A few years after the onset of the War of 1812, the British Army marched into Washington D.C and set it ablaze as many Americans fled. The Redcoats then hiked their way to one of the most historic buildings in the world, the White House, and torched it to avenge an American attack on the city of York in Ontario, Canada, just a few years prior.
Before the British arrived, President James Madison had left the area to meet with his military officials. While many fled in terror of the anticipated Redcoats, First Lady Dolley Madison bravely stayed behind, ready to retrieve important documents and irreplaceable valuables.
As dawn broke, Dolley and some of the White House staff kept a close eye out as they waited for either Madison or the British to return. Once the British Army came into view, Dolley made preparations to leave.
Instead of taking her personal belongings, Dolley Madison made it her priority to retrieve a full-length portrait of George Washington — to keep it out of British hands. Since the painting was screwed to the wall, members of the White House staff broke the frame and rolled the canvas up.
Dolley managed to escape safely and later met up with her husband at a secondary location.
Soon after Dolley’s departure, the British stomped their way to the White House. They went up the iconic front steps and through double doors. Upon entering the house, British troops were surprised to discover that dinner had been laid out for about 40 patrons. So, like any hungry set of soldiers, they sat down to eat. They enjoyed a civilized meal before setting the presidential manor on fire.
President Madison and his wife returned a few days later; the British had already moved on, leaving only ashy rubble in their wake. Most of the walls survived the brutal heat of the flames, but the majority of the President’s home had to be rebuilt.
This historical act of destruction is the first and only time the enemy has successfully brought harm to the White House.