8/11/2001 • American History Reviews, George Washington, War of 1812

THE BURNING OF WASHINGTON: THE BRITISH INVASION OF 1814, by Anthony S. Pitch, Naval Institute Press, 304 pages, $32.95.

Although the British invasion and the torching of the nation’s capital in the summer of 1814 is one of the most dramatic events in American history, the episode has a remarkably low profile in the national consciousness. Perhaps the reason, as Anthony S. Pitch speculates, is that it was–and remains–too humiliating to dwell upon. If Americans know much about the historic event at all, it is probably the scene of Dolley Madison rescuing George Washington’s portrait before the enemy set fire to the White House.

Although other books have been written about the burning of Washington, Pitch’s is the only one now in print. It thus fills a conspicuous void and does it surpassingly well. The author proves that the finest way to create immediacy in historical writing is to use the reports of eyewitnesses, and he has done an impressive job of tracking down primary sources–diaries, letters, journals, and newspapers–on both sides of the Atlantic.

Pitch begins by sketching the origins of the conflict, and through a description of a Baltimore riot he demonstrates that the War of 1812, like later conflicts in Mexico and Vietnam, sorely divided the United States. He then tells how the British landed on the Patuxent River in August 1814, routed the Americans in the Battle of Bladensburg, and then marched to Washington.

Once in possession of the city, the British occupiers, following the courtly code of contemporary warfare, kept their troops from looting and destroying private property. Public property, however, was another matter, and the soldiers set fire to building after building, including the president’s house and the grand U.S. Capitol, admired by its destroyers for its sculpture and ornamented columns.

The author makes it clear that the situation was worsened by the defenders’ ineptness. Most of the U.S. troops were untried militia, their equipment was either lacking or outdated, and they were thoroughly unprepared for war. Some soldiers were in winter gear while others were barefoot. This tale, however, ends on an uplifting note with the failed British attack on Baltimore, where the Americans acquitted themselves bravely and provided Francis Scott Key with the inspiration to write “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The Battle of New Orleans, fought after the signing of the peace treaty, was another shining hour for the Americans.

Pitch could have provided more information about the war’s importance in the context of U.S. history–how, for example, it stimulated internal improvements, wrecked the Federalist Party, and inspired the populace to turn with optimism toward the settlement of the West. Nevertheless, the author furnishes a good description of how–despite the mournful events at Washington–this “second war of independence” gained the young nation the grudging, but genuine, respect of its British foes and cousins.

Joe Gustaitis is a writer specializing in popular history and a frequent contributor to American History.