Friday, November 22, 2013

Dolley's Difficult Run

Today's excellent entry in our ongoing discussion of all things War of 1812 comes from Matt Manning, Architectural Historian at the Maryland State Highway Administration. This essay takes us on an architectural and historical tour of early 19th-century Washington, D.C. and its immediate environs. It also demonstrates that getting out of D.C. has always been a trying endeavor.

In April, we tracked down the hiding place of the now-famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington after Dolley Madison saved it from the clutches of the invading British. But where did Dolley Madison herself take refuge from the advancing enemy army?

As the Madisons fled Washington, confusion and disorder reigned. This is reflected in the limited and often conflicting accounts of their retreat from the city. The following is an approximation of the First Lady’s travels, based on her own letters, the writings of others involved, and the work of really dedicated researchers who have spent a lot of time sorting through historical documents.

Dolley Madison’s Route from Washington 
Wednesday, August 24, 1814

Sometime after three o’clock, Dolley receives word that the American troops have failed to stop the British at Bladensburg; the First Lady sets to work securing irreplaceable Cabinet papers, George Washington’s portrait, and the crimson velvet curtains at the President’s House. Concerned for Dolley’s safety, Charles Carroll, a friend of the Madisons and a frequent visitor at the President’s House, arrives to retrieve Dolley from her home and hasten her departure. Along with her servant, Sukey, her sister, Anna Payne Cutts, and Anna’s three children, Dolley makes her way to Bellevue, the Georgetown home of Charles and Anne Sprigg Carroll.

Bellevue, located at 2715 Q Street NW in Washington, DC, is a Federal-style brick dwelling with a five-part compound plan. The house was constructed in 1799 by Samuel Jackson, a Philadelphia merchant. Charles Carroll, a cousin of the signer of the Declaration of Independence, purchased the house in 1813, naming it Bellevue. Carroll moved to New York following the War of 1812, and Commodore John Rodgers became one of the house’s first tenants in 1815 before building his own house on Lafayette Square. The Carroll heirs sold the house in 1841. In 1915, the house was moved 100 feet to the north to accommodate an extension of Q Street into Georgetown via the Dumbarton Bridge. The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America purchased and restored the property in 1928; it was renamed and opened to the public as the Dumbarton House in 1932.
At Bellevue, Dolley is joined by US Navy Clerk Edward Duvall and Secretary of the Navy William Jones and his wife. The group soon receives word to meet the President at Foxall Foundry along the Potomac River northwest of Georgetown. Shortly after five o’clock, Dolley sets off with her family and those of Jones and Carroll. En route, the party discovers that James Madison, unable to pass through the throngs of refugees on the roads leading from Washington, has already crossed into Virginia at Mason’s Ferry to the south. Instead, the President suggests the groups reconvene at Wiley’s Tavern in Virginia. 

Dolley and her companions continue northwest out of Georgetown, but travel along the crowded road is slow. Four miles north of Georgetown, the party crosses the Chain Bridge over the Potomac River and into Virginia.

The Chain Bridge as it appeared in 1839. The original bridge was a chain link suspension bridge constructed by the Georgetown-Potomac Bridge Company between 1805 and 1808. It was based on designs by Judge James Finley, an Irish-born engineer responsible for designing and building the first modern suspension bridge in 1801 in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. The Chain Bridge supported a 16-foot wide oak plank roadway that spanned 128.5 feet. The bridge was damaged and repaired numerous times before it was finally replaced by a wood truss bridge in 1852. The location continues to be used as a Potomac River crossing today; it is still known as the Chain Bridge. Image courtesy of Ghosts of DC.
Once in Virginia, Dolley Madison continues northwest. As darkness closes in, she reaches Rokeby Farm, the home of Richard and Matilda Lee Love. The Madisons had often received the Loves in Washington, and Matilda Lee Love was related to James Madison through her stepmother. Only ten miles from the city, Rokeby is brimming with other refugees of Washington. That evening, Dolley watches from a window in Rokeby as fires cast a red glow over the capital. Unbeknownst to her, James Madison passes the night little more than a mile away at Salona, the Virginia estate of Rev. William Maffitt, Jr.

The original house at Rokeby Farm was reportedly constructed in 1813 and would have been the house that sheltered Dolley Madison. However, this building was lost to fire and was rebuilt in 1820. The site where Rokeby once stood is located near Dolley Madison Boulevard and Seville Lane, adjacent to the CIA headquarters in Fairfax County. The rebuilt house is no longer standing.
Thursday, August 25

Dolley and her entourage depart Rokeby Farm, continuing west toward the Alexandria and Leesburg Road (present-day Leesburg Pike), passing and possibly making a brief stop at Salona on the way (James Madison has already departed). They follow the Alexandria and Leesburg Road northwest to Wiley’s Tavern near Difficult Run, arriving just ahead of an intense storm moving in from the northwest. Upon entering the tavern, however, Dolley encounters a storm of a different kind. She is soon recognized by the tavern keeper’s wife, who reportedly exclaims,

“Miss Madison! If that’s you, come down and go out! Your husband has got mine out fighting, and damn you, you shan’t stay in my house, so get out!”

Despite the irate innkeeper objections, Dolley’s companions are able to convince the woman to allow the First Lady to stay. (Although some reports state that Dolley acquiesced to the woman’s demands and found shelter in another tavern nearby.)

Dolley’s cold reception at Wiley’s Tavern (no longer extant) would not have been unusual. The Madisons were not particularly popular with a large segment of the population which felt that James Madison had been cavalier in his decision to declare war and subsequently bungled the country’s defense. Emboldened by recent events and with the capital aflame, some chose to express their displeasure directly to the First Lady. At Rokeby, even Mrs. Love’s cook had been unable to hide her scorn. She refused to quickly make a cup of coffee for the First Lady, grumbling that she would not hurry, “for I done heerd Mr. Madison and [Secretary of War] Mr. Armstrong done sold the country to the British.” Image courtesy of the Smithsonian
Just before evening, after the worst of the storm has passed, Dolley Madison finally reunites with her husband at Wiley’s Tavern. However, the President stays only briefly; amid a swirl of rumors, it is believed the British are moving west into Virginia. The President departs around midnight in hopes of rejoining the American army in Maryland.

Friday, August 26

With hostility brewing at the tavern and the British possibly on the way, Dolley sets off Friday morning with her sister and nieces, this time retracing her steps southeast. They make their way north of Falls Church to Minor’s Hill, the home of George Minor, Jr., and his stepmother, Mildred Heale Minor. The group reaches Minor’s Hill without incident, and Dolley spends the next two nights at the estate. 

This house may have been where Dolley Madison stayed for two nights before returning to Washington. Located at the intersection of Virginia Avenue and North Nottingham Street in McLean, Virginia, the original house was reportedly constructed of logs as early as 1730. In 1770, George Minor, Sr., purchased the property and added a wing to the existing house. George Minor and his first wife, Ann, had seven children. The eldest, George Minor, Jr., inherited the house and occupied it during the War of 1812. George Jr. served as Lieutenant Colonel of the Virginia Militia 60th Regiment and was called to the defense of the capital; however, administrative delays prevented him from reaching Bladensburg in time for the battle. During the Civil War, the high ground south of the house hosted a Union Army encampment, complete with an observation tower. The house still stands, now surrounded by later suburban development. Photo courtesy of Ralph Eshelman.
Sunday, August 28

Dolley receives a letter from James Madison confirming the British have withdrawn from Washington. The First Lady departs for the capital, not knowing what she will find when she arrives...

To be continued...


  1. Builder just purchased this house, and it is due to be demolished in two weeks as of July 21 2016 I don't know who to tell. Nobody seems to even realize this is the old Minor house of Minor hill and an observation post during the civil war. I'm so upset... if you have any thoughts please contact me

    1. The old log cabin was inside that house, so sad watching it come down and seeing the original house inside fall apart.

  2. Who was George Minor Sr's parents? There are two branches of Minor family in the US, one from Doodas Minor who was never a minor and then the actual minor family.

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