Review: When Britain Burned the White House

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

Thomas Dunne Books, 2014.  Hardcover, 320 pages.Cover: When Britian Burned the White House

Note:  For the upcoming American Independence Day, a reminder the fight for freedom did not end with the American Revolution, thus my pick for this week’s book review.

First off, I originally selected When Britain Burned the White House in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway because I thought it would be good to know more about the War of 1812.  Even my college-level course barely glanced over it.  I did win the copy I read and I was pleasantly surprised.  This book was not only informative, but it was immaculately researched and written with a well-flowing prose.  Plus it honestly read like a good adventure novel!  I never expected to thoroughly enjoy reading this book!

Peter Snow, the brother-in-law of World War I historian Margaret MacMillan, focused in on the one month period from August 17 to September 13, 1814.  The British had just defeated Napoleon and exiled him for the first time allowing them to turn their attentions towards their former colony.  The two nations had been at war for the past two years with skirmishes occurring in Canada and at sea.  The Americans had also burned York (modern-day Toronto), the British Canadian capital.  Initially, the British fleet under Admiral Alexander Cochrane and the Army component it carried led by General Robert Ross were only to harass the American coast.  However, Admiral George Cockburn (pronounced co-burn), whom had been raiding the coast already, convinced Ross to take things one step further and march on to Washington, D.C.  And this book examines that influence, decisions made about the campaign, American response, and both sides thoughts about the conflict.  Most famously focused on were the march on and burning of Washington, D.C. and the later bombing at Fort McHenry at Baltimore.

Readers will gain many understandings.  They will see how Cockburn influenced Ross and other ranking commanders to do against orders from London.  They will understand just how unorganized and unprepared the American military and militias were leading up to these events.  Readers will see how President James Madison‘s cabinet bickered among themselves, causing much disorganization among the troops via conflicting orders and his reliance on Secretary of State James Monroe (whom during this month would also become Secretary of War).  They will also see how tired and worn the British troops were after the European Peninsular Campaign ended and how that also led to struggles within the British ranks once back on land.

Better yet, the political and military leaders were not the only focus.  The experiences of the average solider on both sides were addressed.  So were the non-combatants, such as the women who fled the capital or opted to remain and the American doctors who cared for both sides without hesitation.  And remember the story of how Dolley Madison saved George Washington’s portrait?  It was told in her own words and those of her loyalest servant, a slave she later freed.  And of this was done in such a way that it flowed naturally in the text; not once did it feel forced.

Snow used a brilliant technique by not simply retelling the story; he let the words of those who were there shone through.  He uses extensive excerpts from letters, diaries, memoirs, battle reports, etc. to let history be told in the participants and observers own words.  In cases where there are opposing viewpoints on a situation, he provided quotes from both sides so that readers can cast their own judgements.  He uses his own words to summarize and describe events and connect them to the excerpts; sometimes these are mere sentences and other times pages.  This technique also helped make the book feel more “personal” though sharing the observations of those who were there.

It is also important to note that the author’s note points out that since the War of 1812 is infrequently studied, this is the first non-diary/memoir published on this campaign!  It was written with the express purpose of filling a gap and because the author realized that the topic is often presented as a sideshow to the Napoleonic Wars and the American Revolution.

Do you think you’ll read this work and learn about this forgotten piece of American history?  Do you have a favored book from or about this historical era to share?


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