Of all the wars this country has fought, the War of 1812 is probably the least known among the general populace. It was, as Peter Snow writes in this excellent account of its climactic engagements, “thankless and unproductive,” fought by the United States and Great Britain over trivial issues, fighting that after two years “had yielded no advantage for either side.” It did produce two essential moments in American mythology — Dolley Madison spiriting Gilbert Stuart’s masterly portrait of George Washington from the White House just ahead of marauding British troops, and Francis Scott Key composing the poem in Baltimore’s harbor that eventually became the national anthem — but most of us know little else about it.

Yet the war did have, in the final weeks before a peace of sorts was arranged in December 1814 in the Treaty of Ghent, two quite remarkable engagements. The first took place over less than two weeks in August, when the British routed poorly led American troops at Bladensburg and then proceeded to destroy the Capitol, the White House and other Washington landmarks. The second occurred in September, when the British tried to take Baltimore, a far more tempting prize than Washington two centuries ago, “one of the busiest, richest and most ambitious of the burgeoning cities on America’s east coast,” but finally retreated in frustration as Fort McHenry held firm against them.

Snow, an experienced British journalist, has told the story of those engagements with brio and a fine gift for making sense of the complexities of battle. “I was inspired to examine this remarkable story when I discovered how few people knew it had ever happened,” he writes in an author’s note. “What made me write it went way beyond that. The events themselves are astonishing enough: just as striking is the richness and abundance of eyewitness accounts on both sides. The clarity, humanity and wit of British and American men and women who were there bring the story alive as if it had happened today.” This is true. I was especially taken by extensive quotations from on-the-scene writings by John Pendleton Kennedy, an 18-year-old law student “with a strong romantic streak”; Kennedy eventually became a popular novelist whose books, in the mode of Sir Walter Scott, now seem hopelessly dated but for a time were very popular.

Snow has written a number of books, of which this apparently is the first to be published in the United States, but though his readership has been British he maintains throughout an admirable balance, giving each side in the conflict its due. This is apparent right from the beginning:

“The British invasion of Washington is not an episode in their history that Americans recall with much relish. . . . In Britain, very few people know it happened or even that there was a so-called War of 1812. It was actually one of the defining moments in the history of both countries. For America it was the only other time — before the terrorist attack of 11 September 2001 — that outsiders succeeded in striking at the core of American state power. But within three weeks the young republic was to transform utter humiliation into triumph. And Britain was to see one of the most daring and successful military enterprises in its history bring it face to face with the limits of its imperial power. These three weeks provide a revealing commentary on the personalities of the two nations, now inseparable friends, then bitter enemies.”

‘When Britain Burned the White House: The 1814 Invasion of Washington’ by Peter Snow (Thomas Dunne)

The war may have been “a tiresome sideshow for the British,” who “had been fighting a war of survival against Napoleon,” and for much of the two years after President James Madison declared war against them — he was “exasperated by what he saw as the intolerable excesses of the British empire” — they fought as if distracted, but in the late summer of 1814 two bold leaders changed that. One was Robert Ross, the major general in command of British forces in America, and the other was George Cockburn, the fierce rear admiral who became “the driving force of the British blitzkrieg.” As warmakers they were vastly superior to any of the American commanders except Joshua Barney, who at the command of 500 men made the British pay dearly for their victory at Bladensburg, and Sam Smith, the commander at Baltimore whose stout resistance finally persuaded them to turn tail and sail away.

The defeat of Napoleon in 1814 freed the British to turn their attention to the irksome little war in America. A “senior American envoy” in London wrote to a colleague in Washington: “A well-organized and large army is at once liberated from any European employment, and ready, together with a superabundant naval force, to act immediately against us. How ill prepared we are to meet it in a proper manner no one knows better than yourself.” He was right on all counts. Had the British not been forced to give up the fight in Baltimore — had they taken the city and then moved onward to Philadelphia and New York — one can only imagine how the course of American history would have been altered. The British had no desire to reconquer their old colony, but a thorough defeat would have left the young nation dispirited and deeply divided. Instead:

“The British decision to end an inconclusive naval stand-off and to abort a major operation on land was transformed by American myth-makers into a resounding victory that would become an emblematic moment in US history. Without any clash on the battlefield the young American republic had humbled the might of the British empire. The rebuff to Britain at Baltimore decisively demonstrated America’s independence of its former master. And this explosion of national pride was only to be magnified by the events of the remaining months of the war.”

Chief among these was one of the most unnecessary engagements ever fought: the Battle of New Orleans, in January 1815. Peace had actually been agreed upon by then, but word moved slowly in those days, and the British initiated an attack; the forces under Andy Jackson utterly routed them, leaving some 700 dead and losing only seven themselves. As Snow says, “Even if the British had triumphed, captured the city and plunged deep into Louisiana, they’d have had to hand every inch of it back under the peace treaty signed a fortnight earlier 5,000 miles away.”

Although the two final engagements in Baltimore and New Orleans went the United States’ way, the inconclusive peace treaty gave no one on either side much to cheer about except that the war was finally over. That probably explains, as much as anything else, why the conflict quickly vanished into the memories of both nations. But warm feelings between them did not exactly materialize overnight upon approval of the treaty. It is easy to forget that England came close to siding with the Confederacy a half-century later in the Civil War, and not until World War I did the two begin to become the “inseparable friends” that they mostly have been ever since, especially during World War II, when the friendship of Roosevelt and Churchill cemented the relationship.

In any event it is good to have Snow’s book, a fine example of serious and literate popular history, a genre that has gained respectability and credibility in recent years as some of the best non-professional historians on both sides of the Atlantic have taken to writing it. It ranks with Anthony S. Pitch’s fine “The Burning of Washington” (2000) as among the best accounts of a war that hardly deserves to be forgotten.


The 1814 Invasion of Washington

By Peter Snow

Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s. 308 pp. $25.99