Diplomatic Pouch / September 4, 2014
By Larry Luxner
An attack on the White House isn’t exactly something most foreign missions in Washington would celebrate with burgers, beer and sparklers.
But for some reason, the British Embassy decided it would be cool to host a barbecue to mark the 200th anniversary of their country’s Aug. 24, 1814, torching of the nation’s capital — one of the most dramatic events of the War of 1812.
About 60 people showed up at the official residence of charge d’affaires Patrick Davies for the informal Aug. 24 gathering — an odd commemoration that featured sizzling hamburgers, potato chips, chocolate-covered strawberries and Pimm’s fruit liqueur.
But it was the cake that got all the attention.
A large rectangular white-and-yellow concoction, carried from the kitchen to the mansion’s backyard terrace by a uniformed embassy guard in full regalia, it was decorated with U.S. and British flags and an intricately accurate replica of the White House. Sparklers were lit and the crowd broke into applause.
“Two hundred years ago today, a regiment of British redcoats marched their way into Washington and up Pennsylvania Avenue, and torched the White House,” Davies told his guests in a tone that was anything but serious. “You might think that’s really awful, given the depth and breadth of the U.S.-U.K. relationship today, but the truth is, they were there to give the Americans a good drubbing.”
Led by Maj. Gen. Robert Ross of Northern Ireland, the troops ended up burning not only the White House, but the Capitol and Washington Navy Yard as well. The incident marked the only time since the War of Independence that a foreign power ever captured and occupied the District of Columbia.
Yet Davies, noting that almost no one considered swampy, backwater Washington a strategic target, said the British attack was totally unexpected by the Americans.
“President James Madison was so confident the Brits would never bother coming to Washington — a small village of 8,000 people — that he prepared a banquet for 40 that evening,” Davies told his amused guests as the British ambassador, Sir Peter Westmacott, looked on.
“The president went to the front lines to see how things were going, leaving Dolley Madison to look after preparations for the banquet. So we broke into the White House and feasted rather inelegantly on the food that was there,” he said with a wicked smile. “Then we piled high chairs on the dining table and set it alight, and the rest is history.”
With that, the jovial diplomat urged his guests to “enjoy some British hospitality,” adding: “It’s the least we can do 200 years after this unfortunate event.”
Davies probably should have stopped there. But his press office then tweeted a photo of the elaborate cake with the caption, “Commemorating the 200th anniversary of burning the White House. Only sparklers this time!” That ignited nearly 8,000 retweets and some angry reactions from Americans who didn’t think it was very funny.
“I got a kick out of @UKinUSA’s White House tweet,” wrote David Powell. “Looking forward to @GermanEmbassy dropping firecrackers on a London-shaped cake in 2140.”
Added Daniel Aramburo: “We must declare war on England! Burn down Parliament and the Queen’s Mansion.” Someone else tweeted: “I think this is in extremely poor taste.”
Finally, the Brits were forced to backtrack. “Apologies for earlier Tweet,” the embassy said in a tweet issued only two hours after the initial, offending one. “We meant to mark an event in history & celebrate our strong friendship today.”
The story was immediately picked up by major media, including the Washington Post, ABC News, NPR and others. But not everybody took the incident so seriously.
“Very annoying that the British Embassy felt pressured into apologizing for a funny tweet,” wrote Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic. “Stand behind your jokes, Britannia!”
Embarrassments aside, the British barbecue wasn’t the only event in town to mark the 200th anniversary of a war largely forgotten by history. The Canadian Embassy hosted its own reception, and Dumbarton House threw a “Georgetown Family Festival” to commemorate the fact that Dolley Madison had stopped there briefly on her way from the White House to Virginia as British troops advanced on Washington.
Meanwhile, the Historic Congressional Cemetery staged a “Flee the British 5K” and the city of Bladensburg, Md., hosted its own “Undaunted Weekend” to mark the bicentennial of the Battle of Bladensburg — whose defeat by American forces allowed the British to capture Washington and has gone down in history as “the greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms.”