The Perilous Fight
Published on Friday, August 1, 2014 - 10:02am
This month marks the two hundred year anniversary of the burning of Washington by the British as a part of the (slightly misnamed) War of 1812. To mark the anniversary, History Book Club is reading and discussing Through the Perilous Fight: Six Weeks that Saved a Nation by Steve Vogel. The book recounts the immediate events leading up to the British taking of Washington, the burning of public buildings and the eventual Battle of Baltimore where Fort McHenry was shelled and the Star Spangled Banner was written.
As I've made my way through the book, I've had a growing strange sensation as I've recognized places that the British are marching through, the buildings they are destroying and the areas the Americans retreated to. It's disconcerting to read about your city being invaded, even two hundred years removed. I grew up in Ohio, which has a surprisingly mostly battle-free history. There was only one small Civil War skirmish and off and on fighting with Native Americans. The one big battle that I can remember learning about in school and feeling any geographical connection to is the Battle of Tippecannoe, in which Tecumsah was defeated by William Henry Harrison- but it ends up that was in Indiana. Like most of us, I am not used to thinking of my everyday landscape as a place of long ago war, death and destruction.
Washington, DC, of course, is a place used to historic happening on a national scale and so it is not surprising to read an entire book on a short six week period in our city's past. But my feelings of familiarity and slight distress at the British invasion two hundred years ago is not because they invaded my country's capital, but because they invaded the city in which I've made my home. They marched in from Bladensburg, where I almost bought a house. They camped on the Capitol grounds, where I've walked a hundred times. They burned down the Sewall house when some Americans fired on them, I've been to the museum about women's suffrage now housed there. These are familiar places now made different by this extra layer of destructive history.
Have you had similar experiences living and DC and learning of its history? If you grew up somewhere else, did you have a sense of the past there? Do you think that the burning of Washington in 1814 affects the city today?
Come and discuss these questions and whatever else you find interesting in this book at History Book Club the Northeast Public Library on August 6 at 7 p.m. There are copies of the book available for checkout at the library branch. All are welcome, even if you have not read the book.