The Burning of Washington, 1814
(image by Public domain image from the wiki, edited by MerylAnn Butler) DMCA
Two hundred years ago, on August 24, 1814, the British Army occupied Washington, D.C., and set fire to the White House and the Capitol the day after the American defeat at the Battle of Bladensburg. The Brits, who had been preoccupied with Napoleon since the War of 1812 started, were suddenly able to focus on their wayward colonies once Bonaparte was safely ensconced in Elba.
Due to strategic errors of epic proportions, the Battle of Bladensburg has been termed "the most humiliating episode in American history." Indeed, President James Madison and most of the more prominent D.C. luminaries who had been observing the battle just barely escaped being captured.
Meanwhile, down at the White House (or the President's House, as it was called then) Dolley Madison prudently worried about her husband's safety in Bladensburg as she gathered up items of importance in preparation for the possibility of a hasty departure.
Dolley Dandridge Payne Todd Madison col. White House Historical Association
(image by by Gilbert Stuart) DMCA
In those days, the President's House was furnished with the personal items the newly elected leader and family brought from their own homestead. But Dolley couldn't pack up her generous supply of party dresses or other personal effects, nor could she save the fruits of her extensive labors with Benjamin Latrobe in fully redecorating and beautifying the White House.
She had a wagon to fill with documents important to the new country, and her husband's personal papers, including his copious notes on the Constitutional Convention, which they would later jointly edit in retirement.
And sure enough, the next day, she received instructions to exit the premises posthaste, as the Brits were hightailing it to DC.
She grabbed the precious silver and any other small valuables she could manage and, as she later wrote to Latrobe's wife, hastily tore down the newly installed red velvet drapes -- most likely to wrap around the breakables.
A savvy gal, she refused to leave Gilbert Stuart's life-size portrait of George Washington behind. She knew that the Brits could have a picnic with the iconic image, damaging it in ways that could bring public humiliation and a sense of defeat to the new nation.
Dolley Madison Directing the Rescue of George Washington's Portrait, August 24, 1814
(image by by William Woodward for The Montpelier Foundation, 2009) DMCA
Clearly Dolley Madison understood the power of symbols in the political story. Perhaps it's more than coincidence that she had the keen promotional sense of a Madison Avenue media shark!
In fact, Dolley was so politically astute that South Carolina statesman Charles Pinckney, her husband's rival in the 1808 presidential election, quipped: "I was beaten by Mr. and Mrs. Madison ... I might have had a better chance had I faced Mr. Madison alone."
Portrait of Charles C. Pinckney. Public Domain
(image by by James Earl) DMCA
A spunky woman, she had been widowed at age 21 when her first husband and infant son died from yellow fever on the same day. Dolley learned wisdom and endurance at an early age.
She was full of charisma and glamour, an early American combo of Jackie Kennedy and Oprah Winfrey. And she was a perfect counterpoint to the quiet, "Great Little Madison," who was 17 years her senior and several inches shorter. Dolley's friend Martha Washington was a bit of a matchmaker, and rumors persist that she had a hand in setting up that romance. No doubt, motherly Martha was eager to see the young single mom and the nearly terminal bachelor find happiness together.