J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, July 02, 2012

Jean Pierre Sioussat: “laboring with a hatchet”

Busy in the background of the accounts of saving George Washington’s portrait from the advancing British army in 1814 are the servants—the people who probably did most of the heavy work. Dolley Madison wrote, “I directed my servants in what manner to remove it from the walls.” Jacob Barker recalled being “assisted by two colored boys” as he drove away with the canvas.

Some of those servants were still living in the capital when this episode launched a minor historical controversy in 1848. One was Jean Pierre Sioussat (1781-1864), White House doorman during the James Madison administration (shown here). Dolley Madison referred to him as “French John (a faithful domestic)” in the letter she dated 1814 and provided to a biographer more than twenty years later.

Charles J. Ingersoll relied on Sioussat’s memory in his Historical Sketch of the Second War between the United States of America and Great Britain (1849):
Mrs. Madison, with the carving-knife in her hand, stood by while French John and others strove to detach the picture uninjured from its heavy external gilt frame, and preserve it whole on the inner wooden work, by which it was kept distended and screwed to the wall.

Charles Carroll, of Bellevue, a gentleman intimate in the President’s family, entered from the affair of Bladensburg [i.e., the British rout of American forces], while the French porter, John Siousa, and Irish gardener, Thomas M’Gaw, were laboring with a hatchet to take down the picture, and remonstrated against Mrs. Madison risking capture for such an object, which, Mr. Carroll urged, ought not to delay her departure.

Her letter to her sister, Mrs. Washington, states that the picture was secured before she left the house. Mr. Siousa, who is highly worthy of credit, thinks she was gone before it was done, as her letter expresses the accomplishment. The Irish gardener, to whose aid, in the midst of the work, Mr. Jacob Barker came in, according to Siousa’s recollection, while he was gone to bring an axe, got the picture down from the wall, and placed it in the hands of Mr. Barker; with whom, according to Siousa’s statement, there was no other person except a black man, whom he took for Mr. Barker’s servant.
There might be other descriptions based on Sioussat’s stories, but I haven’t found any directly from him or claiming to be based entirely on his words.

TOMORROW: A fifteen-year-old witness, and trying to pull it all together.

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