second War for Independence. Simply called, the War of 1812, this military conflict lasted three years and strongly defined how the new nation would expand and grow.

United States ambitions to expand northward, were thwarted by the British, yet still, the Americans were able to annex many of the lands that lay to the west, due mainly to the demise of the Indian nations, many of whom had aligned themselves with the British.

Nonetheless, some great battles were fought with the Americans invading Canada and being driven back, and then, in retaliation, the British invaded the Chesapeake. Eventually, British troops retreated from the mid-Atlantic, but not before they set fire to the newly created capitol on the Potomac.

The President's Residence on Fire

In August 1814, invading British forces set fire to the newly constructed President's residence.
In August 1814, invading British forces set fire to the newly constructed President's residence.

Washington On Fire

After British troops landed in southern Maryland in August of 1814, they began their march towards the nation's capitol. The defense of Washington at the nearby town of Bladensburg, failed miserably and within a few days, the Redcoats were in town burning everything in sight. Since President Madison and most of Congress had fled for their own safety, the invading army was now an unchallenged, occupying force. The town was on fire, as flames from the inferno, flew high into the air. To make matters worse, temperatures soared into the nineties, making the place seem like a living hell.

A Change in Weather Brings Relief

August 25, 1814 broke hot and humid, as British troops continued to burn the city. During the day, a massive line of thunderstorms developed to the northwest of the city. Perhaps due to the heavy smoke or maybe because of their obsession with burning the capitol city, the British occupiers failed to notice the changing weather conditions.

Sometime in the afternoon, the thunderstorms hit the city with violent winds and heavy downpours. The rain quickly put out the fires, but for the British, the worst was yet to come, for sometime during that night a powerful tornado ripped through Capitol Hill. The destruction from this storm was quite severe, as the tempest sent cannons flying through the air, killing several British soldiers in the process. The next day, the invasion force from Great Britain left the city and Washington has not been invaded since that time.

The Burning of Washington

My Take

Since tornadoes are rare in Washington, D.C., the probability of such a violent storm occurring at such a precise time in history are very high. Yet, still, as we look back to that bygone era of the young nation, it seems highly improbable that a growing country with so many obstacles would still be around today. But as we all know the U.S. did survive.

Questions & Answers


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      • harrynielsen profile imageAUTHOR

        Harry Nielsen 

        2 years ago from Durango, Colorado

        One of the two.

      • profile image


        2 years ago

        Coincidence or providence?


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