Dramatic view of the burning of Washington, DC during the War of 1812

[Artist not identified,] THE TAKING OF THE CITY OF WASHINGTON IN AMERICA. London: G. Thompson, Oct. 14, 1814 [but 1820 or later].
Wood engraving, 15”h x 18 ¾”w at plate mark plus margins, uncolored.

A dramatic image of the British capture and burning of Washington, D.C. during the War of 1812. Only the second known impression, and the only one in private hands.

Though the British had declared a blockade of the mid-Atlantic coast early in the War of 1812, most of the first two years’ fighting took place along the American-Canadian border. In mid-1814 however, the British shifted offensive operations southward and sent an expeditionary force under General Ross and Admiral Cochrane into Chesapeake Bay. On August 24th they captured Washington, DC, entering it so quickly that President Madison only just escaped, and that the victors found and enjoyed a warm meal that had been prepared for him at the White House. Allegedly in retaliation for the American burning of York (Toronto), Ontario in June, they set fire to the White House, Capitol, Treasury, military installations and other government property. Civilian property was however generally spared. The destruction Could have been even worse, but a torrential storm set in and helped extinguished the fires.

Leaving much of Washington a smoking ruin, the British sailed up the Chesapeake toward Baltimore. On September 12 they attempted a combined assault, landing troops at North Point and sending a large naval force up the Patapsco River. This time the Americans were far better lead: the British met heavy, well-organized resistance and strong fortifications, General Ross was killed early on by a sniper, and the bombardment of Fort McHenry in the Harbor was a failure. The British retreated, and the victory was a powerful boost to American morale after the humiliation at Washington.

The print
This remarkable wood engraving depicts the capture and burning of the city as seen from a vantage point across the Potomac. It must have been based on news reports rather than on-the-spot sketches, as it bears only a passing relationship to the geographic or architectural reality of the city at the time. It is however extraordinarily vivid, and conveys well the completeness of the British victory and what must have been an utterly chaotic and, for the inhabitants, terrifying situation.

The subtitle pretty much says it all:

“The City of Washington Capital of the United States of America was taken by the British forces under Major Gen.l Ross on Aug.t 24th 1814 when we burnt and destroyed their Dock Yard with a Frigate and a Sloop of War, Rope Walk, Arsenal, Senate House, President’s Palace, War Office, Treasury and the Great Bridge. With the Flotilla the public property destroyed amounted to thirty Millions of Dollars. A view from the Potomac River, of Washington, D.C. under attack by British forces under Major General Ross, August 24, 1814.”

There is a lettered key that identifies twelve prominent locations and buildings including the “War Office,” “Presedants [sic] House,” “Senate House” and “Treasury,” all of which are shown in flames, along with the Navy Yard and several American vessels.

Though published in 1814, this impression is on wove paper bearing an 1820 watermark, as does the only other known example, held by the Library of Congress.  That institution values the print so highly that it has been exhibited thrice since the turn of the millennium and featured in Vincent Virga’s Eyes of the Nation: A Visual History of the United States, published with the assistance of Library of Congress curators.

OCLC 51152072, locating only the impression at the Library of Congress. Not in COPAC, Deak, Picturing America or Stokes, American Historical Prints. Exhibited at American Treasures of the Library of Congress (2002); 1812: A Nation Emerges at the National Portrait Gallery (2012-2013) and Out of the Ashes: A New Library for the Nation at the Library of Congress (2015.)


Cleaned, with some restoration to margins, but excellent overall appearance.