August 20th, 2012
06:02 PM ET
“If These Walls Could Talk” is a weekly look back at the storied history of the White House – from Washington to Obama, from the absurd to the historic.
Washington (CNN) – When Dolley Madison was fleeing the White House with George Washington's portrait among her few precious keepsakes, she couldn't have known that her place as a legendary White House figure was being cemented in that moment.
But that event, which happened this week in 1814, has done exactly that. To this day, presidents and politicos alike retell the story of Dolley Madison and the Washington portrait.
With the British marching into Washington during the War of 1812, Dolley, wife of the then-fourth president of the United States, James Madison, decided that instead of retaining the first couple's personal belongings, she wanted to save the iconic full-length portrait of George Washington. While being pressured to leave, Dolley insisted the portrait be saved, frame broken and canvas rolled up before everyone abandoned the White House.
Little did Dolley Madison know the portrait she had saved was actually a copy of the Gilbert Stuart original.
Much of the history from that interesting decision was recorded by Dolley Madison in a letter to her sister, Lucy Washington. Lucy had married the nephew of former President Washington.
"My husband left me yesterday morng. to join Gen. Winder," wrote Dolley about her husbands decision to join his generals on the battlefield. "He enquired anxiously whether I had courage, or firmness to remain in the President's house until his return."
The letter continues, with the notoriously social Dolley telling her sister that all her "friends and acquaintances are all gone." According to the White House Historical Association, "Dolley Madison continued entertaining at the White House until war virtually reached her doorstep."
After a disastrous defeat in Bladensburg, Maryland, the battle that James Madison witnessed, the fate of Washington, D.C. seemed inevitable.
"Will you believe it, my Sister? We have had a battle or skirmish near Bladensburg, and I am still here within sound of the cannon," Dolley wrote. "Mr. Madison comes not; may God protect him!"
With Dolley and White House staff closely watching as British soldiers gathered in the distance, their fate was also apparent - they had to flee. With her servants in tow, Madison fled the White House with the expectation that the British soldiers were about to denigrate the capital of the United States.
After writing to her sister that "Mr. Carroll," the man sent to hasten her departure, was in a bad mood because she insisted on keeping the Washington portrait, she describes the "perilous" moments it took to break the frame and remove the canvas.
"And now, dear sister, I must leave this house, or the retreating army will make me a prisoner in it, by filling up the road I am directed to take," concluded Dolley. "When I shall again write you, or where I shall be tomorrow, I cannot tell!!"
The Madisons would later be reunited, the White House would be rebuilt and the United States, after both naval and land victories, would go on to win the War of 1812. After the presidency, the Madisons retired to their estate - Montpelier - in Orange County, Virginia. James would die in 1836, leaving Dolley to live out life on her own.
She would later move back to Washington, surrounded by the friends that she had entertained for years at the White House. In 1849, Dolley Madison died "honored and loved by all," according to her White House biography.
Nearly 198 years after the portrait of George Washington was saved, the story of Dolley Madison's curious decision remains so engrained in White House lore that the future occupants of the house even joke about it.
"When the British burned the White House in 1814. Dolley Madison famously saved this portrait of the first George W.," former President George W. Bush said at the unveiling of his presidential portrait. "Now Michelle, if anything happens, there is your man," Bush said to First Lady Michelle Obama while pointing to his new portrait.