White House and U.S. Capitol went up in flames 200 years
24, 1814, after defeating 3,500 Americans in a battle in
, a British military force marched six miles and burned
these two architectural beauties, our capital city’s only
national monuments at the time.
newspapers soon bragged: “Washington (DC) is no more”
and “the reign of [President James]
may be considered as at an end.”
shining moment, however, stood out on this otherwise dark
day. Dolley Madison, the president’s wife, had been
waiting for President Madison’s return from Bladensburg.
By three in the afternoon, she learned of the battle’s
disastrous outcome. Though several people encouraged her to
evacuate, she wouldn’t leave the White House until one
treasure was safe.
Dolley explained her reasoning in a letter to her sister:
“Because I insist on waiting until the large picture of
is secured, and it requires to be unscrewed from the
Congress had bought this painting of George Washington by
artist Gilbert Stuart to celebrate the White House’s
opening in 1800. Dolley feared the worst. If British marines
captured the painting, they would parade it through
as a symbol of defeating
this full-length portrait from the State Dining Room’s
wall required more than a quick tug, as Dolley explained.
“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.”
Years later, curators concluded that the canvas showed no
sign of being cut. Dolley’s servants likely removed it
from the wall without taking a knife to it.
When some friends brought her a wagon, she was ready. “And
the precious portrait placed in the hands of two gentlemen
, 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!!”
her wardrobe and belongings behind but removing the state
papers, Dolley said goodbye to the White House.
hours later, the British military arrived. They raided and
took trinkets, including a miniature painting of Dolley.
They ate dinner at her table and drank her red wine. They
mocked President Madison by wearing his clean shirts.
accordingly doffed my inner garment, and thrust my unworthy
person into a shirt belonging to no less a personage than
the chief magistrate of the
,” one British lieutenant later bragged.
piling the furniture into mounds and soaking linens with
lamp oil, British marines and sailors stood outside, held
lit torches, and surrounded the mansion. When a commander
gave the order, they hurled their fiery sticks through the
windows in unison, igniting an instant blaze. Blackened
walls quickly replaced the once grand White House.
was epic, cinematic for a movie today. And like a good film,
all was not lost after all. The burning’s aftermath led to
a renewal of patriotism.
immediate and enthusiastic effect of the fall of
was electrical revival of national spirit and universal
energy,” a congressman of the time observed.
weeks later, 15,000 Americans defeated the British military
attorney, Francis Scott Key, was so inspired that he wrote
lyrics to a new song, The Star-Spangled Banner, which
later became our national anthem.
residents also rallied, pooling resources to convince
Congress to rebuild the U.S. Capitol and White House in
rather than relocate the nation’s capital to
Though initially and understandably depressed, Dolley
emerged with renewed determination. Twice relocating to
other houses in
, including the Octagon, President and Mrs. Madison opened
their doors to guests and showed
’s resiliency. On New Year’s Day in 1816, two years
after the war ended, they also welcomed a new English
diplomat at a reception, evidence of the restored
Mrs. Madison wore a gown described by a female guest
as “yellow satin embroidered all over with sprigs of
butterflies . . . a little cape, long sleeves, and a white
bonnet with feathers.” This description is similar to
Dolley’s satin ivory dress, owned by the Smithsonian
today, which features embroidered butterflies and,
fittingly, phoenixes, the ancient mythical fire bird that
rose from the ashes to new heights.
British diplomat said that Dolley “looked every inch a
queen” that night. Indeed this woman had become a first
lady, a queen of hearts who’d been a source of inspiration
for a nation rising like a phoenix from the ashes of loss.
painting of Dolley hangs above the doorway of the White
House’s Red Room. When all of the adjoining doors are
open, this painting is in direct view of the painting that
she saved of George Washington, which now hangs in the East
Room. In this way Dolley still keeps her eye on
Aren’t we glad she did? Both paintings, as well as the
rebuilt White House and U.S. Capitol, are symbols of the
resilient American spirit, which is something to smile about
today, 200 years later.