On this day in history : 24th August 1814 – British troops capture Washington DC and set fire to the White House, in retaliation for the American attack on York, Ontario, Canada in June 1813….

The Burning of Washington – an illustration from the 1816 book ‘The History of England, from the Earliest Periods, Vol.1’ – by Paul M Rapin de Thoyras – Public domain

The British had taken their time in planning their revenge attack on America….whose troops during the Canadian attack had burned down government buildings…. Washington was chosen as it was easily accessible from the sea, had a weak defence and was symbolic in its importance….

An initial battle took place between the British and American troops outside of Washington – known as the Battle of Bladensburg, the Americans were easily defeated – and the British advanced on Washington….

President James Madison had been aware of the impending British invasion…. He had attended the Battle of Bladensburg, leaving his wife, Dolley, to pack up important papers and items of value at the White House, which was then known as the Presidential Mansion…. She had been warned to be ready to flee at a moments notice…. By the time the British arrived the President and his wife were on their way to Maryland….

The British troops began setting fire to buildings in the capital, including the Library of Congress and other local landmarks…. On arriving at the White House the British soldiers had the cheek of sitting down to finish off a meal that had been abandoned in the occupants’ haste to get away – (waste not, want not!)…. Once the British had satisfied their appetites they set the building ablaze…. But the one thing they had not accounted for was the weather….

Public domain

The following day a tremendous thunderstorm hit the area…. The accompanying winds were so strong that roofs were torn from houses….and so torrential was the rain that it doused out the fires that had been raging in the city…. The storm lasted for a good two hours and at least two British soldiers were killed….

The British withdrew from Washington that very night…. The Americans were able to return to their capital to see what damage and destruction had been done….

The White House and the city were rebuilt – with Thomas Jefferson donating his collection of books to restock the Library of Congress….

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