August 24, 1814: British troops raze Washington, D.C.

After the decisive defeat of American militiamen by the British at the Battle of Bladensburg, called “the most humiliating episode in American history”, the American troops fled, leaving Washington D.C. undefended and completely vulnerable to attack.  Conquering British forces entered the city and met little resistance there; they destroyed the buildings that housed the Senate and House of Representatives and the Library of Congress in the process, partially as retribution for the Americans’ destruction of property in Canada.

The White House was burnt down as well, but not before British officers dined at its tables. According to a popular story, the First Lady, Dolley Madison, was seen carrying out of the burning building Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington, but this was refuted by one of the Madisons’ slaves. She did, however, direct remaining slaves and servants to try and salvage valuable items from destruction. The 1814 destruction of Washington D.C. was the first (and still only) time since the country’s birth that its capital was occupied by a foreign power. The reconstruction of most important buildings began almost immediately, and the primary structure of the new White House was completed in 1817. 

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