The Roles Women Played in the War of 1812

Glenn Stott and Ken Willis, our historians, are digging through the archives for more information about Mr. and Mrs. George Ward.  They probably won’t find too much written from Mrs. George Ward’s perspective.  (Judging from all the letters he wrote, perhaps he wouldn’t share his precious ink and pen.)  Hellen Ferguson explains why we know so little about the women.  Here’s an excerpt from her web-site.

by Hellen Ferguson

It is very interesting to note that almost all of the diaries and letters that tell of the war are written by upper class ladies. Officers’ wives and daughters were often literate whereas the regular soldiers wives usually were not. There are few journals written from the laundress’ point of view, so most accounts are from others’ observations. Most often the letters and journals kept by these ladies included details not mentioned in soldiers’ or officers’ journals. They wrote about the weather, their travels, the bonding with the other women in camp and their husbands’ doings.

The War of 1812 spread over many acres and two and a half years. Also known as “Mr. Madison’s War” by the opponents of President James Madison, the war was to take many turns. When the British arrived in Benedict, Maryland, in August 1814, and started their march towards Washington, it was President Madison’s wife, Dolly, who was left alone, “save for a few loyal servants”, to try and save what little she could before the British arrived. In letters she wrote to her sister Lucy, she describes what was happening around her. She tells Lucy how her husband told her she “should be ready at a moment’s warning to enter” her “carriage and leave the city “. Having to leave one’s home at any moment would be frightening enough without having to deal with the thought of losing a priceless momento. Dolly Madison, along with packing up important state documents, also had to worry about how to save “Gilbert Stuart’s priceless full-length portrait of George Washington.” She had to supervise the loading of the wagon with her possessions as well as the valuable items in the President’s house. Then came the removal of Washington’s portrait. She supervised the servants who removed the portrait and sent it on its way to a farm. She then left her home. She finally met up with her husband 36 hours later. When they returned to the White House, they found it burned.12

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