As the residents of Moore, Oklahoma recover from the deadly mile-wide twister that tore through the small community Monday afternoon, one is reminded of how at least one tornado might have actually saved the United States – or at the very least its capital city.
In the late summer of 1814, a freak storm scattered an entire British army that was bent on destroying Washington D.C. While the invading troops managed to put the presidential mansion and a number of public buildings to the torch, the powerful storm blew through just in time to douse the conflagration and send the redcoats scurrying for cover. Here’s how it all happened.
THE BRITISH ARE COMING!
A year after the 1813 American destruction of York (present day Toronto) and the small Ontario town of Port Dover, the Royal Navy led an expedition into Chesapeake Bay to settle the score. The fleet of 16 vessels, which sailed from Bermuda only days before, was commanded by the formidable Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane.
Up until that point in the two-year old War of 1812, the British had been only able to field a token force against the Americans — the bulk of England’s formidable military were too busy fighting France. By 1814, with Napoleon defeated, the full might of King George’s army and navy could suddenly be brought to bear against the United States. In addition to reinforcing Upper and Lower Canada with thousands of fresh troops, London also unleashed an armada on the American east coast.
After landing unopposed with a force of 4,500 redcoats and marines at Benedict, Maryland on Aug. 19, a British shore party, under the command of Maj. Gen. Robert Ross, advanced in the sweltering late summer heat towards the American capital more than 40 miles away. His mission, to punish the United States for its incendiary campaigns in Canada over the previous two summers.
A force of fewer than 500 U.S. Army regulars and dragoons along with 6,500 militia led by a Baltimore lawyer-turned-general named William H. Winder assembled on Aug. 20 and spent the next few days preparing to block the British advance.
At midday on Aug. 24, the invaders met the Americans near Bladensberg, Maryland. The ensuring battle was a brief one. The British handily brushed aside the American units who fled before the disciplined musketry of the redcoats in what was quickly to be known as the Bladensberg Races (‘races’ because of the speed with which the terrified U.S. troops stampeded from the battle). For their part, the British lost 65 dead and more than 180 wounded. The Americans suffered much lighter casualties (two dozen killed, and 50 injured), however the farcically inept performance of the militia inflicted severe damage to the nation’s pride.
With the road to Washington now clear, there was little left for President Madison and his cabinet to do but themselves flee.
By the end of the day, the British advanced unmolested into the capital and were free to, as Admiral Cochrane’s orders specified, “destroy and lay waste” to the city.
In addition to trashing and then setting fire to the executive mansion, the British torched the Senate and House of Representatives, the Library of Congress and the Treasury. The U.S. Patent Office escaped the flames as did the newspaper, the National Intelligencier, however the redcoats still broke into the print shop and stole all of the letter ‘C’s from the presses. The officers in charge wanted to prevent the paper’s editors from slandering Admiral Cochrane in the days following the occupation. The retreating Americans added to the destruction by setting fire to the Washington Navy Yard, which housed the USS Columbia and the USS Argus, lest the ships and naval stores there fall into British hands.
But while America’s army and militia could do little to evict the British from the capital, it turned out Mother Nature could… and did!
THE STORM THAT CHANGED HISTORY?
After a night of raucous vandalism, the British embarked on a second day of plunder. Unbeknownst to the occupiers, a low-pressure trough was sweeping through the region, transforming the stifling late-summer humidity into an unstable air mass. By the afternoon of Aug. 25, the skies suddenly darkened, opened up and began pouring rain. The torrent helped subdue the flames and sent the redcoats scrambling for shelter. Minutes later, a tornado touched down and swept through the center of the city, toppling buildings, hurling deadly debris through the air and dousing the flames. Even whole British cannon were lifted from their trunnions and sent crashing to the ground. When the storm passed, a number of the invaders and civilians lay dead.
“Great God, madam! Is this the kind of storm to which you are accustomed in this infernal country?” one British officer supposedly asked of a local woman.
“No, sir. This is a special interposition of providence to drive our enemies from our city,” she shot back. 
After counting the dead, Ross ordered his drenched and dazed army to withdraw from Washington and make all speed for the safety of their ships. The British fleet, which was anchored miles away in the Chesapeake also sustained damage during the storm – two of the vessels even became grounded.
After recovering from the storm, the British flotilla continued to prowl the waters of Chesapeake Bay for the next two weeks, at which point they were defeated following a 25-hour bombardment and amphibious assault on Baltimore.
Following the battle, the entire fleet withdrew to Bermuda.
Historians can only speculate how long the British might have stayed in Washington had the storm not appeared or how much more damage to the capital they might have inflicted.