Tag Archives: War of 1812

Betsy’s Circle: Dolley Madison

Dolley Madison

Dolley Madison by Gilbert Stuart, via Wikimedia Commons

One of Betsy Bonaparte’s more surprising friendships was with Dolley Madison. On the surface, the two women seemed to have little in common, yet they had an amiable relationship that lasted many years. For example, while Dolley was in the White House, Betsy often looked in on Dolley’s son at his boarding school near Baltimore. And Dolley Madison once gave Betsy the commission of buying her a turban or anything fashionable on her next trip to Europe because she so admired Betsy’s taste. 

Dolley Madison, born Dolley Payne, was raised as a Quaker in Virginia. Her family moved to Philadelphia when she was a teenager. When Dolley was twenty-two, she married a young lawyer named John Todd, with whom she had two sons. Tragedy soon struck, however. The terrible yellow fever epidemic of 1793—which wiped out some 11 percent of Philadelphia’s population—killed both her husband and her younger son, who was only three months old.

Within a year, Dolley had met and married James Madison, a bachelor who was seventeen years older than she was. As the main author of the U.S. Constitution, Madison was an important political figure, so this new relationship thrust Dolley into a much different social sphere than she had been used to.

She proved to be more than up to the task. After Thomas Jefferson became president, James Madison became his secretary of state and Mrs. Madison served as the hostess for the widowed president. After eight years, Madison succeeded to the presidency, and Dolley Madison officially became the first lady. She was famous for her entertaining. The following description comes from my forthcoming novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte:

Under Mrs. Madison’s direction, Benjamin Latrobe had transformed the oval drawing room into a blazingly colorful salon that was the talk of Washington. Latrobe had repainted the walls sunflower yellow, highlighted moldings with strips of pink wallpaper printed with white and dark green leaves, hung crimson velvet curtains with gold tassels, and laid a carpet with a red, blue, and gold arabesque pattern. Dolley Madison held open houses every Wednesday in the lavishly decorated room. So many people attended—sometimes as many as 400 in a day—that the regular event became known as Mrs. Madison’s “crush or squeeze.”

Dolley Madison became a beloved national hero during the War of 1812. When it became evident that the British were going to take Washington, D.C., in August 1814 and that it would not be possible to protect the President’s Mansion, Dolley stayed to oversee the removal of as many precious and important items as possible—including a full-sized portrait of George Washington. It is this action for which she is best remembered today.

Gilbert Stuart - George Washington - Google Art ProjectGeorge Washington by Gilbert Stuart, via Wikimedia Commons

Although Dolley and James Madison remained devoted to each other, Dolley did have one major sorrow. Her surviving son Payne Todd was an irresponsible alcoholic. His behavior was a trial to his mother, particularly after James Madison’s death. Because of Payne’s heavy spending, Dolley Madison spent much of her later years in poverty.


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Betsy’s Circle: Joshua Barney

Sketch of Joshua Barney, c. 1800, Wikimedia Commons

As I mentioned yesterday, the man Jerome visited in Baltimore was Joshua Barney, a naval officer. Barney was born in Baltimore in 1759, and he served in the U.S. navy during the American Revolution. During that war, he was taken prisoner several times and then exchanged for British officers. In 1779, he was captured again and imprisoned in England. He escaped in 1781, and the next year, as commander of the ship Hyder Ally, he captured the much more heavily armed HMS General Monk.

After the American Revolution, he served in the French navy for a while, which is probably how he met the Bonapartes. Barney returned to the United States in 1800. During the War of 1812, he served first as a privateer and then rejoined the U.S. navy as a captain.

In June 1814, Barney’s flotilla encountered a British fleet in Chesapeake Bay. The British pursued the U.S. vessels, which retreated up the Patuxent River and then up St. Leonard’s Creek, which was too shallow for the British frigates. The British blockaded the mouth of the creek so the Americans could not escape. Rather than allow the British to capture his flotilla, Barney scuttled the ships.

Two months later, he took part in the defense of Washington and was severely wounded, taking a ball in his thigh—which could never be removed and which troubled him the rest of his life. He died in 1818 of complications from that old wound. He was only 59.

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Betsy’s Circle: The Man Who Saved Baltimore Twice

General Samuel Smith Rembrandt Peale
General Samuel Smith by Rembrandt Peale [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The person in charge of the defense of Baltimore when the British attacked in 1814 was Samuel Smith, former revolutionary officer and current U.S. senator. He also happened to be Betsy Bonaparte’s uncle, as he was married to her mother’s older sister.

Samuel Smith was born in Pennsylvania, but his family moved to Baltimore when he was a boy, and he made Baltimore his home for the rest of his life. Like Betsy’s father, he made his money from shipping and trade. Smith served in the army during the Revolutionary War, advancing from captain to major to lieutenant colonel. He spent the winter at Valley Forge with George Washington, and he later took part in the Battles of Saratoga, which were the turning point of the war.

In his forties, Smith entered politics. He served in the House of Representatives from 1793 to 1803 and in the Senate from 1803 to 1815. His highest rank was president pro tempore of the Senate, making him third in line to the presidency.

During the War of 1812, a Baltimore officer named General William Winder had been in charge of the disastrous defense of Washington, D.C., which led to a rout of the American forces and the burning of the capital. When it came to defending their own city, Baltimoreans turned to 62-year-old Samuel Smith rather than the much-younger Winder. Smith organized the digging of fortifications to prevent a land approach and prepared to sink ships in the Patapsco River to prevent a water approach.

After the Battle of Baltimore was over, Smith returned to Congress, serving in both the Senate and the House for nearly two more decades. All together he spent 40 years in Congress.

In August 1835, Smith was once again called upon to save his city. Seventeen months earlier, the Bank of Maryland had failed, and the public had grown tired of waiting for the long-promised settlement. For several nights running, angry people gathered to attack the homes of bank directors. Samuel Smith, now eighty-three years old, organized a force of volunteers and managed to quiet the mob and convince them to disperse. The grateful city made Smith mayor, a position he held for three years. He died in 1839 at the age of 86.

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The Star Spangled Banner

Ft. Mchenry 2

As I mentioned yesterday, the last few days have been the 199th anniversary of the British attack on Baltimore during the War of 1812. Most people today don’t realize just how important that war was. At the time it took place, many people referred to it as the Second War of Independence because they realized that our young nation’s very survival was at stake.

How fitting then that this was the occasion of the writing of our national anthem.

To understand what happened, it helps to know a little bit of geography. Baltimore is a harbor, but it does not lie directly on the Atlantic coast. Rather, it was built on the Patapsco River, an estuary leading off Chesapeake Bay. The city is located on the Northwest Branch, upstream from Fort McHenry. In practical terms, the British fleet could not reach the inner harbor of Baltimore without first taking the fort. So British ships gathered in the river below McHenry and began to bombard it.

While all this was going on, an American lawyer named Francis Scott Key was on one of the British warships. A month earlier, after the British burned Washington, DC., they captured a friend of Key’s named Dr. William Beanes. President Madison had given Key permission to negotiate with the British for the release of Beanes, and Key just happened to arrive right before the attack. Once the battle started, he had to remain aboard the ship—which gave him a front row view of the battle.

Like the people in Baltimore, however, Key really didn’t have much information about how the attack was going. All he could do was to make inferences from what he saw before him. As long as the British kept firing mortars and rockets at the fort, he could assume it hadn’t surrendered. This went on from early in the morning of the 13th all through the night.

Then by the dawn’s early light, Key and the people in Baltimore saw that the U.S. flag still waved. This was no ordinary flag. Major George Armistead, commander of the fort, had commissioned a huge 42′ x 30′ flag from Baltimore seamstress Mary Pickersgill. He wanted “a flag so large that the British would have no difficulty seeing it from a distance.” That defiant banner gave proof to anyone who cared to look that Fort McHenry remained in American hands even after 24 hours of shelling.

Not long after sunrise, the British fleet gave up and sailed away. Key wrote a poem about his experience, and that poem eventually became our national anthem.

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Writing Historical Fiction: Channeling Your Character

fort mchenry

One hundred ninety-nine years ago today, a fleet of British ships spent a full day lobbing mortars and Congreve rockets at Fort McHenry (shown above) in an effort to capture Baltimore during the War of 1812. The British viewed the city as a “nest of pirates” because it was home to many of the privateers that had been preying on British shipping.

When I first started writing my novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, I wasn’t sure whether I was going to portray the Battle of Baltimore. By then, I had read five different biographies of Betsy Bonaparte. None of them answered the question of whether she was in her hometown of Baltimore or in Washington, D.C., when the attack took place.

Then in November 2011, my husband and I traveled to Baltimore, so I could do some research. One place we visited was Fort McHenry. We were lucky enough to be able to hear one of the National Park rangers tell the story of the battle. At one point, he described how many of the residents of Baltimore climbed to their roofs so they could watch the attack and see how it was going. As he spoke, a strange thing happened.

An unexpected wave of fear washed over me, and suddenly I was no longer sitting in the bright November sunshine, listening to a ranger spin a lively tale. I was Betsy, standing on the roof of her childhood home, gripped by the dread of what would happen if the British captured the city. During the early years of her marriage, Betsy and her husband Jerome had often been threatened by British warships who wanted to make a hostage of Napoleon’s brother. Now, she feared for her beloved nine-year-old son. He was a Bonaparte, the nephew of the man the British had been fighting for more than 15 years. As I imagined Betsy’s terror, I began to cry right there in the crowd of tourists. The emotion was so powerful, so icy cold and unsettling, that I couldn’t help myself. After that, I knew with absolute certainty that I had to include the battle in the novel and that I had to portray Betsy’s desperate if somewhat irrational fears that if the British conquered Baltimore, her son would be in danger. It was exactly what I needed to make sense of what had up till then been an impersonal event.


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This Date in History: September 10, 1813

The War of 1812, largely forgotten today, plays a significant role in my novel The Ambitious Madame Bonsparte, and today is the anniversary of a significant event in the war. Two hundred years ago on this date, the United States Navy won one of the first great victories of its existence. Let me provide a little background.

In June 1812, the United States declared war against Great Britain for several reasons:

• First, the British navy had been stopping American ships and impressing any sailors it found who had been born in Britain—even if they had since become U.S. citizens. This was a violation of U.S. rights as an independent nation.

• Second, Britain was at war with France, and to weaken its enemy, the British navy was trying to stop the United States from trading with France.

• Third, there had been conflicts between the United States and Native Americans of the Northwest Territory, and many Americans suspected that Britain was egging the natives on.

• Fourth, some Americans had their eye on conquering Canada and adding it to our territory.

Even though the United States was the one to declare war, it was a young nation that was woefully unprepared for conflict. The army had fewer than 12,000 men, and the navy had roughly 20 ships. In July 1812, when an American force under General William Hull (no relation as far as I know) invaded Ontario, they were driven out of Canada and forced to surrender, thus losing Detroit.

The U.S. navy went on a ship-building spree to try to gain control of the Great Lakes. On September 12, 2013, Oliver Hazard Perry led a fleet of nine small ships into Lake Erie. Perry’s flagship was the Lawrence, which he had named after his friend James Lawrence, a naval officer who was killed in battle earlier in the war. (Lawrence’s gift to history was the saying, “Don’t give up the ship,” which he commanded his crew as he lay dying.) The other large ship of the U.S. fleet was the Niagara.

The U.S. fleet began the battle by attacking the two largest vessels of the six ships in the British fleet. The Lawrence was badly damaged, and Perry rowed to the Niagara to continue the attack. The Niagara sailed right at the British ships, raking them with broadsides. Within 15 minutes, the British fleet surrendered. Perry sent a famous message to William Henry Harrison, the army commander:

“We have met the enemy, and they are ours.”

The Battle of Lake Erie allowed the United States to retake Detroit, control Lake Erie, and even conquer part of Canada.

For his part, Oliver Hazard Perry became a national hero. He was promoted and given a gold medal. Six years later, he caught yellow fever while on a mission to South America and died at the age of 34.

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