- Historic Sites
Humiliation and Triumph
The year was 1814, and within three weeks our “young and not always wise” nation suffered acute shame and astonishing victory
August 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 5
At the President’s House a servant boy named Paul Jennings was busy getting dinner ready. Madison had indicated that most of the Cabinet and a few “military gentlemen” would be coming, so Jennings carefully set the table, brought up the ale, wine, and cider, and placed the bottles in coolers. He was just about finished when, around three o’clock, Madison’s freedman servant Jim Smith galloped up to the house, waving his hat and shouting, “Clear out, clear out! General Armstrong has ordered a retreat!”
Mrs. Madison had been waiting all day for some word from her husband. Twice, Washington’s Mayor James Blake turned up, urging her to leave, but she hung on, hoping for the best, spending much of her time at an upper window turning a spyglass in every direction. She saw little then, but Jim Smith’s spectacular arrival made everything all too clear. As if his excited cries weren’t enough, he brought a hastily pencilled note from Madison. It said the battle was lost … fly at once.
But above all, Dolley Madison was a woman of composure, and she wasn’t about to leave without attending to a few important details first. By now her sister and brother-in-law, ,Mr. and Mrs. Richard Cults, were on hand—also the New York banker Jacob Barker, Presidential aide Charles Carroll of Bellevue, and one or two other gallants—and she turned to them for help. Together they all went to work, trying to save what they could on the spur of the moment.
Somebody found a wagon, and they quickly loaded it with most of the silver, some papers, a few books, a small clock, the red velvet curtains from the drawing room. In minutes the load was on its way to the Bank of Maryland, safely beyond the city.
What took time was the full-length portrait of Washington, which was hanging on the west wall of the dining room. Attributed to Gilbert Stuart, it was the showpiece of the mansion. All agreed that it would be a crowning disgrace if it fell into British hands. Only the previous day the President had assured George Washington Custis that the painting would be taken care of in any emergency. Now the President’s wife considered it her special responsibility.
But nobody could get it down. The Madisons’ versatile French doorkeeper Jean Pierre Sioussa and the gardener Tom Magraw tugged and twisted, but it was screwed too tightly to the wall. Charles Carroll and Jacob Barker tried their hand but had no better luck.
Minutes ticked by, and Carroll grew impatient. Forget the picture, he scolded Mrs. Madison, she must leave right away. Otherwise she was bound to be trapped among the retreating troops already pouring by the house.
She wasn’t ready to give up yet. Magraw worked on, teetering at the top of a ladder, while Sioussa rushed off to get an axe. Finally they chopped the frame apart, took out the canvas, still on its stretcher, and laid it on the dining-room floor. By now Carroll was gone—off to rejoin the President—so Mrs. Madison turned to Barker and Robert G. L. de Peyster, another New Yorker standing by.
“Save that picture,” she said. “Save that picture if possible. If not possible, destroy it. Under no circumstances allow it to fall into the hands of the British.” At the same time she begged them to rescue the ornamental eagles in the drawing room and four remaining boxes of the President’s papers.
Now, at last, she felt free to go. Stuffing a few more pieces of silverware into her netted reticule, she hurried out the door and into a waiting carriage. Her personal maid Sukey jumped in beside her, and with coachman Joe Bolin at the reins, they rolled onto Pennsylvania Avenue and headed out of the city. About the same time, another carriage left with the Cuttses, and the President’s coachee brought up the rear. Madison always considered this a most unsatisfactory vehicle, but his butler John Freeman was only too glad to have it now. Piling in his family, he drove off with a feather bed lashed to the rear.
COPY RIGHT ©1972 BY WALTER LORD
While Dolley Madison galloped westward for safety, the President was caught in the maelstrom of defeat swirling back from Bladensburg. High and low—the statesmen, the generals, the soldiers and sailors, the “private gentlemen”— they all reeled back together. General William Henry Winder, military commander of the district, worked frantically to collect enough of his demoralized army to defend Washington. Finding no organized force waiting, or even in evidence, at the edge of the city, he gave the order to retreat again.
It was the third call for retreat in an hour, and the men were more discouraged than ever as they streamed down Maryland Avenue and spread out on the rough stubble of the Capitol grounds.
Secretary of State James Monroe and Secretary Armstrong, arriving separately, joined Winder; and while everyone watched and waited the three huddled over what to do next. Armstrong favored the idea of turning the Capitol into a citadel and holding out indefinitely. He liked those strong limestone walls; he didn’t mind the big windows or the fact that the place was really two separate buildings. At this stage in its construction, only the House and Senate wings were finished, connected by a vulnerable wooden passageway. To him it was safe enough, and he pointed out that the British didn’t have the artillery to conduct a serious siege.