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White House - Three Alarms Of Fire

( Originally Published 1908 )

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THE alarming cry of "Fire!" has been heard at least three times in the Executive Mansion. The first such alarm occurred in 1814, when President Madison and his family occupied the President's House, and when the British invading army took possession of the mansion and set fire to it. The building on this occasion was much damaged as to exterior, while almost all of the interior fittings, furniture, decorations and general equipment were totally destroyed.

The second alarm was heard in the administration of President Lincoln, when the White House stables were burned.

The third alarm was in the administration of President Johnson, when the conservatory attached to the White House was burned, and when a great deal of damage was wrought in the White House itself.

The details relating to each of these fires are given in this chapter.

When the British Burned the White House

In August, 1814, the greatest misfortune that has ever over-taken White House tenants in respect to fire, fell to the lot of President and Mrs. Dolly Madison. British forces, under General Ross and Admiral Cockburn, captured the city of Washington, and burned and looted the White House and the Capitol.

The battle that preceded the entrance of the British troops into the city is known in history as the Battle of Bladensburg. For three hours the battle raged furiously, and soon our forces,made a general retreat to Montgomery Court House, Maryland. The President and his Cabinet fled. The President continued into Virginia, where he took refuge in a hovel for two days.

Historian Gleig, a subaltern in the United States Army, tells us that the detachment sent to destroy the President's House, "found a bounteous dinner spread for forty guests. This, they concluded, was for the American officers who were expected to return victorious from the field of Bladensburg. The British soldiers plundered the house, taking a great deal of President Madison's private property and then sat down to the feast. They finished by setting fire to the house which had so liberally entertained them."

As late as six years ago, 1902, when Architects McKim, Mead and White, restored the White House, (completely remodeling it to conform to the original design of a century and more before), traces of the fire of 1814 were discovered, the architects reporting, as stated in Chapter Two of this history, that "in many places, where the plaster was removed, evidences of the fire of 1814 were plainly visible." Also cut into the stonework were found many names, evidently of workmen employed on the original construction.

Mrs. Dolly Madison's own account of the thrilling incidents preceding the coming of the British are of deep interest. In a letter written to her sister on August 23, 1814, Mrs. Madison said :

"My husband left me yesterday morning to join General Winder. He inquired 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, beseeching me to take care of myself, and of the Cabinet papers.

"I have since received 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 at first been reported, and it might happen that they would reach the city with the intention of destroying 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 so that he can accompany me, as I hear of much hostility to him."

The following day, after hearing about the Battle of Bladensburg, Mrs. Madison again wrote, saying :

"Our kind friend Mr. Carroll has come to hasten my departure, and in a very bad humor with me, because I insist on waiting until the large picture of General Washington is secured, and it requires to be unscrewed from the wall. The process was found too tedious for these perilous moments ; I have ordered the frame to be broken and the canvas taken out."

As to the story already mentioned in these pages to the effect that Mrs. Madison herself cut the portrait of Washington from the frame to save it from the invaders, the majority of accounts contradict the report that "Mrs. Madison herself performed the heroic deed," but state that it was done for her, or by her direction, by an attaché of the White House, one Jean Sioussat. It is said that this man cut the portrait from its frame with his pocketknife. Mrs. Madison's further reference to the incident, in addition to the letter quoted above, is contained in a letter in which she says:

"It is done, and the precious portrait placed in the hands of two gentlemen from New York for safe keeping. On handing the canvas to the gentlemen in question, Messrs. Barker and Depeyster, Mr. Sioussat cautioned them against rolling it up, saying that it would destroy the portrait. He was moved to this because Mr. Barker started to roll it up for greater convenience for carrying.

Furthermore, a negro servant, named Paul Jennings, issued in • 1865, A Colored Man's Reminiscences of James Madison, in which he, as a White House employe, insists:

"She (Mrs. Madison) had no time for doing it. It would have required a ladder to get it down. All she carried off was the silver in her reticule, as the British were thought to be but a few squares off, and were expected every moment. John Suse (meaning Jean Sioussat), a Frenchman, then doorkeeper, and still living, and McGraw, the President's gardener, took it down and sent it off on a wagon with some larger silver urns and other such valuables as could be hastily got together. When the British did arrive they ate up the very dinner that I had prepared for the President's party."

Other historians quote authorities on the fire of 1814, thus:

"The friends with Mrs. Madison hurried her away (her carriage being previously ready), and she, with many other families, retreated with the flying army. In Georgetown they perceived some men before them carrying off the picture of General Washington (the large one by Stewart), which with the plate was all that was saved out of the President's house. Mrs. Madison lost all her own property. Mrs. Madison slept that night in the encampment, a guard being placed round her tent; the next day she crossed into Virginia, where she remained until Sunday, when she returned to meet her husband."

And an eye-witness, writing for the Federal Republican, published at the time of the fire, says :

"About ten o'clock on the night of the 24th, while the Capitol, the Navy Yard, the Magazine, and the buildings attached thereto, on Greenleaf's Point, were entirely in flames, I was sitting in the window of my lodging on the Pennsylvania Avenue, contemplating the solemn and awful scene, when about a hundred men passed the house, troops of the enemy, on their way toward the President's house. They walked two abreast preceded by an officer on foot, each armed with a hanger, and wearing a chapeau de bras. In the middle of the ranks were twd men, each with a dark lanthorn. They marched quickly but silently. Some of them, however, were talking in the ranks, which being overheard by the officer, he called out to them `Siience! If any man speaks in the ranks, I'll put him to death' I shortly after they pushed on, I observed four officers on horseback, with chapeau de bras and side arms. They made up to the house, and pulling off their hats in a polite and social manner, wished us a good evening. The family and myself returned the salute, and I observed to them, `Gentlemen ! I presume you are officers of the British Army'. They replied they were. 'I hope, sir', said I, addressing one that rode up under the window, which I found to be Admiral Cockburn, 'that individuals and private property will be respected'. Admiral Cockburn and General Ross immediately replied : `Yes, sir, we pledge our sacred honor that the citizens and private property shall be respected. Be under no apprehension. Our advice to you is to remain at home. Do not quit your houses'. Admiral Cock-' burn then inquired : `Where is your President, Mr. Madison?' I replied, `I could not tell, but supposed by this time at a considerable distance'.

"They then observed that they were on their way to pay a visit to the President's house, which they were told was but a little distance ahead. They again requested that we would stay in our houses, where we would be perfectly safe, and bowing, politely, wished us good night, and proceeded on. I perceived the smoke coming from the windows of the President's house, and in a short time, that splendid and elegant edifice, reared at the expense of so much cost and labor, inferior to none that I have observed in the different parts of Europe, was wrapt in one entire flame. The large and elegant Capitol of the Nation on one side, and the splendid National Palace and Treasury Department on the other, all wrapt in flame, presented a grand and sublime, but, at the same time, an awful and melancholy sight."

Another historian tells the story of the fire with the additional information that a terrific storm followed the application of the torch, thus;

"In the war of 1812, Mrs. Madison distinguished herself for exceptional bravery by remaining at the Executive Mansion in anticipation of the President's return, and when warned that the British were approaching, lingering to save a magnificent painting of George Washington which hung upon the wall of the State dining-room, and was one of the few ornaments of the mansion. Panic had reigned throughout the city for a week, but only one-fifth of its inhabitants remained to witness the culmination the Capitol, the White House and other public buildings in flames and a terrible explosion at the Navy Yard. The deed is a lasting disgrace upon the British nation, and as if heaven itself wept over the prevalent devastation of our beautiful city, a deluge of rain descended upon the flames. This rain storm was followed by a tremendous hurricane, unparalleled in violence by any tempest that the oldest inhabitants of the place could remember. Roofs flew, and the darkness was rendered more appalling by the roar of thunder and the crash of falling houses. Cannon on an eminence were actually lifted and carried several feet to the rear; and thirty soldiers were buried beneath the ruins of buildings. The British in consternation evacuated the town after twenty-nine hours of memorable occupation."

When the White House Stables Were Burned

One cold February night during the administration of President Lincoln, the White House stables caught fire and were burned to the ground. No damage was done to the White House itself on this occasion. So far as the accounts state, the only animals that perished in this fire were two ponies. Of these, one belonged to Lincoln's little son, Tad ; while the other had been the property of poor little Willie Lincoln, the President's son who had passed beyond (as set forth in the chapter on "Died in the White House.")

All accounts state that Mr. Lincoln was "deeply affected" especially by the loss of the pony which his dead son had so loved.

Burning of the White House Conservatories

During Johnson's administration the conservatory took fire and was totally destroyed. Many valuable plants were lost,among others one which once was owned by General Washington.

This was a serious fire. And, had it not been for the prompt assistance of several White House attachés and of two or three Government officials, the historian today would be confronted with the task of describing a terrible calamity.

The fire occurred on a blustery morning in January, 1867. At that time the conservatory was attached to the main building. As the result of the bursting of a flue, or of a defective chimney, the flames burst forth furiously without warning. Fire swept through the main part of the White House, to the intense alarm of all then indoors. Smoke filled every room, and, what with fire and water and smoke, the damage to the White House itself amounted to some $20,000, while more than one thousand dollars was required to repair the damage to the furniture, through smoke.

Those who helped most to avert more serious damage to the building included Secretary of War Stanton, General Rucker and a White House attaché named Smith. The last named, Smith, labored so vigorously to save property that he was over come with, the smoke. Coincident with the labors of these men, four fire companies worked hard to avert a general conflagration.

The losses included fully one-third of the rare and valuable collection of plants, among them a fine Sago palm that had been imported by George Washington. The value of the plants destroyed that morning was placed at "hundreds of thousands of dollars."



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