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When Washington Burned An Illustrated History of the War of 1812

Arnold Blumberg

Reviewed by:
On August 11, 2014
Last modified:August 10, 2014


If one is looking for a book that summarizes the Second War of Independence, as to the War of 1812 has often been referred, this is the book. There is something in this book for the aficionado as well as for the uninitiated. When Washington Burned is beautifully bound and richly illustrated volume which takes the reader through the war, start to finish.

When Washington BurnedIf one is looking for a book that summarizes the Second War of Independence, as the War of 1812 has often been called, this is the book. There is something in this book for the aficionado as well as for the uninitiated. When Washington Burned is a beautifully bound and richly illustrated volume that takes the reader through the war, start to finish.

While brief, it is a pleasure to read and manages to cover the war remarkably well. Were it a little larger, Arnold Blumberg’s volume could be mistaken for a coffee table book, for it is chock full of glossy pages and marvelous illustrations, much of which are contemporary portraiture from both sides of the Atlantic.

When Casemate sent WWTFT a copy of this book for review, there was admittedly some thought that this might not be the sort of book one sits down to read. Upon cracking it open, however, this reviewer did precisely that!

The War of 1812 was in many respects a pointless and needless one. However, it did solidify America’s position in the world and ultimately resulted in an accommodation with Britain which finally resolved the issue of impressment (the British Navy’s practice of snatching men from American ships and repatriating them as British tars – against their will). Interestingly, in spite of impressment being a major catalyst of the war, it wasn’t mentioned in the final treaty.

The sad story of the USS Chesapeake has been covered at WWTFT in several articles reprinted from contemporary newspaper accounts:

Spurred on by the “hawks” in Congress, and a series of events like the Chesapeake-Leopard affair and the Little-Belt affair, the United States was nevertheless, woefully unprepared for the war. England was taken by surprise that The United States was willing to take that step. But for the role of the fledgling US Navy, the war got off to a pretty bad start. As they had in the War for independence, the Americans assumed that Canada really wanted to be a part of the United States, and that it would be a simple matter of marching northward to liberate their northern cousins from Britain’s tyranny. Canadian sympathy was firmly with Britain, even more so than it had been during the previous war. After all, many Tories had fled northward as a result of that war, as had many dispossessed Indians.

This gross miscalculation about the affections of the Canadians was compounded by a dearth of capable leadership in the American army. The generals on the American side could be categorized by some combination of the following series of adjectives: old, fat, timid, inexperienced, or political appointees.

The British on, the other hand, initially had some pretty capable leadership in Canada, especially in the form of Isaac Brock, and although outnumbered by the American forces, made good use of Canadian militia and Indians, led by Tecumseh, all too eager to exact revenge on America.

Needless to say, the poorly planned and coordinated attempts to capture territory in Canada resulted in dismal and embarrassing losses for America. General Hull was even court-martialed for surrendering Detroit, and sentenced to death (a sentence, which President Madison commuted, largely because of Hull’s service in the American Revolution).

In 1813, an American expedition led by the explorer/general Zebulon Pike (for whom Pike’s Peak is named), attacked and burned York (later renamed Toronto). Pike was killed in the battle, but the victory did little to further the American cause, and ultimately was used as justification the British burning of Washington D.C. In an odd bit of symmetry, the British General behind the capture of Washington and the decision to burn it, would also be killed in his campaign. General Robert Ross was not killed in Washington, but during the failed attack on Baltimore a few weeks later.

Information from three captured American scouts mentioned a force of 20,000 ready to defend Baltimore. To this, assuming the number represented untrained militia, Ross replied, “I don’t care if it rains militia.” He was convinced that he had a clear road to his objective until he reached Hampstead Hill. Before the General left to join his advance guard, he was asked if he would be returning that evening for supper. Ross reputedly answered, “I’ll set up tonight in Baltimore or in Hell.”

As the conflict neared it’s close, both the Americans and the British were tiring of the war, and sought a face-saving conclusion which was hammered out by Albert Gallatin and John Quincy Adams in the Treaty of Ghent.

Ironically, the Battle of New Orleans, which brought the victorious Andrew Jackson into the public eye, was fought after the treaty had been signed. This isn’t to say that the tide was turning in favor of America, for the British had finally dealt with France and would now be able to devote their considerable resources to the American front. The treaty, if just ostensibly a restoration of ante-bellum status quo, was a good thing for the United States.

The war may not have produced many tangible results in terms of territory, but it did accomplish several things. As mentioned above, it firmly established the United States as an independent country that wasn’t going away, it de facto helped resolve the issue of impressment, the British abandoned the last of their posts in the Northwest, and the Indians, as a united force, would never again be a serious threat to American expansion. If there were no overt winners in the war, the Indians were definitely the losers, having chosen to ally with the British in the Northwest and the Southeast.

During the War of 1812, the Shawnee chief Tecumseh encouraged the “Red Stick” Creek Indians of northern Alabama and Georgia to attack white settlements. He had unified tribes in the Northwest to rise up against the Americans, trying to repel European American settlers from those lands north of the Ohio. Four hundred settlers were killed in the Fort Mims massacre. In the resulting Creek War, Jackson commanded the American forces, which included Tennessee militia, U.S.regulars, and Cherokee, Choctaw, and Lower Creek warriors. Sam Houston and David Crockett served under Jackson in this campaign.

Jackson defeated the Red Sticks at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814. US forces and their allies killed 800 Red Stick warriors in this battle, but Jackson spared the chief Red Eagle, a mixed-race man also known as William Weatherford. After the victory, Jackson imposed the Treaty of Fort Jackson upon both the Upper Creek enemies and the Lower Creek allies, wresting twenty million acres (81,000 km²) in present-day Georgia and Alabama from all the Creek for European-American settlement. Jackson was appointed Major General after this action. Wikipedia

The War of 1812 is often overlooked because of its short duration and seemingly few consequences. Blumberg’s When Washington Burned manages to cover it in sufficient detail to provided a good overview without being dense or superficial. This is a book that can be read as well as perused. The choice of illustrations will complement any reading of material on this war.





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