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.
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.