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The Burning of Washington: The British Invasion of 1814 by Anthony S. Pitch

Anthony S. Pitch

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On June 6, 2011
Last modified:October 4, 2012


While on a recent visit to Washington D.C. on business I took a few extra days to do some sight-seeing and happened by the American History Museum. As fortune would have it, the author of this book was seated at a small table near the exit with a stack of his books. Naturally unable to resist, I bought a copy of each. Now, having finished reading The Burning of Washington, I can unequivocally say that it was good fortune indeed. At the time I wondered at the mild irony of the author's English accent, given the title of his book!

The Burning of Washington By Anthony S. PitchThe Burning of Washington begins by depicting the polarized opinions of Americans, the majority of whom were frustrated and angry with British hegemony.  Thousands of Americans had been impressed into service by the Royal Navy, which could not be persuaded to abandon such a lucrative source of manpower.  Compounding the problem was the fact that British seamen would frequently desert to ply their trade in the American merchant marine for higher pay and better treatment.  British captains, constantly struggling to man their ships, frequently stretched their definition of who was or had been a British citizen.  They would hold American vessels at gunpoint and search them for “deserters.”  Pitch explains:

Unable to find sufficient numbers of sailors to man their growing merchant fleet, Americans looked abroad, and British seamen, attracted by the higher pay and better conditions, had deserted and signed up in droves.  Alarmed by the drain on its own manpower, the British Admiralty reacted with the blunt instrument of its own navy.  British politicians trumpted the country’s lifelong claim to the services of anyone born a British subject.  The reach extended so far that Britain did not even accept the right of its people to renounce citizenship.  Under such laws, the Royal Navy was free to roam the seas and grab even those Britons who had become naturalized Americans.  But as citizenship was so difficult to prove, especially at sea, American-born sailors were often dragged off their own ships.  To many Americans, these were broadsides on a nation’s sovereignty, indignities that could not be endured.

Aside from the impressment issue, American had been caught between the belligerent powers in Europe for more than a decade.  Both Britain and France were determined to cut off each other’s maritime trade with neutrals.   They imposed more and more restrictions on trade, Americans became more and more frustrated.  Jefferson and Madison implemented their own retaliatory measures in the form of a blanket embargo which backfired with disastrous results for the American economy.  The Federalists, now out of power, tried to make the case that America had much more in common with Britain than with France, but public opinion was decidedly more anti-British than anti-French.

Alexander Contee HansonPitch illustrates the height which passions had reached by recounting a dark episode in Baltimore’s history concerning a Federalist newspaper editor, by the name of Alexander Contee Hanson.  Hanson published a paper called the Federal Republican and Commercial Gazette.  After numerous attempts to circumvent Federalist filibustering, the hawks in the Senate finally prevailed via some parliamentary legerdemain, and America declared war on Britain on June 18, 1812.  Hanson vowed to do all in his power to win over public opinion by hammering the Madison administration through every legal means possible.  His bold pronouncements made him a target for nationalistic fury.  He became an enemy of the mob.  They didn’t wait long, destroying his place of business on June 22, 1812, when Hanson happened to be away.  They literally tore down the building and scattered his type and printing materials.

This did not deter Hanson. By the end of July, he was back in business in a new location.  He printed his papers in Georgetown, and distributed them in Baltimore.  He published the address of his establishment on the masthead of his paper and made no attempt to tone down his rhetoric.  Predictably, the mob reasserted itself, determined to shut him down at a minimum and do bodily violence if possible.  However, this time, Hanson had a few supporters and barricaded himself and his followers, armed for self protection.  Among his friends were revolutionary war General James McCubban Lingan and Harry Light-Horse Lee, father of Robert E. Lee, and the man who delivered the stirring eulogy for George Washington. Hanson’s supporters consisted of like-minded anti-war Federalists as well as intellectuals who were there on principle.  Hanson was within his rights according to the Constitution – popular or not.  Over 400 angry citizens soon surrounded the building on Charles Street in which Hanson and his friends were barricaded.

The city’s most prominent political and military leaders were either unable or unwilling to step in and enforce the rule of law.   They all knew that Baltimore faced catastrophe if the British squeezed shut its seafaring income.  And no one had the stomach to protect pariah’s like Hanson, whose politics they detested.   Besides, they all knew the fate awaiting anyone who would dare order shots fired against the rioters.

Early the next morning, [head of the MD militia, General] Stricker and [Baltimore’s Mayor, Edward] Johnson entered the house to offer safe conduct to the jail, the mayor expressing fear of a civil war.  “To jail for what!” fumed Hanson.  “For protecting my house and property against a mob!” And then prophetically, “You cannot protect us to jail, or after we are in jail.”

He was right, they were pummeled and stoned on the way to jail and once inside, they were not safe for long.  The mob dispersed but returned that night and broke into the jail, severely beating Light-Horse Lee and killing several others, including General Lingan who had proved his mettle against the British, surviving incarceration in a prison ship during the American Revolution.  Lee never fully recovered and died only a few years later, a shattered man.

As Light-Horse Harry Lee lay battered upon the ground, someone tried to slice off his nose, but only succeeded in bloodying his face.  A knife aimed at Lee’s eye missed its mark and nicked open his cheek.  His glorious past was of no consequence now.  No one cared that Congress had turned to him to deliver the funeral oration for his friend, George Washington, whom Lee had eulogized as “First in peace, first in war.  First in the hearts of his countrymen.”  Light-Horse Harry, father of Robert E. Lee, then five, was beaten into a limp and bloody casualty for the first time in his long life as a soldier, patriot and elected public figure.

Such were the tempers that fired the anti-British, pro-war Republicans in Baltimore and elsewhere.  Pitch points out that the war had begun, but all the casualties in this skirmish were inflicted by Americans upon Americans.

This incident provides a powerful introduction to an extremely well-written book.   From here, Pitch jumps between events and people on both the British and the American side.  Fans of British naval history will recognize Lord Cochrane who made no bones about his desire to destroy Washington.  He had under his command an extremely capable trio in Admiral Cockburn, Captain James Gordon and Major General Robert Ross.

The players on the American side are more diverse and numerous in Pitch’s tale.  It is interesting to contrast Harlow Giles Unger’s take on Madison (in his Monroe biography) with that of Pitch.  Pitch provides a similar view of James Monroe and the Secretary of War John Armstrong, but is much kinder to Madison than is Unger.    James Monroe comes off as the heroic and capable leader he was.  Armstrong is depicted as a headstrong, egotistical fool, who refused to believe that Washington and not Baltimore could possibly be a target.  Madison doesn’t seem as weak and confused in Pitch’s story, but he doesn’t appear to do a whole lot except to run from place to place on horseback.  However, Dolley Madison receives her due, in heroically saving as much as she could from the flames which eventually engulfed the capitol.

Pitch highlights the interactions between the occupying British troops and the citizenry who remained in the beleaguered capitol.  He relates the stressful decision to burn the Navy Yard and the brave actions of a junior clerk to save the records of the US Senate.  Pitch paints a vivid picture of the disorganized efforts to save as much government and private property as possible with horses, carts, and wagons in short supply and at a premium.  Time was short and the army at Bladensburg was all that stood between the British and the capitol.

The battle of Bladensburg is deftly described in good detail and includes some interesting vignettes which occurred in the course of the battle.  The battle was interesting because it featured sea-officers from both sides, marines, redcoats, and militia.  It was a hodgepodge of fighting men, and a bloody battle with the British suffering more casualties than the Americans who they eventually routed.

Once in Washington, Pitch peppers his tale with numerous interesting anecdotes, the first of these is that the first building burnt in Washington was the private residence used by Albert Gallatin.  A sniper shot the horse out from under General Ross as he and Admiral Cockburn met with civilians under a flag of truce in front of the Capitol building.  Because the building had been used in an aggressive action it was destroyed.  This was an exception to the British rule distinguishing between private and government property.  The English were bent on retribution for the burning of York (now Toronto) at the battle of York in 1813.  However, they sought to scrupulously avoid damaging private property.  It was by appealing to this British scruple that the Patent Office and the Bank were saved, although both were a near thing.

The awesome sight of the capitol in flames is hard to imagine today, but Pitch does his best to describe it through the reactions of witnesses as relayed in their letters and descriptions.  Pitch explains the magnitude of the destruction and talks about how some of the elaborate arched construction was able to withstand the flames.  The British didn’t stay long enough to survey the completeness of their work.   Pitch refers to it as a “Lightening Occupation.”  The British were not done, they were off to Baltimore.

After the ignominious capitulation of Fort Warburton on the east bank of the Potomac River and Alexandria, the tide begins to turn in favor of the Americans.   A man named Commodore Rodgers helped turn public opinion in Baltimore from dejection to defiance.  Pitch recounts the events surrounding the composition of the Star Spangled Banner by Francis Scott Key and the defense of Fort McHenry.  The defiance of Baltimore paid off, the British retreated in order to preserve their strength for the planned assault of New Orleans.

The last battle in Pitch’s book is that of New Orleans and the up-and-coming Andrew Jackson.  He points out that the battle, while a victory for America, was actually fought after peace had already been concluded.  This is an eerie symmetry with the beginning of the war, which might also have been avoided had communications been more timely.

After the war, it didn’t take long for partisan fights to resume.  There were two camps, those who wanted to move the capitol elsewhere, and those who wanted it to remain in Washington.  Although it was a hotly contested, eventually, the southerners prevailed because some in the North recognized the blow to national pride if it were to be moved as a result of a foreign incursion.

Pitch’s book is packed with interesting things and very well researched.  His bibliography and footnotes are complete and provide a tantalizing trove of things to follow up on.  This book is definitely worth reading.


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