This post was written by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections.
“Our preparation for defence by some means or other, is constantly retarded but the small force the British have on the Bay will never venture nearer than at present 23 miles,” First Lady Dolley Madison wrote to her friend in her letter of July 1814.
It sounded like the worst case of wishful thinking as, within a month, the invading British force was burning the President’s home and the other public buildings in the nation’s capital.
Mrs. Madison was far from being naïve, but world events of 200 years ago would alter her calculation. With Napoleon’s defeats in Europe, the British could redirect the mass of their army toward putting a definitive end to the War of 1812, now well into its third year, on the North American continent. Burning the enemy’s capital city seemed a sure way to do it. Dolley was prepared for the event, and disdainful of her fellow residents of Washington, D.C., as she confided to her close friend Hannah Gallatin, wife of longtime Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin:
“Among other exclamations & threats, they say if Mr. M[adison] attempts to move from this house, in case of an attack, they will stop him & that he shall fall with it. I am not the least alarmed at these things, but entirely disgusted & determined to stay with him.”
Even after the events of 9/11, it is hard to imagine an invading force marching into our capital. Almost as difficult, is visualizing the President of the United States, accompanied only by a servant and his Attorney General, riding headlong toward the field of battle to serve as Commander-in-Chief, and the diminutive James Madison, with no military experience, would seem to fit this bill even less. In the hands of this British caricaturist, however, “President Maddy” is running away with the state papers along with his vain plans for carrying on the war.
In actuality, Madison left his wife with instructions for packing important papers in trunks, while he rode toward the advancing British. With the shortage of available wagons, Dolley sacrificed the couple’s personal property to save items of silver, china, some books, and a small clock that belonged to the house already being dubbed “the White House.” Dolley Madison’s calm actions on August 24, 1814 are most accurately described for us by 15-year old Paul Jennings, the President’s enslaved valet. Her last gestures were to grab her beloved red drapes and to firmly instruct Irish gardener Tom Magraw, French chef Jean-Pierre Sioussat, and two helpful New Yorker neighbors, Jacob Barker and Robert G.L. DePeyster, to avoid letting the full-length portrait of George Washington fall into British hands. Also saved was her pet macaw.
The Americans on the ground acknowledged that the British targeted public buildings and war materials and left most private property alone. The practice was nonetheless shocking in known warfare of the time, and the remaining residents found themselves pleading with British officers and unsure of their intentions. One who did this repeatedly was Mary Stockton Hunter, the wife of a chaplain at the Washington naval yard, who then had to endure British Admiral George Cockburn’s version of gallantry as he assured her, “he admired the American Ladies—they made excellent wives and good mothers.” Much of what we know of the civilian experience in Washington comes from this letter of Mrs. Hunter to her sister, as she describes the disgrace of the American militia retreating from Bladensburg, Maryland, “We saw our men running in great numbers in a disorderly manner. And in the evening, perhaps at sunsetting, I will leave you to conjecture what our feelings must have been when we saw the British flag flying on Capitol-Hill, and the rockets brandished for the destruction of our Capitol and for what other property we knew not.”
The Capitol, not completed, but containing grand interiors and quarters for the House, Senate, Supreme Court, and Library of Congress was subsequently set to flame. The Library’s 3,000 books helped fuel the fire.
A few remaining Americans were at last compelled to set fire to the naval yard and its newly built vessels to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. “You never saw a drawing room so brilliantly lighted as the whole city was that night. Few thought of going to bed—they spent the night in gazing on the fires, and lamenting the disgrace of the city,” Mary Hunter explained. The “meridian brightness” obviated the need for candles or lanterns as the British went about their nighttime business of setting flame to the Treasury and War Departments, along with the “President’s Palace;” special pleading spared the Patent Office. The next morning, August 25, Admiral Cockburn boasted to Mrs. Hunter that he could not resist targeting one non-military structure, the newspaper office of the resolutely anti-British National Intelligencer, where the presses and books were destroyed and the types “scattered.”
Then, and as if from an angry Deity, “a most alarming storm of wind and rain,” one of the worst to ever hit the city, descended upon Capitol Hill, tearing roofs from houses, lifting cannon from their base, and killing 30 British soldiers. Having taken additional casualties and feeling their work was done, the British columns retreated silently, passing horrible scenes of corpses exposed to heat, fire, rain, and wind. After some tribulation, Dolley and James Madison would finally locate each other in Virginia, and they moved into alternate housing in the District within days. Congress, Madison insisted, should remain in the city and meet in the spared Patent Office. Eventually, resolution and rebuilding replaced defeat and dissent, and the surreal experience faded from memory as Washington, D.C. came to resemble what we know today.