On August 14, 1814, a fleet of British warships departed from the naval base at Bermuda. Its ultimate objective was the city of Baltimore, which was then the third largest city in the US. Baltimore was also the home port of many privateers, armed American ships which raided British shipping. The British referred to Baltimore as a "nest of pirates." One British commander, Rear Admiral George Cockburn also had another target in mind, the city of Washington.
The British landed at Benedict, Maryland, and began marching toward Washington. On August 24, 1814, at Bladensburg, on the outskirts of Washington, British regulars, many of whom had fought in the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, fought poorly equipped American troops. The fighting at Bladensburg was intense at times, but the Americans could not hold. The federal troops retreated, along with observers from the government including President James Madison.
While some Americans tried desperately to battle the British, the city of Washington was in chaos. Federal workers tried to rent, buy, and even steal wagons to cart off important documents. In the executive mansion (not yet known as the White House), the president's wife, Dolley Madison, directed servants to pack up valuable items. Among the items taken into hiding was a famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington. Dolley Madison instructed that it had to be taken off the walls and either hidden or destroyed before the British could seize it as a trophy. It was cut out of its frame and hidden in a farmhouse for several weeks. It hangs today in the East Room of the White House.
Reaching Washington on the evening of August 24, the British found a city largely deserted, with the only resistance being ineffective sniper fire from one house. The first order of business for the British was to attack the navy yard, which they burned.
The British troops worked diligently to set fires inside the Capitol, destroying years of work by artisans brought from Europe. With the burning Capitol lighting the sky, troops also marched to burn an armory.
The British troops next turned their attention to the adjacent Treasury Department building, which was also set on fire.
The fires burned so brightly that observers many miles away recalled seeing a glow in the night sky.
Before leaving the Washington area, British troops also raided Alexandria, Virginia. Supplies were carried off, and a Philadelphia printer later produced this poster mocking the perceived cowardice of the merchants of Alexandria.
With the government buildings in ruins, the British raiding party returned to its ships, which rejoined the main battle fleet. Though the attack on Washington was a grave humiliation to the young American nation, the British still intended to attack what they considered the real target, Baltimore.Three weeks later, the British bombardment of Fort McHenry inspired an eyewitness, attorney Francis Scott Key, to write a poem he called "The Star-Spangled Banner."