It’s easy to forget that the lowest point in Washington’s history came not in the 1990s but in 1814, when the British military torched the Capitol and the President’s House. The fire was so big, writes Anthony S. Pitch in his new book, The Burning of Washington: The British Invasion of 1814 (Naval Institute Press), that folks in Baltimore could see the glow clearly.
Pitch, 59, has made a career as a roving journalist, reporting for local papers in Africa and England, the Associated Press, and the Jerusalem Post. He spent five years tracking down sources for his Washington book; most are eyewitness accounts he unearthed on one side of the Atlantic or the other. Pitch also got help from historians at the White House and in Congress. At one point, he inspected underground smoke damage at the White House; another time, Pitch surveyed an off-limits staircase on the House side of the Capitol that, in his words, “still smelled” of the fire.
His research shapes a narrative that’s as gripping as any big-budget Hollywood movie: an advancing army, an alternately warmongering and terrified populace, a fleeing president and his brave wife, and eventually, after much carnage, a victory by the good guys that, in time, blossomed into a “special relationship” between erstwhile enemies. The episode even has its own hit song, The Star Spangled Banner, which Francis Scott Key composed at Fort McHenry in Baltimore just after Washington’s young civic treasures turned to toast.
“A lot of the junior British officers balked at destroying these things,” Pitch notes, “because they could see they were magnificent. They were also scrupulously fair about protecting private property.” Strangely, he contends, it was Washingtonians’ own riots and looting that proved more destructive to the city. That foul-your-own-nest impulse has varied over the years here, but it’s never gone away. —Louis Jacobson