Friday, October 22, 2010

Book Review: The Burning of Washington--The British Invasion of 1814 by Anthony Pitch

In his book, The Burning of Washington: The British Invasion of 1814 author Anthony Pitch delivers a well-documented account of the ruin of the city by British forces during the War of 1812. The story covers the Battle of Bladensburg, the march on and occupation of Washington, the burning of the public buildings (focusing on the Capitol, President’s House and the American’s own torching of the Naval Yard), as well as the British attempt to take Baltimore, which failed at Ft. McHenry. Francis Scott Key's creation of our national anthem is also covered, as well as the British retreat from Baltimore. The book ends with summaries of the Treaty of Ghent and Jackson's lopsided victory over the British at New Orleans.

War between the United States and Britain grew in part from British warships stopping and searching American ships and removing indiscriminately British deserters, naturalized Americans and native-born U.S. citizens alike for service aboard their vessels. Americans resented this and war fever spread. The book opens in Baltimore with angry fighting between pro and anti war Americans as a divided Congress votes a declaration of war, which President Madison signed on June 12, 1812.

In the summer of 1814, Washington was a town with 8,000 residents, one-sixth of them slaves. The seat of government since 1800, it possessed more swamp than boarding houses, and scant strategic importance other than that of being the capital. Hostilities during the first two years of the war were limited to America's northern border with British Canada, although a Royal Naval squadron operated in the Chesapeake, without a major infantry force.

Why attack Washington? The motivation according to Pitch, came from American excesses in the burning of York, the capital of Upper Canada, during the previous year. The assets to conduct the attack came when several thousand seasoned troops were transferred for service in America after Napoleon's defeat.

The British advance achieved complete tactical surprise. Landing Aug. 19 at Benedict, on the mouth of the Patuxent River, the British moved north, camping in Upper Marlborough MD on Aug. 22. Two days later, British troops defeated American militia at the Battle of Bladensburg, crossed the East Branch of the Potomac and marched against Washington, then unguarded and practically deserted.

On the night of Aug. 24, Washington was burned by the British. As the fire burned through the night and into the early morning, it gutted the Capitol, the president's mansion, the Treasury and other public buildings of the Nation’s Capital. The fire was observed by frightened Americans in Leesburg, Va., to the west, and north to Baltimore. These distant witnesses to the destruction were left to speculate about the safety of President James Madison, the location of key members of Congress and the proximity of the invading British troops.

The British withdrew once the capital lay in ruins, sailing on to the more economically promising targets of Alexandria and Baltimore. Although Alexandria gave up without a fight, Baltimore’s successful resistance demonstrated that the British were not invincible. American militia, given competent commanders and sufficient numbers, could stand up to a professional raiding force unable to replace its own losses. At least as significant, according to Pitch, was the decision not to relocate the capital even temporarily, but to continue governing from the ruins, which conveyed the message that, like its predecessor, this second war of independence would be fought to a finish. To the British fresh from the war with France and weary of conflict, this was a powerful incentive to negotiate. Within four months the Treaty of Ghent would be signed and America's identity as a nation was confirmed.

This well-researched book will enhance one’s view of American history in the early American, post Revolution era. The War of 1812 was our second war of independence, one that we came close to losing. It is interesting to note that the terrified U.S. government, in fleeing Washington, allowed the British Army to literally move into town virtually unopposed and burn most of the government buildings. It is also interesting that while doing this, the British treated the remaining populace with unimagined civility. Pitch also brings to light much about the inspiration and writing of the Star Spangled Banner and the importance of the Battle of Baltimore.

Finally, in the epilogue, Pitch describes the Battle of New Orleans. This battle, one of the worst defeats ever suffered by the British Army, was won by Andrew Jackson and a hodgepodge of Kentucky and Tennessee militiamen and volunteers. Amazingly, this battle never should have been fought because the Treaty of Ghent had already been signed.

All in all this is an excellent, interesting book. The author keeps the pace moving while giving enough detail to both satisfy curiosity as to why events are unfolding as they did as well as add the flavor and feel that can come from a thorough use of diary entries and contemporary accounts. This book is recommend to any student of history who would like to know more about an overlooked, but most interesting, part of American history.