Sunday, August 24, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 241: George R. Gleig, Storming the Capital (#241)

George R. Gleig, "Storming the Capital" (1821) from The War of 1812: Writings from America’s War of Independence:

Last week, we read Dolley Madison's letters to her sister around the time of the British invasion of Washington, D.C.; this week, we get about the same time period from the POV of a triumphant British soldier.

First thing to note is that the young Gleig (18 at the time he joined the fight against Napoleon in 1813) is writing a memoir to be published; so if his writing seems a little more audience-friendly than Dolley's note to her sister, there's a reason for that.

(Still, quick lesson for writers: if you want to give a description--here, of the land--because it's necessary to understand some later issue, feel free to tell us that BEFORE you go on with your description. Gleig gives his reason after, which is no way to win friends.)

Second, while Dolley was writing from within the historical moment--and so limited in not knowing how that history would work out--Gleig is writing after the fact and writing a comprehensive note on the war. So, when he describes how strong the American position was, even before he says it, he knows the second part of that sentence: what a strong position those losers had. Similarly, when he's describing the destruction of Washington, D.C., it's interesting to note that the British army at that moment is split up into two groups--and he's never clear as to which group he personally was in.

Third and related, Gleig writes for posterity, so he explains pretty clearly how the British won the battle of Bladensburg even though they were outnumbered and the Americans were strongly positioned. (Answer: the Americans did a very poor job of soldiering. Though Gleig does take time to praise the American seamen who were on artillery duty.)

He also explains--with a mixture of righteousness and slight embarrassment--the aftermath of the battle: when a British detachment came into D.C. under flag of truce to negotiate the surrender of certain goods (plunder being an integral part of war at that time), they were fired upon, which is why the British decided to burn some government buildings. It's curious to me that I'd never heard about the envoys being fired on; and it's also curious how Gleig expresses some regret that the British army burned and destroyed the archives and some printing offices. Which, again, may be something he felt at the time, but is clearly something you might reconsider when looking at the battle as a historical event.

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