- - Draft - -
1 December, 1814
New Orleans, Louisianna
They walked back to the hotel by way of the Rue de la Levee, the street along the levee that kept the river out of the city during times of flood. Set in close to the levee wall was the Butcher's Market, a long wooden structure, open-sided, overflowing with produce of every kind, nuts, fruits, vegetables, livestock and a few exotic beasts neither of them had ever seen for sale in a Washington market. At the southern end was a pen of alligators, each as large as the one Dolley had encountered, and nearby stood a half dozen women, waiting patiently to buy fish and chatting about the British. Dolley could sense their dismal mood before she could hear their words, and eavesdropped as she and Sukey ogled the gators.
"They burnt Washington, they burnt Baltimore, and now they come here to burn Nawlins."
"They didn't burn Baltimore."
"They did too! My Paddy he said they did. Burnt it to the ground they did. Raped the women and killt the children." The others gasped. "Every last one, they did."
"Why they burn Baltimore?"
"Cause Baltimore fought them. They fought them and lost. Same as Washington. Both cities were burnt to the ground." The woman's voice was stern with the certainty of what she was saying. "Women raped, every one. Children killt, every one."
Dolley and Sukey looked at each other. It was almost funny.
"Oh my gawsh, oh my gawsh!" said another, voice quavering with fear. "Oh my gawsh. What we gonna do?"
"Jackson will stop 'em. Just like he stopped the Creeks."
"No he won't," said the stern-voiced woman. "I saw him ride in. He's too old and sick. The Creeks ran him outa Alabama, the British will run him outa Nawlins, and then they will punish us for fighting back."
"The Creeks did not run General Jackson out of Alabama. He defeated the Creek Red Sticks, and then came here to defend you." Dolley had heard enough and had turned to face the women, injecting herself into the conversation. "The British did not burn Baltimore. The citizens pulled together, defended their city, and drove the British off."
"Hmmmph!" The stern voiced woman was older, with steel-gray hair pulled back into a severe bun and a haughty expression that reminded Dolley of Mary Catherine, the Sunday School teacher who condemned Washington for attacking the Hessians on Christmas Eve. "Well, that's not what my Paddy says."
Dolley looked the lady right in the eye. "Your Paddy wasn't there. I was."
The lady clamped shut her mouth, furious.
Dolley continued. "I watched as their army marched up to the city's defenses, then turned back without attacking because their commanding general was shot by a brave rifleman from Tennessee. I watched the British bombard Fort McHenry for a full day, twenty-four long hours, their ships firing thousands of huge bombs and rockets, each shaking the ground as it exploded. None of us believed that any earthly structure could withstand such a bombardment, but the hand of Divine Providence shielded the men, and against all hope or reason the fort held fast. I beheld its flag the next morning, an enormous flag, thirty feet by forty two, glowing in the radiance of the sunrise, snapping and curling in the morning breeze in defiance of the retreating British fleet."
Dolley wiped away a tear, thinking of General Ross and the brave men who died that night. The group had grown while she talked, and now numbered several dozen, women mostly. They were silent, watching her with eyes wide with and wonder. All but one.
"Well, if you say so. But what about Washington?"
Dolley spoke in a quiet voice, ignoring the gentle tugging on her skirt. "The British burned and raped up and down the Chesapeake, attacking isolated and defenseless farmhouses. The grew bolder and started burning small, defenseless villages. They were beaten off when they tried to capture and burn Norfolk, and in retaliation they captured Hampton, a few miles to the north." She described the horror of Hampton: raped women and girls, murdered men, tortured family pets.
Dolley shuddered at the memory and continued. "That's not what they did in Washington City. There was no raping of women, no killing of children, but they did burn Washington. Not everything, just the government buildings."
"And I suppose you were there as well?" The gray woman was smirking at her, but none of the others were.
"Yes, I was there." Dolley ignored her, ignored her own tears, and addressed the others. "I watched them burn our beautiful Capitol building, designed by Benjamin Latrobe, with its magnificent oaken carvings, its beautiful chambers draped with elegant crimson, its gorgeous paintings depicting the glory of our founding, a building large enough to seat the congressmen from three times as many states as we have now, a building more beautiful than any ever constructed on this continent."
She looked at the women through tears, noticing that there were at least fifty, men and women, all listening, spellbound, many in tears. She described the burning of the Naval Yard, the Treasury Building, the Library of Congress with its precious books and priceless documents. She described each building how it had been, and what had been left behind afterwards. The crowd grew as she spoke, but she hardly noticed, speaking with strength, but focusing on those who stood close at hand.
"They even . . . they even burned the Presidential Mansion. Sparing none of the contents. I watched from afar as the flames lit the night sky. Later, I poked through the charred oak timbers and sifted through the ankle-deep ash as the rain turned it to mud. All gone, all destroyed by the barbaric hordes of Great Britain."
Dolley's voice started to crack, so she changed it to a loud growl. "They burned Washington City because the militia didn't stand its ground. They fled in panic when the British fired a few rockets at them. They burned our city because the citizens fled in terror, unwilling to defend their own capital. The British are bullies and cowards, and only began the burning when they were sure that there was no one left to stop them. Across the Potomac River the city of Alexandria surrendered, their citizens terrified that they, too, might be burned out of house and home. The British didn't burn Alexandria, they looted it, filling their ships until they could barely float across the shoals of the Potomac river. Hundreds of thousands of dollars of property, plundered by the barbarians."
The crowd was much larger now, several hundred and growing, and they were quiet, soaking up her words. Their fear was turning into anger, Dolley could feel it.
"Five days ago we celebrated Evacuation Day, the end of the four-year British occupation of New York City. They left that city without a single tree standing, raped with impunity, banished the cholera-ravaged citizens to frozen tents while they lived in warm houses, and murdered twelve thousand Americans patriots in rotting prison ships in New York harbor.
"The British are coming to New Orleans. 'Beauty and Booty' is their battle cry, rape and plunder! If you let them take this city without a fight, they will steal your property, ship it to Great Britain, then enslave you to produce more. Then their army will attack north, using the Mississippi River, splitting our United States asunder, joining forces with a second British army in Canada, stealing from us the Louisiana Purchase"--Dolley remembered what Jefferson had once told her, remembered where she was, and pointed to a building to the west.--"the Louisiana Purchase that was signed in that building, the Cabildo, right over there!"
There were angry shouts of negation from the crowd, and Dolley, ignoring the tugging and urgent whispers from Sukey, continued in a loud voice.
"Some will pray for a miracle, for Divine intervention, asking that God Himself reach down and squash the British menace. God, in His grace, might do that. But the Bible shows us that miracles are for the weak. Those weak in strength, and those weak in spirit. Americans are strong, and God expects the strong to use a different tool, a more powerful tool, and that tool is the decision. We decide to resist. We decide to fight back. We decide to use the resources He gave us to drive the barbaric British back to their accursed island where they belong."
The crowd exploded into cheers, men and women shouting "Fight the lobsterbacks!" and "Kill the invaders!" and similar sentiments.
"You have a choice. You can stand and fight like the citizens of Baltimore, risking your lives for freedom, helping General Jackson defend your city. Or you can guarantee your defeat and your destruction by running away like the cowards in Washington."
"They didn't all run!" It was a loud, high-pitched voice, belonging to a plump woman in the back. "Dolley Madison didn't run! She stayed when the others ran, snatching the portrait of George Washington from under the very noses of the British! It says so right here in my National Intelligencer. Look!"
The crowd was abuzz, everyone talking at once, gathering around the plump woman, and Dolley felt a hard tug on her arm.
"Mizz Dolley!" Sukey's fierce whisper in her ear. "Time to go before--"
"It's her!" There was a loud squeal, the plump lady was pointing at her, her other hand holding aloft a sketch from the magazine. "It's Her! She's Dolley Madison!"
Dolley felt a sick twang in her stomach as the crowd went dead silent, staring from her, to the picture, back to her. This had been Wilkinson's domain for years, and the crowd's mood and expression was unreadable. It wasn't that good of a drawing, but the hair and dress matched what she currently wore, and the drawing's expression was stern rather than smiling. I am a fool! Why did I fix my hair this way? Why didn't I wear buckskins and Choctaw braids? Why didn't I listen to my own advice and keep my mouth shut? Why didn't I pay attention to Sukey? I was worried about George getting drunk and saying something to a few drunks in an obscure tavern, and here I am, stone cold sober, in broad daylight, before a crowd of--gosh, over a thousand! Where did they all come from?
Dolley faced the crowd, feeling very much like she had when facing Colonel Clark's bullet in Mobile. Thy will be done.