Encouraged by the victory at the Battle of Bladensburg in 1814, the British forces led by Major General Robert Ross headed for Washington DC and occupied the city. They burned many public buildings including the Capitol and the White House, which was known as the Presidential Mansion at the time.
Most of the congressmen, military officials as well as the President, James Madison, managed to escape to Maryland and find a shelter in Brookeville, which later became famous as the “United States’ Capital for a Day.”
It is interesting that just the day before, President Madison was present at the Battle of Bladensburg with a pair of pistols borrowed from his treasury secretary, taking the command of one of the American batteries. This made him the first and only president to exercise his authority as Commander-in-chief in a real battle.
The first target of the British invaders was the Capitol, which according to many travelers at the time was the most beautiful building in the city and hence the only one worth saving. However, the Capitol was destroyed along with the building of the Library of Congress, which contained a 3,000 volume collection.
The next target of the British forces was the White House. The First Lady at the time, Dolley Madison, organized the slaves and workers in the House to save the most worthy objects before their escape. Among the objects that she managed to save from the British fire was the portrait of the President George Washington.
The next day, Rear Admiral Cockburn aimed to burn the building of the National Intelligencer newspaper as personal revenge for the newspaper’s staff branding him as “The Ruffian.” However, there were a few women who explained to him that the fire would easily spread to the local houses and asked him not to burn the building. And he didn’t. Instead, he ordered his soldiers to demolish the building brick by brick and to destroy all “C” types so that the staff wouldn’t be able to slander his name anymore.
All in all, the British forces managed to keep Washington DC occupied for barely 26 hours. But they certainly managed to do all the damage possible in that time. In the middle of the destruction, they were interrupted by a sudden, very heavy thunderstorm, possibly a hurricane which dampened the flames. Even though they kept on destroying government buildings, the British were forced to go back to their ships and leave the city behind.