The Burning of Washington—one of the most noteworthy episodes of the War of 1812—took place on August 24, 1814. After capturing the capital city, the British famously burned many of its most important buildings, including the White House.
Hanging in the White House was a painting of George Washington, known as Gilbert Stuart’s Lansdowne Portrait. Today it is one of the most iconic representations of Washington.
Rescuing the painting was no simple feat. The eight-foot-tall portrait was bolted to the wall of the dining room, making it difficult to move or transport. According to Paul Jennings, a teenage footman enslaved by the Madisons, steward John Sioussat and gardener Thomas McGaw were instructed by Mrs. Madison to hack away at the portrait’s frame. Once the painting was free, it was turned over to two New Yorkers, Jacob Barker and Robert G.L. De Peyster, for safekeeping.
While preserving the portrait was important, Mrs. Madison felt it was equally critical that it not be allowed to be confiscated by the British. She instructed the men to destroy the painting before turning it over, admonishing them not to allow it “into the hands of the enemy, as their Capture would enable them to make a great flourish”1
After the American forces announced their retreat from their position at Bladensburg, Maryland, Charles Carroll rushed to the White House to hurry the first lady to safety.