Through the Perilous Fight: Six Weeks that Saved the Nation By Steve Vogel, $30.
If you’re looking for an enemy to invade your capital, you could do worse than the British.
American regular troops and militia having fled in disarray, a small British force marched unopposed into Washington, D.C., on August 24, 1813. Some dined elegantly on the meal abandoned by President James Madison, then set about torching the White House and the Capitol. But troops were under strict orders to respect private property. Even after a handful of American sailors ambushed him, Maj. Gen. Robert Ross ordered that they be captured unharmed. He set their cover house afire but apologized to its owner for the necessity of making a point.
The British referred to the former colonies dismissively as “Jonathan, the simple-minded, wayward brother of John Bull,” as author Steve Vogel writes in Through the Perilous Fight: Six Weeks That Saved the Nation, an account of the British Chesapeake Bay offensive in the War of 1812. A disclosure note: I’ve met Vogel, military affairs reporter for the Washington Post, through a mutual friend.
Oddly enough, Ross’ forbearance backfired. He and his fellow officers had hoped it would force a treaty favorable to the British, and the news about Washington almost prompted American negotiators in Ghent to accept one. But Europeans, including many in Britain, found the relatively mild capture of Washington repugnant. “After the initial rush of excitement, the country was chagrined to be condemned around the continent,” Vogel observes. And when news arrived of the British failure to capture Baltimore, their fortunes turned in Ghent.
It could have been worse for the British. Lacking both Ross, who was killed by a sniper outside Baltimore, and the intrepid Rear Adm. George Cockburn, who did not share Ross’ reserve about destroying entire settlements, Vice Adm. Alexander Cochrane led a disastrous assault on New Orleans before news of the treaty arrived. Talk about the fog of war—the inability to communicate effectively across a few miles may have cost them Baltimore, but the Atlantic Ocean may have spared the British a less-palatable peace.
Vogel dispenses quickly with the Southern campaign and with the earlier American offensive in Canada, which the British cited to justify destroying Chesapeake villages. With a reporter’s eye both for rich details and for the impact of events, he wisely makes Washington lawyer Francis Scott Key a central character. Key had opposed the war but volunteered for militia duty. After the Washington debacle, he interceded for a physician Ross had taken prisoner. Ross relented but compelled Key to remain with the fleet while it bombarded Fort McHenry. And that’s how Key found himself aboard a ship in Baltimore harbor while the bombs burst in air.
The two assaults helped consolidate the young nation, Vogel concludes. Some even thought the British did us a big favor during their brief Washington visit.