My blog post on June 22, 2020 (#OnThisDay: The Chesapeake – Leopard Affair off Virginia, 1807) was about a naval incident that was a cog in the wheel of events that resulted in the War of 1812. One of the most famous events of that three-year war between the United States and Great Britain was the British invasion of Washington, DC and the burning of the White House on August 24, 1814.
Left behind in Washington City
United States First Lady Dolley Madison showed what she was made of on that day. Her husband, President James Madison left Washington City to join General Winder. Before leaving, he asked Dolley if she would be all right there until his return. She assured him that all was well and she wasn’t afraid. He instructed her to take care of the public and private Cabinet papers, the Cabinet being the Secretary of State and other federal department heads.
That’s not how things played out, though, and Dolley became a bit of a hero on that August day 206 years ago. It turned out that the British troops were much closer to the capital city than the president had thought. When President Madison realized the imminent danger posed by the British troops, he wrote to Dolley twice in pencil that she should get out of Washington as soon as possible.
Dolley filled trunk after trunk with government papers, sacrificing the Madison family possessions in order to save important documents. People all around her were fleeing for their lives. As she wrote in a letter to her sister, Anna, “even Colonel C with his hundred, who were stationed as a guard in this enclosure” fled.
A faithful servant, French John, offered to “spike the cannon at the gate, and lay a train of powder, which would blow up the British should they enter the house.” Dolley declined to take him up on his offer of defending the White House.
The Battle of Bladensburg
At sunrise the next morning, Dolley looked through her spyglass in all directions, watching for her husband to appear. He didn’t come. In the early afternoon she could hear the cannons firing as the British defeated the Americans at the Battle of Bladensburg. By mid-afternoon she had procured another wagon and “filled it with plate and the most valuable portable articles belonging to the house.” That wagon was dispatched to the Bank of Maryland for safe keeping.
Gilbert Stuart’s Portrait of George Washington
Dolley was urged to get in a carriage and leave immediately, but she still refused to leave the White House without Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington. It turned out that the frame was bolted to the wall, so it was not just a matter of taking it down. To save time, the canvas was cut out of the frame, rolled up, and saved by Dolley Madison. She went down in history for her heroics of August 24, 1814.
The Burning of Washington City
As the British troops entered the capital city, they torched one government office after another until finally reaching the White House. Some sources say the soldiers feasted on a meal prepared for 40 guests at the grand dining table before setting fire to the house; but that seems a little far-fetched since there was no one remaining there to prepare food and Dolley Madison had fled with the china.
It was surely a day and night of terror for any Washington residents who dared to stay behind. When the sun rose the next morning, the Capitol Building, the White House, and every other building of importance lay in smoking ruins.
Dolley Madison’s Background and Legacy
Growing up in North Carolina, I wasn’t taught much about the War of 1812 when I was in school. The battles all took place north of our state. It just wasn’t emphasized when I came along. If one of my social studies teachers had related the above story with energy and enthusiasm, it would have made the War of 1812 much more memorable and relatable than a recitation of battles and dates.
Dolley Madison is also remembered for making a conscious effort to invite guests from both political parties to social functions at the White House. The term “bipartisanism” had not yet been coined when she worked to do all she could to encourage cooperation between the political parties.
Dolley Payne Madison was born to Quaker parents in Guilford County, North Carolina in 1768. Her family moved to Philadelphia when she was 15 years old. She married John Todd, a Quaker lawyer, and they had two children; however, Mr. Todd and the younger of their sons died during a yellow fever outbreak in 1793.
At that time, Philadelphia was the nation’s capital. Dolley was an attractive young widow. Senator Aaron Burr introduced her to then Congressman James Madison. She married Madison after a brief courtship.
James Madison was an Episcopalian. Dolley converted to his faith and abandoned her Quaker upbringing and manner of dress. The Madisons lived at Montpelier, the family plantation in Virginia before moving to Washington, DC in order for James to be President Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of State. It seems that Dolley happily fell right into the Washington social scene.
Since President Jefferson was not married, Dolley Madison served as the unofficial First Lady. It was she who got to make many decisions about the furnishings of the newly-constructed White House. James Madison was elected US President in 1808. Although much-revered as the “Father of the US Constitution,” he was 17 years Dolley’s senior and his terseness was in great contrast to the vivacious Dolley.
At the end of President Madison’s second term, he and Dolley returned to Montpelier. They lived there until his death in 1836. Dolley then moved back to the social life in Washington, DC, where she died in 1849.
Since my last blog post
Life has thrown a few curves at me since last Monday. It seems in the coming days I’ll learn how to care for a diabetic dog. My work on my scenic or step plot outline got hijacked, but I’ll get back to it.
Until my next blog post
I hope you have a good book to read. My mind has been pulled in more than a few directions, making it difficult for me to concentrate on reading. I still have a couple of books I want to finish, though, by the end of the month.
If you’re a writer or other artist, I hope you have quality creative time.
Be safe. Be well. Wear a mask. It’s not a sacrifice in the big scheme of things.