August 24, 1814, the prominent buildings of the still fairly new country was set ablaze by the British.
It had been a miserable, hot August day, and President James Madison was out with the troops observing the nearby battle of Bladensburg (MD). Mrs. Madison, while overseeing the preparations of the afternoon’s meal, kept an eager eye for her husband’s return.
The First Lady, maintaining a calm mind, secured state papers – The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution – as well as a few precious items from the household. In her reticule she packed a good deal of silverware.
As she prepared to exit the mansion, she spied the Gilbert Stuart full–length portrait of George Washington.
Legend stages Mrs. Madison pausing before fleeing the mansion with the British nearing the mansion, and spying the Washington portrait. “The British could not conquer him in life, and they shan’t conquer him in death.” The portrait was to be removed and taken to safety. The frame, bolted to the wall, was broken, and the canvas removed from the stretcher, rolled up, and securely packed into Mrs. Madison’s carriage.
From the various accounts I’ve read over the years, it seems plausible, from biographers, but mostly from the letter Mrs. Madison wrote her sister throughout the day, that The First Lady did order the portrait to be secured, and the frame destroyed; however, it seems the canvas was hidden in a barn outside the city.
The British, after setting fire to the capital building, marched to the President’s House. Soldiers dined from the Madison’s table, supposedly exchanged underwear for President Madison’s clean drawers, and moved furniture to a heap before skilled javilon throwers sent blazing poles through the windows.
Video of White House set afire: 6:30 (I doubt Mrs. Madison was that decked out for an ordinary day, but who knows?)
The mansion was probably spared complete destruction had it not been for the fortunate arrival of a thunderstorm with torrential rain, and hurricane force winds.
Regardless the facts surrounding the destruction of The President’s Mansion, or Executive Mansion, not to be officially renamed The White House until the Twentieth Century, an iconic relic of our nation’s early history was preserved.
For more reading… British burn The President’s House