It was one of the dark hours in U.S. history. Two hundred years ago this summer, British soldiers overwhelmed American battalions, took the nation’s capital and burned the White House.
The event, part of the War of 1812 that came to be known as “The Burning of Washington,” is arguably one of the United States’ most humiliating military defeats. White House historians, however, will use the anniversary of the burning this summer as an opportunity.
The White House Historical Association will try to energize American interest in one of the country’s most overlooked wars. At battle sites and historic buildings throughout Washington and neighboring Virginia and Maryland, exhibitions will pay tribute to the United States’ nearly three-year war with Great Britain, which erupted in 1812 and reached the nation’s capital during the summer of 1814.
British soldiers ultimately set fire to the White House, destroying much of the building and some of America’s most historic presidential items. It’s the only time in U.S. history that a foreign force has occupied the nation’s capital.
Some historians fear that Americans know little about the War of 1812, compared with the Revolutionary War. They hope the anniversary of the White House attack will be a chance to show how it was part of a complex moment in American history rather than just a somber military defeat.
“It was not just a terrible event,” said Karen Daly, the executive director of the Dumbarton House. The home, which is now a museum, served as the safe house for first lady Dolley Madison as the British made their way toward the White House. “It was also a moment where so many Washington patrons worked to save this city.”
The summer-long commemoration will feature a series of exhibitions that are expected to bring over 200,000 visitors to Washington.
On June 14, for example, the National Mall will host both the original manuscript of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the war-torn flag that inspired the anthem for the first time in history.
Also, a nationwide singing of the National Anthem is planned, an attempt to set the world record for the most participants.
“Well be looking at the legacy of the war, and not just the burning of the White House. This is not so much a celebration but more of a commemoration,” said Leslie Jones of the White House Historical Association.
CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this article may have given the impression that the White House Historical Association had the original manuscript of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It’s in the possession of the Maryland Historical Society.