Today in 1814, British forces under the command of General Robert Ross marched unopposed into Washington, D.C. and, before the day was over, burned most of the city's public buildings and a few private residences. This day marked the low point of American fortunes during the War of 1812.
The war, referred to as the American War of 1812 to 1815 by the British, was fought entirely in North America and at sea. The causes of the conflict were clear to the War Hawks in the United States: Great Britain's refusal to surrender frontiers forts as agreed to in 1783, the boarding of American ships by Royal Navy crews in search of missing sailors (often resulting in the impressment of American sailors into the Royal Navy) and the on-going trade embargoes of both England and France, which resulted in the seizure and forfeit of American merchant ships.
Attempts had been made to deal with these issues peacefully with mixed results. However, enough members of the US Congress supported a fight that a declaration of war was introduced in June, 1812. As eager for war as some American leaders were, neither side was ready for a fight. England was fighting Napoleon's French army in Europe and had little desire for a second war thousands of miles from home. That summer, there were only 5,000 British troops in Canada. The Americans were not in better shape: the entire US Army amounted to 12,000 men on paper, but it's real strength may have been as little as half that number. But war had been given, and so war would be fought.
The British repelled an American invasion of Canada in 1812 and made their own invasion near Detroit soon thereafter. The favor of war visited both sides more or less equally until 1814, when British successes against Napoleon allowed them to send more troops to North America, eventually totaling more than 48,000 regulars. Part of this force landed in Maryland and overwhelmed American militiamen at Blandensburg early on August 24, 1814; this American defeat left the city of Washington unguarded. President James Madison was present at the battle, the last time a sitting American Commander-in-Chief would personally view the US military in combat.
The First Lady, Dolly Madison, was meanwhile busy with her servants trying to save some of the valuables in the White House. The most famous item they saved was Gilbert Stuart's full-length painting of George Washington, which was hidden in the bottom of a wagon.
The British force arrived at the nation's capital in the afternoon; the only resistance they encountered were a few angry civilians, which they quickly dispersed. A detachment was sent to the White House, where they found the dining hall ready to seat 40 people. They ate the food and then set about burning the place down. They also burned the Treasury Building and the unfinished Capitol Building. The facilities of the Washington Navy Yard and the incomplete USS Columbia were burned by American sailors to prevent their capture. The US Patent Office was saved by the Superintendent of Patents, who convinced the British soldiers of the importance of its preservation.
Miraculously, a severe storm ravaged the district that night, putting out many of the fires before they could engulf the entire city. The last British troops left the city after 26 hours of occupation, bound for their next objective: Baltimore. The President returned to the city the next day after hiding with his cabinet in the nearby Virginia countryside overnight, but most of the government buildings had been rendered unusable. Repairs to the various buildings and construction of replacements would continue well into the 1830's.
It is important to remember that the burning of Washington was not a unilateral action. In 1813, American forces had burned York, the capital of Upper Canada. In addition to burning Parliamentary buildings, they also looted many civilian homes. The US officers present were unable to control their men. While European armies had certainly looted their enemies, by the early 19th century most nations recognized an unofficial agreement by which cities and towns would not be looted or burned unless facilities in the city presented an immediate threat to the invaders.
The British Generals had hoped that the destruction of the US capital would have a devastating effect on American morale. Instead, the populace was outraged; thousands of men volunteered to help defend Baltimore against invasion. American forces successfully repelled every British attack for the remainder of the war.