dolley madison flees the capital -- 3/1/21

Today's selection -- from Presidents of War by Michael Beschloss. The harrowing flight of Dolley Madison from the White House during the War of 1812:

"[When the British attacked Washington City in 1814, First Lady Dolley Madison] stayed behind at the Executive Mansion while James was out re­viewing the forces charged with Washington's defense. She asked her husband's enslaved body servant Paul Jennings (who once lauded the President as a man who would not 'strike a slave') to bring out ale and cider in anticipation of a three o'clock White House dinner they were planning for Cabinet secretaries, 'military gentlemen,' and their wives. Dolley hoped that if Washingtonians learned that the President's lady was keeping a normal schedule, they would feel more sanguine about the danger of the approaching British marauders. But she re­ceived a worried, scribbled plea from her nearby sister Anna: 'Tell me for gods sake where you are .... We can hear nothing but what is hor­rible here.'

"From the Mansion, Dolley peered anxiously through a spyglass with 'unwearied anxiety.' As she wrote her other sister, Lucy, she was thinking, 'Mr. Madison comes not; may God protect him!' Recoil­ing from the distant booms of British cannon, Dolley refused to flee until 'my dear husband' was safe in her arms. But in preparation, she quickly packed letters, books, valuables, a demijohn of wine, and clothes. Determined to prevent the British from grabbing the life-sized portrait of George Washington, an irresistible battle trophy, she called out, 'Save that picture! ... If not possible, destroy it!' She ordered the painting removed from its gilded frame and taken by wagon to a 'hum­ble but safe roof,' thus ensuring her place in American history. (The Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and other treasures had already been slipped into plain linen sacks and taken to a Virginia gristmill.)

"Then the Madisons' freedman servant James Smith, waving his hat, cantered up with a message from the President: 'Clear out! General Armstrong has ordered a retreat!' Stuffing flatware into her handbag, Dolley and Sukey, her enslaved personal maid, were helped into carriages, which rushed them and their traveling companions across the Potomac to the wilds of northern Virginia, where she and James had agreed to meet. But Dolley was told that the President could not be found, and she cowered in agony and tears. Part of her fear stemmed from the fact that the British invaders were not her husband's only en­emies. Furious at the invasion of their Capital and, in fact, at Madison's whole war, some of his own countrymen had vowed to commit violence against the President if he tried to flee the city. 'I hear of much hostility towards him,' Dolley had warned her sister Lucy. 'Disaffection stalks around us.' One American had threatened the President with 'dagger or poison.' According to Paul Jennings, when Dolley was desperately seeking safe haven that night in Virginia, one would-be hostess raged at her, 'If that's you, come down and go out! Your husband has got mine out fighting and, damn you, you shan't stay in my house!'

"Back across the Potomac, about 150 British soldiers -- 'the most hell­ish looking fellows that ever trod God's earth,' recalled one bystander ­torched the Capitol of the United States. At nine o'clock, spurred on by the British Rear Admiral George Cockburn, soon called 'the harlequin of havoc,' with 'sun-burnt visage and his rusty gold-laced hat,' the ar­sonists had laid siege to the limestone building -- two still-unconnected wings shut down in midconstruction by the war. In the chambers of the House, Senate, and Supreme Court, the enemy soldiers piled up mahog­any desks, red morocco chairs, green curtains, and books. Before they lit this tinder with rocket powder, Cockburn sat in the House Speaker's chair and mocked the democratic pretensions of Britain's ex-colonies, demanding of his brother redcoats, 'Shall this harbor of Yankee "de­mocracy" be burned? All for it will say, "Aye!"'

"Soon the Capitol was enveloped by jagged tongues of orange flame, so searing that glass lamp shades melted. Cockburn decreed the raising of his own country's Union Jack, then, riding on a mule, ordered his redcoats to march double file down Pennsylvania Avenue. Demanding their silence, to avoid arousing Washingtonians to fight back, Cock­burn shouted, 'If any man speaks in the ranks, I'll put him to death!' One American yelled at Cockburn that if George Washington were still alive, 'you could not have done this.' The Admiral replied that George Washington, unlike Madison, would never have 'left his capital de­fenseless, for the purpose of making conquest abroad.'

"Bursting into the White House, Cockburn's soldiers sat down at the dining table -- still set with crystal, gold, and silver -- and feasted on the Madisons' uneaten Virginia hams and 'super-excellent Madeira.' Marching upstairs into the President's private dressing room, whose opened drawers betrayed a hasty departure, Cockburn seized the black bicorne military hat owned by the man he derided as 'Little Jemmy Madison' and merrily stuck it on the tip of his bayonet. Stealing a seat cushion from Dolley's boudoir, Cockburn made ribald jokes about her voluptuous derriere and breasts. Other redcoats donned the President's starchy shirt and waved his ceremonial sword. Madison's guitar and pi­anoforte, a half-packed portmanteau, and French sofas and commodes purchased by Thomas Jefferson were all gathered and shoved into a pile in the Mansion's grand oval reception room. These and other spoils of war were lit by perhaps fifty torches, each charged with glowing coals from a nearby tavern. Soon, it was said, the Mansion was 'wrapt in one entire flame.' Cockburn reputedly finished his night of destruction at a nearby brothel, reveling in 'the coarse luxury of lust.'

"James Madison, who had done so much to conceive the political institutions of Washington, DC, was reviled by many of his fellow citi­zens as the destroyer of their capital city. Vicious handbills appeared, demanding that the President receive a 'black and bitter day of retribu­tion' for 'this foul stain on our national character.' They called him a 'coward' who had fled his White House command post for Virginia, 'begging' shelter and bread 'from door to door' -- and a cad, leaving poor Dolley 'to shift for herself.'"



Michael Beschloss


Presidents of War: The Epic Story, from 1807 to Modern Times


Penguin Random House


Copyright 2018 by Michael Beschloss


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