Atrocity and Reciprocity

The Burnings of Toronto and Washington, D.C. and the Challenges to the Laws of War in the War of 1812

Authored by: Jasper M. Trautsch

The Routledge Handbook of American Military and Diplomatic History

Print publication date:  August  2014
Online publication date:  September  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415533805
eBook ISBN: 9781315817347
Adobe ISBN: 9781317813354


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After the Battle of York in April 1813, American forces burned the buildings of the legislative assembly, vandalized the printing office, and looted private houses in what was then the capital of Upper Canada (and is today Toronto). In retaliation, British forces set fire to public buildings in Washington, including the Capitol and the President’s House, after taking the American capital in August 1814. What was the background of these destructions and why were the rules of war broken? After all, U.S. foreign policy makers—influenced by the Enlightenment movement—sought to limit war’s effects on civilians and therefore emphasized the importance of international conventions establishing a restrictive ius in bello (the legal codes setting limits to wartime conduct) in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Several developments, however, compromised attempts to “civilize” warfare in North America: the burgeoning anti-British American nationalism, the fact that the U.S. relied heavily on militias and short-term recruits instead of professional soldiers, and Americans’ belief that the laws of war did not apply to warfare with Native Americans (and thus, by extension, to the British who used them as auxiliary forces). The British burning of Washington—by contrast—was less the result of a command structure breakdown or unprofessional soldierly conduct, but rather an intentional retaliation for the previous American raids and destructions of Canadian towns. It was meant as a “lesson” to force Americans to comply with European conventions of warfare.

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