Severe weather has forever shaped history. From the Galveston hurricane to the San Francisco earthquake to Hurricane Katrina, America has fought against the forces of nature that it is often powerless to stop. But in one amazing battle, nature seemed to fight with America and may have even saved it from destruction.
This is the Forgotten History of the Miraculous Storm.
Washington was burning, and American defeat was all but inevitable. After weeks of fierce fighting that culminated in American defeat at the Battle of Bladensburg, British forces marched on the fledgling nation’s capital city. The War of 1812 had been raging for two years, and now it looked headed for a decisive end.
Britain had since the fighting started two years earlier been fighting two wars—one with its former colonies and another with France, but in April of 1814 Napoleon was defeated and the mighty British Empire could turn its full attention to the war in America.
Much of the fighting there had centered around the enforcement of naval blockades, with troops rarely venturing far inland. But by late August, they were on the march, determining that if they could take Washington, the strategic and, more importantly, symbolic victory would force an American surrender.
When word reached President James Madison that the enemy was on the move, he and his cabinet abandoned the White House for the nearby town of Brookeville, while military forces pulled out of Washington to prepare for a counterattack once the British took the city.
The Royal Forces arrived a short time later. The marched down Maryland Avenue to the US Capitol and sacked it. Troops looted the offices of the House and Senate as well as the Library of Congress and Supreme Court, which were then also housed in the Capitol. Then, under orders from their commanding officers, they set the building aflame.
The fires grew so quickly that the 3,000 volume collection of the Library of Congress was destroyed. So were dozens of sculptures and pieces of artwork that hung on the walls. With the building consumed by flames, the British troops set their sights on the White House and marched down Pennsylvania Avenue.
First Lady Dolley Madison rallied the White House staff to save whatever artwork, valuables, and vital documents they could and fled just minutes before the British arrived. When they did, they torched the White House.
Volunteer crews of Americans who refused to leave their city struggled to battle the flames, which raged throughout the night. The next day, the British marched through the city, setting fire to any public building they could. One contingent went back to the White House and settled in a tavern across the street to watch it burn and toast their victory. As they laughed and drank, the skies suddenly darkened.
Within minutes, thunder crashed and lightning lit up city. A torrential downpour fell within minutes. It was a massive storm, one of the worst of the summer. And it was putting out the fires across Washington.
The British soldiers couldn’t believe their misfortune. A British admiral who led the attack turned to a local woman who was huddled next to him to get out of the rain.
"Great God, Madam! Is this the kind of storm to which you are accustomed in this infernal country?" he asked.
"No sir," she answered. "Tthis is a special interposition of Providence to drive our enemies from our city."
Within hours, the British abandoned Washington.
Although the storm, which produced a tornado that tore through the center of town, may have ended up doing more damage than the fires had, it became a rallying point for the beaten-down American forces.
God himself, they believed, was on their side. And with His support they would rebuild their capitol city and send the invaders of their divinely inspired nation back to Britain.
And they did. They marched on toward Fort McHenry, and after three days of fighting, on September 15th, 1814, won a decisive victory in the Battle of Baltimore that effectively forced the British to accept defeat in the war and return home.
The win there prompted a young lawyer named Francis Scott Key to write a poem entitled “The Defense of Fort McHenry,” which was more commonly known as “The Star Spangled Banner.”
It was a defining moment in American history, and it was due in part to a miraculous event that became known as "The Storm that Saved Washington."