As I was reading The Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” piece on First Ladies and visits to war zones, “Further Debunking the War Zone Myth”, I found it interesting, but by no means complete.


“The Clinton campaign has cited newspaper accounts, including one in The Washington Post, to bolster the senator’s claim that her now-famous March 1996 trip to Bosnia was the first visit to a “war zone” by a first lady since World War II. She is overlooking a trip to Saigon by Pat Nixon at the height of the Vietnam War as well as a trip by Barbara Bush to Saudi Arabia two months before the Persian Gulf War began.”


While I give the Post props for getting down to brass tacks regarding Pat Nixon’s visit to Saigon in 1969, I also felt the history of First Ladies dredged for the article was quite shallow. First Ladies and American wars go much farther back than Eleanor Roosevelt. So let’s give some credit where credit is due.

OK, yes this historical tidbit does go back farther than World War II, but how soon we forget the trials and tribulations of our young country. Chief amongst First Ladies in war zones and in danger, I would place one Dolley Madison, our nation’s fourth First Lady. Note this from the White House Historical Association:


“Dolley Madison continued entertaining at the White House until war virtually reached her doorstep. The dinner table was set for 40 guests the day she left the White House. She and a few servants had remained at the White House, packing up valuable documents, silver, and other items of importance. With limited space, she made choices about what to take and what to leave….Even the soldiers assigned to protect the White House had fled before Mrs. Madison.”


Oh, yes, Dolley Madison—she didn’t just save the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington from any-old-average fire at the White House. She saved it from being burned by British troops who sacked the executive mansion on the night of August 24, 1814 during the War of 1812. Washington at that point was very much an active war zone. In fact much of the city was burned. Dolly Madison and countless American treasures and documents escaped the White House in a scavenged wagon before British troops arrived, rendezvoused with the President and watched the city smolder from a distance.

Following the war the President and First Lady returned to Washington and Dolley Madison committed herself to restoring the White House as a symbol of national pride.