”The Taking of the City of Washington in America” is an October 1814 print depicting the British torching the nation’s capital two months earlier. (Library of Congress)

Imagine Washington in flames. The White House, the Capitol and other government buildings are burning. The president, first lady and 90 percent of Washington residents flee to Virginia and Maryland. After the fire, Congress debates whether to leave Washington and move the nation’s capital to Philadelphia.

This all really happened 200 years ago when British troops attacked Washington on August 24, 1814. Until then, most of the battles in the War of 1812 were fought near the Canadian border. But after Americans set fire to York (now Toronto) in Canada, the British decided to do the same thing to Washington.

Little defense

Admittedly, Washington wasn’t much of a city in 1814; it had served as the U.S. capital for just 14 years and had a population of about 8,000, according to Anthony Pitch, the Potomac, Maryland, author of “The Burning of Washington: The British Invasion of 1814.”

American troops tried to stop the British army from entering Washington. One hot morning President James Madison and his advisers rode their horses to Bladensburg, Maryland, hoping to watch American militiamen hold back the British. But soon the mighty British army sent the inexperienced Americans — and the president — running for cover.

Papers and a painting

By the time British soldiers marched into Washington that evening, almost everyone had left town. Some government workers stayed until the last minute, packing important documents and hauling them away in carts and wagons. Several State Department clerks, for instance, stuffed the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and other important papers into book bags that a clerk hid in Leesburg, Virginia.

First lady Dolley Madison also stayed as long as she could in the White House, then known as the President’s House. She refused to leave even after her guards fled; she insisted on waiting for her husband to return from Bladensburg. When a friend finally persuaded her to leave, she packed government documents, along with a painting of George Washington, and left dinner on the table for her husband and his aides.

When the president arrived, though, he didn’t have much time to eat. The British were coming, and he had to get out of town — fast!

Setting bonfires

The British troops went first to the Capitol, which was really two buildings connected by a wooden walkway. (The dome had not been built yet.) Soldiers piled stacks of furniture and lit huge bonfires that roared through the buildings, melting glass windowpanes and destroying almost everything inside.

With fires lighting the sky behind them, the soldiers then marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to the President’s House. When they saw dinner laid out in the dining room, some stopped to eat before setting fire to the home and other government buildings.

The fires burned for several days, even after a severe storm drenched Washington and forced the British troops to return to the ships that had brought them. By then, the damage had been done. The British had spared most private property but destroyed most government buildings or left them in ruins.

The Capitol and the President’s House, with their stone exteriors, were still standing, but their insides had been gutted. When the president and other government workers returned to Washington the next week, they had to find other places to live and work.

Rebuild or move

By the time Congress returned to Washington in September, Americans had defeated the British at the Battle of Baltimore, and it was clear the young country would survive. But many congressmen didn’t want to rebuild the government buildings in Washington. Wouldn’t it be simpler if they packed up and moved the nation’s capital to Philadelphia?

Congress debated for months. Most congressmen from Northern states favored moving to Philadelphia, and most Southerners wanted to stay in Washington. As one North Carolina congressman put it, “If the seat of government is once set on wheels, there is no saying where it will stop.”

Finally, Congress voted to stay in Washington and start rebuilding the city we know today.

— Rebecca Jones

Mark the 200th anniversary

Looking for a fun way to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the fire that burned Washington? Consider following a costumed Dolley Madison in a golf cart as she flees fake British soldiers at Congressional Cemetery.

Flee the British 5K (2K for kids)

Where: Congressional Cemetery, 1801 E St. SE.

When: 5K begins at 8 a.m. Sunday; 2K will be held after the 5K.

How much: $40 for adult 5K; $10 for 2K.

Recommended ages: 12 and older for 5K; all ages for 2K.

For more information: A parent can call 202-543-0539 or go to www.congressionalcemetery.org.

Other interesting ways to observe the anniversary:

War of 1812 Scavenger Hunt

Where: U.S. Capitol Visitors Center Exhibition Hall.

When: Hunt for War of 1812 artifacts in the exhibition hall between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. through Saturday.  Or consider taking the Capitol’s 50-minute guided tour about the War of 1812 daily at 11 a.m.

How much: Free for both programs.

For more information: A parent can call 202-226-8000 or go to www.visitthecapitol.gov.

Book talk

Who: Author Anthony S.Pitch discusses “The Burning of Washington, 1814.”

Where: Smithsonian’s S. Dillon Ripley Center, 1100 Jefferson Drive SW.
When: 6:45 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. Thursday.
How much: $20 for Smithsonian members, $25 for nonmembers.

Recommended ages: 10 and older.
For more information: A parent can call 202-633-3030 or go to smithsonianassociates.org/ticketing/tickets/reserve.aspx?performanceNumber=229358