The War of 1812

The War of 1812

Editor's Note
by Mary Brigid Barrett

In the days following 9/11, broadcast journalists and pundits repeatedly stated that the only other time the United States had been attacked within its borders was at Pearl Harbor during WWII. I remember thinking, You’re wrong, the British invaded and burned Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812. What I did not know, until I began to do research for Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out, was that the burning and severe destruction of the White House and the Capitol buildings in Washington, D.C.—the two largest and most notable buildings in America at that time—was as devastating an experience for American citizens then as the catastrophe at Ground Zero has been for us nearly 200 years later. Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out was created in a post-9/11 world, and a number of the initial contributors to the book were drawn to the War of 1812—an often-ignored era of American history. Because the popular media had failed to connect the events of 9/11 to the burning of our White House and Capitol, I found this preoccupation fascinating.  

We were at first concerned with the plethora of pieces about the War of 1812, but, serendipitously, on a research trip to D.C., I found a copy of A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison written by Paul Jennings, a slave of James and Dolley Madison, at the Library of Congress.  Jennings’ journal disputes the famous Dolley Madison legend; the image we all grew up with of Dolley fleeing the burning White House, the iconic Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington in her arms. The solution was then clear. If we included an excerpt from Jennings’ journal, the folio of the War of 1812 pieces would then pose a unique teaching opportunity. Historians often find contradictory primary and secondary source materials and must address these contradictions head on. Reading, digesting, and discussing the materials in “The War of 1812” section of Our White House allows young people to experience an historian’s journey seeking objective fact and truth. We hope that parents and teachers use the 1812 section to teach young people critical thinking skills, asking, Is history only the story of the aggressors, the winners, the dominant? Why do we often prefer to believe the “legend” rather than the actual factual account of an historic event? Why are some voices silenced through the ages? Do you need to seek multiple perspectives in seeking the truth? And on the deepest level, what is “the truth”?

In this section of the website we will address the whole folio of words and art related to the War of 1812 as a unit, expanding the content and offering primary source materials, discussion questions, and activity suggestions for parents and teachers. We have just begun our work on these pages and will be continually adding to this section, so please check back to see how it progresses.

Primary Sources: The Burning of the White House, the War of 1812


Dolley Madison’s Letter to Her Sister*

Tuesday Augt. 23d. 1814

Dear Sister,

My husband left me yesterday morng. to join Gen. Winder. He enquired anxiously whether I had courage, or firmness to remain in the President's house until his return, on the morrow, or succeeding day, and on my assurance that I had no fear but for him and the success of our army, he left me, beseeching me to take care of myself, and of the cabinet papers, public and private. I have since recd. two despatches from him, written with a pencil; the last is alarming, because he desires I should be ready at a moment's warning to enter my carriage and leave the city; that the enemy seemed stronger than had been reported, and that it might happen that they would reach the city, with intention to destroy it. . . . I am accordingly ready; I have pressed as many cabinet papers into trunks as to fill one carriage; our private property must be sacrificed, as it is impossible to procure wagons for its transportation. I am determined not to go myself until I see Mr. Madison safe, and he can accompany me, as I hear of much hostility towards him . . . disaffection stalks around us . . . My friends and acquaintances are all gone; Even Col. C with his hundred men, who were stationed as a guard in the enclosure. . . . French John (a faithful domestic,) with his usual activity and resolution, offers to spike the cannon at the gate, and to lay a train of powder which would blow up the British, should they enter the house. To the last proposition I positively object, without being able, however, to make him understand why all advantages in war may not be taken.

Wednesday morng., twelve o'clock. Since sunrise I have been turning my spyglass in every direction and watching with unwearied anxiety, hoping to discern 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 firesides!

Three O'clock Will you believe it, my Sister? We have had a battle or skirmish near Bladensburg, and I am still here within sound of the cannon! Mr. Madison comes not; may God protect him! Two messengers covered with dust, come to bid me fly; but I wait for him . . . At this late hour a wagon has been procured, I have had it filled with the plate and most valuable portable articles belonging to the house; whether it will reach its destination, the Bank of Maryland, or fall into the hands of British soldiery, events must determine.

Our kind friend, Mr. Carroll, has come to hasten my departure, and is in a very bad humor with me because I insist on waiting until the large picture of Gen. Washington is secured, and it requires to be unscrewed from the wall. This process was found too tedious for these perilous moments; I have ordered the frame to be broken, and the canvass taken out it is done, and the precious portrait placed in the hands of two gentlemen of New York, for safe keeping. And now, dear sister, I must leave this house, or the retreating army will make me a prisoner in it, by filling up the road I am directed to take. When I shall again write you, or where I shall be tomorrow, I cannot tell!!

*The letter above, from Dolley Madison to her sister, is unsigned.

The White House Historical Association presents the following on its highly informative website,

“The extract of the letter Dolley Madison wrote to her sister describing the events leading up to her White House escape is dated August 23 and 24, 1814. Because the richly detailed letter is unique as a record of these critical events and was written by one of the few White House witnesses present, historians have used the contents of the letter over and over again in their histories of the period and in biographies of Dolley Madison. Recent research by historian David Mattern, who is also an editor of James Madison’s papers, revealed some interesting findings. He explains that the original letter does not exist. What historians use is a transcript or extracts of the letter that Dolley Madison copied from a book, The National Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans, published in Philadelphia, 1837-1846. Twenty years after the White House burned, Mrs. Madison was asked to select some letters from the past to be published in this book. The letter to her sister was the only one selected to be printed. At some point in time, Mrs. Madison then copied it out of the book in her own handwriting. This transcription is the only record of the letter in her handwriting.

“Although the letter begins with, ‘Dear Sister,’ there is no indication which sister she meant: Lucy Todd Washington or Anna Cutts. It was customary to make a handwritten copy of a letter for the record before you mailed the original; in her haste, Mrs. Madison probably did not. Therefore, she would have had to retrieve the letter from her sister in order to send it to the publisher. Because sister Anna lived near Dolley, and it would be convenient to retrieve the letter, it is thought that Anna was the recipient. (It was not at all unusual to keep letters for long periods).

“While Mrs. Madison regularly corresponded with friends and family, this particular letter differs in its tone and formality. She provides details that do not seem to be necessary to add, if she were simply writing to her sister. Did she re-write it later, for a broader audience? What is not in question, however, is the accuracy of the information. Another Madison letter written to Mary Latrobe, December 3, 1814, does not contradict the details.”

For a fascinating article concerning the Dolley Madison letter read David B. Mattern’s “The Famous Letter: Dolley Madison Has the Last Word” in the journal White House History, Fall 1998.

For more information concerning Dolly Madison, as well as the burning of the White House, go to:

For classroom lesson plans related to Dolly Madison, as well as the burning of the White House, go to:

Captain Harry Smith, Junior Adjunct to Major General Robert Ross:

“We entered Washington for the barbarous purpose of destroying the city. Admiral Cockburn would have burnt the whole, but Ross would only consent to the burning of the public buildings. I had no objection to burn arsenals, dockyards, frigates building, stores, barracks, etc., but well do I recollect that, fresh from the Duke’s [Wellington] humane warfare in the South of France, we horrified at the order to burn the elegant Houses of Parliament [the Capitol] and the President’s house. In the latter, however, we found a supper all ready, which was sufficiently cooked without more fire, and which many of us speedily consumed, unaided by the fiery elements and drank some very good wine also. I shall never forget the destructive majesty of the flames as the torches were applied to the beds, curtains, etc. Our sailors were artists at the work. Thus was fought the Battle of Bladensburg, which wrested from the Americans their capital Washington, and burnt its Capitol and other buildings with the ruthless firebrand of Red Savages of the woods. Neither our Admirals or the Government at home were satisfied that we had not allowed the work of destruction to progress, as it was considered the total annihilation of Washington would have removed the seat of government to New York, and the Northern and Federal States were adverse to the war with England.”

Moore, G.C. Smith, ed. The Autobiography of Sir Harry Smith. London: Wakelyn, 1901.

To read more about Captain Harry Smith and his exploits, go to:

Lieutenant James Scott, Adjutant to Admiral Sir George Cockburn:

“Whether the sight of his enemies cooled his [President Madison’s] courage or not, I cannot say, but, according to my informer, no sooner was the glittering of our arms discernable, than he began to discover that his presence was more wanted in the senate than with the army; and having ridden through the ranks, and exhorted every man to do his duty, he hurried back to his own house, that he might prepare a feast for the entertainment of his officers, when they should return victorious. For the truth of these details, I will not be answerable; but this much I know, that the feast was actually prepared, though, instead of being devoured by American officers, it went to satisfy the less delicate appetites of a party of English soldiers. When the detachment, sent out to destroy Mr. Madison’s house, entered his dining parlor, they found a dinner table spread, and covers laid for forty guests. Several kinds of wine, in handsome cut-glass decanters were cooling on the sideboard; plate-holders stood by the fire-place, filled with dishes and plates; knives, forks, and spoons, were arranged for immediate use; in short, every thing was ready for the entertainment of a ceremonious party. Such were the arrangements in the dining-room, whilst in the kitchen were others answerable to them in every respect. Spits, loaded with joints of various sorts, turned before the fire; pots, saucepans, and other culinary utensils, stood upon the grate; and all the other requisites for an elegant and substantial repast, were exactly in a state which indicated that they had been lately and precipitately abandoned.

“You will readily imagine that these preparations were beheld, by a party of hungry soldiers, with no indifferent eye. An elegant dinner, even though considerably overdressed, was a luxury to which few of them, at least for some time back, had been accustomed; and which, after the dangers and fatigues of the day, appeared particularly inviting. They sat down to it, therefore, not indeed in the most orderly manner, but with countenances which would not have disgraced a party of alderman at a civic feast; and having satisfied their appetites with fewer complaints than would have probably escaped their rival gourmands, and partaken pretty freely of the wines, they finished by setting fire to the house that had so liberally entertained them.

“[The Capitol] stood, where its ruins now stand, upon a mound called Capitol hill, and near a trifling stream named the Tiber; from which circumstances these modern republicans are led to flatter themselves, that the days are coming when it will rival in the poser and grandeur the senate-house of ancient Rome herself . . . Perhaps it could not be said to belong to any decided style of architecture; but its tout-ensemble was light, airy and elegant . . . The President’s house, on the other hand, though likewise a public building, was remarkable for nothing, except in its structure. It was small, incommodious and plain; in no respect likely to excite jealousy of a people peculiarly averse to all pomp or parade, even in their chief-magistrate.”

Scott, James. Recollections of a Navel Life. London: Richard Bentley, 1834.

Lieutenant Beauchamp Colclough Urquhart:

“When our people entered Washington, the first house of consequence which they went into was that belonging to Madison, the table of which they found laid out with a good repast, and decorated with several decanters containing wine, etc. It is said that one of the soldiers tied up the plates and knives and forks in the table cloth, and brought them away. The house was immediately set fire to. Before the door there was coach, into which some of the movables had been placed by the servants, but which had been abandoned. The soldiers amused themselves, by knocking this coach to pieces with the but-ends of their muskets. If there had been any cavalry on the spot, Madison might have been taken prisoner, for the officers of the 85th distinctly saw him mount his horse when the militia took to their heels. He was accompanied by two others. Mr. Urquhart has got Madison’s fine dress sword, which he took out of the house.”

Urquhart, Lieutenant Beauchamp Colclough. London Courier, October 13, 1814.

 Margaret Bayard Smith:

“We drank tea at Mrs. Thornton’s, who described to us the manner in which they conflagrated the President’s H. and other buildings,—50 men, sailors and marines, were marched by an officer, silently thro’ the avenue, each carrying a long pole to which was fixed a ball about the circumference of a large plate,—when arrived at the building, each man was station’d at a window, with his pole and a machine of wild-fire thrown in, so that an instantaneous conflagration took place and the whole building was wrapt in flames and smoke. The spectators stood in awful silence, the city was light and heavens redden’d with the blaze!”

The above four first person accounts can be found in the Journal of the White House Historical Association, Fall 1998

Book and Website Sources for the War of 1812

Primary source resources online:

Classroom Lesson Plans:


Books for Young People:

Childress, Diana. The War of 1812. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Co., 2004.

Greenblatt, Miriam. War of 1812. New York: Facts on File, 2003.

Haberle, Susan E. The War of 1812. Mankato, MN: Bridgestone Books, 2003.

Marquette, Scott. War of 1812. Vero Beach, FL: Rourke Pub., 2003.

Nardo, Don. The War of 1812. San Diego: Lucent Books, 2000.

Stefoff, Rebecca. The War of 1812. New York: Benchmark Books, 2001.

Warrick, Karen Clemens. The War of 1812: We Have Met the Enemy and They Are Ours. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 2002.

Coming Soon! More reading suggestions for young people!


General Bibliography:

Benn, Carl. The War of 1812. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Borneman, Walter R. 1812: The War that Forged a Nation. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.

Heidler, David S., and Jeanne T. Heidler, eds. Encyclopedia of the War of 1812. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1997.

Hickey, Donald R. Don’t Give Up the Ship!: Myths of the War of 1812. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006.

Hickey, Donald R. The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.

Langguth, A. J. Union 1812: The Americans Who Fought the Second War of Independence. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.

Remini, Robert V. The Battle of New Orleans. New York: Viking, 1999.

Stagg, John C. A. Mr. Madison's War: Politics, Diplomacy, and Warfare in the Early American Republic, 1783-1830. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983.


And read President Theodore Roosevelt’s book on the War of 1812 at:


For websites with information about the War of 1812 go to: