Sunday, August 24 will mark the 200th anniversary of the night British troops set fire to the White House, the only time other than 9/11 when the U.S. capital city sustained a direct attack. First Lady Dolley Madison had fled the building just hours before the redcoats arrived, famously exclaiming "Save that painting!" and ordering that a precious Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington be removed from the wall and carted off to safety, along with the red velvet curtains from the White House drawing room.
British journalist Peter Snow gives a stirring account of that fateful night, as well as the days before and after, in When Britain Burned the White House: The 1814 Invasion of Washington. The book was published in the U.K. last year to glowing reviews and was released this week in the U.S. by Thomas Dunne Books.
Snow keeps the action moving and adds immediacy by citing the letters, diaries and other accounts of those who witnessed (or participated in) the attack. As the British advanced, Americans on horseback sounded the alarm to the fearful residents of Washington, D.C. "Fly, fly! The ruffians are at hand. If you cannot get away yourselves, for God's sake send off your wives and daughters, for the ruffians are at hand." Under the command of Admiral George Cockburn and Major General Robert Ross, British invaders set fire not only to the White House, but to the U.S. Capitol building as well. "Never shall I forget my tortured feelings," one resident recalled, "when I beheld that noble edifice wrapt in flames, which . . . filled all the saddened night with a dismal gloom."
If you've always been a bit hazy about what led to the War of 1812 (and why it was still going on two years later), Snow's excellent account of these crucial events in U.S. history will sharpen your understanding—and make you surprised and grateful that the U.S. today counts Britain among its staunchest allies.