Weather and the War of 1812

200 years ago on June 18, the young United States declared war for the first time, officially going to war against the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland  in what was termed the “Second War for Independence.”  Though Wisconsin was not yet a state, the territory was part of the United States from the treaty that ended the Revolutionary War.  What were to become Wisconsin and the City of Green Bay was still controlled by Great Britain, through its interests in Canada and the fur trade.  Many battles were fought in this war including one in Prairie Du Chien, Wisconsin featuring William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame.  Most people may not have known about Prairie Du Chien, but many have learned about the famous battle for New Orleans that involved future president Andrew Jackson and pirate Jean Lafitte.  Were the British the real enemy that the city of New Orleans faced during the war?  What about the siege on Washington D.C. that occurred in August of 1814?  Why did the British leave so suddenly after capturing the capital city?  Could Mother Nature have been the enemy during this war?  The below discussion will highlight two events when weather had an effect on the War of 1812.

The Great Louisiana Hurricane of 1812

New Orleans was hit by “the Great Louisiana Hurricane of 1812," a destructive storm that struck a few weeks after war was declared.  It set back military preparations many months.  The hurricane of August 19-20, 1812, struck just west of New Orleans--the worst track possible for the city.  Nearly all buildings in the city suffered, including those made of brick.  The market house in New Orleans was demolished.  Fifteen feet of water covered the city.  Extensive damage occurred to trees. The levee was destroyed.
A reconstruction of the Great Hurricane of 1812.

Damage was significant to the American naval base and her ships. Only six of 60 ships on the Mississippi river were considered worth repairing.  Nearly 100 people died during the storm along with major economic destruction. Some public panic set in when after the storm rumors spread that the British had taken over Fort St. Phillip.  In fact, the British fleet approaching the area was scattered widely across the Gulf during the storm. Fort St. Phillip itself went underwater. 

Severe Thunderstorm and Tornado in Washington, D.C.

But that hurricane was not the most infamous weather occurrence that made an impact on the War of 1812.  On August 25, 1814, as the British burned much of Washington D.C., including the early Capitol and the White House, a powerful thunderstorm hit the city.  The following is an online excerpt from "Washington Weather" by authors Kevin Ambrose, Dan Henry and Andy Weiss:

On the morning of August 25, Washington was still burning.  Throughout the morning and early afternoon, the British soldiers continued to set fires and destroy ammunition supplies and defenses around the city.  As the soldiers spread fire and destruction throughout the city, the early afternoon sky began to darken and lightning and thunder signaled the approach of a thunderstorm.  As the storm neared the city, the winds began to increase dramatically and then built into a “frightening roar.”  A severe thunderstorm was bearing down on Washington, and with it was a tornado.

The tornado tore through the center of Washington and directly into the British occupation.  Buildings were lifted off of their foundations and dashed to bits. Other buildings were blown down or lost their roofs.  Feather beds were sucked out of homes and scattered about.  Trees were uprooted, fences were blown down, and the heavy chain bridge across the Potomac River was buckled and rendered useless.  A few British cannons were picked up by the winds and thrown through the air.  The collapsing buildings and flying debris killed several British soldiers.  Many of the soldiers did not have time to take cover from the winds and they laid face down in the streets.  One account describes how a British officer on horseback did not dismount and the winds slammed both horse and rider violently to the ground.

The winds subsided quickly, but the rain fell in torrents for two hours.  Fortunately, the heavy rain quenched most of the flames and prevented Washington from continuing to burn.  After the storm, the British Army regrouped on Capitol Hill, still a bit shaken by the harsh weather.  They decided to leave the city that evening.  As the British troops were preparing to leave, a conversation was noted between the British Admiral and a Washington lady regarding the storm:  The admiral exclaimed, “Great God, Madam! Is this the kind of storm to which you are accustomed in this infernal country?” The lady answered, “No, Sir, this is a special interposition of Providence to drive our enemies from our city.” The admiral replied, “Not so Madam. It is rather to aid your enemies in the destruction of your city.”

Hours later, the British forces left Washington and returned to their ships on the Patuxent River. The journey back was made difficult by the numerous downed trees that lay across the roads. The war ships that lay waiting for the British force had also encountered the fierce storm. Wind and waves had lashed at the ships and many had damaged riggings. Two vessels had broken free from their moorings and were blown ashore.

Whether it was needed for national defense or to protect a rapidly expanding agricultural based economy, the United States finally established a nationwide program of collecting weather observations in 1870, with forecast services soon following.  For more on the history of the National Weather Service, click here.

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