This day in history, August 24, 1814, British troops march unopposed into Washington D.C. and set fire to the White House in retaliation for the American attack on the city, York in Ontario, Canada in June 1812.
Most congressmen and officials fled the nation’s capital as soon as word came of the American defeat, but President James Madison and his wife, Dolley, escaped just in time and fled to Maryland.
President Madison had been present at the Battle of Bladensburg and had taken command of one of the few remaining American batteries, thus becoming the first and only president to exercise in actual battle, his authority as commander in chief.
General Ross and British officers dined that night at the deserted White House after previously marching into Washington D.C. in the afternoon. Reportedly, they ate a meal of leftover food from the White House scullery.
The troops later se the White House ablaze as well as several parts of the city. The uncompleted Capitol building was set on fire and the House of Representatives and the Library of Congress were gutted before a torrential downpour doused the flames.
According to the White House Historical Society and Dolley’s personal letters, Madison left the White House on August 22 and asked Dolley to stay to collect important state papers but to be prepared to leave the White House at any moment.
As British troops began to march into Washington D.C., Dolley decided to leave her and her husbands personal belongings and instead saved a full-length portrait of former president George Washington from being destroyed. As it turns out, the portrait was a copy of Gilbert Stuart’s original.
On August 26, General Ross, realized he could not hold Washington D.C. and ordered a withdrawal from the capital area.
President Madison returned to the city the next day and swore to have it rebuilt. They never again stayed in the White House and he finished serving his term staying at the city’s Octagon House.
James Hoban, the original architect of the White House, completed reconstruction of the White House in 1817.