The White House Razed

Today in History, June 28, 1862:

Union soldiers inadvertently burn the White House.  No, not that White House.  In fact, the Executive Mansion which housed the President wasn’t known by that name until 1902 when President Theodore Roosevelt renamed it.

Another difference between these “White Houses”, is that George Washington never resided in the Presidential Mansion along the Potomac.  His successor, John Adams was the first President to live there.

But he courted and married the widow Martha Custis at and near the White House on the Pamunkey River.

One of General Washington’s officers was Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee.  His son, Robert E. Lee, would marry Martha Custis-Washington’s granddaughter, Mary.

Together they would live in Arlington House, overlooking the Potomac…and the Executive Mansion.  When the Civil War began, Robert E. Lee chose to support “his country”, Virginia; which also meant the Confederacy.  As a result he and his family had to leave Arlington House and move to one of their more southern Virginia properties…the White House on the Pamunkey.

As the Union dead mounted, Union Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered the area around Arlington House to be used as a cemetery so that Lee could never again live there.  Today it is Arlington National Cemetery.

In 1862 during the Seven Day’s Battles, Union forces pushed the Confederates back past the Lee family’s new home at White House Landing, using it as a major supply base.

Before she fled further south from yet another home, Mary Lee left a message on the door of the residence, “Northern soldiers, who profess to reverence Washington, forbear to desecrate the house of his first married life, the property of his wife, now owned by her descendants.”

Union soldiers agreed.  General George McClellan ordered a guard to posted around the house to prevent looting or vandalism.

McClellan took a lot of heat from the press and DC for the protection of General Washington’s one-time home.  It should be used as a hospital for Union soldiers!  Even though it had but six rooms.

As was frequent in the Civil War, the lines moved back north after moving south.  And on this date in 1862 Confederates took White House Landing back.  As the Union Army fled, McClellan ordered all supplies and outbuildings burned to prevent their use by the Confederates…with the exception of the White House, it was to be spared.

As often happens in war, orders from the top rarely get carried out to the letter.  The White House was burned to the ground.

Little Mac


Today in History, November 5: 1862 – President Abraham Lincoln relieves Gen. George B. McClellan of the command of the Army of the Potomac for the second and last time. “Little Mac” was a great organizer, and drilled the army into a very competent force…but refused to use it. On numerous occasions Lincoln suggested, cajoled, asked, and ordered McClellan to take offensive action. Gen. McClellan always assumed his enemy had many more soldiers than they actually had and found excuses not to advance. Finally Lincoln had enough. McClellan, who referred to Lincoln as a well meaning gorilla, would run against his boss for President as an anti-war Democrat. I read and listen to a lot of history. It always bothers me when an author judges a leader rather than just reporting the facts…we weren’t there, and I’ve been “second guessed” myself. Gen. McClellan is my exception. I’ve read too many historical accounts, too many biographies in which he was mentioned. I don’t believe he was a coward. I don’t necessarily believe he was a traitor. But he repeatedly and adamantly acted against the interest of his government. I would love to know what was in his mind.

Bloody Antietam’s Importance 


Today in History, September 17: 1862 – The Battle of Antietam during the Civil War. Confederate General Robert E. Lee made the first of several attempts at taking Washington, DC. The Army of the Potomac met Lee’s army at Antietam Creek to defend the city. Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and James Longstreet lead the Southern forces, While George McClellan, Ambrose Burnside and Joseph Hooker lead the Union forces. In 13 hours of fierce fighting, 23,000 of 100,000 combatants are killed or wounded, more in one day than all of America’s wars to that point, and the most American’s ever killed in a single day in our history. Typically, while Hooker’s and Burnside’s commands moved on their enemy, McClellan stayed in place, not engaging. The end of the battle found both armies where they were when it began. But Lee soon retreated back to Virginia. Two important consequences of the battle…it gave President Lincoln a victory that gave him the confidence to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, and European powers decided against recognizing the Confederacy.