Washington's darkest day: August 24, 1814

“People arrived on the field of the battle of Bladensburg in winter wear, many of them. They had no boots, they had no flints for their muskets. They were totally unprepared,” says historian Anthony Pitch, author of “The Burning of Washington: The British Invasion of 1814.”

“They have one training day a year, which is mostly spent drinking rather than drilling,” University of Virginia historian Alan Taylor, author of two books that deal with the War of 1812, says of the militiamen. “Whoever was elected captain would take them down to the local tavern and they’d get blasted.”

The British fired newly developed rockets that could not be aimed accurately, which added to their terrifying effect. Several screamed over the head of Madison — the first time a sitting U.S. president had been under fire.

The man known as the Father of the Constitution turned to Cabinet secretaries Monroe and Armstrong and observed that it “would be proper to withdraw to a position in the rear.”