The Burning of Washington
by Dolly Madison
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August 23, 1814
The article below is taken from a letter by First Lady Dolley Madison to her sister, Anna, written the day before Washington, D.C. was burned by British forces during the War of 1812. The letter describes the abandonment of the White House and Mrs. Madison's famous actions saving Gilbert Stuart's priceless portrait of George Washington. As Mrs. Madison fled she rendezvoused with her husband, and together, from a safe distance, they watched Washington burn.
My husband left me yesterday morning to join
General Winder. He inquired anxiously whether I had courage or firmness
to remain in the President's house until his return on the morrow, or succeeding
day, and on my assurance that I had no fear but for him, and the success
of our army, he left, beseeching me to take care of myself, and of the
Cabinet papers, public and private. I have since received two dispatches
from him, written with a pencil. The last is alarming, because he desires
I should be ready at a moment's warning to enter my carriage, and leave
the city; that the enemy seemed stronger than had at first been reported,
and it might happen that they would reach the city with the intention of
destroying it. I am accordingly ready; I have pressed as many Cabinet papers
into trunks as to fill one carriage; our private property must be sacrificed,
as it is impossible to procure wagons for its transportation. I am determined
not to go myself until I see Mr. Madison safe, so that he can accompany
me, as I hear of much hostility towards him.
Disaffection stalks around us. My friends and acquaintances are all gone, even Colonel C. with his hundred, who were stationed as a guard in this inclosure. French John (a faithful servant), with his usual activity and resolution, offers to spike the cannon at the gate, and lay a train of powder, which would blow up the British, should they enter the house. To the last proposition I positively object, without being able to make him understand why all advantages in war may not be taken.
Wednesday Morning, twelve o'clock. -- Since sunrise I have been turning my spy-glass in every direction, and watching with unwearied anxiety, hoping to discover the approach of my dear husband and his friends; but, alas! I can descry only groups of military, wandering in all directions, as if there was a lack of arms, or of spirit to fight for their own fireside.
Three o'clock. -- Will you believe it, my sister?
we have had a battle, or skirmish, near Bladensburg, and here I am still,
within sound of the cannon! Mr. Madison comes not. May God protect us!
Two messengers, covered with dust, come to bid me fly; but here I mean
to wait for him... At this late hour a wagon has been procured, and I have
had it filled with plate and the most valuable portable articles, belonging
to the house. Whether it will reach its destination, the "Bank of Maryland,"
or fall into the hands of British soldiery, events must determine. Our
kind friend, Mr. Carroll, has come to hasten my departure, and in a very
bad humor with me, because I insist on waiting until the large picture
of General Washington is secured, and it requires to be unscrewed from
the wall. This process was found too tedious for these perilous moments;
I have ordered the frame to be broken, and the canvas taken out. It is
done! and the precious portrait placed in the hands of two gentlemen of
New York, for safe keeping. And now, dear sister, I must leave this house,
or the retreating army will make me a prisoner in it by filling up the
road I am directed to take. When I shall again write to you, or where I
shall be to-morrow, I cannot tell!
Note: When the Capitol was burned during the war of 1812, a brick boardinghouse was used as a temporary capitol. This same boardinghouse was the one Rose O'Neale and sisters lived in with their Aunt, Mary Hamilton Hill. This is also the building that became known as Old Capitol Prison, and was where Rose O'Neale and her daughter were improsoned during the Civil War.