July/August 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 5
Amid the thunder of British cannon and a Washington mob’s cries of “Hang Madison!,” Dolley Madison scurried around the White House collecting documents and valuables to save from the advancing British army. Across the Atlantic in the Flemish town of Ghent, British and American diplomats were negotiating an end to the war, but their efforts were of no help to America’s capital city on August 24. The President’s wife managed to save an embossed copy of the Declaration of Independence and a painting of George Washington attributed to Gilbert Stuart, but the British were satisfied with what she left behind: a lavish banquet that had been prepared for President Madison earlier in the day, and an abandoned city.
As the American Army all but disintegrated in retreat from the Battle of Bladensburg, an advance force of 1,460 British troops marched into Washington, satisfied their hunger at Madison’s table, and then burned his mansion to the ground in retaliation for the American burning of York (Toronto) a year earlier. Under strict orders not to damage private property, the British torched only U.S. government buildings and even allowed private citizens to talk them out of burning the bank, the post office, and the patent office. The British abandoned Washington to the looters the next day, leaving the machinery of American government in ruins.