A tornado that saved a city and defeated the enemy

  • Published
  • By Evelyn Dole
  • Air Force Reserve Command
The summer of 1814 was one of the hottest on record. In late August, the afternoon rains and temperatures of over 100 F made the air humid with beads of moisture and turned the stagnate marshlands surrounding Washington D.C. into disease-carrying mosquito hatcheries. The 8,000 heat-weary townspeople were even more miserable when news came that the invading British Army was marching in from the Chesapeake Bay.
Although our young country had been at war with the British Empire for over two years, the majority of indeterminate skirmishes had occurred in the Great Lakes region. Now that Wellington had defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, the Empire was ready to turn its full attention to the task of defeating its former colony by sending battle-hardened troops to squash the up-start Americans. Washingtonians along with Dolley Madison, the First Lady, were confident the British Army would attack the strategic thriving port of Baltimore rather their capital city. However, the British General Robert Ross and Rear Admiral George Cockburn did have two specific reasons for an attack on Washington. The British and Canadians were seeking revenge on the United States for the destruction by the American Army of the capital of York in Upper Canada (now Toronto, Canada) and they hoped the destruction of America's new capital city would demoralize the country enough to obtain its surrender.
On Wednesday morning, August 24, 1814 Dolly Madison looked through her spyglass from one of the upper floor windows of The White House. She was watching the surrounding lands, searching for her husband, President Madison. All she saw were weary, hunched-over-with-defeat American troops walking back into the city. By 3 p.m., she received word from her husband, who was with his cabinet and many other government officials who had fled to the mountains of Virginia, to evacuate Washington. She began the task of loading a wagon with portable articles, documents and other items of importance, notably the full-length Gilbert Stuart painting of President George Washington. As the British troops marched down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Presidential Mansion, she reluctantly left moments before the soldiers entered the building.
Admiral Cockburn ordered all government buildings burned which included the buildings housing the Senate and House of Representatives, (the central rotunda of the Capitol not yet constructed). Also burned were the Library of Congress, the U.S. Treasury building, and many other public buildings. Next Cockburn turned his attention on The White House, where the soldiers were dining on food found in the dining hall. After they were finished, they set about destroying the building - finally setting it on fire.
Dawn rose the next morning and the remaining Washingtonians felt the day's warmth not from the sun but from the heat of the fires. While the British soldiers continued to set fires and destroy the stores of ammunition found, they failed to notice the early afternoon sky begin to darken. Westward beyond the city, large clouds were forming, beginning to swirl, and soon the sky intensified with lightning and thunder signaling the approach of a thunderstorm. The British soldiers familiar with thunderstorms in England and preoccupied with their orders discounted the Americans watching the sky.
As the storm front neared the city, Washingtonians took cover. The winds dramatically increased and a tornado developed over the city that produced a "frightening roar." The tornado ripped through Washington and headed straight toward the British occupation. Structures were torn off their foundations, other buildings were blown down. Feather mattresses were sucked out of windows, trees were uprooted, fences were blown down, chimneys collapsed, the heavy chain bridge across the Potomac River buckled, and many British cannons were picked up and tossed around. Panic ensued; many British soldiers did not have time to take cover and were killed by collapsing buildings and flying debris.
Finally, the winds quieted but the rain fell in torrents for more than two hours quenching most of the flames and prevented Washington from continuing to burn. The British Army regrouped near Capitol Hill, a bit shaken by the harsh weather and decided to depart Washington that evening. Downed trees across roads hampered their journey and when they reached their ships, it was discovered two had broken free from their moorings and were washed ashore. The British Commander later reported that more of their soldiers were wounded and killed by this catastrophic disaster than from all the firearms the American troops could muster in their ineffectual defense of Washington.
President James Madison and his cabinet returned to Washington and started the rebuilding of our Capitol. Never again, would a foreign army enter our city and only rarely would Washingtonians see a tornado.
Three tornadoes struck near Washington that day. It was later reported that one landed to the northwest, another in the high country [which is now called Georgetown], and the one that struck the Capitol Hill area. Whether there was a single tornado taking a southeasterly course or a tornado swarm, it will never be known. What can be said for certain is that a powerful tornado with destructive winds did hit downtown Washington at a crucial time; forcing the British out of the city, and saving what was left of our Capitol.