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I am working on a project for the War of 1812 and for one of the illustrations I am drawing the White House as it is burning down. I am trying to make sure everything is historically accurate such as the time of day during its burning and specific details like that. My main question is at what time of day was it burned?

I was slightly positive that it happened at night by using the wording I saw during research. although I was just double-checking to make completely sure.

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The WP article "Burning of Washington" does not give specific times, beyond vaguely stating "that night". (Confusingly, the contemporary illustrations are a mix of day and night scenes...)

However, it links to Allen (2001) History of the United States Capitol: A Chronicle of Design, Construction, and Politics, which gives exact times on page 120:

Fires in the Capitol began to be set just after nine in the evening. (...) Around 11 o'clock in the evening, the President's House was burned. The torch was put to the War and Treasury departments the next morning.

It would have been dark by this point - sunset at 39N in late August is about 18:40 local time, and astronomical twilight would be over by 20.15.

I have been poking at Stellarium and I think that at 11pm there would have been some moonlight - a half-moon, low in the SW, and setting just after midnight. But I would double-check that before relying on it!


Added: there was a question about contemporary sources. The various documents in American State Papers (Mil. Affairs., Vol 1, pp. 524-599) don't give any specific time for the burning, but has a few notes that all indicate British troops did not reach the city until around 8pm, as night was falling.

  • "...at twenty minutes past eight, P.M. I received incontestable proof ... that the enemy was in complete possession of the city" (Tingey, p. 577)

  • "at twenty minutes past eight ... the matches were applied [to the Navy Yard] ... in the way out of the branch we observed the capitol on fire" (Tingey, p. 579)

  • "their advance, however, reached the capitol about dark or eight o'clock" (Catlett, p. 585)

  • "...the enemy, who took possession of the [President's] house soon after. This now being near night..." (Simmons, p. 597)


Added2: I have tracked down a copy of Pitch (2001), The Burning of Washington, thanks to archive.org. It confirms the time given in Allen for the Capitol: the diary of John McElroy, a lay brother at Georgetown, recorded "the British ... fired the Capitol about 9.06" (Pitch, p. 106).

No explicit time is given for the White House fire, but it was after the Capitol had been burned, and there is a note that General Ross set up his lodgings at the Suter house "about an hour from midnight" (p. 116) and then went to the White House shortly before the fire was set. This is presumably where the Allen estimate of "around 11" came from.

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    "(Confusingly, the contemporary illustrations are a mix of day and night scenes...)" Sounds like the contemporary painters weren't wise enough to consult stackexchange with this same question. Commented Mar 25, 2022 at 19:03
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    Perhaps they just took poetic license in order to paint the scene more vividly.
    – Mary
    Commented Mar 26, 2022 at 0:24
  • I don't think there's anywhere in the Lower 48 where it's not fully dark at 11 PM year-round. (Alaska is another question, but at the time, Seward wouldn't engage in his folly for another 55 years.) Commented Mar 26, 2022 at 19:51
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    After doing some digging, I discovered that in far Western North Dakota, around the equinox, civil twilight ends around 10:40 PM and astronomical twilight ends around 1:20 AM. (!) So it's probably still dark-ish there by 11 PM, but it's not as clear-cut as I thought. Commented Mar 26, 2022 at 20:00
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    @MichaelSeifert I think at 48N, astronomical twilight should end about 11.20pm local solar time on the solstice? I guess Williston here is an extreme case because at 103W it's already on the far western edge of its time zone, plus it's in DST - so it's almost two hours shifted. Commented Mar 26, 2022 at 20:18

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