This is a good article on Dolley Madison's contribution to the War of 1812 and how she helped to save the day as the White House burned:
Dolley Madison’s White House was one of the few places in the nation where hope and determination continued to flourish. Although she was born a Quaker, Dolley saw herself as a fighter. “I have always been an advocate for fighting when assailed,” she wrote to her cousin, Edward Coles, in a May 1813 letter discussing the possibility of a British attack on the city. Spirits had risen when news of an American victory over the British frigate Macedonian, off the Canary Islands, reached the capital during a ball given in December 1812 to celebrate Congress’ decision to enlarge the Navy at last. When a young lieutenant arrived at the ball carrying the flag of the defeated ship, senior naval officers paraded it around the floor, then laid it at Dolley’s feet.
At social events, Dolley strived, in the words of one observer, “to destroy rancorous feelings, then so bitter between Federalists and Republicans.” Members of Congress, weary of flinging curses at each other during the day, seemed to relax in her presence and were even willing to discuss compromise and conciliation. Almost all their wives and daughters were Dolley’s allies. By day Dolley was a tireless visitor, leaving her calling cards all over the city. Before the war, most of her parties attracted about 300 people. Now attendance climbed to 500, and young people began calling them “squeezes.”
Dolley undoubtedly felt the stress of presiding over these crowded rooms. “My head is dizzy!” she confessed to a friend. But she maintained what an observer called her “remorseless equanimity,” even when news was bad, as it often was. Critics heaped scorn on the president, calling him “Little Jemmy” and reviving the smear that he was impotent, underscoring the battlefield defeats over which he had presided. But Dolley seemed immune to such slander. And if the president looked as if he had one foot in the grave, Dolley bloomed. More and more people began bestowing a new title on her: first lady, the first wife of a U.S. president to be so designated. Dolley had created a semipublic office as well as a unique role for herself and those who would follow her in the White House.
What about leaving Washington as the British invaded:
Her husband had urged her, if the worst happened, to save the cabinet papers and every public document she could cram into her carriage. Late in the afternoon of August 23, Dolley began a letter to her sister Lucy, describing her situation. “My friends and acquaintances are all gone,” she wrote. The army colonel and his 100-man guard had also fled. But, she declared, “I am determined not to go myself until I see Mr. Madison safe.” She wanted to be at his side “as I hear of much hostility toward him...disaffection stalks around us.” She felt her presence might deter enemies ready to harm the president.
At dawn the next day, after a mostly sleepless night, Dolley was back on the White House roof with her spyglass. Resuming her letter to Lucy at midday, she wrote that she had spent the morning “turning my spy glass in every direction and watching with unwearied anxiety, hoping to discern the approach of my dear husband and his friends.” Instead, all she saw was “groups of military wandering in all directions, as if there were a lack of arms, or of spirit to fight for their own firesides!” She was witnessing the disintegration of the army that was supposed to confront the British at nearby Bladensburg, Maryland.
Although the boom of cannon was within earshot of the White House, the battle—five or so miles away at Bladensburg—remained beyond the range of Dolley’s spyglass, sparing her the sight of American militiamen fleeing the charging British infantry. President Madison retreated toward Washington, along with General Winder. At the White House, Dolley had packed a wagon with the red silk velvet draperies of the Oval Room, the silver service and the blue and gold Lowestoft china she had purchased for the state dining room.
Resuming her letter to Lucy on that afternoon of the 24th, Dolley wrote: “Will you believe it, my sister? We have had a battle or skirmish...and I am still here within sound of the cannon!” Gamely, she ordered the table set for a dinner for the president and his staff, and insisted that the cook and his assistant begin preparing it. “Two messengers covered with dust” arrived from the battlefield, urging her to flee. Still she refused, determined to wait for her husband. She ordered the dinner to be served. She told the servants that if she were a man, she would post a cannon in every window of the White House and fight to the bitter end.
The arrival of Maj. Charles Carroll, a close friend, finally changed Dolley’s mind. When he told her it was time to go, she glumly acquiesced. As they prepared to leave, according to John Pierre Sioussat, the Madison White House steward, Dolley noticed the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington in the state dining room. She could not abandon it to the enemy, she told Carroll, to be mocked and desecrated. As he looked anxiously on, Dolley ordered servants to take down the painting, which was screwed to the wall. Informed they lacked the proper tools, Dolley told the servants to break the frame. (The president’s enslaved White House footman, Paul Jennings, later produced a vivid account of these events; see sidebar, p. 55.) About this time, two more friends—Jacob Barker, a wealthy ship owner, and Robert G. L. De Peyster—arrived at the White House to offer whatever help might be needed. Dolley would entrust the painting to the two men, saying they must conceal it from the British at all costs; they would transport the portrait to safety in a wagon. Meanwhile, with remarkable self-possession, she completed her letter to Lucy: “And now, dear sister, I must leave this house...where I shall be tomorrow, I cannot tell!”