Friday, 18 June 2021

The night British soldiers ransacked the White House

IT was a sweltering evening in August 1814. A group of British soldiers were sitting in the state dining room

IT was a sweltering evening in August 1814. A group of British soldiers were sitting in the state dining room of the White House, tucking into a dinner prepared for the president.

But they hadn’t been invited. And, by the end of the night, they had done more damage than just steal the food.

“Setting fire to the White House was certainly the low point of our relationship with America,” says Peter Snow, retelling the largely forgotten invasion of Washington almost 200 years ago.

“The special relationship didn’t remotely exist — we were bitter enemies. You can still see the scorch marks on the kitchen door,” he adds, chuckling.

The author and broadcaster, who will be appearing at this year’s Henley Literature Festival on October 4, is discussing his latest book When Britain Burned The White House.

“The war of 1812 between Britain and America was pointless,” he says. “It was incredibly expensive and silly from both sides’ point of view. And it was totally eclipsed by the defeat of Napoleon six months later. But what a story.”

The 75-year-old, with his trademark enthusiasm, explains that Britain had restricted America’s trade with Europe by blockading French ports during the Napoleonic Wars.

“So the American President James Madison rather wickedly declared war on us Brits in 1812 because the Royal Navy was being a pain,” he says.

But, Snow writes, once Napoleon was defeated and exiled to Elba, the British were able to concentrate their military might on the United States. The battle-hardened British overcame a poorly-defended Washington, forcing President Madison to flee the White House. Only twice has the US mainland been struck such a devastating blow by outsiders — the other was 9/11.

Snow stumbled across the tale in a biography of Harry Smith, a soldier in his book To War With Wellington.

“Smith tells how, after fighting the French, he went to America and ended up eating the president’s dinner,” he says. “I thought this was unbelievable. Did it really happen?”

Researching for his book, Snow spent two weeks retracing the steps of the British army’s invasion of America.

After the White House feast, the Brits smashed the windows and set fire to the building. It was only because of a torrential rainstorm the next day that the outer walls were left standing.

“It was very evocative to go to Washington and see the burn marks,” he says. “It’s such a sensational story, I just had to write it.”

Snow has always been fascinated by military history. He began his career as an ITN reporter in 1962, after studying at Wellington College and Balliol College, Oxford. He became diplomatic and defence correspondent four years later. In 1980, he crossed channels to present Newsnight on the BBC where he covered the Falklands War, Gulf War, and the break-up of Yugoslavia. He is perhaps most famous for his coverage of general elections, as grand master of the swingometer.

“All journalists are fascinated by people and the effect they have on history,” he says.

And this is manifest in his writing, he adds.

In his distinctive narrative style, Snow brings historical events to life using eyewitness accounts. Colourful personalities like Britain’s fiery Admiral Cockburn and the beleaguered President James Madison drive the action in the book.

Snow almost became history himself in 1999, while filming earthquakes for BBC science programme Tomorrow’s World. He was in Seattle to film a fault line on a nearby island from the air in a De Havilland bush plane.

“As we approached, I asked the pilot to go lower, so he made the plane dive down,” he says.

But when the pilot tried to avoid a fast approaching hill, the plane wouldn’t climb.

He says: “Slowly but surely we just sank.”

Fortunately, the trees below were pliable saplings, rather than hard old trees, which softened the crash.

“The plane just went ‘doink’, ‘bang’, ‘zonk’, and the tail was left up the top of a tree while the rest of the plane was on the ground.

“When I realised we were genuinely going to crash, I didn’t see my life flashing past me. I was just furious we were going to lose this piece of film. But we were fine.”

Since 2002, Snow has co-presented television series on military history with Dan, one of his six children, including Battlefield Britain and 20th Century Battlefields. And with another book planned there seems little sign of the veteran broadcaster’s enthusiasm waning.

He tells one last story. The British continued on to Baltimore after Washington, he says. But they abandoned the attack after only a day of bombardment.

“They realised it would be an expensive and bloody conflict,” he says. “But a young American poet, Francis Scott Key, saw this dreadful bombardment going on all night. He thought it was impossible his countrymen could survive it.

“In the morning, he was staggered and delighted when he saw through the mist the stars and stripes flying from the city’s Fort McHenry.”

So he took a piece of paper out of his pocket and began to write a poem. It finished with the lines:

“And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave, O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Just over a century later it became the American national anthem.

“It’s a wonderful story,” says Snow.

lPeter Snow appears at the Henley Literary Festival at 1pm on October 4, sponsored by Henmans Freeth LLP, followed at the Christ Church Centre by his son Dan Snow. For more information or tickets visit or call 0118 972 4700.

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