"It was a conflagration of unprecedented scope," writes Anthony S. Pitch in "The Burning of Washington: The British Invasion of 1814" (Naval Institute Press). "...[T]he enemy methodically sacked the grandest structures of the captured city."
Here's how and where to commemorate one of the worst days in American history:
- "Flee the British 5K": 8 A.M. race. Historic Congressional Cemetery, 1801 E Street, S.E.
Race among graves of heroes from the War of 1812 in the Historic Congressional Cemetery. A Dolley Madison re-enactor, in period costume, leads the race. She won't be wearing the red velvet dress purportedly fashioned from White House curtains she saved, along with the George Washington portrait by Gilbert Stuart, when she fled just before British troops burned the "President's House" and the U.S. Capitol.
- Walking Tours include:
-- "Washington Is Burning! August 1814": two-part walking tour 10 A.M.-3:30 P.M.
Walk the route British soldiers took as they marched through America’s capital city, setting ablaze key government buildings and military targets. Highlights include the U.S. Capitol -- the immolation destroyed the Supreme Court and the 3,000-volume Library of Congress housed in the capitol building; the fired-upon Sewall-Belmont House near the Senate side; the White House; the 1801 *Octagon House, one of Washington's oldest, and site of signing the Treaty of Ghent that ended the war. President James Madison and First Lady Dolley lived at the Octagon House after the White House was burned during the war that was dubbed "Mr. Madison's War" and "Maddy's Folly". These tours are offered by Washington Walks.
-- Georgetown War of 1812 Walking Tour: 10 A.M.-noon.
The walk begins at the Dumbarton House, and includes a tour of it. Stops include Francis Scott Key Park. It's on the site of the home where he lived from 1803 until 1833, when practicing law in Washington. The amateur poet wrote what became "The Star-Spangled Banner", set to John Stafford Smith's pop tune "To Anacreon in Heaven", when Key saw our flag was still there at Fort McHenry after the Battle of Baltimore in September 1814. Congress in 1931 made it our official National Anthem.
-- Freedom Plaza, 10 A.M.-7 P.M., Pennsylvania Avenue at 13th Street, N.W.
Walk in the footsteps of American and British soldiers on Pennsylvania Avenue, and also join National Park Service ranger programs, and living history demonstrations from 6-7 P.M.
- House Museum events include:
-- "Dolley at Dumbarton: A Georgetown Family Day": 1-4 P.M. Dumbarton House, 2715 Q Street, N.W.
When British troops were closing in, Dumbarton House owner Charles Carroll sent his carriage to the "President's House" for Dolley Madison. She stopped at Dumbarton House on her way to Virginia and her husband, who had fled before she did. At the event, join a Dolley Madison re-enactor making her very own invention, ice cream; racing with a George Washington portrait -- actually, 15-year-old slave Paul Jennings helped her save many treasures; playing period games; and dancing English country dances at 3 P.M.
-- Decatur House, 10 A.M.-3 P.M., Lafayette Square, 1610 H Street, N.W.
Tour the historic Decatur House, completed in 1818 for naval hero Stephen Decatur, view a War of 1812 exhibit, and enjoy trivia, crafts, and costumed photo ops. This event is hosted by the David M. Rubenstein National Center for White House History at Decatur House. It's one of the oldest surviving homes in Washington, and one of America's only remaining three houses designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the father of American architecture.
-- *Octagon Museum, Noon-4 P.M., 1799 New York Avenue, N.W.
President James Madison and Dolley Madison lived at the Octagon House from 1814 to early 1815, while the charred White House nearby was being repaired. On Feb 17, 1815, the Treaty of Ghent was signed in its elegant second-floor parlor.
The tragic destruction of Washington actually galvanized American resistance, noted historian and author Pitch, and within thrtee weeks, some 15,000 American troops defeated the British on land and sea at Baltimore.
Six months after the Aug. 24, 1814 burning of Washington, on Feb. 17, 1815, the (Ghent) "Treaty of Peace and Amity" was signed -- a few hundred yards away from the "President's House".
The President and his cabinet went "crazy with joy," wrote Paul Jennings in "A Colored Man's Reminiscences of James Madison". And Dolley Madison's cousin Sally Coles cried out from the stairs, "Peace! Peace!"
At last, a lasting peace.
And a longer-lasting commemoration will be at the National Archives from Sept. 11-Nov. 3, when it displays a charred remnant of the White House, and a letter that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the words that became lyrics for our national anthem.
(I actually touched ashes of the burned U.S. Capitol, when its radio and TV gallery were being renovated, and I was working as press secretary for the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.)
For more info: The Washington, D.C. Region War of 1812 Commemoration, www.dcwarof1812.org. National Archives, East Rotunda Gallery, Pennsylvania Avenue at 7th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C.