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When Britain Burned the White House: The 1814 Invasion of Washington

Overview

In August 1814, the United States army was defeated just outside Washington, D.C., by the world’s greatest military power. President James Madison and his wife had just enough time to flee the White House before the British invaders entered. British troops stopped to feast on the meal still sitting on the Madisons’ dining-room table before setting the White House on fire. The extent of the destruction was massive; finished in wood rather than marble, everything inside the mansion was combustible. Only the outer ...

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When Britain Burned the White House: The 1814 Invasion of Washington

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Overview

In August 1814, the United States army was defeated just outside Washington, D.C., by the world’s greatest military power. President James Madison and his wife had just enough time to flee the White House before the British invaders entered. British troops stopped to feast on the meal still sitting on the Madisons’ dining-room table before setting the White House on fire. The extent of the destruction was massive; finished in wood rather than marble, everything inside the mansion was combustible. Only the outer stone walls would withstand the fire.

The tide of the War of 1812 would quickly turn, however. Less than a month later, American troops would stand victorious at the Battle of Fort McHenry. Poet Francis Scott Key, struck by the sight of the American flag waving over Fort McHenry, jotted down the beginnings of a poem that would be set to music and become the U.S. national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner.”

In his compelling narrative style, Peter Snow recounts the fast-changing fortunes of that summer’s extraordinary confrontations. Drawing from a wealth of material, including eyewitness accounts, Snow describes the colorful personalities on both sides of those spectacular events: including the beleaguered President James Madison and First Lady Dolley, American heroes such as Joshua Barney and Sam Smith, and flawed military leaders like Army Chief William Winder and War Secretary John Armstrong. On the British side, Snow re-creates the fiery Admiral George Cockburn, the cautious but immensely popular Major General Robert Ross, and sharp-eyed diarists James Scott and George Gleig.

When Britain Burned the White House highlights this unparalleled moment in British and American history, the courageous, successful defense of Fort McHenry and the American triumph that would follow, and America’s and Britain’s decision to never again fight each other.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
05/19/2014
In time for the event’s 200th anniversary, British journalist Snow (To War with Wellington) delivers a new telling of how the British Army set the White House on fire. As Snow acknowledges, many historians have tackled the subject before, and his version adds little of moment to what we already know and takes no novel approach. Yet never before has this story been told more fully or more engagingly, with greater empathy for both sides, or with greater balance. The story is familiar enough: the British enter the Chesapeake, attack and burn the nation’s incompetently defended seat of government (including the Capitol and White House), then move on to Baltimore, where they’re defeated on land and at sea before Ft. McHenry. A national humiliation is then redeemed. The British withdraw, and peace soon ensues. Snow dug deeply into records and reminiscences and, especially for the British side, brought the combatants, simple and august, alive. The pace is brisk, the characterizations sure, the judgments done with a light touch. The book distinguishes itself by rounding off the story of Washington with the subsequent Baltimore attack—both part of the larger British Chesapeake campaign. For the story of that campaign, this is now the narrative to read. (Aug.)
From the Publisher
“[An] excellent account…Snow, an experienced British journalist, has told the story of those engagements with brio and a fine gift for making sense of the complexities of battle… a fine example of serious and literate popular history… It ranks with Anthony S. Pitch’s fine “The Burning of Washington” (2000) as among the best accounts of a war that hardly deserves to be forgotten.”—Washington Post

“Snow’s narrative is authoritative and absorbing, his profiles sure and compelling, his judgments considered and fair, and his documentation most impressive. Wonderful for 19th-century political, military, and diplomatic history; specialists in Anglo-American relations; general readers; and all libraries.” —Library Journal, Starred Review

“Never before has this story been told more fully or more engagingly, with greater empathy for both sides, or with greater balance…Snow dug deeply into records and reminiscences and, especially for the British side, brought the combatants, simple and august, alive. The pace is brisk, the characterizations sure, the judgments done with a light touch. The book distinguishes itself by rounding off the story of Washington with the subsequent Baltimore attack—both part of the larger British Chesapeake campaign. For the story of that campaign, this is now the narrative to read.”—Publishers Weekly

“With ample quotes from English letters and diaries, Snow ably brings out the humanity of his subjects.”—Kirkus Reviews

“A well-done chronicle of an episode of the war that helped to shape the ‘special relationship’ between the U.S. and Britain.”—Booklist

“Snow says ‘the clarity, humanity and wit of British and American men and women who were there bring the story alive as if it had happened today.’ He can take credit for bringing those attributes to the page.”—Marine Corps Times

“Peter Snow’s account of this extraordinary event in British-American relations reads like a military thriller, each chapter raising the tension with a mass of detail and a kaleidoscope of characters who transform this book from what could have been a dry, chronological account into a riveting romp. . . . Snow adds an extra ingredient—a boyish enthusiasm for his subject . . . a meticulous and fascinating account.” —The Times (UK)

“Snow builds his account on the voices of those who fought and witnessed the campaign, from nervous U.S. militiamen to Ross, Cockburn, and Dolley Madison, the president’s resourceful wife. Written with verve and insight, this is a fitting reminder of a remarkable interlude in a war that deserves to be better known.” —BBC History Magazine

“The result is superb. When Britain Burned the White House is an exemplary work of history—lucid, witty, and humane, with terrific pace, and so evenhanded that it will surely be received as well in America as here.” —The Spectator (UK)

 

Kirkus Reviews
2014-06-01
Veteran journalist Snow (To War with Wellington, 2010, etc.) novelistically recounts the British invasion of 1814.Written from the British point of view, the characters come off as true gentlemen who were polite as they emptied warehouses, burned down homes and ravaged the countryside. In fairness, they only burned private property if the owners put up a fight. Worn out from fighting Napoleon in Europe, England was intent on finishing off this bit of nastiness in its former colony. Britain’s commander, Vice Adm. Alexander Cochrane, was after prize money in addition to revenge for his brother’s death at Yorktown. Naval leader George Cockburn, after savage behavior in the Chesapeake, joined with army leader Robert Ross to lead the attack on Washington, D.C. On the American side, horrendous leadership and coordination ensured a quick defeat. John Armstrong, a useless secretary of war, was President James Madison’s first error. His second was political appointee William Winder, a man detested by both Armstrong and Secretary of State James Monroe. The loss at Bladensburg, despite the bravery of Joshua Barney’s men, was humiliating, and the complete lack of a standing army or any defensive plan for the capital left it for the taking—and burning. That was the tipping point for the Americans. As the capital and White House burned, men raced to fortify and protect Baltimore. The survival of Fort McHenry after intense bombardment ended the battle with little loss. Our national anthem recalls the raising of its oversized U.S. flag. “The raising of the star-spangled banner,” writes the author, “became a symbol of [a] new determination. James Madison and his successors unashamedly abandoned their reservations about defense. They signaled their support for strong regular armed forces, and set the country on a path of expansion on land and at sea.”With ample quotes from English letters and diaries, Snow ably brings out the humanity of his subjects.
Library Journal
★ 08/01/2014
In observance of the "Burning of Washington" bicentennial, Snow (Hussein) offers an excellent account (first published in the UK in 2013) of how the British ignited the White House, the Capitol, and other public buildings on August 24, 1814. The author-historian traces the stationing of Admiral George Cockburn's impressive armada—laden with assault troops—in Chesapeake Bay, the local militias' inability to stop an invasion of these 4,500 veterans at the Battle of Bladensberg, the subsequent torching of America's seat of government, the Brits' failed attempt to occupy Baltimore, and the redcoats' ultimate stalemate in a sea operation before Fort McHenry. One is reminded that there is still lingering ambiguity as to which side really won the War of 1812, which terminated in a negotiated peace mandating the return of all conquered territory. The reader is left to decide. VERDICT Snow's narrative is authoritative and absorbing, his profiles sure and compelling, his judgments considered and fair, and his documentation most impressive. Wonderful for 19th-century political, military, and diplomatic historians; specialists in Anglo-American relations; general readers; and all libraries.—John Carver Edwards, Univ. of Georgia Libs., Cleveland
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781250048288
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 8/19/2014
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 80,153
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

PETER SNOW is a highly respected British journalist, author, and broadcaster. He was ITN’s diplomatic and defence correspondent from 1966 to 1979 and presented Newsnight from 1980 to 1997. An indispensable part of election nights, he has also covered military matters on and off the world’s battlefields for forty years. Peter is married and has six children.

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Table of Contents

1. Eager souls panting for fame (17 August)

2. The great little Madison (17 August)

3. Into the Patuxent (18–19 August)

4. A black floating mass of smoke (20–22 August)

5. Not till I see Mr Madison safe (23 August)

6. Be it so, we will proceed (24 August, morning)

7. Bladensburg: a fi ne scamper (24 August, afternoon)

8. Barney’s last stand (24 August, afternoon)

9. Save that painting! (24 August, evening)

10. The barbarous purpose (24 August, evening)

11. The dreadful majesty of the flames (24 August, night)

12. Damn you! You shan’t stay in my house (25 August)

13. Into the Potomac (26–27 August)

14. A tempest of dissatisfaction (28–29 August)

15. Do not attack Baltimore! (End of August)

16. Is my wife alive and well? (End of August)

17. The star-shaped fort and its banner (1–11 September)

18. Many heads will be broken tonight (12 September)

19. The Battle of North Point (12 September)

20. The rockets’ red glare (13 September)

21. You go on at your peril (13 September)

22. Unparalleled in history (Aftermath)

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