On that historic day, August 24, 1814, British troops looted and burned the White House and Capitol

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The White House, the US Capitol and other federal buildings in Washington, DC were looted and set on fire by British troops on that historic day, August 24, 1814.

The shocking assault on the heart of American sovereignty marked the nadir of the War of 1812 for the United States—arguably the nadir in the nation’s history.

President James Madison and First Lady Dolley Madison fled the capital separately and returned days later to find the city in ruins.

“One hundred and fifty men smashed windows and stacked White House furniture in the middle of various rooms,” wrote Thomas Fleming in his 2009 book The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers, an excerpt of which appeared in Smithsonian Magazine.

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“Outside, 50 of the looters surrounded the house, carrying poles with oil-soaked rags on the ends,” Fleming added.

“At a signal from the admiral, men with torches lit the rags, and the flaming spears were hurled through the shattered windows like spears of fire.”

British troops ate food and drank wine left on the White House dining table while parading around with the President’s hats on bayonets.

This undated wash drawing depicts the burning of Washington, DC by the British in 1814. The White House can be seen in the background.
(Getty Images)

“The ensuing fire reduced all but one of the capital’s major public buildings to smoking rubble, and only a torrential rainstorm saved the Capitol from complete destruction,” reads the US Senate’s official version of events.

Dolley Madison famously ordered collaborators to help her rescue a prized portrait of George Washington from the hands of the British.

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The confident young nation had declared war on Britain in 1812 in response to repeated violations of America’s maritime rights, just 36 years after the Declaration of Independence – and just 23 years after the nation’s founding as a constitutional republic.

“The burning of public buildings by the British was a humiliating defeat that struck the symbolic heart of the country,” notes the White House Historical Association.

1814: Dolley Madison, wife of President James Madison, rescues a portrait of George Washington from the White House before British troops set fire to the building during the War of 1812.  A print from A Bubbett.

1814: Dolley Madison, wife of President James Madison, rescues a portrait of George Washington from the White House before British troops set fire to the building during the War of 1812. A print from A Bubbett.
(MPI/Getty Images)

However, it also says, “From the ashes of that bitter blow a resilient nation has risen stronger and more united.”

Among others: American troops survived the horrific bombardment of Fort McHenry by the British Navy just three weeks later.

This stunning display of American resolve inspired Francis Scott Key to write a poem about national survival and resilience.

It was this stunning display of American resolve against all odds, while the nation’s capital lay in ruins just 40 miles away, that inspired Francis Scott Key to write a poem about national survival and resilience, in which he proudly exclaimed: ” Our flag was still there.”

The words of “The Star Spangled Banner” became the national anthem in 1931.

The attack on Washington also changed the future of the National Library.

This 1941 screenprint illustration shows an American flag waving over Fort McHenry, based on the national anthem by Francis Scott Key,

This 1941 screenprint illustration shows an American flag waving over Fort McHenry, based on Francis Scott Key’s national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner.
(GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)

“The Library of Congress, then housed in the North Wing of the Capitol, was destroyed,” the Library of Congress reported in 2015.

“To replace the devastation caused by British vandalism, former US President Thomas Jefferson offered to sell his personal book collection, which was then the largest and most comprehensive in the United States.”

The Library of Congress continued, “With some reservations, Congress bought its library in 1815 for $23,950. Jefferson’s belief that democracy depended on free access to knowledge ultimately ensured that the library’s rich collections were available not only to Congress but to this nation and the world.”

The Thomas Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC Jefferson's books formed the core of the current collections at the Library of Congress (the largest library in the world), according to the library.

The Thomas Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC Jefferson’s books formed the core of the current collections at the Library of Congress (the largest library in the world), according to the library.
(LOC/Carol M. Highsmith)

The attack on Washington, DC was shaped by broader events in the decades-long global war between Britain and France – including Napoleon’s notoriously failed efforts to invade Russia.

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The Emperor was defeated outside Moscow in the fall of 1812 and began his westward retreat. Britain and the Allied forces pounced on the Emperor’s weakness and captured Paris in March 1814.

Napoleon abdicated the throne and was exiled in April. It freed British forces to focus on the conflict with the United States.

“It was not until 1817 that newly elected President James Monroe moved back into Reconstruction [White House] Building.”

The President solemnly predicted that these forces would descend upon DC

“I have just received the latest information from Britain,” President Madison wrote to Secretary of War John Armstrong May 20, according to the White House Historical Association.

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“They tell us to prepare for the worst the enemy can possibly do against us… including it [targets]the seat of government cannot fail to be a favorite.”

A force of about 4,000 British soldiers landed on August 19 at Benedict, Maryland, on the banks of the Patuxent River.

History.com of the attack: “Although President Madison and his wife were able to return to Washington only three days later, when British troops moved on, they never lived in the White House again.”

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“Madison spent the remainder of his term in the city’s Octagon House. It was not until 1817 that newly elected President James Monroe moved back into the reconstructed building.”

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