Dolley Payne Madison
From the Letters of Dolley Madison
In 1811, the First Lady of the United States, raised a Quaker, prayed there wouldn't be war with England, but Dolley Payne Madison was not optimistic. On December 20 she wrote her sister, "I believe there will be a war. Mr. Madison sees no end to our perplexities without it.... Oh those mulish British!"
At first, the war did not go well for the U.S. as American soldiers, largely untrained militia, proved no match for their British counterparts. This was never so forcibly brought home to Americans than the day in August 1814 when a British army landed at Benedict, Maryland and marched on Washington.
It was rapidly dawning on President Madison that he'd been wrong to entrust the defence of the capital to Secretary of War John Armstrong who, even now, refused to admit the British would ever attack Washington. Madison was obliged to ride out and personally supervise what hasty defences could be mustered.
Meanwhile his wife Dolley, anxiously waiting developments in the President's Mansion, tried to distract herself by writing the first of several instalments of a letter to her sister Lucy:
"... [James] desires I should be ready at a moment's warning to enter my carriage and leave the city; the enemy seems stronger than reported, and it might happen they would reach the city with intention to destroy it. (...) Our private property must be sacrificed.... 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.... My friends and acquaintances are all gone."
The last was all too true. By now most Washingtonians, many cursing their President for starting "Mr. Madison's War," were fleeing down Pennsylvania Avenue in every conveyance they could find.
There was little sleep for Dolley that night. The President came in for a couple of hours' rest before being called away in the middle of the night. Dolley filled the sleepless hours as best she could with more instalments to Lucy:
"Wednesday morning, twelve o'clock Since sunrise I have been turning my spyglass in every direction, and watching with unwearied anxiety, hoping to discover 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 were a lack of arms or of spirit to fight for their own firesides!"
Dolley's assessment was truer than she realised. At nearby Bladensburg the militia had been remarkably unenthusiastic against the British regulars. As one of Joshua Barney's sailors bluntly put it, " The militia ran like sheep chased by dogs."
Dolley was now packing state papers and wondering how she might save Gilbert Stuart's priceless full-length portrait of George Washington. To lessen the tension, she wrote yet another instalment:
"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...."
A pause to supervise the loading of a wagon, followed by one more instalment:
"I have had [a wagon] filled with plate and the 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 soldiers, events must determine."
Another pause, this time to supervise as servants wrenched Washington's portrait from the wall. She entrusted it to two gentlemen for conveyance to the safety of a distant farm. Then a brief message from the President; Dolley was to meet him at mutual friends' in George Town. It was time to conclude Lucy's letter:
"It is done... the precious portrait placed in the hands of the 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 to you, or where I shall be tomorrow, I cannot tell."
It would be another thirty-six hours before Dolley was reunited with her "dear Jemmy," and several days before she would see Washington again, to find the Mansion she had so lovingly decorated three years before was now a soot-blackened shell.