On this day in 1814, first lady Dolley Madison saves a portrait of George Washington from being looted and destroyed by British troops during the war of 1812.
According to the White House Historical Society and Dolley’s personal letters, President James Madison left the White House on August 22 to meet with his generals on the battlefield at Bladensburg, as British troops threatened to enter the capital. Before leaving, he asked his wife Dolley if she had the “courage or firmness” to wait for his intended return the next day. He requested she gather important state papers and be prepared to abandon the White House at any moment.
The following day, Dolley and a few servants scanned the horizon with spyglasses waiting for either Madison or the British army to show up. As British troops gathered in the distance, Dolley decided to abandon the couple’s personal belongings and save the full-length portrait of former president and national icon George Washington from desecration by vengeful British soldiers, many of whom would have rejoiced in humiliating England’s former colonists.
On August 24, 1814, after defeating the Americans at the Battle of Bladensburg, British forces led by Major General Robert Ross burned down buildings including the White House, known then as the Presidential Mansion, and the Capitol, as well as other facilities of the U.S. government. The attack was in part a retaliation for the recent American destruction of Port Dover in Upper Canada.
Throughout the history of the United States, the United Kingdom is the only country to have ever captured Washington, D.C.; the Burning of Washington also marks the only time since the American Revolutionary War that a foreign power has captured and occupied the United States capital. President James Madison, his retinue, military officials, and his government fled the city in the wake of the British advance, and eventually found refuge for the night in Brookeville, a small town in Montgomery County, Maryland known today as the “United States Capital for a Day.”
Less than a day after the attack began, a sudden, very heavy thunderstorm, possibly a hurricane, put out the fires. It also spun off a tornado that passed through the center of the capital, setting down on Constitution Avenue and lifting two cannon before dropping them several yards away, killing British troops and American civilians alike. Following the storm, the British returned to their ships, many of which were badly damaged. The occupation of Washington lasted only 26 hours. After the “Storm that saved Washington,” as it soon came to be called, the Americans returned to the city, with the namesake portrait intact.