Exactly two hundred years ago today, First Lady Dolly Madison listened to distant cannon as the British battled American forces near Washington, D.C. Her husband, President James Madison, had ridden off to meet with the troop commander, leaving her behind to oversee the evacuation of the White House if the battle appeared lost. Between watching the horizon through her spy-glass and directing staff to pack White House treasures (including Gilbert Stuart’s famous portrait of George Washington), Dolly still found time to pen a letter to her sister. Or did she?
Experts do not question that the First Lady wrote the letter, but some wonder WHEN she wrote it, suggesting she may have written the account some 20 years later to substantiate her legendary rescue of White House artifacts before the British burned the city. She was certainly on hand when they evacuated, but whether she took time to record history while it happened is subject to debate.
“Three o’clock. — Will you believe it, my sister? we have had a battle, or skirmish, near Bladensburg, and here I am still, within sound of the cannon! Mr. Madison comes not. May God protect us! Two messengers, covered with dust, come to bid me fly; but here I mean to wait for him… At this late hour a wagon has been procured, and I have had it 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 soldiery, events must determine. Our kind friend, Mr. Carroll, has come to hasten my departure, and in a very bad humor with me, because I insist on waiting until the large picture of General 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 canvas 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 to you, or where I shall be to-morrow, I cannot tell!”
You can read the entire letter here.
I have always had a soft spot for Dolly since I played her in a 5th grade school recital. The only photo we have of my stage debut is of me standing in front of the living room curtains, sniffing away tears because my parents were running late in driving me to the school.
While my mother’s shawl hid my shoulders, I will reveal that my turquoise colonial gown had a more modern, bare-armed style because my seamstress was my 13-year-old sister, who had not yet mastered the art of setting sleeves.
I guess that made me even more like the original Dolly, a fashion trendsetter.