Thursday, May 24, 2012

Dolly Madison - a woman to admire!

Dolly Madison is one of my favorite historical women. If you've read my book, Surrender the Night, you may remember her brief appearance as she defended the White House in Washington DC against an invasion of the British.  Can you imagine? Her husband is gone. The 100 men who were left to guard her have run off to fight. And she is alone with a group of servants making a stand against the the advancing British military.

But before we get to that. Who was Dolly Madison?  Born on May 20th 1768, Dolly grew up in a strict Quaker home, extremely devout and very religious. But it was her extreme social skills that won her a place among the elite in Washington. She was what we would call today a social butterfly, trained in all the social graces. She loved to entertain, always set the perfect table, knew the right thing to say, the right joke to tell at the right time. She as also an expert at decorating. All these combined to make her the perfect First Lady.  But what most people didn't realize was that she was also very brave.

While she waited for the British to descend upon Washington DC, unaware if her husband was even alive, and with the assistance of Jean P. Sioussa or "French John", her doorkeeper, she gathered as many of the irreplaceable items in the house she could. Things like papers, memoranda from the President's desk, silver, books, velvet curtains, even a small clock, stuffing as much as she could into a waiting carriage. Hanging on the dining room's west wall was a portrait of George Washington that Dolly had no intention of leaving for the British.  But the painting was encased in a heavy guilt frame and she couldn't free it. Finally it was French John who managed to free the painting in tact. When  Shipowner Jacob Barker and Robert Depeyster of New York stopped by to ask if they could help her, she handed the portrait over to them. Later that day, they deposited it for safekeeping with "a widow lady at a country house some distance from the road"

At 3:00 PM August 24th, 1814, Dolly sat down and wrote her sister: "Mr. Madison comes not! God protect him! Two messengers covered with dust come to bid me fly, but I wait for him. . . "

All day long she turned her spyglass in every direction "watching with unwearied anxiety, hoping to discover the approach of my dear husband and his friends, but alas, I can descry only groups of military wandering in all directions, as if there was a lack of arms or of spirit to fight for their own freedom"

Soon after, James Smith, a freed slave who had accompanied Mr. Madison to Bladensburg (where the fighting was), galloped up to the house, waving his hat and cried out "Clear out! Clear out! General Armstrong has ordered a retreat!" He also bore a note from the president, directing Dolly to flee at once. Mayhem ensued. Dolly ordered her carriage readied and "passing through the dining room, caught up what silver she could crowd into her old fashioned reticule and then jumped into her chariot with her servant girl Sukey and Daniel Carroll who took charge of them; Jo. Bolin drove the over to Georgetown Heights."

Dolly often entertained her husband and several of his staff and military men for an afternoon meal. Even today, she had set the dining room table complete with silver settings and china and laden with all manner of exquisite fare. Unfortunately, it was the British troops who ended up enjoying the meal.


  1. Thurs May 24th,
    "Morning, MaryLu."
    More history ... wow, I've learned something else new !!! Thanks for sharing about Dolly Madison, very interesting indeed. She kept her wits about her in the face of impending danger, and gathered together what she was able to, having it mostly delivered on ahead to safety ! Not only did she think clearly in advance, with good and thoughtful planning ... but, she was obedient -- leaving immediately when the word came from her husband to "clear out". Which, ultimately saved her very life !!!
    Well, I for one ... am impressed.
    Thanks again for sharing, MaryLu.
    Take care, and, God Bless,
    In Him, Brenda Hurley

  2. Wow MaryLu you brought that scene right to life-I could see all of it happening, She was an amazing woman, not like some of our first lady's in modern times...
    thanks for sharing.
    Paula O(

  3. I agree with Pol. Dolly seemed to have more strength and sense than some of our modern First Ladys. I didn't know much about her, and was curious to learn more. Great post. :D

  4. Hey Marylu!

    Wow, what a brave woman! I'd have to say, if I were in her position, I would spend the days in hiding, binging out on chocolate, listening to loud music, and trying not to think about reality...Well, who knows? Maybe I'd find a bit of bravery when I need it most!

    I definitely remember reading about her in your book! I love how you do that...take someone whose famous in history, and work them into your story! I'm no good at that, as I always feel there's no way any of that could have possibly happenend...when I write, I need imagination only! Even writing about certain events is hard for me! That's a definite skill!


  5. I loved that scene in Surrender the Night! I can see Dolly Madison staying behind until the last minute. Thanks for the history lesson, MaryLu, once again you've showed me something that I do not recall learning in school.

  6. Glad you enjoyed learning about her, Brenda! I love strong women from our past! So many went unnamed because people simply didn't record their stories.

    Thank you, Paula. Yes, she was, indeed, an amazing woman.. And I'll definitely agree with you on some of our more recent first ladies. :-)

    Thanks for dropping by, Eszter!

    Emily, you're sweet, but I actually found it easy to incorporate Dolly in Surrender the Night. Her story was so much more interesting than I could have made up. Truth is often that way. :-)

    You're welcome Debbie! I'm so glad these posts are fun and informative for everyone.

  7. Her story is so awesome! I know you did that series on lady pirates, but maybe you could do one sometime about brave "good" women in history. I definitely loved her part in your novel, and am so glad you shared more about her! :)