Burning of Washington
This is 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 desertion of the White House and Mrs. Madison's famous
actions saving Gilbert Stuart's portrait
of George Washington. As Mrs. Madison fled she met her husband the President,
and together, from a hillside, they watched Washington burn.
My husband left me yesterday morng. to join Gen. Winder. He enquired
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 me, beseeching me
to take care of myself, and of the cabinet papers, public and private. I have
since recd. two despatches 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 been
reported, and that it might happen that they would reach the city, with
intention to destroy 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, and he can accompany
me, as I hear of much hostility towards him, . . . . disaffection stalks around
us. . . . My friends and acquaintances are all gone; Even Col. C with his
hundred men, who were stationed as a guard in the enclosure . . . . French John
(a faithful domestic,) with his usual activity and resolution, offers to spike
the cannon at the gate, and to 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, however, to make him understand why all advantages
in war may not be taken.
Wednesday morng., twelve o'clock. Since sunrise I have been turning my
spyglass in every direction and watching with unwearied anxiety, hoping to
discern 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 firesides!
Three O'clock. Will you believe it, my Sister? We have had a battle or
skirmish near Bladensburg, and I am still here within sound of the cannon! Mr.
Madison comes not; may God protect him! Two messengers covered with dust, come
to bid me fly; but I wait for him. . . . At this late hour a wagon has been
procured, I have had it filled with the plate and 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 is
in a very bad humor with me because I insist on waiting until the large picture
of Gen. 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 canvass 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 you, or where I shall be tomorrow, I cannot tell!!