When Dolley Madison Took Command of the White House

It is thanks to the first lady that the famous Stuart painting of George Washington survived the British army’s invasion of D.C. in August 1814

As the British neared the White House, Dolley Madison directed that a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington be removed. (The Montpelier Foundation)
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After the president had ridden off, Dolley decided to show her own resolve by throwing a dinner party, on August 23. But after The National Intelligencer newspaper reported that the British had received 6,000 reinforcements, not a single invitee accepted her invitation. Dolley took to going up to the White House roof to scan the horizon with a spyglass, hoping to see evidence of an American victory. Meanwhile, Madison sent her two scribbled messages, written in quick succession on August 23. The first assured her that the British would easily be defeated; the second warned her to be ready to flee on a moment’s notice.

Her husband had urged her, if the worst happened, to save the cabinet papers and every public document she could cram into her carriage. Late in the afternoon of August 23, Dolley began a letter to her sister Lucy, describing her situation. “My friends and acquaintances are all gone,” she wrote. The army colonel and his 100-man guard had also fled. But, she declared, “I am determined not to go myself until I see Mr. Madison safe.” She wanted to be at his side “as I hear of much hostility toward him...disaffection stalks around us.” She felt her presence might deter enemies ready to harm the president.

At dawn the next day, after a mostly sleepless night, Dolley was back on the White House roof with her spyglass. Resuming her letter to Lucy at midday, she wrote that she had spent the morning “turning my spy glass in every direction and watching with unwearied anxiety, hoping to discern the approach of my dear husband and his friends.” Instead, all she saw was “groups of military wandering in all directions, as if there were a lack of arms, or of spirit to fight for their own firesides!” She was witnessing the disintegration of the army that was supposed to confront the British at nearby Bladensburg, Maryland.

Although the boom of cannon was within earshot of the White House, the battle—five or so miles away at Bladensburg—remained beyond the range of Dolley’s spyglass, sparing her the sight of American militiamen fleeing the charging British infantry. President Madison retreated toward Washington, along with General Winder. At the White House, Dolley had packed a wagon with the red silk velvet draperies of the Oval Room, the silver service and the blue and gold Lowestoft china she had purchased for the state dining room.

Resuming her letter to Lucy on that afternoon of the 24th, Dolley wrote: “Will you believe it, my sister? We have had a battle or skirmish...and I am still here within sound of the cannon!” Gamely, she ordered the table set for a dinner for the president and his staff, and insisted that the cook and his assistant begin preparing it. “Two messengers covered with dust” arrived from the battlefield, urging her to flee. Still she refused, determined to wait for her husband. She ordered the dinner to be served. She told the servants that if she were a man, she would post a cannon in every window of the White House and fight to the bitter end.

The arrival of Maj. Charles Carroll, a close friend, finally changed Dolley’s mind. When he told her it was time to go, she glumly acquiesced. As they prepared to leave, according to John Pierre Sioussat, the Madison White House steward, Dolley noticed the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington in the state dining room. She could not abandon it to the enemy, she told Carroll, to be mocked and desecrated. As he looked anxiously on, Dolley ordered servants to take down the painting, which was screwed to the wall. Informed they lacked the proper tools, Dolley told the servants to break the frame. (The president’s enslaved White House footman, Paul Jennings, later produced a vivid account of these events; see sidebar, p. 55.) About this time, two more friends—Jacob Barker, a wealthy ship owner, and Robert G. L. De Peyster—arrived at the White House to offer whatever help might be needed. Dolley would entrust the painting to the two men, saying they must conceal it from the British at all costs; they would transport the portrait to safety in a wagon. Meanwhile, with remarkable self-possession, she completed her letter to Lucy: “And now, dear sister, I must leave this house...where I shall be tomorrow, I cannot tell!”

As Dolley headed for the door, according to an account she gave to her grandniece, Lucia B. Cutts, she spotted a copy of the Declaration of Independence in a display case; she put it into one of her suitcases. As Dolley and Carroll reached the front door, one of the president’s servants, a free African-American named Jim Smith, arrived from the battlefield on a horse covered in sweat. “Clear out! Clear out,” he shouted. The British were only a few miles away. Dolley and Carroll climbed into her carriage and were driven away to take refuge at his comfortable family mansion, Belle Vue, in nearby Georgetown.

The British arrived in the nation’s capital a few hours later, as darkness fell. Admiral Cockburn and General Ross issued orders to burn the Capitol and the Library of Congress, then headed to the White House. According to Lt. James Scott, Cockburn’s aide-de-camp, they found the dinner Dolley had ordered still on the table in the dining room. “Several kinds of wine in handsome cut glass decanters sat on the sideboard,” Scott would later recall. The officers sampled some of the dishes and drank a toast to “Jemmy’s health.”

Soldiers roamed the house, grabbing souvenirs. According to historian Anthony Pitch, in The Burning of Washington, one man strutted around with one of President Madison’s hats on his bayonet, boasting that he would parade it through the streets of London if they failed to capture “the little president.”

Under Cockburn’s direction, 150 men smashed windows and piled White House furniture in the center of the various rooms. Outside, 50 of the marauders carrying poles with oil-soaked rags on the ends surrounded the house. At a signal from the admiral, men with torches ignited the rags, and the flaming poles were flung through the smashed windows like fiery spears. Within minutes, a huge conflagration soared into the night sky. Not far away, the Americans had set the Navy Yard on fire, destroying ships and warehouses full of am­munition and other materiel. For a time, it looked as if all Washington were ablaze.


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