Growing up in the border city of Windsor in the 1950s and 60s gives one a different perspective on the United States of America.
CBC was our only link to Canada — all the other radio and television stations were from the U.S., so we were bombarded with the news and wonders of the U.S. and its citizens. Yet the reality of life in the U.S. was very different.
Racism was rampant. Detroit, our neighbour, won the title of Murder City several years in a row. Close Canadian friends were robbed and mugged in daylight in front of a popular downtown Detroit shopping store. And on Black Day in July, 1967, we sat on the banks of the Detroit River and watched the tanks and the U.S. army shooting and killing its own people.
What a difference a river made. My public school had a lot of black children in attendance and had no racial problems. In fact, my best friend there was Joan Carter, who was black.
An outstanding moment in my life was learning about the War of 1812, how the U.S. invaded, and how we repelled them and won the war! That was probably the beginning of my patriot fervor for Canada. General Isaac Brock and Laura Secord became and still are my heroes.
My favourite event in the history of the United States was when we burned down the White House, Capitol building and much of their small capital, Washington. The “we” in the last sentence actually refers to the British, which is what Canada was during that war.
But why burn their capital of Washington? It had little strategic value, but the psychological impact would be great and perhaps end the war faster. Another reason was in retaliation for “the wanton destruction of private property on the north shore of Lake Erie,” in particular the burning of York (now Toronto) and the Raid on Port Dover, during the spring of 1814.
Rear Admiral George Cockburn of the Royal Navy was charged to “destroy and lay waste such towns and districts as you may find available.” Cockburn instructed the men: “You will spare merely the lives of the unarmed inhabitants of the Untied States.” The prime target was actually the Capitol, which was classed as the only “one worthy to be noticed.”
The British moved slowly up the Potomac River with little resistance until the town of Bladensburg, where they quickly routed the defending U.S. troops, which included President James Madison.
Before entering Washington, a flag of truce was sent in with terms of surrender which would have stopped the burning, killing and looting. However the party, including General Ross, carrying the truce terms, was fired upon.
George Gleig wrote: “You will easily believe that conduct so unjustifiable, so direct a breach of the law of nations, roused the indignation of every individual, from the General himself down to the private soldier.
“All thoughts of accommodation were instantly laid aside; the troops advanced forthwith into the town, and having first put to the sword all who were found in the house from which the shots were fired, and reduced it to ashes, they proceeded, without a moment's delay, to burn and destroy everything in the most distant degree connected with government.
“In this general devastation were included the Senate House, the President's palace, an extensive dockyard and arsenal, barracks for two or three thousand men, several large storehouses filled with naval and military stores, some hundreds of cannon of different descriptions, and nearly twenty thousand stand of small arms.”
Walter Dinkins, a U.S. military historian, noted the British tried to only destroy the buildings and when a couple of soldiers ransacked private homes, they were put in chains. Admiral Cockburn was particularly upset with the Washington newspaper, the National Intelligencer, for naming him The Ruffian. He wanted it burned down — however, because the fire could spread to neighbouring private houses, they tore it down brick by brick instead.
The men sent to destroy the White House found an elegant dinner had been in progress and the lads got to eat food better than they ever had. Because the President’s Palace and other political buildings were made mostly of stone, they were not totally destroyed — although tremendous damage was done.
Today there are still visibly scorched walls in the White House and Capitol, but a Canadian might be looked at sideways if on a tour he asked to see the evidence of the day the U.S. Capitol burned. It is not something talked about.
For a border city brat, Aug. 24 is a day to remember, and in recognition of this event we are having a small Burning of the White House party on the day.