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First Lady Dolley Madison was pacing back and forth in her drawing room. It was August 24, 1814 and the War of 1812 had already outlived its name by more than two years. Dolley was waiting for news about the 4000 British soldiers had gathered in Maryland, not far from the new American capital of Washington City.
Dolley’s husband, President James Madison, had gone to the front lines to assess the threat level. Dolley stopped to look out the window and watched those who had already taken to the dusty roads with their belongings leave the city. She then went up to the roof to look through her spyglass to see if she could spot James or the British. So far there had been no sign of either.
Dolley knew that the British officers had a personal interest in destroying the capital. Many of them still felt the sting of losing to the colonies 20+ years ago. They also wanted revenge for the American burning of the Parliament building in Ontario, Canada the year before. Their goal was not just to defeat, but to humiliate the United States.
Dolley thought about how, before James left, he asked her if she had “the courage and firmness” to remain at the White House. Dolley told him she did. Although he initially wasn’t overly concerned, once he saw the massive British presence, James sent Dolley a message to be ready to evacuate at “a moment’s notice.” Dolley started packing – not her own belongings, but instead the important government papers papers that would be disastrous to land in enemy hands. She filled as many trunks as could fit in her carriage with documents.
As Dolley walked through the White House, she peeked into the dining room to see how the preparations were going for the dinner party Dolley and James planned to host that evening for a collection of government officials and prominent citizens. James had asked Dolley not to cancel it until it was absolutely necessary. The current war had divided Americans, leaving many angry with James. For years, James had relied on Dolley to use her talent for entertaining and conversation to foster connections between people. She created social settings where political discussions could be had amicably and compromises reached.
As the President’s wife, Dolley had created a role for herself. She had hosted the first Inaugural Ball ever held in Washington City as her first step towards cultivating the “First Lady” role as a symbol of patriotism and unity. Dolley’s dinner parties were famous for extravagant ice cream desserts. Ice cream was a delicacy because it was so difficult to make and keep frozen and it made her guests feel special. When James was re-elected and she hosted her Second Ball, she made sure ice cream was on the menu.
Dolley looked at the beautifully set table and wondered if they would be able to enjoy their meal that evening. Washington City’s mayor had already stopped by twice to beg her to leave the city. She had refused, telling him that she wouldn’t leave without James or a message from him telling her to go. Around 3:00pm, that message came in the form of a handwritten note from James delivered by one of his men telling her that the British had attacked and were heading toward the city.
Time now was of the essence, but Dolley refused to leave until she could ensure the safety of the portrait of George Washington hanging in the State Dining Room. Dolley feared the damage to American morale if the British were able to claim General Washington’s portrait as a war prize. Dolley asked the few remaining servants to unscrew the bolts that attached the portrait to the wall, but it proved too difficult to do in a hurry. Dolley then told them to break the frame and just take the canvas to safety.
Dolley then got in her waiting carriage and left her home. She was just in time, as the British soldiers arrived not long afterwards. They sat down in the Dining Room to enjoy the meal that Dolley had planned for that evening’s dinner party. When they were done, they burned the White House to the ground. When Dolley reunited with James, they set up a temporary “White House” in the Octagon House. Dolley began lobbying to rebuild and keep the capital in Washington City.