Veteran journalist Snow (To War with Wellington, 2010, etc.) novelistically recounts the British invasion of 1814.
Written from the British point of view, the characters come off as true gentlemen who were polite as they emptied warehouses, burned down homes and ravaged the countryside. In fairness, they only burned private property if the owners put up a fight. Worn out from fighting Napoleon in Europe, England was intent on finishing off this bit of nastiness in its former colony. Britain’s commander, Vice Adm. Alexander Cochrane, was after prize money in addition to revenge for his brother’s death at Yorktown. Naval leader George Cockburn, after savage behavior in the Chesapeake, joined with army leader Robert Ross to lead the attack on Washington, D.C. On the American side, horrendous leadership and coordination ensured a quick defeat. John Armstrong, a useless secretary of war, was President James Madison’s first error. His second was political appointee William Winder, a man detested by both Armstrong and Secretary of State James Monroe. The loss at Bladensburg, despite the bravery of Joshua Barney’s men, was humiliating, and the complete lack of a standing army or any defensive plan for the capital left it for the taking—and burning. That was the tipping point for the Americans. As the capital and White House burned, men raced to fortify and protect Baltimore. The survival of Fort McHenry after intense bombardment ended the battle with little loss. Our national anthem recalls the raising of its oversized U.S. flag. “The raising of the star-spangled banner,” writes the author, “became a symbol of [a] new determination. James Madison and his successors unashamedly abandoned their reservations about defense. They signaled their support for strong regular armed forces, and set the country on a path of expansion on land and at sea.”
With ample quotes from English letters and diaries, Snow ably brings out the humanity of his subjects.