As Major General Robert Ross and his 4,000 British troops closed in on Washington, with orders to set fire to the city’s public buildings, Dolley Madison stood her ground at the White House. One of the most powerful first ladies in history, she maintained enough composure to gather some of the nation’s treasures before making her escape.
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That fateful day, August 24, 1814, Dolley famously arranged for servants to bust the frame of Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington hanging in the state dining room and cart it off to safety. She also saved some silver, china and, of all things, red velvet draperies from the Oval Drawing Room.
At the National Portrait Gallery, a fiery red velvet dress steals the attention of visitors to “1812: A Nation Emerges,” a new exhibition commemorating the bicentennial of the War of 1812. Could the empire-style gown, which Dolley Madison owned until her death in 1849, have been made from the curtains she salvaged from the White House? Some historians and curators suspect so.
Piecing together the story of the dress requires, first, a consideration of the history of the draperies. In 1809, Congress appropriated $14,000 for architect Benjamin Latrobe to redecorate the White House. For the Oval Drawing Room (now called the Blue Room) Latrobe envisioned grand window treatments made of silk damask. But he wrote to Dolley, on March 22, 1809, with disappointing news: “There is no silk damask to be had in either New York of Philadelphia, and I am therefore forced to give you crimson velvet curtains.”
When Latrobe received the velvet, he found it garish. “The curtains! Oh the terrible velvet curtains! Their effect will ruin me entirely, so brilliant will they be,” he wrote in an April letter to the First Lady. Dolley, on the other hand, known for having bold tastes, liked the fabric.
“She gets her way, of course,” says Sid Hart, the National Portrait Gallery’s senior historian and curator of the exhibition.
A letter Dolley wrote to Latrobe’s wife, Mary, shortly after the burning of the White House, is often cited as evidence that she did, in fact, grab the curtains. “Two hours before the enemy entered the city…I sent out the silver (nearly all) and velvet curtains and General Washington’s picture.” She saw to it that only a few cherished items were saved, so why include the curtains?
“She had a special affection for the drapes,” says Hart. “Maybe they somehow represented in her mind her efforts to make the White House a center of social activity.”
At the outbreak of the War of 1812, the nation was about as polarized as it would be nearly 50 years later, at the start of the Civil War. Democratic-Republicans, like President Madison, supported the war, while Federalists opposed it. “There needed to be a cohesive force in Washington,” says Hart. Vivacious as she was, Dolley served that role.
During her husband’s term as president, Dolley hosted parties every Wednesday night, attended by people of all different views. Quite purposefully, she brought factions together in hopes that agreements could be struck. The gatherings, often held in the Oval Drawing Room, where the velvet curtains hung, were called “squeezes,” Hart explains, because “everybody wanted to squeeze in.”