Portrait of Dolley Madison – White House Collection
The portrait of Washington saved by Dolley Madison – White House Collection
The Madison White House
The White House has been an evolving structure since George Washington oversaw its design and construction. Early on, the house required considerable work to simply to make it habitable. But by the time James and Dolley Madison moved in (1809) the exterior had remained mostly constant and the White House had begun to emerge as a symbol of U.S. leadership. At the same time, the interior of the President’s House, as it was formally known, needed much attention. Working with architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Dolley Madison took responsibility for decorating and furnishing the White House with the enthusiasm and energy she applied to all of her endeavors. Changes occurred quickly. Fresh plaster and paint appeared in the rooms and new upholstered furniture and draperies were designed and made. The new furniture featured fashionable Grecian or neo-classical influences but, never forgetting what the President’s House represented, the pieces were made in America. Artwork depicted important Americans and American themes. Mrs. Madison actively participated in the decorating including making the choice of red silk-velvet curtains for the drawing room over Latrobe’s loud protests. The end result was glamorous and provided the Madisons with a home in which they could entertain graciously and effectively.
The enjoyment of the renovations was short-lived. British troops burned the White House on the night of August 24-25, 1814. Most historical accounts reveal that they took pleasure in setting fire to the structure that represented a former colony and upstart nation. Although Dolley Madison fled the White House only hours earlier, taking with her state papers, important pieces of silver and the ultimate symbol of the country, the full length portrait of George Washington, she had expected to serve dinner to 40 military and cabinet officers accompanied by her husband. Instead, the British troops consumed the meal. They looted the house and then set fire to it. The house that had been the site of so many happy occasions was in ruins. All that remained were the scorched sandstone walls. Dolley Madison was distraught when she first returned to view the destruction. Although the Madisons would never live in the White House again, they were committed to the reconstruction of the house and to the resurrection of it as a symbol of the republic.
The Tornado and the Burning of
Washington, August 25, 1814
On the morning of August 25, Washington was still burning. Throughout the morning and early afternoon, the British soldiers continued to set fires and destroy ammunition supplies and defenses around the city. As the soldiers spread fire and destruction throughout the city, the early afternoon sky began to darken and lightning and thunder signaled the approach of a thunderstorm. As the storm neared the city, the winds began to increase dramatically and then built into a “frightening roar.” A severe thunderstorm was bearing down on Washington, and with it was a tornado.
The tornado tore through the center of Washington and directly into the British occupation. Buildings were lifted off of their foundations and dashed to bits. Other buildings were blown down or lost their roofs. Feather beds were sucked out of homes and scattered about. Trees were uprooted, fences were blown down, and the heavy chain bridge across the Potomac River was buckled and rendered useless. A few British cannons were picked up by the winds and thrown through the air. The collapsing buildings and flying debris killed several British soldiers. Many of the soldiers did not have time to take cover from the winds and they laid face down in the streets. One account describes how a British officer on horseback did not dismount and the winds slammed both horse and rider violently to the ground.
The winds subsided quickly, but the rain fell in torrents for two hours. (There may have been a second thunderstorm that followed quickly after the first thunderstorm.) Fortunately, the heavy rain quenched most of the flames and prevented Washington from continuing to burn. After the storm, the British Army regrouped on Capitol Hill, still a bit shaken by the harsh weather. They decided to leave the city that evening. As the British troops were preparing to leave, a conversation was noted between the British Admiral and a Washington lady regarding the storm: The admiral exclaimed, “Great God, Madam! Is this the kind of storm to which you are accustomed in this infernal country?” The lady answered, “No, Sir, this is a special interposition of Providence to drive our enemies from our city.” The admiral replied, “Not so Madam. It is rather to aid your enemies in the destruction of your city.”
Hours later, the British forces left Washington and returned to their ships on the Patuxent River. The journey back was made difficult by the numerous downed trees that lay across the roads. The war ships that lay waiting for the British force had also encountered the fierce storm. Wind and waves had lashed at the ships and many had damaged riggings. Two vessels had broken free from their moorings and were blown ashore.
President Madison and other government officials returned to Washington and began the difficult process of setting up government in a city devastated by fire and wind. Never again would the British Army return to the city, and only rarely would Washington suffer damaging tornadoes.
The British army invaded Washington and set fire to the city on August 24, 1814. A day later, a line of severe thunderstorms spawned a tornado in Washington that killed several British soldiers and caused significant damage to the city. Heavy rain associated with the storm helped extinguish the fires that burned throughout Washington.
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