This week marked the 200th anniversary of the burning of Washington during the War of 1812, one of the most well-known stories from the conflict sometimes called America’s forgotten war.
Like the war itself, Fairfax County’s role in this episode of American history often remains obscured.
Images of the White House in flames star in our national memory of the the burning of Washington, which took place on Aug. 24, 1814. We spare a thought to First Lady Dolley Madison, courageously saving Gilbert Stuart’s famous painting of George Washington from the fire.
Then the film reel of the War of 1812 in our mind’s eye skips forward to September 13, the night that inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner” in Baltimore.
But the story of Aug. 24, 1814, goes beyond the fire and into the lore of Fairfax County.
The day began with British forces overpowering the American militia at Battle of Bladensburg in Maryland. The United States had declared war on Britain in June 1812, citing as one of the main causes the British Navy “impressing” American sailors, forcing them into service after accusing them of being British deserters. But the U.S. military often proved ill-matched to the strength of the British Empire, as seen at the Battle of Bladensburg.
British troops advanced into the young nation’s capital, then a city of less than 10,000 people.
With bonfires raging, President James Madison and First Lady Dolley Madison fled separately into Virginia.
The fourth president, fresh from observing the Battle of Bladensburg, went through the city and over the Potomac River. He reputedly stayed the night at the Salona estate in the area now called McLean. The house still stands on more than 50 acres of land along Dolley Madison Boulevard.
The First Lady was at the White House when she received a message to retreat from Washington, said Carole Herrick, a historian from McLean. Herrick, a member of the Fairfax County History Commission, has written a book on this subject: “August 24, 1814: Washington in Flames.”
“Imagine the terror that the whole city went through with the British coming in,” Herrick said. “Well, Dolley Madison is the wife of the President of the United States, so she is undergoing even more terror.”
After ordering workers to free the painting of George Washington from its frame and watching the canvas depart for Montgomery County, she left the city over the Chain Bridge and stayed the night at the Rokeby farmhouse, less than two miles from her husband at Salona.
The next day, Dolley Madison headed to Salona, hoping to find her husband, but the president had already left. They met later that day at Wiley’s Tavern, a third of a mile east of Colvin Run Mill, Herrick said.
Dolley Madison stayed the night at the tavern, but James Madison pushed onward, back toward the Potomac River. He stayed the night in a small shelter in the area of today’s Riverbend Park, Herrick said.
That ended James Madison’s flight into Fairfax. He spent his third night out of Washington, Aug. 26, in Brookeville, Md., before returning to the city.
After remaining at Wiley’s Tavern on the night of Aug. 25, Dolley Madison spent the next two nights in Falls Church before joining the president in Washington.
“When they got back to the city, I don’t think she expected the devastation that there was,” Herrick said. “Everything in the White House, they lost. It was a huge loss to them and the country.”
But Herrick believes the burning of Washington and the presidential couple’s frantic visit to Fairfax County altered the course of American history for the better.
“The British made a huge mistake in burning the city, because what it did was bring about patriotism,” Herrick said. “When they burned the city, the spirit of patriotism was unbelievable. We were a nation. That’s when we were finally a United States.”