The crunch of British soldiers' boots on the gravel of Pennsylvania Avenue brought terrified residents to their windows on a hot August night in 1814. The Capitol was in flames and the White House had been abandoned.
But before the enemy troops torched the president's house, they placed an order for dinner at Barbara Suter's boarding house at 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Skip the candles, they told her; they would dine by the light of the fires they were about to set.
Today is the anniversary of that midnight dinner of chicken and bread reluctantly served by Suter in her dining room, brilliantly lit by flames shooting out of the nearby Treasury and White House. The story of that meal and the sacking of Washington during the War of 1812 will be told today at the White House Visitors Center, the site of the boarding house.
The fall of the capital is not a popular subject, said historian Anthony Pitch, author of "The Burning of Washington," who will speak at the center at 12:30 p.m.
"It was so humiliating," he said. "I don't think people want to know about the destruction of the White House and the Capitol and that the president fled the city."
President James Madison had plenty of company on the roads out of the capital. Ninety percent of the 8,000 residents also fled, abandoning those who couldn't or wouldn't leave.
The United States declared war against Britain on June 18, 1812, over British interference with American shipping and American ambitions of expansion into British-owned Canada. At the time, Britain was at war with France. When the French were defeated, Britain turned its full attention to its former colonies.
The British fleet and army ravaged the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, burning settlements near the water. By Aug. 19, 1814, they were sailing toward Washington via the Potomac and Patuxent rivers as government officials belatedly scrambled to organize an army of defenders.
When faced with the highly disciplined and war-hardened British military, the American forces summoned to stop them at Bladensburg fled. Only a handful of professional Marines and sailors stood their ground.
At the Senate and House of Representatives, the few clerks not drafted for the militia worked frantically to pack important papers and get them out of town. At the Navy Yard, the commandant set about torching the shipping center to keep it out of enemy hands.
As the British approached the city, resident Pontius Stelle wrung his hands. "I know not where to take my little helpless family," he wrote.
At the White House, Dolley Madison already had packed her husband's important papers and loaded the trunks into her coach. However, she did not want to induce panic, so she ordered the afternoon meal prepared and the table set for 40.
About 3 p.m, a messenger sent by her husband arrived, shouting, "Clear out! General [John] Armstrong has ordered a retreat." Now fearful, she stuffed some silver from the sideboard into her purse and grabbed her copy of the Constitution.
She had one last request. Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington had to be taken to safety. Some accounts say a servant cut the canvas from the frame. White House historian William Seale, in his book, "The President's House," said two strangers who offered help broke the frame and took the whole canvas. As they had promised, they later returned the portrait in fine condition.
By 8 p.m., the British had arrived at the Capitol, which was then twin wings connected by a covered pedestrian walkway. Inside one wing, the soldiers passed by "finely fluted columns below vaulted brick ceilings, through arched entrances and up grand staircases into elegantly domed vestibules," Pitch wrote. The magnificent chamber of the House of Representatives was a crimson-draped room decorated with a 12-foot-high sculpted American eagle and 26-foot-tall Corinthian columns.
None of this grandeur deterred the single-minded British, who piled furniture to make bigger bonfires that consumed curtains and desks, annihilated artwork and cracked the walls of Virginia limestone.
The precious collection of 3,000 books in the library--most printed in London--was turned to ashes. The British were equally determined to destroy the room where the Supreme Court met, even dragging in furniture to make the fire bigger.
The Capitol's architect, William Thornton, took his family to the safety of the Tudor Place estate in Georgetown. There on the hillside, he could see his creation in flames. All he could do was watch helplessly as the Union Jack was hoisted on Capitol Hill.
Although the troops had paused on their march to the White House long enough to place their dinner order with Suter, when they arrived at the White House, they devoured the meal for 40 still warm in the ovens.
Then they torched the 23-room mansion, which had been furnished expensively by Thomas Jefferson. An eyewitness reported, "The spectators stood in awful silence, the city was light and the heavens reddened with the blaze!"
Next the Treasury was set afire. At midnight, the enemy troops ate the dinner Suter had prepared.
In the morning, the British made quick work of destroying the State and War Department as well as finishing the destruction begun by the Americans at the Navy Yard. Others were laying waste to the arsenal at Greenleaf's Point.
British soldiers were under strict orders not to loot the buildings they were destroying. The Americans did the stealing, Pitch said.
"It was most surprising to me to find that Washingtonians did most of the looting," he said at a lecture Sunday. "The mobs would steal and run. They stole silver from the White House. There was no one to stop them."
In the midst of the sacking of the capital, a delegation from Georgetown as well as one from Alexandria each sought out the British commanders to ask protection for their towns. Each was assured that private property was safe if there was no resistance.
Georgetown was never invaded, but Alexandria was. Despite promises made by the British officials, the navy that had been approaching Washington by the Potomac seized warehouses and ships from Alexandria between Aug. 29 and Sept. 3 before sailing back to the Chesapeake Bay.
But the Americans eventually rallied. They successfully fought off the British at Baltimore from Sept. 12 to 14 and soundly defeated the enemy in New Orleans on Jan. 8, 1815.
Madison signed the peace treaty with England on Feb. 17, 1815. Washingtonians, still reeling from the attack on their city, decked buildings with flags and banners.
At 7 p.m., a gun salute boomed over the city, signaling the moment for a synchronized illumination of homes by candles and oil lamps. It was what Mayor James Blake called "a rational demonstration of joy."
CAPTION: Historian Anthony Pitch stands outside Tudor Place in Georgetown, from which Capitol architect William Thornton watched his creation burn.