Dolley Madison Saves the Day

White House Burning

     Dolley Madison was the wife of President James Madison and the first First Lady to live in the White House.  She was a vivacious hostess and established the role of the First Lady.  When the British were invading Washington, DC, Dolley’s husband joined the military and she remained to pack what she could before the British reached the White House.  She managed to save the silver, the Great Seal, and (according to her letter) the portrait of George Washington.  The excerpt of the letter to her sister describes her activities that day.

First Lady Dolley Madison

Tuesday Augt. 23d. 1814.

Dear Sister

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!!

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Tomorrow:  Virginia Dare & the Lost Colony   Rita Bay


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4 responses to “Dolley Madison Saves the Day

  1. Steve

    Thanks Rita Bay. Enjoying your blogs. I always thought Dolly took frame and all, but now I know the facts.

    • One version of the facts. It’s hard to get much in on one post. Another account given many years later by a worker in the White House during the evacuatiion claims that he rescued the Washington portrait and that Dolley made off with the silver. Dolley wasn’t around to disagree so generally go with the primary contemporaneous source which would be Dolley. Thanks for following the posts. Rita Bay

  2. bellegroveatportconway

    Great Post! I believe that Dolley did rescue the picture. I have been doing research on James Madison over the last six month. My husband and I are opening a bed and breakfast on the property where he was born in Port Conway, VA at the Belle Grove.

    • I believe she saved it also. She was known to be feisty and the account of the rescue was contemporary as opposed to the other claim that was made much later. The Belle Grove looks magnificent. Good luck with your endeavor. Rita Bay

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