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In the summer of 1814, during the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain, Washington, D.C., the fledgling national capital, found itself at the heart of conflict. The British forces launched a devastating attack on the city, marking a humiliating defeat for the young nation. This event, known as the Burning of Washington or the Capture of Washington, was orchestrated by Rear-Admiral George Cockburn as part of Admiral Sir John Warren’s Chesapeake campaign.

Following the Battle of Bladensburg on August 24, 1814, when American forces suffered defeat, a British army under the command of Major-General Robert Ross marched towards Washington, D.C. In a swift and decisive move, British soldiers and sailors set fire to several key public buildings in the capital, including the Presidential Mansion, the United States Capitol, and the Washington Navy Yard.

Upon arriving at the White House during the War of 1812, British troops found that President James Madison and his wife Dolley had fled to safety in Maryland. Left behind were signs of a hasty departure, including leftover food in the White House scullery.

In a bold display of audacity, the soldiers chose to dine using the White House dishes and silverware before proceeding to ransack the presidential mansion and set it ablaze. This audacious act not only exacerbated the humiliation of the American defeat but also symbolized the British triumph over their adversaries.

As recorded by the White House Historical Society and revealed in personal letters from Dolley Madison, President Madison left the White House on August 22 to meet with his generals on the battlefield as British forces neared the capital. Before departing, he entrusted Dolley with the weighty decision of whether to remain or escape, questioning her resolve with the words “courage or firmness” to await his expected return the next day. Recognizing the looming threat, he instructed her to gather crucial state documents and be ready to evacuate the White House promptly.

The burning of these iconic structures struck at the symbolic heart of the United States, leaving a lasting impact on the nation’s psyche. It was a rare instance in American history where a foreign power successfully captured and occupied the capital of the United States, highlighting the vulnerability of the young nation and the challenges it faced in asserting its sovereignty.

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