Madison Reconstruction: 1814-1817

"A view of the president's house in the city of Washington after the conflagration of the 24th of August 1814" (Library of Congress)



Burn marks revealed by paint stripping in 1992

Destruction in 1814

August of 1814 was one of the hottest in the memory of the approximately 8,000 residents of America's new capital. America had been at war with the British Empire since 1812, but the action to that point had consisted of a series of skirmishes along the Great Lakes region. Now, an invading British army of approximately 4,000 slowly made its way from the Chesapeake Bay.

Determined to carry on, President Madison sent invitations to a dinner at the presidential mansion for August 24th, which were either declined or ignored as the residents of Washington fled the city.

On the 24th, American defenders, with President James Madison in attendance, were quickly routed by the invaders in a battle at Bladensburg a few miles from the city. A messenger was dispatched to the White House to warn First Lady Dolly Madison of the impeding arrival of the British. She and her staff fled by carriage across the Potomac, taking with her the full-length portrait of George Washington, the frame of which was broken to remove it from the wall quickly.

Only one lone black servant remained in the presidential mansion to bank the fires.


Latrobe's original first floor plan of the White House of 1803

That evening, the vanguard of the British army reached Capitol Hill. Too small in number to effectively occupy the city, their intent was merely to cause havok. British General Robert Ross accompanied a truce party to negotiate with the remaining defenders but was fired upon, and his own horse was killed. All thoughts of accomodation were laid aside. All government buildings and military storehouses were burned.

George Gelig was part of the British force that attacked Washington. While his regiment was sacking the city, the remainder of the British force marched into the American capital as night approached. Gelig wrote:

"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 fireplace, filled with dishes and plates; knives, forks, and spoons were arranged for immediate use; in short, everything 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 peculiarly 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 aldermen 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 which had so liberally entertained them.

...Of the Senate house, the President's palace, the barracks, the dockyard, etc., nothing could be seen except heaps of smoking ruins."

The Monroe bergère chair (before reupholstering)


General Ross was killed a few days later in the battle for Baltimore, the battle that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the Star Spangled Banner.

The Reconstruction

Despite architect Benjamin Latrobe's suggestions for changes, President James Madison pledged to restore the White House just as it was. Original architect James Hoban returned to supervise the reconstruction, and few architectural changes were made.

When restoration was completed in 1817 under President James Monroe, it was furnished in fashionable style, some of which remains today in the Blue Room. He ordered a suite of French mahogany furniture through the American firm Russell and La Farge, with offices in Le Havre, France. However, the firm shipped gilded furniture instead, asserting that "mahogany is not generally admitted into the furniture of a Salon, even at private gentlemen's houses." Eight pieces of the original suite can be seen, including a bergère, an armchair with enclosed sides. A gilded bronze clock also remains.




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More Images

An artist's conception of Dolly Madison and steward Jean-Pierre Sioussat
packing up the red velvet curtains before the British attack in 1814 (White House Historical Association)

Illustration of the White House in 1822 (New York Public Library)

Painted depiction of the south face, circa 1820, before the portico was added;
by Baroness Hyde de Neuville (John Anderton collection)