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An Interview With Author Anthony S. Pitch

The Burning of Washington By Anthony S. PitchOn a recent trip to Washington, I had happened upon Mr. Pitch signing copies of his books in the lobby of the American History Museum.  It was a stroke of very good luck for me, as I discovered his books are excellent, and he is an extremely erudite and generous guy.  Mr. Pitch very kindly agreed to answer some questions about his book (reviewed here), his research, and even shared some of his insights into the book writing process.

Martin:  I can tell by your voice that you’re not from these parts!  Where are you from?  What’s your background? How did you come to live in D.C.?

Anthony:  I came here from England in 1969 and was sent by the Associated Press, for whom I had worked in London, to the AP bureau in Philadelphia, where I eventually became Broadcast Editor for Pennsylvania. I came to Washington 31 years ago as a senior writer for US. News and World Report in their books division.   I was assigned to write a book on the Tonkin Gulf incident and the origins of the Vietnam war for their book series on that conflict. Their books division closed in 1982 during a recession.  At that point I resolved not to work for anyone else ever again. I started publishing maps, guidebooks and souvenir books on Washington, D.C. and that evolved into giving anecdotal history tours, while still allowing me time to research and write my serious books on American history.

Martin: How did you come to be interested in American History?

Anthony:  I absolutely love all the resources I have access to so conveniently. I live only 20 miles north of the Library of Congress and the National Archives. This is home and I naturally became a U.S. citizen years ago.

Martin:   I bought They Have Killed Papa Dead!, but note from the dust jacket of Burning Washington, and Amazon that you have apparently written many others, largely self-published.  How did you make the transition to getting published by Naval Institute Press?

Anthony:  The self-published books relate only to my guidebooks and souvenir books on Washington, not my serious non-fiction books. The Naval Institute Press is close by and they immediately accepted my manuscript on The Burning of Washington: The British Invasion of 1814. I work in an unorthodox way. I finish the book first and then I submit it to publishers.  I probably received almost a dozen rejections for each of book before I was accepted. While its an awful experience to get rejection slips, in a way, it’s character building. Yet I have always had the last laugh. The Burning of Washington was a selection of the History Book Club. My latest book on Lincoln’s assassination, “They Have Killed Papa Dead!” was voted best book of the year by the seven states making up the mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference while the Chicago Sun-Times lauded it as “if not the definitive story of the assassination and the events before and after, then the one that readers should turn to first.”

Martin: What advice do you have for prospective authors and historians on getting published?  I see a book or two in my future … maybe.

Anthony:  Belief in one’s self.  I am giving a history tour tonight and have been asked to focus on Lincoln and leadership.  Lincoln once said,  “Your own resolution to succeed is more important than any one thing.”  If an editor sends you one of those mortifying rejection slips, remember it’s only one editor. My Lincoln book was rejected about 10 times, yet I received rave reviews after publication. My advice to authors is not to be deterred by rejection slips.  Just press on.  A lot of best-sellers went through this process.  It’s the attitude that is so important, don’t give in.  Remember, the rejection comes from one editor, not necessarily the whole publishing house.  It’s very subjective.

Martin: Tell me about your sightseeing tour business. How does that tie in with your writing?

Anthony: My anecdotal history tours draw on information from my books.  I take lots of families and private groups.  I still do the guidebooks, give dozens of speeches every year, both in this metropolitan area and in other states.  I keep pretty busy.

Martin: I really enjoyed the vignette about Alexander Contee Hanson with which you opened the book.  What gave you the idea to start with it?  (I thought it was a brilliant way to show the political mood of the country.)

Anthony:  The opening chapter is about a crazed mob attacking a newspaper publisher and others, including Revolutionary War heroes, intent on defying the government’s declaration of war against Britain and their belief in freedom to dissent. It happened within days of the declaration of war by Congress. I wanted to show the attitude of the mob and the depth of passions on both sides – those in favor of war with Britain and those opposed.  Light Horse Harry Lee’s patriotic accomplishments of the past didn’t matter one bit to the mob. Even heroes of the revolution were not safe. Neither were the very principles for which they fought the Revolution.

Martin:  Tell me a little about the sources you liked best.

Anthony: I went to newspapers and journals in the periodical and manuscripts divisions of the Library of Congress and read a lot of people’s correspondence and diaries. Raucous debates reported in the Annals of Congress were especially useful. The Maryland Historical Society was another great resource – a lot of the correspondence survived, journals and diaries of Baltimore residents. This is the principle I used in all my books so that I project the contemporaneous and authentic voices of spectators and participants.

For instance, I found a letter from Phoebe Morris to her father who was the minister (ambassador) to Spain.  It gives a real flavor for how dire events were perceived to be. When the British were repulsed at Baltimore after failing to subdue Fort McHenry, Phoebe wrote from Philadelphia: “We may yet be able to repulse the enemy and not, as I have heard the Federalists say, be obliged in less than three months to take the oath of allegiance to Great Britain.”  This was a very telling statement and indicates how high the stakes were in the eyes of some people.

Martin:  Much of your story takes place in Baltimore, was it a different culture in Baltimore than New England?

Anthony:  Baltimore in 1812 was the third largest settlement in the country and was more bellicose, with its boisterous immigrant artisans, entrepreneurs and solid civic leaders who could no longer stomach the threat to their livelihoods by marauding British ships.

Martin: I’ve been scanning through the Niles Weekly Register and have made it through the first couple years.  I’m up to where the war of 1812 has just been declared.  I noted that you cited it as one of your sources.  How do you think it compares with the National Intelligencer?  My local University Library has it on microfilm and I’m considering a trip down there.

Anthony:  The National Intelligencer, published in Washington, D.C., was a mouthpiece for the government. It played a pivotal role in crafting people’s opinions of the war.  Cockburn destroyed the press as payback for its drumbeat of printed attacks against the British.  It was a very useful source. I read it on microfilm.

Martin: Can you elaborate on Augustus John Foster?  I’ve read some of the correspondence between him and Monroe in the Niles Register.  How on earth did you uncover the rather scandalous lifestyle of his mother?  I read where you mentioned that his mother was part of a menage a trois?  That is certainly not something I’ve read in one of the period newspapers!

Anthony:  When I came across the letters of Augustus John Foster, a British diplomat based in Washington, they were not only perceptive but hilarious.  A Library of Congress employee  actually did a dissertation on them. I felt it important to contrast the American culture with that of the British.  I included information about Foster’s mother living in a menage a trois because it not only provided color but showed the eccentricities of the British aristocracy at that time.

Martin: What was the richest trove of information for your book? You listed an impressive bunch of sources.  What was the most unlikely?  Were you able to plumb any British sources?  Did you have to travel anywhere to gather information?

Anthony:  Yes, I went to the National Archives in England and did a lot of research there.  I also went to the British Defense Ministry and corresponded with an archival repository in Scotland. I tried to trace the background of the family of the British officer who took Madison’s sword from the White House.

Roger WeightmanSpeaking of which, as an interesting aside, after the book was published, I learned that an auction house in New York was offering for sale a check made out by President Madison to Roger Weightman. No one but i really knew the significance of Weightman, whom the auction house erroneously referred to as Wrightman. The auction house even misspelled his name as Wrightman. He was a Washington bookseller, and he was hauled into the White House by Admiral Cockburn to be a symbolic representative of Americans, to witness the humiliating spectacle of the British burning the President’s official residence. Weightman later became Mayor of Washington. The check, for $66.09, was made out by Madison only 23 days before the British burned the White House. As I alone knew all about Weightman and the proximity of the date of the check to the destruction of the White House, I bought it. One day I might donate it to the White House if I can be assured that it is displayed so that the public can see it.

Martin: I’ve read a bit about Cochrane but didn’t recollect his involvement in the fleet that attacked Fort McHenry.  You focused more on Cockburn and Ross which is no doubt commensurate with their roles in the events.  But, given Cochrane’s flamboyant personality I wondered at his being so lightly covered.  Was he as much behind the scenes as it seems?

Anthony: Cochrane was not the driving force behind the capture of Washington. It was Admiral George Cockburn, who successfully convinced his superior land commander, General Robert Ross, to defy orders from their superior, Sir Alexander Cochrane, and not to return to their ships until they had destroyed the public buildings in the nation’s capital. It was Cochrane who made the call to abandon the attack on Baltimore and Fort McHenry.

Martin:  Speaking of Cockburn and Ross, Ross had his horse shot out from him by an unidentified gunman in Washington when the British arrived on Capitol Hill. The sniper was in Albert Gallatin’s residence. Was it actually Gallatin’s house, or a house that he had rented?  They burned it to the ground.  Would you care to speculate on what might have happened had Ross been killed?

Anthony: Gallatin, then part of the U.S. delegation in Europe negotiating peace with the British, had rented the house when he was in Washington. It was rather ironic. I don’t like to speculate, but I feel I’m on safe ground in saying that Admiral Cockburn was only restrained by Ross’s presence.  Ross was the civilizing force that prevented wholesale destruction.

Martin:  I’m doing my best to educate myself on the Founders as people as well as on what they accomplished.  I recently read H. G. Unger’s Monroe biography and found it interesting to compare your treatment of Madison with his. Neither of you has a high opinion of the Secretary of War Armstrong.   And you both appear to agree that Monroe was a heck of guy, but you are largely silent about Madison, while Unger doesn’t pull any punches.  Can you elaborate on your perceptions of Madison as a president?

Anthony:  The surviving record doesn’t say much about Madison during this crisis.  He seems to be in the background a lot.  He does not play a pivotal role.  Armstrong was responsible for the debacle at Bladensburg.  However, Madison was the first sitting American President to face enemy fire.  But he doesn’t appear from the record to have been in charge. He is not on the scene in Baltimore. I tend to agree that Madison was either ineffectual or weak.  Remember the scene in the book between Armstrong and Madison where Madison doesn’t force the issue of Armstrong’s resignation?  Armstrong was totally at fault, yet had the gall in his eventual letter of resignation to blame others for the humiliating destruction of Washington. Madison could not  bring himself to make him resign!  That’s a pretty strong indicator of poor administration or weak leadership or, more likely, courtesy taken to extraordinary limits.

Martin:  What did you leave out of the book that you wish you could have incorporated?

Anthony:  The biggest thing was the title!  It should have been titled The Burning of Washington and the Birth of the National Anthem.  After all, one quarter of the book is about the birth of the National Anthem!

Martin: Lord Acton (I think) said that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.   As you were researching this book, what parallels for today struck you if any?

Anthony:  Vietnam. My experience of researching the Vietnam War showed that both conflicts polarized the nation. There are also strong parallels between the assassination of Lincoln with 9/11.  I recently wrote an online essay for US News and World Report on this very topic.

Martin: What didn’t I ask you that you wish I had, or that I should have asked?

Anthony: Your questions were spot on.  Hmmm…   A lot of people ask me how come the United States and Britain are so close today, having fought against each other during the Revolutionary War and in the War of 1812. Congressman John Randolph from Virginia may have hit on this with his speech against war with Britain. He alluded to a common  culture, especially, as he said, they shared the same language, blood, religion, habeus corpus, representative government, and even the works of Shakespeare and Newton.

I’m frequently so surprised at lack of knowledge about the war of 1812.  After all, the National Anthem was written by Francis Scott Key during this war.

Martin:  Indeed, I’m often chagrined about peoples lack of knowledge of American history in general.  What is your next project?

Anthony: I am writing a book about a quadruple lynching in 1946 in Georgia.  It’s a cold case and still open. The FBI just sent me almost 4000 recently declassified documents.

Martin: Thanks!  I really enjoyed speaking with you.

Anthony:  It was my pleasure.


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