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The British Capture of Washington, DC, 1814

Strategic Surprise
The British Capture of Washington, DC, 1814

William T. Weber

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the British capture of Washington, DC, on 24 August 1814. After a landing at Benedict, Maryland, on the Patuxent River, a British force of some 4,500 men marched to Bladensburg, where they quickly defeated a much larger force of American soldiers, sailors, and militiamen. The British then marched unimpeded to Washington, where they burned the Capitol and the President’s Mansion.

Historians have repeatedly revisited this iconic event: In many works, they have detailed the flawed political and military judgments that led to the “Bladensburg Races”–the epithet pinned to the rapid American retreat that preceded the unopposed British march into the Nation’s capital.

Seldom, however, has this story been told or remembered as a critical intelligence failure. Several years ago, historian John Lewis Gaddis asked, “Why doesn’t August 24th [1814] have a place in our memories similar to December 7th . . . or now September 11th?” Did an intelligence failure contribute to the British “surprise” attack of 1814 that Gaddis equates to Pearl Harbor and 9/11. This article addresses the question.

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All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed in this journal are those of the authors. Nothing in any of the articles should be construed as asserting or implying US government endorsement of their factual statements and interpretations. Articles by non-US government employees are copyrighted.


Posted: Jul 17, 2014 03:02 PM
Last Updated: Jul 17, 2014 03:02 PM