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The Dawn's Early Light

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Walter Lord—author of such best-sellers as A Night to Remember and A Day of Infamy—brings to life the remarkable events of what we now call The War of 1812—including the burning of Washington and the attack on Baltimore's Fort McHenry that inspired the Francis Scott Key to write what would become our national anthem. Lord gives readers a dramatic account of how a new sense of national identity emerged from the smoky haze of what Francis Scott Key so lyrically called "the dawn's early light."

400 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1972

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About the author

Walter Lord

36 books145 followers
Walter Lord was an American author, best known for his documentary-style non-fiction account, A Night to Remember, about the sinking of the RMS Titanic.

In 2009, Jenny Lawrence edited and published The Way It Was: Walter Lord on His Life and Books.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 56 reviews
Profile Image for Mike.
1,100 reviews151 followers
August 30, 2015
History, in the arms of a master storyteller, comes alive and takes you back in time. The Dawn's Early Light does this in 4 Star fashion, recalling the last half of 1814, the darkest for the young United States and promising easy victory for the most powerful empire in the world, vanquisher of Napoleon. Wellington’s Invincibles are on their way to “chastise Jonathon”, the dismissive British name for all Americans. Although the young and inexperienced US Navy has scored some early wins in this war of choice, the US can’t stand up to an invading army, can it?

The burning of Washington was a brilliant British tactical victory and a strategic blunder:

Volunteers and militia converge on Baltimore to help defend “Mob Town”, a real hotbed of war fever. Initially the British were not going to attack Baltimore but changed their minds and carried out a two pronged attack. A land force proceeded up the peninsula to Baltimore’s east while the fleet went up the Patapsco River to attack the harbor and city. But they encounter Fort McHenry and the origin of our national anthem is a thread superbly woven through the story. Here we see the British bomb and rocket ships move into position to attack the fort:

Lord tells the story from both sides, from private to general or admiral, citizen to president or prime minister. This is not a boring academic work but an exciting retelling of three battles, Washington, Baltimore and New Orleans. Many other areas of conflict are left out for you to explore in other books.

How the US went from near defeat to victory is a great story of some characters you have heard of and many you probably haven’t. This war, in Lord’s view, had more to do with establishing an American national identity that any other event. Prior to the war, many in and outside of the US thought the experiment with democracy would fail. The US gained respect and self-confidence and no longer looked to Europe for the next 100 years. An excellent book, highly recommended for young and old!
Profile Image for Joy D.
1,683 reviews203 followers
July 17, 2022
Published in 1972, this book is narrative non-fiction about the War of 1812. It includes the Battle of Bladensburg, the burning of Washington, the Battle of Baltimore, defense of Fort McHenry, Francis Scott Key’s writing of a poem that became America’s anthem, and the Battle of New Orleans. The majority takes place in 1814. A highlight for me is Monroe scouting hither and yon on horseback to surveil the terrain and report back to President Madison. Another was Madison finding himself on the front line of battle at Bladensburg, finally relocating to the rear at his aides’ suggestions. Walter Lord had the rare ability to paint pictures with words. He follows individuals from both the American and British sides at all levels. He provides the background, context, and reasons this war occurred. It is well-written and kept my interest from beginning to end.
Profile Image for 'Aussie Rick'.
420 reviews208 followers
November 29, 2009

This book is the first I have read concerning the War of 1812. In this book the author covers the period from August 1814 with the British marching onto Washington. Walter Lord offers a spendid account of the fighting at Bladensburg, the burning of Washington and the subsequent campaign against the British. The use of first hand account offers a splendid insight into the people, soldiers, sailors and politicians caught up during this period of history. A well researched and finely told account of this dramatic time in America's past. An excellent story!
Profile Image for Paul Haspel.
529 reviews54 followers
June 14, 2021
The dawn’s light beamed down on Baltimore on the morning of September 14, 1814; and then all – both friend and foe – could see that the huge American flag that had been hoisted above Fort McHenry still flew, despite the best efforts of attacking British forces to take the fort and the city. One of those spectators, the full-time lawyer and part-time poet Francis Scott Key, was so inspired by what he saw from a flag-of-truce boat in the harbor that he found himself writing down some lines of poetry:

“Oh, say, can you see
By the dawn’s early light
What so proudly we hailed
At the twilight’s last gleaming…”

Those lines of poetry, of course, eventually became the national anthem of the United States of America. But before those moments of triumph and poetry occurred, the young U.S.A. went through some difficult moments indeed, as Walter Lord chronicles in The Dawn’s Early Light.

Lord, a Baltimore-born journalist, is probably best-known for A Night to Remember, his 1955 account of the sinking of R.M.S. Titanic. That book, which was adapted into an award-winning British film in 1958, exemplifies the strengths that Lord also brought to accounts of historical events like the siege of the Alamo (A Time to Stand, 1961) and the attack on Pearl Harbor (Day of Infamy, 1957): a strong sense of story and a gift for the telling detail. As Lord, like Key, was a Baltimorean, a writer, and a lawyer (Yale Law School, 1946), The Dawn’s Early Light may be, in some ways, his most personal book.

Readers familiar with Lord’s breathless, you-are-there way of conveying the historical moment will not be surprised to hear that Lord begins with an in medias res recounting of British forces entering the Chesapeake in the third year of the War of 1812, on a mission to wreak destruction in Washington and Baltimore in retaliation for American depredations in British Canada. Lord provides vivid, pithy descriptions of leaders on both sides, as when he describes British Rear Admiral George Cockburn, commander of the invasion’s naval forces, as “a throwback to Elizabethan times. He fought war with gusto, and he played very, very rough” (p. 51).

A lot of bad things had to happen for the American defense of Washington, D.C., to go as badly as it did. An uninformed Secretary of War dismissed the possibility that the British might actually be interested in attacking Washington. A jittery commander ordered the abandonment and destruction of Fort Washington, a Maryland fortification that commanded the Potomac River approaches to the capital. And overconfident Americans felt blithely “assured that the number and bravery of our men will afford complete protection to the city” (p. 101).

At Bladensburg, Maryland – today a suburban community, just northeast of Washington – the poorly trained American militia forces suffered a defeat so absolute, and fled the field in such hasty disarray, that newspapers later referred to the engagement as “the Bladensburg Races.” Lord emphasizes the disappointment and disillusionment felt by President James Madison: “Like most Jeffersonians, he had relished the theory that the free democratic yeoman fighting for his home was always a match for the mere paid hireling of a foreign foe. Now he knew better. ‘I could never have believed,’ he told [banker Jacob] Barker, ‘that so great a difference existed between regular troops and a militia force, if I had not witnessed the scenes of this day’” (p. 151). Both President Madison and First Lady Dolley Madison fled the city – the latter after saving the full-length Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington from the doomed presidential mansion – and left Washington to the victorious British.

As punitive missions go, it was a curiously civilized one; the British restricted themselves to burning only the public buildings of Washington, and were punctilious in observing the rules of what was then known as civilized warfare. Yet the American defeat at the Battle of Bladensburg, and the subsequent burning of Washington, constituted a serious humiliation for the young nation.

And the British may have had even worse plans in mind for Baltimore. The seaport had furnished many of the fast-moving privateer ships – the famed “Baltimore Clippers” – that had ravaged Britain’s seaborne commerce throughout the war, and British feelings against Baltimore ran high. Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, the commander of the entire expedition, joined in the general British feeling that Baltimore was a “nest of pirates”; he once wrote that “Baltimore may be destroyed”, and said in another letter that “this town ought to be laid in ashes” (p. 223). It is a grim thing to wonder if the British, in a successful invasion of Baltimore, might have behaved without the relative restraint that they had shown at Washington.

Fortunately, though, the British attempt to take Baltimore did not turn out as their campaign against Washington had. A land attack at North Point failed, with British Major General Robert Ross among those killed in the battle; and the defenders of Fort McHenry, the key to any attempt to enter Baltimore from the sea, foiled the British attempts to reduce the fort via rockets and bombardment. And Francis Scott Key, confined on that flag-of-truce boat in the context of his efforts on behalf of an imprisoned American doctor, was in the perfect place to witness, and make, history. “He looked at the flag on the fort, and it was about now that the turbulent, fervent thoughts racing through his mind began to take poetic shape. Using the back of a letter that happened to be in his pocket, Francis Scott Key began to jot down lines and phrases and likely couplets…” (p. 293) And thus an anthem was born.

Lord served during the Second World War with the Office of Strategic Services, the intelligence agency that was a forerunner of the modern C.I.A.; accordingly, it should be no surprise that he writes about the burning of Washington and the Battle of Baltimore from a loyally American perspective. Writing in 1972 – a time of Cold War conflict, when the American people were singularly divided over the Vietnam War – Lord may have wanted to remind his American readers of a comparably difficult and divisive period.

As Lord states in the book’s preface, “the summer of 1814 found America threatened with national extinction….It would not be surprising if the whole American experiment collapsed under the impact”; and yet, “within eight months all had changed. America was again at peace, her people unified, her economy mending, her army and navy bursting with pride, her prospects limitless, her position safe in the family of nations” (p. 15). It is a story that was no doubt inspiring in an early-1970’s milieu of American division, and it is one that could perhaps be just as inspiring in this era of American division.

Reprinted as part of the Maryland Paperback Bookshelf series from the Johns Hopkins University Press, The Dawn’s Early Light remains the definitive history of the Chesapeake Campaign of 1814.
Profile Image for Mahlon.
314 reviews125 followers
October 28, 2008
Until very recently this was THE book to read on The War of 1812, given the publication of several new works on the subject, this may no longer be the case, but for my money, there's no better storyteller than Walter Lord. That said, this is not one of his best works, but it's still a worthwhile read, especially for dedicated fans. His prose is most effective when he's describing the actual battles, his minute-by minute account of the burning of Washington is the highlight of the book. The non-combat portions just seem to drag in comparison.

This book is becoming scarce, consider yourself lucky if you find a copy.
Profile Image for Jerome Otte.
1,730 reviews
September 19, 2013
In telling his story, Lord’s work is clearly not intended to be a formal study because analysis and thesis is generally eschewed. Lord uses his considerable skills to tell a compelling tale by weaving together often trivial historical detail into an understandable and engaging narrative accessible to a lay reader. Compelling and often riveting, The Dawn’s Early Light employs a journalistic style that imparts facts while retaining a sense of sensationalism and dramatic color. The lack of analysis was somewhat distracting for me because the story’s many vignettes and plot lines compel the reader to wonder what the significance is. And usually Lord leaves the question unanswered. Nevertheless, as the story unfolds, the mosaic of scenes combine to form an image in the reader’s mind that constitutes an answer. In this way, Lord presents views of events and personalities without explicitly stating or arguing those interpretations.

What I found great about the book was Lord’s presentation of both the British and American sides of the tale, moving the story from government officials, to admirals and generals, to soldiers and ordinary citizens, all of whom were caught up in conflict and overtaken by events. In addition to the well-known American themes of inept leadership, ill preparedness, and the low quality of the militia when confronting the British regulars (many of them veterans of the brutal Peninsular War against Napoleon’s troops) in combat, less well-known British perspectives are offered: government instructions that did little to dissuade army-navy rivalry; the Chesapeake operations of Admiral Cochrane (who hated Americans with a passion) and Admiral Cockburn (who did not particularly hate Americans despite being hated by them for burning Washington D.C.) and the Duke of Wellington’s remarks on the limits of descent to produce victory and assessment of British strategic options help explain British diplomatic moves at the Ghent peace talks.

Unfortunately, the book focuses almost exclusively on events in the Chesapeake Bay. Composed of a preface and thirteen chapters, eight chapters of the book are devoted to events culminating with the burning of Washington DC; an additional three chapters narrate the British attack at Baltimore; one chapter relates events leading to the Peace of Ghent; and the final chapter discusses events leading to the battle of New Orleans and provides the book’s conclusion. The preface places the thirteen chapters in historical context by providing a synthesized and, for some historians, too concise synopsis of events leading up to the summer of 1814. Compared to the richness of the story in the first eleven chapters, some readers will be disappointed with the brief treatment of the treaty negotiations and the New Orleans operation. Oddly, the book also omits military events along the Niagara Frontier, the naval ship-building race on Lake Ontario, and only briefly references military operations in New York and political upheaval in New England.

But in all, The Dawn’s Early Light is worth reading because it is a good example of well-written and well-researched popular history. It serves as a reminder that history is not only analysis, synthesis, and thesis but also a story of humanity featuring all the drama of the theater.
Profile Image for Yibbie.
1,048 reviews41 followers
August 30, 2019
I don’t think I’ll ever hear the national anthem the same ever again. Walter Lord walks us through the desperate days of loss and destruction that shook the nation and threatened its very life. He helps us see and even feel the chaos that paralyzed the government and the public. We see the despair that pervaded the nation. Then just as it looks the bleakest for our young nation, the fortunes of war turn and we get carried away with the exultation of the newly victorious Americans as they sing the new anthem.
It was really well written. Occasionally, I did get bogged down a bit in all the military movements and organizational details, but that usually didn’t last long before I was again completely caught up in the action.
I remember a few ‘mild’ curse words. It was very delicate about any other objectionable material.
Profile Image for Nick Willner.
30 reviews
July 7, 2022
The british ascend up the patuxent on river and on land to pig point, disembark and march unopposed all the way to the outskirts of dc, the american defenses were non existent. No one had a clue what they were doing and attitudes ranged from clueless to ambivalent to the point of treason. No one even knew who was in charge, militias were mustered pathetically the impression i get is like a home owners association gathering some random neighbors, some armed some not, and attempting to organize them in a defense of the nations capital vs the British army. Its hopeless at this point. Theres no intelligence, no man power, no leadership, not even a common consensus or communication on what should be done by the nations leaders from the top down-America sucks at this point.

The British meet the American force at Bladensburg, absolutely route and embarrass them, the Americans flee-scattering everywhere. The British basically walk into the young nations capital and burn it down. Well they didnt have to do all the work because the American force is in such shambles they decide to burn and demolish their own forts and navy yards so they may not be employed by the enemy. The Americans have no confidence they are surrendering to the point of destroying their own forts and supplies by themselves. Its a bad look.

So the British burn down the white house, the capital, everything “Public” and of use to the government. They’re pretty cool to the inhabitants though basically like “yeah your gonna be British again soon anyway so we might as well be nice, America has no hope.” Then they leave the city to lick its wounds head down the Potomac and begin toward Baltimore.

Baltimore by this time has heard of the pathetic routing at Bladensburg, they’ve heard the capital was given up and they’re like “What the hell is going on down there?!? We’re next, we’ll be fine, Sam Smith your in charge. General Winder is pathetic.” Sam Smith prepares the city so well it goes from complete panic September 3rd, to complete confidence in the cities defenses September 10th, to the point that militias begin planning their way home. Finally They spot the British flotilla of 50 war ships waiting off North Point. September 11th, 1814, the British land at North Point just as Smith predicts and it begins. Sam Smith sends 3000-some odd Americans to meet the oncoming British force heading up the peninsula on foot. Both armies spend a restless night on the peninsula a few miles from each other.

September 12th, the fighting begins, about 160 American casualties, 300 British including Colonel Ross. The Americans are routed again but not so shamefully as at Bladensburg-although the British think so. This great battle at North Point taking place heading up current day 695 just after you cross the key bridge right before you get to the Dundalk shit-plant….ah history. Anyway, the flotilla is still heading up the potapsco toward Ft Mchenry-with old Francis Scott Key in tow mind you-and shits about to go down….

By the way the British fucking HATE Baltimore,
“This lively, brawling seaport up the Bay sat at the top of the list of British hates. It had supplied 126 of the privateers that ravaged British commerce. It was generally considered a “nest of pirates.” It was, in Admiral Cochrane's mind, “the most democratic town and I believe the richest in the union.” A special fate awaited this most special target. There might be some excuse for respecting private property in Washington, but not here. “Baltimore may be destroyed or laid under a severe contribution," Cochrane wrote Earl Bathurst on August 28. Writing Melville six days later, he no longer talked of ransom; instead, he was worried about a delicate problem that might spoil his plans for total destruction: “As this town ought to be laid in ashes, if the same opinion holds with H. Maj.'s Ministers, some hint ought to be given to Gen'l Ross, as he does not seem inclined to visit the sins committed upon H. Maj's Canadian subjects upon the inhabitants of this state.””

Baltimore, “Mobtown” where anti-federalist sentiment is maybe higher than anywhere and hence anti-british sentiment as well, the exact opposite of the anti-war faction from New England at this time, is the Baltimore attitude,
“Its record of harassing the enemy was unparalleled-over 500 British ships captured or sent to the bottom by Baltimore privateers. And it had a reputation to go with its record. No city had done more to fan the war fever. In one anti-Federalist riot a crowd even killed a distinguished Revolutionary leader and maimed the venerated Richard Henry Lee, seemingly just because they wanted peace. “Mobtown" was the gentlest epithet applied by the British press.”
The British knew this and basically planned on giving no quarter to the Baltimore people, certainly not sparing private property the way they did in D.C.,
“The normally placid Admiral Codrington wrote his wife that evening, “but my heart is deeply interested in the coercion of these Baltimore heroes, who are perhaps the most inveterate against us of all the Yankees, and i hope they will be chastised even until they excite my pity, by which time they will be sufficiently humbled.””
For the people of Baltimore this was a true final stand…..Back to the Potapsco…

September 13th is the day, basically Baltimore is saved by the impenetrable nature of Ft. Mchenry. As soon as the British gets within range to be effective beyond its own bomb ships it comes within range of the guns of ft mchenry and General Armistead lets loose with all he has smashing at the British fleet and basically scaring them back out of range. The British bomb ships are loud and scary but all in all not fast or effective enough to take the fort. Doubts begin to creep in. The battle on land coming up from the small victory at north point reaches the American line dug in at Hampstead Hill where thousands of American troops are waiting for the British force. The British back down on land and in the Potapsco. They realize Baltimore will not be so easily taken as Washington and they retreat back down off of north point for a few days then begin their descent down the bay-Baltimore has defended America vs the super power of the day. Key writes his poem and it along with the news of the defense of Baltimore spreads like wildfire through the formerly down-trodden American mind,
“It quickly spread to other cities too, as the whole nation rejoiced in the news from Baltimore. Within a month papers in towns as far away as Savannah and Concord, New Hampshire, were running Key's stirring lyrics. Everywhere they struck the right chord- the rare sense of exultation people felt about this totally unexpected victory. Coming so soon after Washington, the situation had all the familiar earmarks of another disaster. And now the impossible had happened. Joy and relief swept the country. At Norfolk the Constellation fired rousing salutes; at Salem, Massachusetts, the town cannon boomed in celebration. “Never have we witnessed greater elevation of public spirits," exclaimed the Salem Register. The triumph at Baltimore had erased all past impressions of the enemy's irresistible strength. “Ten thousand victories cannot give them their former hopes, and the spell is lost forever."”

With the expense of the war, the isolated nature of the American population-isolated from the nucleus of Britain and European conflict; as well as the literally isolated nature of the American people from each other-making it difficult to conquer and control in a traditional sense, the growing conflict within Europe bringing about the need for resources at home rather than in the americas-all the impracticalities of waging this war begin to load on Britain. Even the nature of Britains victories come into question, “We conquer nothing, we capture nothing, and almost every action is followed by a retreat” says one British guy. Things are beginning to look bleak for Britain in America.
“Indeed, it was the sheer endlessness of it all that discouraged people the most. Only a few weeks ago the Naval Chronicle was speculating on the dissolution of the Union; now the press wondered whether Canada could be saved.”

The Peace treaty is signed basically allocating to each power the same as they had pre-war, but is waiting to be ratified by James Madison. The British think Madison is a trickster always trying to get one over on them so aggressions continue in the meantime until ratification. The British regroup and attack New Orleans around Christmas and are beaten by the American force led by Andrew Jackson. Finally the treaty makes its way to Madison and is ratified. The war is over.

This was the turning point from America coming from a small budding nation to a real verified power on the world stage,
“there were intangible results that went far beyond anything that could be written into a treaty. For one thing, America gained new respect abroad. For 20 years she had been regarded as a sort of semi-nation-almost a freak-by the great powers of Europe. Considered too weak to stand on her own, she had seen her rights ignored by both sides during the Napoleonic Wars. Now all that was over. America had fought, and this fact alone gave her prestige. There had been some fiascoes, but there were skillful performances too, and these were occurring with ever-increasing frequency. “The war has raised our reputation in Europe," James Bayard wrote his son on Christmas Day, 1814, right after signing the treaty, “and it excites astonishment that we should have been able for one campaign to have fought Great Britain single handed. I think it will be a long time before we are disturbed again by any of the powers of Europe.””
“And with this new self-confidence went a new freedom from dependence on Europe. Feeling they could now take care of themselves, Americans turned to developing their own vast resources. Soon, absorbed in internal development, they went to the opposite extreme and forgot about Europe completely. It was a state of mind that would last a hundred
years. But the most important result of all was a new feeling of national pride.”

“nothing did as much to pull the country together as that searing experience of losing Washington-the people's own capital-followed by the thrill of national redemption when the same enemy force was repulsed at Baltimore.
In this swift turnabout new hopes were born, spirits raised, a nation uplifted. More than a banner of shining stars and stripes, a whole new sense of national identity shone forth in the smoky haze of what Francis Scott Key so lyrically called "the dawn's early light."”
Profile Image for Paul Haspel.
206 reviews19 followers
January 26, 2013
Walter Lord's The Dawn's Early Light is an energetic and well-written recounting of the Washington and Baltimore campaigns from the War of 1812. Lord, a Baltimore journalist and writer (best known for A Night to Remember, his book about the ill-fated voyage of R.M.S. Titanic), deploys his you-are-there approach to history effectively, capturing well the Americans' despair at the burning of Washington, D.C., as well as American pride at Baltimoreans' heroic and successful defense of Fort McHenry.

Lord also incorporates skillfully the story of how Francis Scott Key witnessed the battle while being held prisoner on board a British ship in Baltimore Harbor during the battle. Readers who don't already know that story will learn how, seeing the U.S. flag still flying over the fort after the battle, Key was inspired to write "The Star-Spangled Banner," the poem that was combined with a popular tune of the time to create what became the national anthem of the United States.

The story is a familiar one, but Lord tells it with his customary skill and energy. Read this before your next visit to Fort McHenry, and then look down the harbor, past the boats and the wharf buildings, toward the Francis Scott Key Bridge and the Chesapeake Bay beyond it. It's fascinating to think that what is today a peaceful harbor, a routine scene of maritime commerce, was once the site of one of the most dramatic moments in American history.
Profile Image for Mimi.
107 reviews
March 1, 2013
I bought this book at the gift shop at Fort McHenry in 2011 and just got around to reading it. It is a non-fiction about the battle at Fort McHenry in 1814, the general aspect of the War of 1812, wrapping up with the Battle of New Orleans. I laughed out loud in many places from the dry wit and irony of the complete lack of discipline, the bad luck, the plain stupidity of both sides at times. God must have wanted the US to be a country because based on all the dumb things we did as well as the arrogance and negligence of the British in both wars we shouldn't be here today! This book should be required reading and is one that I think even student age readers would enjoy. Left me shaking my head a lot. "The quartermaster had indeed sent provisions but no one thought to include cooking utensils." You have to laugh! We ran away, they retreated, they advanced, we found strength. Finally, England was just tired of war and the expense and taxes of it all after Napoleon. They just wanted it to be over instead of going on forever, for they could see no good end. Definitely worth reading.
Profile Image for John Harder.
228 reviews12 followers
July 10, 2012
The Dawn’s Early Light is an in depth analysis of the battle for Washington during the war of 1812. To a lesser extent it also delves into the battle for New Orleans and the Treaty of Ghent. Prose and story trip right along for the first 100 pages – than something happens. Perhaps it is just my extraordinarily low I.Q. on show again, but the minutia of troop movements gets a bit old. I think an in depth look at a few individuals (including a better of understanding of their personalities) would have mad for a more interesting history. There are some points of interest like Francis Scott Key bobbing up and down in the bay and being inspired to write the Star Spangled Banner.

Thank you Steve Hladik for sending me this book. Don’t take the negative review to heart – it was worth reading, just a bit dry. Now if you have something smutty on your bookshelf…
Profile Image for Mark.
2,144 reviews19 followers
September 24, 2009
Walter Lord, like McCullough and Stephen Ambrose, can make history read like a novel...a war that grows out of the native-American threat, expansion, and freedom of the seas...a remarkable story of a woefully unprepared US tackling the preeminent world power of the day as told from both sides...the focus is on the Chesapeake and New Orleans campaigns...short shrift is given to the war in the West and and the invasion from Canada...the political can-of-worms, that is war, is portrayed quite well on both sides of the Atlantic
Profile Image for Vincent O'Neil.
Author 24 books40 followers
August 7, 2022
Walter Lord is one of my favorite historians, and I enjoyed this work immensely.

It joins the young United States toward the end of the up-and-down conflict with England known as the War of 1812. Events in that final year of the conflict held the potential for utter calamity in the form of an early fracturing of the United States if British plans had succeeded. Anti-war and pro-secession sentiment was running high in New England after numerous military setbacks, and the administration of James Madison was not popular.

The defeat of Napoleon freed up battle-tested British troops for service in a new campaign designed to bring the war to Washington's doorstep and possibly take control of New Orleans. Raiding the Chesapeake Bay region was lucrative for the admirals commanding these British flotillas because of the potential for prize money. They became adept at shipping captured goods straight to an island outpost in the Caribbean, often using seized American ships for the transfer. In short, the British naval commanders were highly motivated to conduct this campaign.

On the American side, the government was badly in debt and the bulk of the available ground forces came from the militias of different states. Some states were tardy in sending their troops while others dispatched them with little or no equipment. To centralize the defense of the Chesapeake region, President Madison appointed a general who was politically acceptable but not militarily gifted.

As a result, the surprisingly small British force that marched on Washington did so with little opposition. Capitalizing on American disorganization at the Battle of Bladensburg (where even Secretary of State James Monroe contributed to the chaos by shifting battle positions with no real authority) the British defeated the Americans and then captured the capital of the young republic.

Although the occupation of Washington lasted only one day, it had a strange effect on American disunity. National outrage caused a resurgence of patriotism, and when the same British flotilla attempted to capture Baltimore it was firmly repulsed.

The description of the heroic defense of Baltimore's Fort McHenry (inspiration for the national anthem penned by Francis Scott Key) is extremely well done in this book. Baltimore was a particularly hated target for the British because so many of the American privateers who preyed on British shipping called that port home. The potential for prize money was still a strong lure for English admirals, but the enemy they faced this time was better organized and far more resolved than the one they'd swept aside at Bladensburg.

Lord completes the book with a strong description of the Battle of New Orleans. That signal victory put the finishing touches on a reunification of a deeply divided America, a healing that ironically started with the capture of Washington. This book is extremely well written, highly entertaining, and strongly recommended.
Profile Image for Tom Schulte.
2,892 reviews56 followers
May 8, 2022
This is a really rather exciting, even thrilling tale of the military adventures of the British in America in the War of 1812 focusing on occupying DC and destroying or damaging key buildings and other area destruction before being repelled by Fort McHenry, thus saving Baltimore from its full wrath. There is also the story of the Battle of New Orleans. What stood out to me was in this pointless war (no side got what it wanted or much of anything) was the shenanigans of Villeré whose name is on a street I often travel. Disregarding orders to secure Bayou Bienvenue for the convenience of his own plantation, he was captured there by the British only to jump out of a window and claim importance as the first to warn Jackson.

Being a military history, really, there is little political history. So, Federalists are remarked as being tolerant of or supportive of the British. It is not explained if this is due to specific policies of the Democratic-Republican Party or of Madison particularly.

There are a lot of details of Key's negotiations to free a civilian POW and inspiring witness to the Congreve "rocket's red glare".

I am reading now in Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams of "the many independent groups that form during war and revolution" during the "rolling pogroms" of the Russian civil war and see in this book with the vignettes of collaboration, indifference, bartering for private property and lack of success in enlisting American slaves (Britain did have some success in forcible deportation, including to Halifax) and I suspect such stories of varied loyalty and alignment will emerge from the histories to be written of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine.
August 11, 2017
This is a must-read text for anyone wanting to familiarize themselves with the Chesapeake Campaign during the War of 1812 (a.k.a. "American's Second War for Independence"). There are many great tidbits in here. For example: while the nation's capital burned, the Declaration of Independence was safely hidden in Edgar Patterson's empty grist mill across the Potomac River . . . during the pillaging of the White House, British Major General Robert Ross made off with a pocketful of "old Madison's love letters" . . . and the quick-witted nature of Dr. William Thornton, Superintendent of Patents, who saved the U.S. Patent Office from the threat of the British torch, when he successfully argued that the inventor's models within it were private property, and not public—private property being prohibited from destruction.

Perhaps my favorite anecdote of all, however, is that of Fort McHenry's rooster. During the middle of the Bombardment, the fowl "appeared from nowhere, mounted a parapet, and began to crow." This prompted laughter from the exhausted troops, and amid the cheers, one soldier "called out that if he lived to see Baltimore again, he'd treat that bird to a poundcake." Well, once the smoke cleared the next morning, the Fort had held out, the flag was still there, and yes—the rooster got his precious poundcake.

My only critical point is that Walter Lord does not properly introduce everyone who is mentioned in the book. For instance: were it not for William Scott's entry in the index, it would be easy for the reader to overlook the fact that he was ever mentioned at all. Admittedly, Scott is not a household name by any means, but he did command an entire battalion of U.S. Regulars at the Battle of Bladensburg, and Lord gives him incredibly short shrift, omitting his first name from the body of text entirely. But that minor transgression is a small blemish in an otherwise well-polished work. Lord's writing is timeless, and this book remains a monumental accomplishment.
1,570 reviews7 followers
April 7, 2020
(Audiobook) I have a number of books by Walter Lord. Perhaps his best is A Night to Remember. The other works I read are also of good quality. This one was solid, but not spectacular. The title of the book indicates a focus on the fight at Ft. McHenry and the battle that spawned the writing of the Star-Bangled Banner. However, the Ft. McHenry battle is but a smaller part of the analysis. Granted, just describing the battle without context is not optimal. He does a good job of describing the lead-up fighting, especially the British actions of the invasion up the Potomac, the sacking of Washington D.C. and the various engagement in Northern Virginia until the British shifted to Baltimore.

However, outside of that, this work just feels a little rushed, attempting to distilled a complex conflict into a few sections. The last sections felt a bit too long, as he attempted to describe the Battle of New Orleans and all the subsequent political dealings..at least in more detail that might have been warranted given the scope of this book. Still, he does offer many personal accounts from the War of 1812, from both American and British sources, which is in line with his style of work.

This is an older book about the War of 1812. Yet, it does hold up as a decent source of writing. Have other sources of information and analyses come out since then (1972)? Yes, they have. However, the basics are still good. It is a starter work, but not the best work not that war.
Profile Image for Paul Peterson.
221 reviews11 followers
June 1, 2018
"Many felt with Gouvernor Morris that 'it was almost as vain to expect permanency from democracy as to construct a palace on the surface of the sea.' Now they knew it could be done."

"Drawing up for Talleyrand a sort of balance sheet on the results of the conflict, Serurier concluded: 'Finally, the war has given the Americans what they so essentially lacked, a national character founded on a glory common to all'".

30 years after America had won her independence, she was still treated as a second-class citizen of the world. While Napolean terrorized Europe, Britain still dominated the United States, impressing sailors on the seas, holding Canada to the north and vying for control of the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River and other naval strongholds to give them control over commerce in North America.

"The war has raised our reputation in Europe....and it excites astonishment that we should have been able for one campaign to have fought Great Britain single handed....I think it will be a long time before we are disturbed again by any of the powers of Europe."
Profile Image for Patsy.
85 reviews
December 30, 2019
Really enjoyed this telling of the events before, during, and after the battle that produced The Star-Spangled Banner. The siege and burning of Washington, D.C., is riveting, and afterward I could not wait to get to some relief at Baltimore :) Although I am not a big fan of the troop movements and such, I love how Walter Lord tells his stories through people and their interactions. (I think he does this best in A Night to Remember, about the Titanic - could not put that one down). If you enjoy popular history, this is one that may give you a closer look at events you probably 1) sped through in US History class if you are from the United States, or 2) really don’t know much/anything about if you are not. Final word: Dolley Madison and French John are my heroes, being the two of very few people in Washington who kept their heads in retreat.
428 reviews10 followers
November 14, 2019
I think I made a mistake in listening to this book as an audiobook. The onslaught of names, map locations and battle titles left me completely unable to focus and my mind drifted off regularly. Too bad, because I really respect Walter Lord as a storyteller and loved his book about the Titanic disaster. This one just didn’t grab my attention. I feel like I do have a better understanding of the War of 1812 but not in a coherent way. Perhaps someone with a greater interest in military history would appreciate this one more, or perhaps it’s just a book that needs to be read rather than listened too — preferably with maps and a cast of characters handy.
Profile Image for Phil Bayly.
Author 4 books24 followers
September 22, 2021
A historic account of an American war that Americans rarely consider. Walter Lord's 1972 bestseller about the War of 1812 is in the words of an able storyteller. There's much more to remember than the inspiration for the Star Spangled Banner and the dinner by British soldiers at the American president's official residence before burning it down.
Walter Lord was one of the best non-fiction writers of his time. A tireless researcher with a journalist's curiosity, Lord's best known book is "A Night to Remember." It is the definitive telling of the sinking of the RMS Titanic. He wrote thirteen best sellers before passing in 2002.
Profile Image for Kenneth.
747 reviews5 followers
December 27, 2019
A very worthy read on "The War of 1812", but after a brief introduction, we jump forward to what was called the "Chesapeake Campaign", the burning of Washington D.C., and the siege of Baltimore. Those events are covered in nice detail with a fresh, human feel.
I believe the book's strongest point is that the author successfully proves his main point by the end, and that is that this nascent nation , that was so deeply divided, finds a rallying point that joins it together to really form a "United" States that would move on then to play a much larger role in the world.
Profile Image for Tony Antonakas.
16 reviews
May 25, 2020
Fort McHenry was my favorite place to visit as a kid. It helped that I lived very close by.

The Battle of Baltimore was to the early Americans what the 1980 Olympic US Hockey team's exploits were.

Great Britain never got over losing the Revolutionary War and tried it's best to retake the fledgling country. Against all odds, the US prevailed at Lake Erie, New Orleans, and, most importantly, Baltimore.

Walter Lord does a great job showing how, once again, an outgunned band withstood the best of the best.
Profile Image for John.
683 reviews
November 22, 2020
Although I have read many of Walter Lord's books this, his first, was recently brought to my attention. The War of 1812 is oft neglected by military historians - I'm among them. This book is a great way to become familiar with the primary events of the war. Lord does a nice job of research and tells an engaging story. The administration, particularly President Madison, do not rise to the occasion.
125 reviews
January 23, 2018
Great Book to give me some insite into this war that I never really knew much about.

My Great Great Grandfather fought in this war. I know very little about him but I am trying to !earn more!
ILearning about the writing of the great song was something i knew about but this brought it to life for me!
Profile Image for Jyll Stuart.
24 reviews1 follower
February 28, 2019
The Star Spangled Inspiration

This book was fascinating from beginning to end. Not only did I gain a deeper understanding of what inspired Francis Scott Key, but also learned how this conflict was micro-managed by politicians. If you enjoy American history, you will enjoy this book!
Profile Image for Michael Delaware.
Author 20 books15 followers
September 26, 2020
A fascinating look at the period surrounding the War of 1812, and the significance in American history. Walter Lord has a way of presenting the facts and keeping the pace of events, good or bad, and making it interesting. There is so much I did not know about this chapter in my countries past.
Profile Image for Richard Myers.
507 reviews7 followers
September 5, 2017
Great book

A wonderful history of the War of 1812 and the "inside stories" on how the battles came about. I recommend this book for everyone.
Profile Image for Dawn Hurtado.
7 reviews
September 29, 2017
Good Book

Easy to follow and full of information. It is easy to see a great deal of research was done, the book flows well and holds your interest.
Profile Image for Mike Glaser.
596 reviews30 followers
November 20, 2018
WaLter Lord is always good for an interesting tale. Learned a great deal about the campaign that ended with the burning of Washington and the assault on Baltimore. A very enjoyable read.
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