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By Steve Vogel. Random House. 560 pages. $30
Thursday, July 18, 2013
“Through the Perilous Fight,” by Steve Vogel, is a day-by-day account that begins with the events of Aug. 9, 1814, and the eventual burning of the nation’s capital. All of the major figures on both sides of the battle lines are given life in this meticulously researched book.
While the British were motivated to suppress new acts of rebellion on a distant shore, the former Colonists saw the War of 1812 as a fight to maintain their freedom and independence. Few citizens were willing to accept the terms for peace they were offered, which included demands for a zone allocated to Native Americans, separating Canada from the states; the dismantling of all forts in that region; and British access to the Mississippi River.
As the enemy forces closed in on Washington, President James Madison found himself at odds with his secretary of war, John Armstrong, who did not believe the city would be hit with a full-scale invasion. Meanwhile, many of the army and militia commanders, in charge of protecting the country, lacked experience. Conversely, most of the British commanders, soldiers and sailors were battle-tested veterans still relishing their recent victory in the Napoleonic War.
Miscommunications and false speculation caused American Brig. Gen. William Winder, who was responsible for the defense of the capital, to overestimate the power of the enemy forces. During the course of one day and the next, he ordered his men to retreat several times, leaving the capital at the mercy of the invaders to burn the naval yard and all of the government buildings to the ground. When British Maj. Gen. Robert Ross and his troops arrived at the president’s house, he was surprised to find that first lady Dolley Madison had presumably been planning a large dinner party before escaping at the last minute.
Vogel’s writing of these events, and the final battle that brought the war to an end, may be seen by some readers as offering too much information. Nevertheless, scholars interested in this phase of our country’s history may find every page compelling.
Also, I must add that whenever I hear the “The Star-Spangled Banner” sung in the future, I will undoubtedly recall many of Francis Scott Key’s observations surrounding those perilous days and nights when a young country faced imminent defeat. As he stated following the battle at Fort McHenry, “The tree of liberty may be shaken by these blasts, but its roots are in all of our hearts, and it will stand.”
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