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Dolley Madison Saves George Washington’s Portrait During the War of 1812

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Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, 1797.

Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, 1797.

Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart

The War of 1812, also called the “Second War of Independence,” has long been resigned to the history books; however, an elegant remnant of that deadly conflict still survives in the White House, the 1797 portrait of President George Washington painted by famed artist Gilbert Stuart. This painting is one of the few remnants of the original White House, which was first occupied by President John Adams and his wife, Abigail Adams, in 1800.

The British destroyed the White House in 1814 as part of the War of 1812, but the portrait of George Washington was saved by Dolley Madison, the wife of President James Madison. This is the story of Dolley Madison’s bravery in the face of advancing troops and how she, along with her servants, some in bondage, saved the portrait of the American icon, George Washington, literally hours before the enemy soldiers arrived to capture her and destroy the White House.

The War of 1812

The War of 1812 was brought on by various causes: the British attempt to restrict U.S. trade, the Royal Navy’s impressment of American seamen, and the United States’ desire to acquire Canada. On June 18, 1812, President James Madison signed the declaration of war drawn up by Congress, which plunged the young nation into battle with Great Britain. To the British, the battle in America was merely a sideshow, for they were locked in a life-or-death struggle with France, led by the daring General Napoleon Bonaparte.

The fledgling United States was woefully unprepared for war, with fewer than 12,000 men in arms, a navy of under 20 ships, and little money in the treasury. The war had been going poorly for the Americans, who had utterly failed in their attempt to conquer Canada and had won few victories over the British. The situation of the Americans in the war would grow even direr with the defeat of the French by the British.

Map of the northern theater of the War of 1812.

Map of the northern theater of the War of 1812.

The British Threat Grows

In April 1814, French General Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated and sent into exile, thus ending the war between Great Britain and France. With France no longer a threat, the British now turned their full attention to their former colony in America. In early July of the same year, President Madison called an emergency cabinet meeting to discuss the war. With the fear of an invasion of Washington by the British, Madison proposed locating 2,000 or 3,000 armed men between the coast and capital, with an additional 10,000 or more militia on standby.

Though the taking of Washington had no practical military significance for the British, the British commander-in-chief in North America, Admiral Sir Alexander Cochran, had promised “a complete drubbing” of the former colonists. The taking of the capital city would be of more symbolic than military importance.

In late July and early August, the British sent more men up the Patuxent River, which placed many more British troops about 30 miles southeast of Washington. President Madison’s wife, Dolley, had real fears of a possible invasion of the city, as she exclaimed in a letter to her friend Hannah Gallatin, writing,

Such a place as this has become I cannot describe it—I wish (for my own part) we were in Phila. The people here do not deserve that I should prefer it—among other exclamations & threats they say if Mr. M. attempts to move from his House, in case of an attack, they will stop him & that he shall fall with it—I am not the least alarmed at these things, but entirely disgusted, & determined to stay with him.” In early August, she wrote of her worries to Hannah again, “We are still without an idea of going from hence.

Map of Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812.

Map of Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812.

The British March on Washington, D.C.

The much-feared British invasion began on the morning of August 19 as 4,000 British troops landed at Benedict, Maryland, the main port of the Patuxent River. Couriers raced to Washington with the news of the invasion and warnings of British intentions to invade the capital. The citizens of the city, around 8,000 in all, began to flee the city for the relative safety of the surrounding countryside. Thick crowds poured past the White House and the Capitol building, all intent on getting as far away from the city as possible and quickly. Their great worry was that the British would seize and perhaps burn the entire city.

Shortly before the British landing, the arrogant Admiral Cockburn sent word to Mrs. Madison that if he caught her at the president’s house, it would be “burned over your head.” Dolley wrote back, “I do not tremble at this, but feel affronted that the Admiral…should send me notes that he would make his bow at my drawing room soon.”

Though Dolley was inwardly fearful of the British, she put on a defiant face in public. After James left the Executive Mansion for the field to review the troops on August 23, she began preparing for a dinner party scheduled for the next day, at which she would host the usual mix of government and local families. Fear spread through the city as the National Intelligencer broke the rumor that thousands of additional British troops had landed in Maryland.

As the sun cleared the eastern horizon on the morning of August 24, Dolley was perched atop the president’s house with spyglass in hand, scanning the horizon for James. She was not sure what to do—abandon the residence or stay there in hopes of safety. Whatever the decision, she wanted to do it with James. The mayor of Washington, Dr. James Blake, twice came by the Executive Mansion pleading with her to leave the city. She waited for James through the long afternoon. Preparing for the worst, she began to gather precious items throughout the mansion to be saved from the advancing British.

The American troops were hopelessly outmatched by the British and did little to thwart their advance toward the city. As Dolley waited, at her side was “French John” Sioussat, a Frenchman who worked as the doorman at the mansion; the 15-year-old slave Paul Jennings, who was also James’s personal valet; and Sukey, Mrs. Madison’s personal slave. Mrs. Madison had instructed the rest of the staff to flee for safety.

Portrait of Dolley Madison by Bass Otis, circa 1817.

Portrait of Dolley Madison by Bass Otis, circa 1817.

Saving George Washington’s Portrait

Dolley was able to save some silver, cabinet papers, books, and a small clock from the Executive Mansion. One of the items she felt must be saved was the portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart. She realized that if the British captured this painting it would be a trophy of war and would be paraded through the streets of Britain with great fanfare. According to Dolley, “[I] directed my servants in what manner to remove it from the wall, remaining with them until it was done.” To get the portrait off the wall, French John was perched atop a ladder while Paul Jennings held it and the gardener Tom Magraw assisted. The Frenchman broke the frame and passed down the canvas still stuck in the stretcher.

Other accounts suggest that French John, to save time, took a knife and cut the canvas out of the frame, but an examination of the painting in 1978 showed no sign of the canvas being cut. Two men from New York, financier Jacob Barker and merchant Robert G. L. De Peyster, had stopped by the Executive Mansion to see if they could be of service. Mrs. Madison gave Barker and De Peyster the portrait, silver, and state papers, and asked them to take the valuables away for safe keeping. On their escape route through Montgomery County, Maryland, the two men stashed the Washington portrait in a barn for safekeeping and as per Mrs. Madison’s instructions, they secured the cabinet papers and silver at the Bank of Maryland in Baltimore.

Over fifty years after the event, Mr. Madison’s enslaved personal valet, Paul Jennings, who had bought his freedom by then, published a memoir titled A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison. In the memoir, he tells a slightly different version of the story of saving of the painting:

“It has often been stated in print, that when Mrs. Madison escaped from the White House, she cut out from the frame the large portrait of Washington…and carried it off. This is totally false. She had no time for doing it. It would have required a ladder to get it down. All she carried off was the silver in her reticule… John Suse and Magraw, the President’s gardener, took it down and sent it off on a wagon, with some large silver urns and such other valuables as could be hastily got hold of.” Like many events in history, accounts vary of the exact details.

Dolley Flees the Executive Mansion

A rider was sent from the routed American forces to Washington, shouting, “Clear out, clear out! General Armstrong has ordered a retreat.” Dolley now had to leave the Executive Mansion or be captured or killed by the British. She gathered as much as she could carry. Dolley, Anna, Richard Cutts, and Sukey got into the carriage of their friend Charles Carroll. By early evening, Dolley and her party had made it into Virginia, where they took refuge with her friend Matilda Lee Love at Rokeby Plantation. Not long after Dolley had left the house, James and his party arrived. James sent word to Dolley for them to rendezvous the next day at Will Inn in Virginia, an ale house they were both familiar with.

The British Destroy Washington, D.C.

At sundown on the 24th, the British forces arrived in the capital city led by Vice Admiral Sir George Cockburn and Major General Robert Ross. The impending darkness didn’t hamper the British as they went to work first on the deserted Capitol building, piling up the furniture in the House and Senate chambers and setting them ablaze. The president’s house was their next target. After the soldiers enjoyed the meal that was sitting on the table for Dolley’s planned dinner party, they began to set the Executive Mansion ablaze. Before they were finished, the British had burned, or at least made an attempt to destroy, many of the public buildings within the city. They left private houses out of their vengeance, burning only the houses from which snipers fired upon them.

The next day the British continued their rampage throughout the city, but two events cut their mayhem short. The first was at the arsenal on Greenleaf’s Point, about two miles from the Capitol, where the British accidentally ignited 130 barrels of gunpowder. The explosion was horrendous, leaving a large crater in the earth and killing some 30 of their troops and wounding many more. The carnage shook up even the most battle-hardened soldiers.

Washington Is Saved by a Thunderstorm

The second event was just good luck on the part of the Americans, or maybe it was the providence of God as some believed. In the early afternoon, a thunderstorm swept throughout the city; the gale force winds and rains extinguished many of the fires. Witnesses described it as “tremendous,” with the sky becoming black with heavy clouds of rain, punctuated by brilliant displays of lightning and then deafening claps of thunder. After two hours of the raging storm, the British gave up their campaign against the city. The British saw the violent display from the heavens as a manifestation of God’s wrath; Admiral Cockburn ordered his troops out of the city that night.

The Madisons Return to Washington

A few days after the British departed the city, James and Dolley returned to see what was left of the city they had worked so hard to turn into the capital of the new nation. Their house was in ruins, unlivable, with the walls cracked and darkened by the fires. The couple’s emotions ran the gamut from anger and frustration for what the enemy had done to their home and city to deep remorse for what this might foretell of the fate of the nation. Dolley’s friend Margaret Smith saw her shortly after the fire, describing Dolley as “much depressed, she could scarcely speak without tears.”

There was tremendous fallout from the sacking of the nation’s capital. Firstly, General Armstrong became a scapegoat for his lack of preparation to defend the city. He was out of a job. President Madison took over the position of secretary of war temporarily. More importantly, the destruction of the city rallied the nation behind the Madisons and the war effort in general. The national newsweekly, the Nile’s Register, proclaimed: “The Spirit of the nation is roused. If the barbarian warfare of an inflated enemy would not have roused it, our liberties had perished forever.” Militarily, the burning of the capital city was of little consequence, but it won the battle for the American public’s support for the war; many of the harshest critics of the war fell silent.

The President’s House after the British attack on Washington, D.C.

The President’s House after the British attack on Washington, D.C.

End of the War of 1812

With their home destroyed, Dolley and James moved into the impressive Octagon House, which had been offered to them by a wealthy Federalist businessman. After about a year they moved again into the Seven Buildings development at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 19th Street. Dolley furnished the home nicely with used French furniture. It was in this home that they stayed until the end of James’s term as president in the spring of 1817.

In February 1815, Dolley hosted a reception to celebrate the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, which officially ended the War of 1812. Both James and Dolley were in the Octagon House when the news that the Treaty of Ghent had been signed and the war was over. That evening Dolley threw open the doors of their home and in poured congressmen, senators, and other leading citizens. Even the servants got to join in the celebration. Dolley’s cousin, Sally Coles, rushed to the top of the basement stairs shouting “Peace, peace!” and the butler was ordered to serve wine freely in the servant’s hall. According to Paul Jennings, “French John” Sioussat was “drunk for two days,” and “such another joyful time was never seen in Washington.” Though the war gained the United States no new land, nor did it resolve the ongoing problems with Great Britain, it did foster within the citizens of America a sense of pride that they had gone to war with the mightiest nation on earth and had survived, even prospered.

Before they left Washington for retirement, Dolley campaigned tirelessly to keep the capital of the nation in Washington, D.C. Cities, such as Philadelphia, had lobbied Congress to move the seat of government to their city. Dolley and James both knew that if the capitol of the nation was moved from Washington, D.C., this would signify to Great Britain and the rest of the world a semblance of a defeat. Even with the Madisons’ best efforts to persuade members of Congress to keep the capital in Washington, the vote in the House of Representatives was close, but Washington, D.C., remained the seat of government for the United States.

Before the Madisons left Washington, they hosted several dinner parties and receptions. As a result of the war, James’s political capital had reached its zenith, as had Dolley’s. The bravery she had shown in the face of the advancing enemy during the sacking of Washington solidified her place in the hearts of the American public. Dolley’s lifelong friend Eliza Collins Lee commented on her friend, expressing the sentiments of many who admired the First Lady: “On this day eight years ago I wrote…to congratulate you on the joyful event that placed you in the highest station our country can bestow…How much greater cause have I to congratulate you, at this period for having filled it as to render yourself more enviable this day, than your successor, as it is more difficult to deserve the gratitude and thanks of the community than their congratulations—You have deservedly received it all.”

George Washington’s Portrait Returned to the White House

It was early 1815 before the Senate approved the plan and the funding necessary to begin rebuilding the capital city’s public buildings. It would take several years before the damage brought by the British could be repaired. It took the White House’s original designer, James Hoban, and his team three years to restore and re-whiten the walls and completely refurbish the interior. The portrait of President Washington that Dolley had saved was restored to its rightful place in the East Room of the White House in 1817. The portrait still graces the wall of the East Room of the White House to this day.

Portrait of President George Washington in the East Room of the White House.

Portrait of President George Washington in the East Room of the White House.

References

Allgor, Catherine. A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation. New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2006.

Chadwick, Bruce. James & Dolley Madison: America’s First Power Couple. New York: Prometheus Books, 2014.

Snow, Peter. When Britain Burned the White House: The 1814 Invasion of Washington. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013.

Taylor, Elizabeth Dowling. A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013.

West, Doug. America’s Second War of Independence: A Short History of the War of 1812. Missouri: C&D Publications, 2018.

West, Doug. Dolley Madison: First Lady of the United States: A Short Biography. Missouri: C&D Publications, 2022.

© 2022 Doug West