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

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

by Peter Snow

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250048288
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 08/19/2014
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 599,761
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.30(d)

About 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.

Read an Excerpt

When Britain Burned the White House

The 1814 Invasion of Washington

By Peter Snow

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2013 Peter Snow
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-4894-8


Eager souls panting for fame

17 August

The American watchman on the aptly named Point Lookout awoke to an astonishing sight. Thomas Swann stood gazing at up to fifty warships flying the British flag anchored in the wide expanse of water at the entrance to the Potomac River in Chesapeake Bay. He'd never seen anything like it: mighty warships like the eighty-gun Tonnant, captured from the French at the Battle of the Nile and one of the champions of the British fleet at Trafalgar in 1805, along with several other seventy-four-gun ships of the line, as well as some smaller, faster frigates and, scattered among them, clusters of schooners and sloops of war. There were troop transports, which Swann reckoned must be carrying thousands of fighting men, and bomb ships which could cause devastation ashore with their long-range mortars. He was looking at the largest British force to hit the Chesapeake since Britain had tried and failed to crush the American revolution thirty years earlier. The bay was of great strategic importance: it commanded the approaches to the cities of Washington, Annapolis and Baltimore. Of the three, Baltimore was the largest and most prosperous with a well-protected harbour. But Washington had the prestige of being the home of Congress and the President.

It was dawn on 17 August 1814. Within hours the news would be in Washington some eighty miles away. War was about to come to the very heart of the United States. Swann, a lawyer and volunteer observer, sent an express letter to the War Secretary John Armstrong detailing the fifty-one ships he counted in the bay. One terrified American eyewitness in the coastal town of York wrote to his local newspaper that the appearance of this 'formidable' enemy fleet could only mean 'our property destroyed, our dwellings in ashes, our wives and children homeless and defenceless'.

The previous evening the bay had echoed to the thunder of British cannon. It was a salute to the final squadron to arrive, carrying 2,800 troops from southern France. Robert Barrett, a midshipman on the frigate Hebrus, had all the enthusiasm of a young lad of fifteen just embarked on a life of adventure. 'It was a glorious and imposing spectacle to behold these noble ships standing up the vast bay ... manned too with eager souls, panting for fame and opportunity to sustain the laurels they had gained in many a bloody field of Spain and Portugal.'

Another inspired by the 'glorious' sight 'of an English fleet standing up an enemy's bay with all sails set' was George Gleig. He was an eighteen-year-old subaltern with an amiable round face and curly hair, already a prolific and meticulous diarist. Until that spring he had been chronicling his adventures with the Duke of Wellington's army in the Peninsular War against the French. But that war was over. France's Emperor Napoleon had abdicated. And Gleig and his comrades had expected to go home. But pretty soon the rumour went around that the British veterans who'd fought their way through the Iberian Peninsula into southern France and others from the war in the Mediterranean would be off to America. With France defeated, now was the time to get the upper hand in another war that had become a futile drain on British resources — the conflict with the newly independent United States. The Americans were fighting the Royal Navy at sea and trying to seize parts of British Canada. Britain responded in the summer of 1814 with an enterprise designed to give the Americans what Britain's Military Secretary, Colonel Torrens called a 'good drubbing'. There was no plan to reimpose British rule.

The American war was a tiresome sideshow for the British. They had been fighting a war of survival against Napoleon, whose domination of the European continent they saw as the paramount strategic threat. And so when America's President James Madison declared war on Britain in June 1812, it seemed like a stab in the back. Madison was exasperated by what he saw as the intolerable excesses of the British empire. In applying a stranglehold on France, Britain had massively interfered with American ships trading with Europe. The Royal Navy also imperiously made a habit of impressing Americans into working on its warships – even if the men could demonstrate that they were American citizens. What was more, Americans driving west to settle in Ohio and beyond felt threatened by Britain's support for the indigenous Indian tribes who stood in their way. And so, even though the United States had won its independence from Britain a generation earlier, it felt forced to declare war against the old mother country again.

The war hadn't gone well for either side. The Americans tried and failed to seize slices of Canada. Former President Thomas Jefferson (before he was succeeded in the White House by James Madison in 1809) had boasted that conquering Canada would be a 'mere matter of marching'. The odds appeared to be massively in America's favour. Upper Canada's tiny population of less than 100,000 faced an American population of more than seven million. But it proved impossible for the American army to establish a permanent foothold across the frontier. And the British, although they possessed the most powerful navy in the world, suffered as much punishment as they inflicted in several naval encounters, and even had their Upper Canadian capital York (the modern Toronto) burned by an American marauding force in the spring of 1813. The parliament buildings there were reduced to ashes by soldiers who, the Americans claimed later, had run amok.

This debilitating war remained inconclusive. Lord Liverpool's Tory government in London was severely short of money after two decades of fighting the French. So he leapt at the opportunity of peace in Europe – with Napoleon's exile to Elba in the spring of 1814 – to deal a decisive blow against America. 'Now that the tyrant Buonaparte has been consigned to infamy,' thundered the London Times, 'there is no public feeling in this country stronger than that of indignation against the Americans ...' Parliament, press and government switched the nation's attention from Europe to America in language that knew no bounds. The Americans were called 'loathsome' and 'hateful' for having turned on Britain when it was fighting a war with the French. America's President Madison was a 'serpent'. Resentment still burned strong in Britain at the humiliating defeat it had suffered in the American War of Independence. Now it was free to turn up the heat on its former American colonies. And the fleet that appeared in the Chesapeake in August 1814 was there to do just that.

* * *

George Gleig was happy not to go straight home after Napoleon's defeat. He was as keen as anyone, he wrote, 'to gather a few more laurels even in America'. But over on the flagship, the Tonnant, Harry Smith, who'd seen rather more action than Gleig in the Peninsula, was much less happy. Two years earlier he'd rescued a beautiful Spanish girl of fourteen from British troops who'd gone berserk after their successful storming of the fortress town of Badajoz. Within minutes Smith proposed to her, and they married in the presence of Wellington, the Commander in Chief. Juana, Harry's new wife, had followed him through many a scrape in the years of fighting that ensued. And he now found it 'an awful trial' to part with her. 'I knew I must leave behind my young, fond and devoted wife, my heart was ready to burst.' They spent their last few days together in a little skiff floating down the river from Bordeaux enjoying the 'beauties of the scenery', and he finally left her 'insensible and in a faint'. Now Smith, who'd made his name as an energetic and forthright captain on Wellington's staff, was attached to a new army commander, Major General Robert Ross. The Duke of Wellington himself showed no enthusiasm for the war in America. He had always believed that wars should have clearly defined and achievable goals: the American war had neither. But he admired Ross, who'd been one of his senior commanders in Spain and southern France, and the Duke was glad to see him presented with such a promising command.

Ross was a Northern Irishman from Rostrevor in County Down, and he had done Wellington proud in the Peninsula. He had been awarded a medal for his leadership at the Battle of Vitoria the previous summer. He was notably courageous in battle, occasionally reckless: he had a habit of leading from the front and lost a number of horses killed under him. His men were devoted to him: he would occasionally entertain them by playing his violin. An American prisoner who was to meet him later said of Ross that 'he was the perfect model of the Irish gentleman of easy and beautiful manners, humane and brave ... and his prisoners had no reason to regret falling into his hands'.

It was at the Battle of Orthez in February 1814 that Ross received the near fatal neck wound that brought his wife, Elizabeth – he called her 'Ly' – riding on horseback through the snow to look after him. In a letter to her brother, Ned, he made light of his wound: 'You will be happy to hear that the hit I got in the chops is likely to prove of mere temporary inconvenience.' But Ross was now worried about the deep depression that had seized Elizabeth when he broke the news that far from coming home he was off to another war in America. 'The prospect of your unhappiness', he wrote to his wife in mid-July, 'dismays me considerably. The care which our young ones require ought to make you consider the care of yourself of the most infinite consequence. Do, my Ly, somehow dispel all those gloomy ideas ...' Concern for Elizabeth was to hang like a dark shadow over Ross throughout the next gruelling weeks. He wrote to reassure her that he believed the contest with America would be over by the end of the year 'so as to restore my Ly to me. What a joyful meeting after the most melancholy separation we have ever had.' His letter went on to give a hint that he hoped he would come back with a generous share of any prize money. As the army commander in the operation, he told Elizabeth, 'any advantage to be derived from it will I trust fall to my lot'. Like his naval colleagues Ross expected the campaign to add handsomely to his earnings.

Ross was fortunate in two key aides, both still showing the scars of their own wounds in the Peninsula: Harry Smith was one, George de Lacy Evans the other, a lieutenant, one rank junior to Smith. Both of them were burning with ambition and enthusiasm for the mission. Evans was a tearaway young cavalry officer who was given a medal for leading his dragoons in repeated charges at the Battle of Vitoria in 1813. Ross wrote to his wife that he was 'much pleased' with his staff officers. 'In addition to Smith, the Brigade Major, who improves much upon acquaintance, I have a Mr Evans of the Quarter Master General's department who is an extremely intelligent active fellow and' [as if that wasn't commendation enough] 'an Irishman.' Both competed energetically to influence Ross, though Smith was less impressed with his chief than was Evans, and Ross may have detected this. Certainly the general went out of his way as the campaign progressed to try to promote George Evans to the same level as Harry Smith. It was enough to inject a touch of jealousy into Smith's spirit of comradely rivalry with Evans.

Within minutes of arriving in Chesapeake Bay Ross met the admiral who was to be the driving force of the British blitzkrieg of the next few weeks, Rear Admiral George Cockburn. Cockburn had impressed Nelson with his fierce self-confidence and courage at the Battle of Cape St Vincent off Portugal in 1797 and at several engagements in the Mediterranean. Here in America he had been causing terror and destruction in the Chesapeake for the last eighteen months. People in coastal towns lived in fear of their homes being burned and their tobacco crop and other valuables being seized and sold for profit by Cockburn's marauding troops. He was often seen accompanying his men ashore – he relished being involved in the action – in his admiral's two-cornered hat and familiar jet-black uniform jacket with gold epaulettes. By the end of 1813, he was being attacked in the American press for behaviour it described as 'brutal' and 'savage'. The Boston Gazette called him 'the notorious barbarian Admiral Cockburn ... there breathes not in any quarter of the globe a more savage monster than this same British admiral. He is a disgrace to England and to human nature.' Another newspaper reported the offer of 'a reward of one thousand dollars for the head of the notorious incendiary and infamous scoundrel, and violator of all laws, the British Admiral Cockburn, or five hundred dollars for each of his ears on delivery'. Cockburn's aide-de-camp, James Scott, who witnessed much of the fighting, welcomed the raging reaction of the American press. 'It exposed their weakness in the eyes of the world,' he wrote in his diary. 'The abuse and vituperation ... out Heroded Herod; there was no crime no outrage however flagitious that was not placed to his account.' Scott reports that the admiral's raids did indeed spread fire and destruction and earned piles of prize money, and that Cockburn often put himself in danger by plunging into the middle of the action. To Scott the admiral had always been a hero – from the moment he joined Cockburn's frigate HMS Phaeton way back in his early teens. And he also claims that Cockburn was renowned for his gentlemanly gallantry. When on one raid his men burst in upon a party of young women and sent them scuttling in panic into a corner of the room, Cockburn arrived and assured them they would come to no harm. 'The courtly demeanour of the Admiral and promises of protection restored the roses to their smiling countenances and they learned that the enemy and the gentleman may be combined without disparagement to either.'

Cockburn was not in fact as unscrupulous as he liked his enemy to believe. He applied strict rules of engagement. Towns that surrendered to his raids he would spare; towns that resisted he would burn. Livestock and other food, he insisted, should be paid for, never looted, again always providing there was no opposition. As even one early twentieth-century American historian observed: 'The harassing of the shores, however, was carried out in a mild and gentlemanly fashion – private property being respected, or if it were levied upon, payment was made unless the owners offered resistance.' In practice the presence of American militia in many towns made a clash inevitable. And once battle was joined Cockburn abandoned restraint: burning, plunder, confiscation, all were fair game. And the outcome was often so savage that one British officer, Colonel Charles Napier, who served with Cockburn, complained: 'Strong is my dislike to what is perhaps a necessary part of our job, viz, plundering and ruining the peasantry ... it is hateful to see the poor yankees robbed and to be the robber.' Napier made no secret of his contempt for what he saw as Cockburn's 'impetuous' way of conducting raids. Napier was one of Wellington's grizzled Peninsular veterans who'd delighted in killing Frenchmen at Bussaco and Badajoz, but he had his doubts about fighting fellow Anglo-Saxons: 'It is quite shocking to have men who speak our own language brought in wounded; one feels as if they were English peasants and that we are killing our own people.' To one British seaman, Frederick Chamier, the type of warfare in which he was engaged with George Cockburn was 'a blot on our escutcheons ... We most valiantly set fire to unprotected property and notwithstanding the imploring looks of the old women, we, like a parcel of savages, danced round the wreck.'


Excerpted from When Britain Burned the White House by Peter Snow. Copyright © 2013 Peter Snow. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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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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