Monday, November 10, 2014

What We're Reading: New History

When Britain Burned the White House:
The 1814 Invasion of Washington,
by Peter Snow.

The War of 1812, in which the United States declared war on Great Britain, seems in retrospect largely a blunder or misadventure. All the death and chaos resulted in a peace settlement that left things pretty much as they were before the conflict began. The war features in American memory largely as a coming of age experience for the young republic, one in which the underdog showed some fight and perhaps emerged (at least in its own hemisphere) as a power to be reckoned with. The most unequivocal American victory of the war, the Battle of New Orleans, came two weeks after the United States and Great Britain had agreed to end the war at peace talks in Ghent. The news had not yet arrived across the Atlantic.

A modern depiction of the historic burning of the White House.

Two of the most memorable events of the war were, as Snow relates here, closely related: the burning of the U.S. government buildings, including the White House, in Washington, D.C., and the assault on Baltimore shortly following that victory. Having accomplished the first feat against the odds, the British were emboldened to essay yet another. Their bombardment of Fort McHenry, which guarded the entrance to the Baltimore harbor, was immortalized in a poem written by Francis Scott Key that celebrated the survival of the huge American flag (30 x 42 feet) that had been commissioned for the fort. Key set his poem to the tune of an old English song club favorite, "Anacreon in Heaven.” It became a popular song in America and, more than a century later in 1931, it became the official U.S. national anthem.

(top)  The Capitol building after the fire. There was no dome on the Capitol during this period.
The separate Senate and House buildings were connected by a long wooden ramp,
which was burnt away by the fire. These stark illustrations of the Capitol and
(below) White House in the immediate aftermath of the fire were drawn by George Munger.

Snow’s narrative is a straightforward and narrowly focused reconstruction of these events. The research and detail are admirable, and the pace of the narrative is not slowed down by the author trying to explore larger military or political issues or, as is typical in books that treat of military actions, second guessing strategy and imagining alternate scenarios about what might have been. Snow was drawn to this story--and we as readers are drawn to it as well--because the burning of Washington, D.C. seems to be an extraordinary event that calls out for explanation. How could a nation let its capitol, its seat of government, be captured and burned by an army of less than 4,500 British soldiers? It was a rather spectacular British military feat, one that as Snow explains has much to do with the character of the British troops and their commanders in the field as well as the superiority of the British Navy and its ability to command the waterways that surrounded Washington. In prelude to the attack on Washington, Admiral Cockburn and his British fleet had been debarking to make successful raids on plantations and towns surrounding the Chesapeake. With the completion of the Duke of Wellington’s successful campaign against Napoleon on the Spanish peninsula, British reinforcements were sent directly from Spain to America. These were well trained and experienced troops, remarkably disciplined, who had a record of success under professional and talented commanders. Transported part way up the Patuxent River from the Chesapeake Bay by the largely unopposed British fleet, the army made a long march north and then turned east toward Washington, confronting an American force of almost 6,000 and defeating it at the battle of Bladensburg in Maryland. The road to Washington, but a short distance away, was now open.

British Rear Admiral George Cockburn was the driving force
behind the sack of Washington. Although Major General Robert Ross
was in command of the land forces, Cockburn with a contingent of
marines accompanied him and urged the hesitant and doubtful
Ross on. When Cockburn had his portrait painted a few years
later, he wanted his triumph in Washington
memorialized in the background.
As Snow shows us, it was not merely the superior character of the British forces that made for this disaster. The Americans, although having a larger force and the advantage in artillery, relied on untested and, as it proved, unreliable bands of local militia, a chaotic command structure, and individual commanders who had poor military judgment. The Americans at Blandensburg, for the most part, look pretty absurd in Snow’s account: The Secretary of War visiting the battle front is reluctant to offer any advice to his commander; the Secretary of State, James Monroe, is riding around issuing orders and arranging deployments when it is very unclear that he has any authority to do so; and the scholarly and diminutive Madison is scampering about on his horse toward and away from the front, unable to impose any order on the chaos. Meanwhile, Dolly Madison is back at the White House deciding what should be loaded into a cart and hauled off, while the White House staff continues to prepare a large state dinner that had been planned for the evening, one that the British officers and soldiers eventually enjoyed when they entered the city as uninvited guests. The scenes of the British occupation of Washington and the account of the looting and burning of the White House are all memorable.


Left: A portrait of Major General Robert Ross who commanded the British forces in the attack on Washington. He was much beloved by his troops. Right:  He was killed during the British advance on Baltimore. 

The British justification for the burning of Washington was that it was done in retaliation for the Americans having burned York (modern Toronto), the capital of upper Canada, but their real motivation seems to have had more to do with the psychological effects of such an action on American morale and resolve. The British wanted to demonstrate overwhelming military superiority and also to humiliate the Madison administration, which had declared the war on Britain. They hoped, by this disgraceful debacle, to cost it popular support. This may have been a miscalculation. Even the British command and the Parliament (and perhaps the king as well, according to one witness) thought the act barbaric and uncivilized--that it was beneath Britain and its code of military conduct. Certainly the Madison administration had always had its critics, particularly in the New England states, and it received harsh criticism in the immediate aftermath of the burning of Washington. But the burning of Washington seems to have done more ultimately to unite America and stiffen its resistance than to have demoralized the nation.

Snow presents us with a military victory that was remarkable, but at the same time was something less than it seemed. Although Washington was the seat of the U.S. government, it was not a large town or one that was economically important, nor was it strategically important. The burning of Washington had more to do with the other war that accompanies the military maneuvers on the battlefield--the battle for hearts and minds--and on that count, as we are shown here, tactical competence and military glory may be more equivocal measures of victory than we might readily suppose.

When Britain Burned the White House has a large and well-captioned array of illustrations (although the source and credit list for them is nearly incomprehensible) and specially drawn maps that accompany Snow’s compelling and dramatic story.

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