The US Capitol was first attacked during the War of 1812, when British soldiers took control of Washington, D.C. for 26 hours.
By Lisa Mullen
January 6, 2021 will be a day that people remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard that supporters of President Donald Trump had breached the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. — just like people remember the details of their day on 9/11 or the Reagan assassination attempt.
Protesters scaled all barriers to the Capitol and fought armed police officers to gain entry to the legislative chambers and congressional offices forcing lawmakers to flee for their safety.
The protester’s goals were to make it known that they reject the results of the Nov. 3 presidential election and they want legislators to further investigate claims of voter fraud in several states before certifying President-Elect Joe Biden’s win in the 2020 election. This riot resulted in a woman’s death after she was shot by law enforcement, a Capitol police officer’s death as well as three other people who died of medical emergencies during the riot.
War of 1812
This attack on the Capitol may feel like an unprecedented event but in reality, the Capitol building has come under attack multiple times throughout our history with the worst attack being from the British during the War of 1812.
At that time, the United States had declared war on Britain to fight against unjust economic sanctions that heavily restricted trading capabilities, the stealing of our soldiers and seamen and forcing them into to service for the British Navy, and for aiding Native Americans in their fight to stop the westward expansion of the United States into their territories.
On Aug. 24, 1814, British Admiral George Cockburn and his soldiers marched toward Washington City, now Washington D.C, with intentions of destroying it. Before they reached the city, a free black man named James Smith rode ahead of them to the White House and gave the warning the British were getting near and that Gen. Armstrong had ordered the White House to be cleared.
Dolley Madison, first lady of President James Madison had just set the table for 40 dinner guests at the White House. Before she fled to safety, Dolley called out that they needed to save the portrait of President George Washington and anything else of value from being destroyed by the British. The president’s doorkeeper and his gardener took down the portrait and cut it from its frame, grabbed as many other valuable items as they could and sent them off to safety.
Meanwhile, the British continued the march and came into the city unopposed as the U.S. armed forces had already passed through the city retreating from their defeat in Bladensburg, Md. Cockburn and his men began by looting as many buildings as possible and when they came to the White House, they found the dinner that Madison had prepared and sat down to enjoy it before continuing to the second part of their plan.
They began multiple fires by piling up furniture, sprinkling it with gunpowder, then lighting the gunpowder on fire. They burned not only the Capitol building but the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, the House and Senate chambers, and the Treasury building as well.
Less than one day after the attack on Washington began, a very heavy rainstorm or possibly a hurricane hit the area.
The rain from the storm put out the fires burning on Capitol Hill stopping the total destruction of all the buildings. The occupation of Washington by the British lasted only 26 hours and it remains the only time since the Revolutionary War that a foreign power captured and occupied the capital.
Lawmakers debated on whether to move the capital of Washington to another city, possibly Philadelphia or Georgetown, instead of rebuilding. But in the end, it was decided to keep the capital city in Washington as moving it would signal the British that they had damaged our government. At a cost of $500,000 and five years of time, the capital city was rebuilt.
Why is so little known about the circumstances of the War of 1812? University of Virginia historian Alan Taylor said it best, “The losers are writing the history as if they were the victors.
It’s the essence of American politics. You’ve got to be able to control the narrative and persuade the public that you have led the nation on to great and glorious things.”
The truth of both the British attack on Capitol Hill and the modern-day assault by the men and women protesting what they feel is a fraudulent election are both matters of perception depending on which side you identify with.
It’s ironic that the inscription on the House chamber reads “Union, Justice, Tolerance, Liberty, Peace.” Can we ever get back to those ideals that our country was built on?