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When Britain Burned the White House: The 1814 Invasion of Washington Hardcover – August 19, 2014

4.6 out of 5 stars 26 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Review

“[An] excellent account…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… a fine example of serious and literate popular history… 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.” ―Washington Post

“Snow's narrative is authoritative and absorbing, his profiles sure and compelling, his judgments considered and fair, and his documentation most impressive. Wonderful for 19th-century political, military, and diplomatic history; specialists in Anglo-American relations; general readers; and all libraries.” ―Library Journal, Starred Review

“Never before has this story been told more fully or more engagingly, with greater empathy for both sides, or with greater balance…Snow dug deeply into records and reminiscences and, especially for the British side, brought the combatants, simple and august, alive. The pace is brisk, the characterizations sure, the judgments done with a light touch. The book distinguishes itself by rounding off the story of Washington with the subsequent Baltimore attack--both part of the larger British Chesapeake campaign. For the story of that campaign, this is now the narrative to read.” ―Publishers Weekly

“With ample quotes from English letters and diaries, Snow ably brings out the humanity of his subjects.” ―Kirkus Reviews

“A well-done chronicle of an episode of the war that helped to shape the ‘special relationship' between the U.S. and Britain.” ―Booklist

“Snow says ‘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.' He can take credit for bringing those attributes to the page.” ―Marine Corps Times

“Peter Snow's account of this extraordinary event in British-American relations reads like a military thriller, each chapter raising the tension with a mass of detail and a kaleidoscope of characters who transform this book from what could have been a dry, chronological account into a riveting romp. . . . Snow adds an extra ingredient--a boyish enthusiasm for his subject . . . a meticulous and fascinating account.” ―The Times (UK)

“Snow builds his account on the voices of those who fought and witnessed the campaign, from nervous U.S. militiamen to Ross, Cockburn, and Dolley Madison, the president's resourceful wife. Written with verve and insight, this is a fitting reminder of a remarkable interlude in a war that deserves to be better known.” ―BBC History Magazine

“The result is superb. When Britain Burned the White House is an exemplary work of history--lucid, witty, and humane, with terrific pace, and so evenhanded that it will surely be received as well in America as here.” ―The Spectator (UK)

About the Author

PETER SNOW is a highly respected British journalist, author, and broadcaster. He was ITN's diplomatic and defence correspondent from 1966 to 1979 and presented Newsnight from 1980 to 1997. An indispensable part of election nights, he has also covered military matters on and off the world's battlefields for forty years. Peter is married and has six children.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books (August 19, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1250048281
  • ISBN-13: 978-1250048288
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.2 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #656,099 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This book is well written which is not surprising given Peter Snow's background. It is well balanced and fair in coverage of both the US and British sides. Snow provides much material from memoirs of several participants. What surprised me is that he attributed some comments to General Ross allegedly made by him shortly before the Battle at North Point. Those comments have been questioned by some historians. He also failed to mention that at North Point the Americans had a second line of defense that they rallied to after the first line was overwhelmed by the British. Overall this is an excellent book.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Excellent presentation by Peter Snow of the War of 1812 that encompasses the burning of Washington and unsuccessful attack on Fort McHenry in Baltimore three weeks later. Francis Scott Key would stand as a prisoner on the deck of a British ship witnessing the fort's 25 hour bombardment and ultimate survival with its flag still waving proud whereby inspiring his writing the words to the Star Spangled Banner that was officially adopted as the United States anthem in 1931. Snow narrates dynamics from the British point of view portraying the gentlemanly side of its British generals during the last major war between America and England. The Treaty of Ghent signed in 1815 would build a long-lasting alliance that has carried through to the modern era.
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Format: Hardcover
WHEN BRITAIN BURNED THE WHITE HOUSE recounts the events of August and September 1814, when the invading British forces defeated the Americans at the Battle of Bladensburg and subsequently moved on to invade the capital. Once they were there, they burned the Capitol Building as well as the White House, while leaving most private property untouched. President James Madison had fled with his wife Dolly; they took refuge in a safe house, leaving the seat of government relatively unguarded. Under the leadership of Robert Ross, the British pressed on and tried to capture Baltimore, which at that time was economically a far bigger city than Washington DC. They met with far sterner resistance, and were repelled: during the conflict Ross was killed, to be replaced by the far less able leader Brooke. Eventually the British called off their assault and moved southwards towards New Orleans, where they were heavily defeated by an American force under General Andrew Jackson. Meanwhile the two governments had signed a peace treaty at Ghent in Belgium.

The former ITV and BBC journalist Peter Snow gives a blow-by-blow account of the affair, relying as much as possible on primary sources as well as reminiscences of those involved. He shows how the American army was initially in disarray, outflanked and outmaneuvered by a far more professionalized British force. Nonetheless the chain of command among the British was often confused: Ross often found himself at loggerheads with his superior officers. Following his death, there was a power-vacuum in the British forces, which contributed in no small part to their failure to capture Baltimore.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
To be honest I'm still reading this book but, so far, it is an even-handed, compelling if tragic recounting of this terrible event. Told from a British point of view, it is not kind to American military or political leadership and may be a bit over generous to the British military leadership. However, kudos are given to standout members of both sides countering scathing criticism of members of both sides. I'm anxious to finish and will update this review then.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Overall, I enjoyed this book. It is a well constructed account of an important historical event. That said, I'm always disappointed when I run across inaccuracies in a historical work. It makes me wonder how many other historical errors are in the book that the reader is supposed to accept as fact. Additionally, the book contains some grammatical constructions that had me scratching my head in utter amazement! I'm no historian, but I am an avid (and I hope fairly perceptive) reader. It undermines the credibility of both the author and the publisher when proofreading and fact checking are ignored or given short shrift. Let's also remember that the content of any book (regardless of the format) is a product, and the reader/consumer has the right to expect quality for their dollars spent.
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Format: Hardcover
Perspective is a peculiar thing. As the saying goes, "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." A common colloquialism is "it depends on whose ox is getting gored." A glass of milk can either be half full or half empty depending on how thirsty you are. The American perspective on the War of 1812 was a fight for national honor, against perceived diplomatic slights and the impressment of American citizens into the Royal Navy as well as trade restrictions with France. For the English, this was an irritant in the greater Napoleonic Wars that were going on at the time. The very last thing England wanted was to fighting another two-front war on opposite sides of the Atlantic.

Rather than focus on the whole war, Peter Snow instead focuses in on the two of the last battles of the war. Up to this time, the war had largely been fought to a stalemate, with England having something of the upper hand. America - fighting "Madison's War" - had assumed that its armies and militias were sufficient to make territorial gains in Canada where General Sir George Prevost was maintaining a defensive strategy in Lower Canada (southern Quebec and the Labrador region of Newfoundland). Prevost was forced into this posture from London, which could not spare the troops.

Snow dives right into the narrative of the sacking of Washington, D.C. The alleged reason for the sacking - retaliation for the American sacking and burning of Toronto - seems on shaky ground as British troops had already exacted a measure of revenge against Buffalo. After troops led by General Robert Ross (with an assist from Rear Admiral George Cockburn) defeated a hastily assembled and hilariously inept force at the Battle of Bladensburg, the path to Washington was clear.
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