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Washington D.C. Hurricane of 1814

Helped End War of 1812; Set U.S. On Diplomatic Path

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Updated October 29, 2012

At this writing, people are anxiously watching Hurricane Sandy and preparing for it to make landfall, presumably somewhere along the Jersey shore south of New York City. They are also wandering what impact Sandy will have on the 2012 U.S. presidential election a week away. Both candidates, President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney have had to alter their campaign schedules as Sandy approaches.

Because hurricanes hit the northeastern coastline so infrequently, any time it happens reminds me of the hurricane and its spin-off tornados that hit Washington D.C. in 1814.

In truth, that storm did much to set up the United States as a viable world power, and it enabled the young country to begin an era of excellent foreign policy initiatives. Here's the story.

War of 1812, In Brief

In 1812, unable to get Great Britain to recognize its neutral rights of trade at sea, the U.S. declared war on the imperial power. Fortunately, Britain was preoccupied with its continuous war with France, and it could devote little attention to the North American war.

In 1814, however, Napoleon had been thwarted (the first time) in Europe, and Great Britain sent more manpower to North America to handle the United States. British generals crafted a three-prong attack designed to sever tactical portions of the United States from each other. The British planned to attack through Lake Champlain and down the Hudson River to separate New England (no supporter of the war) from the rest of the country; they would attack the Chesapeake Bay Area and Washington D.C. itself; and they would attack New Orleans, thereby taking control of the Mississippi River.

Americans halted the Lake Champlain attack, but the British attack on Washington D.C. in late August went well. At the Battle of Bladensburg, British troops routed Americans trying to defend the capital, opening the way to Washington city. Well known are stories of President James Madison on horseback trying to rally troops, and First Lady Dolly Madison gathering up artifacts from the White House before quitting the city.

The Storm

The American government was so small then, portable in fact, that the British capture of the capital was nothing but a moral victory. For a while.

The British set about a folly of occupation, eating the Madisons' meal in the White House before they torched the building, and nullifying the Constitution in mock proceedings at the Capitol.

As they did so, however, a force mightier than the British Army was massing against them in the Atlantic.

With no satellites, meteorologists, or early warning systems, no one had any idea that a hurricane was bearing down on the Chesapeake and Washington D.C. They were probably aware that late August was hurricane season, but predicting them was not possible. Hurricanes certainly did not have names.

Some troops referring to the event called it a tornado; in fact, that could be correct, a hurricanes coming inland are known to spawn tornados. But everyone understood its impact.

The storm killed people and collapsed buildings; torrential rains doused the many fires that the British had set; the winds destroyed the army's baggage trains and made a shambles of its organization.

As the storm passed, it became obvious that, even though "victorious" in battle, the storm had weakened the army to such an extent that it could not stay in Washington. British generals packed up, and the occupiers left.

Aftermath

The failures of the Lake Champlain campaign and the Washington D.C. occupation convinced Great Britain to enter peace negotiations with the United States. That led to the Treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814, which ended the war.

In fact, Great Britain had become convinced that it would be better policy to work with the United States than continue to fight against it. That sentiment, of course, enabled the U.S. to take its place with the major nations of the world, and it legitimized the wave of foreign policy it would create in the Era of Good Feelings.

And all that from a hurricane.

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