The War of 1812, fought between the still-youthful United States and Great Britain, is probably best known for the events that occurred on August 24, 1814, when British troops entered the city of Washington, D.C. and set it afire.
The British felt justified in their actions because of what had happened more than a year before, when American forces had seized the port of York, Upper Canada from the British. After the victory, soldiers of the Stars and Stripes burned the Parliament buildings and looted the public library (as well as numerous homes). So the British probably saw the largely undefended U.S. capital as their chance for a little reciprocity.
The British did show a little discipline and adherence to the idea of “military targets”, leaving most civilian residences and buildings untouched. But the House and Senate buildings were torched, and the Libary of Congress (in the Capital Building) went up in flames, as did the Treasury Building. As the British headed for the White House, it was mostly vacant as all government officials had fled, including President James Madison. But his wife, Dolley, stayed and gathered as many artifacts as possible before fleeing herself.
British forces entered the White House and found a meal still on the table (which they proceeded to eat). They then filched items of value they could find and put it to the flame. By morning little but the White House’s outer walls remained.
At that point, however, there were other concerns for the British. The weather turned foul as a hurricane arrived, and torrential rains squelched the fires and sent the British scrambling back to their damaged ships, at which point the government returned to the capital. But the burned buildings would remain in ruins until construction could begin the following year, and work would not be completed until the 1860’s.
Recommended Reading: James Madison