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tv   Book Discussion on Through the Perilous Fight  CSPAN  June 16, 2014 6:34am-7:01am EDT

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economy so keep that in mind today. you are -- your purchasing dollars account for events like
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this. introducing steve vogel. our student daughter and guess today is steve vogel, the author of "through the perilous fight: 6 weeks that saved the nation" and he also wrote a book called the pentagon. he has written extensively about military affairs and the treatment of veterans from the wars in afghanistan and iraq. is reported about the war in afghanistan was part of a package of washington post stories selected as finalists for the 2002 pulitzer prize. he covered the september 11th, 2001, terrorist attack on the pentagon and subsequent reconstruction. he also covered the first gulf war and the war in iraq. in addition to the u.s. military operations in the balkans, rwanda and somalia please welcome steve vogel. [applause] >> thank you very much, thank you. we will make this instead of a lecture make this more of a
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conversation about steve's book. you might have noticed the subtitle, "through the perilous fight: 6 weeks that saved the nation". i want to ask steve howe did 6 weeks save the nation? >> good question. you have to start with you have to imagine the scene president james madison confronted on the morning of aug. 261814 when he comes back to washington and you have every federal building save one has been destroyed. the great landmarks of this country, the capital, the white house and with it the supreme court, library of congress, they have been gutted. you have an american army that has been vanquished, on the run. you have a british force that just left the capital by lands but then you have a second british force moving up the potomac river and still
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frightening the nation's capital in alexandria. the united states treasury it this point two using the war of 1812 is broke. don't have money to improve money to pay for, you have parts of new england talking about the session. it is hard to imagine a more decrepit moment american history. in a few weeks we talk about in this book, through quite a bit of luck, just the right things being done, is able to turn the situation around and we emerge with a victory at baltimore together with another victory further north in plattsburgh, n.y. the completely changes the direction the war is going, allows the united states to
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escape this largely disastrous war in terms much greater, much better than anyone could have imagined just a few weeks later. the united states is put on of course that for the first time establishes there unchallenged sovereignty over much of north america. >> over the last few weeks i read the book and if you all remember the hunt for red october, remember that? that is how this book read. one more chapter, one more section, goes very vibrantly in shorter sections and you spend almost as if you are camera spending equal time with the american side as the british side. really cool style you wrote this in. how did you write this style? >> part of it is having worked as a journalist. sometimes what the editors tell you is we want a ticktock.
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what i was trying to do is everybody has heard about the burning of washington and the battle for 4 mchenry but very few people could put the story together and tell you the chain of events the lead to this moment. really hadn't been done as a narrative history so what i wanted to do was gather every document, every interview, every ship's log, every letter that had dates and times, and by that put together very chronological, day by day, hour by hour, sometimes minute by minute account using techniques like james swanson used very effectively in his stories about the lincoln assassination for example but it is an attempt to put the reader at the scene, knowing what is known at that
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point by the characters you are writing about. >> we all approach the war in 1812 as a mysterious work, not certain what it was about but we all have a lot of myths about the war in our head and sometimes they are true and sometimes not. what were the great myth or legend you had to confront in your research about the book? >> in some ways it is not as much of a myth now but there's a misperception in the united states that people tend to have forgotten we were the ones who declared war on great britain. some people say great britain was trying to take back the colonies and that is what this is about and in fact it was the united states that declared war on great britain. this conflict has to be seen in the context of this amazing struggles that had been going on in europe for 20 years between england and france. for the last decade with napoleon on the scene, the
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british had come to see this fight is a struggle for civilization. in that mine much as the united states post 9/11 at you are either with us or against us attitude great britain had that attitude and they didn't hesitate to trample on american sovereignty to further their ends and that included stopping our ships at sea to take sailors to put the work on oil navy ships or blocking our trade with europe and president madison had come to believe the united states had won its freedom a generation earlier in the revolution it hadn't really truly men -- they decided we might as well remain a vassal state. it is a fundamental understanding we need about this war. >> there is a low point of the books, when the british occupied
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washington d.c. and proceed to start torching different buildings. there is this myth which you address in the book and an op-ed last year in the washington post about this myth in our head that is a retaliatory raid. what did you discover? >> that is basically a pr campaign waged by the british after the fact. we have to go back to the beginnings of this story and the arrival of a man who really changed the nature of the war in the chesapeake, george coburn, george, very effective will navy squadron commander who decided he was going to bring the war to the american people in the same way william tecumseh sherman 50 years later in the civil war. he launched a campaign of torching towns and trading plantations in the chesapeake
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bay. lot of these actions took place before anyone was going on in york. and york and canada which is today toronto being burned, this was something the british brought up as justification after the fact when other capitals in europe were saying napoleon didn't burn any capitals, why were you burning a capital in north america? what this attack on washington was about was an attempt, he saw an opportunity to put this war to end. he thought that by attacking the nation's seat, sewed humiliating the government of james madison, sewed disgracing it he could perhaps force it to collapse and at least force the united states to make peace on british terms and he very nearly succeeded. >> why did the british go after baltimore? they attacked d.c. first and then go after baltimore. why baltimore and what were they
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going to do to the city? >> baltimore, they dislike washington that they really hated baltimore. we have to look back at the cities of the time. washington at the time of the burning of the city was a pretty small, almost a village, some 8,000 people and were living in the capital. it was almost like a collection of these fantastic buildings that had newly been completed like the white house and the u.s. capitol but other than that, it was mostly middle hovels, a few mentions here and there, more woods and fields that are real city. baltimore on the other hand was a city of 40,000 people, third largest in the u.s. and was a real center of support for the
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war and a real center of private hearing acts against the british and this involved commercial or private ships that were armed in attacking british ships with the approval of the american government and the british really disliked baltimore for a number of reasons. >> you mentioned admiral coburn. it struck me in the book reading of this the importance of leadership, the british have great leaders. general ross, admiral coburn. coburn's boss isn't such a great leader and on the american side we fell apart until the moment in baltimore when the crisis really hit. how important do you think leadership was? >> it plays such an important role. having different people in charge at the time of this crisis could have made an enormous difference. in the case of the british, they
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had been fighting france for two decades so they had had time to really develop an impressive cadres of officers. coburn served with nelson in the mediterranean and general ross, sent over to lead the army troops, fought under wellington, the united states, the minutemen of the american revolution, that erech has pretty much passed. we didn't have a very effective army or militia. very small officer corps and the ones we had were not of the best quality. general winder who was put in the defenses of washington was a political choice. his uncle is the governor of maryland and president addison was hoping that will get more
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militia troops to help on the defenses here if we appoint his nephew ended didn't work out that way. a lot of the blame for washington needs to fall on the madison administration in particular his secretary of war, john armstrong, who was dismissive of the idea of capturing washington. he felt it was too far, not important enough and despite raging from president madison himself and many citizens in town, armstrong devotes little to support general weiner or the militia troops on the defense of washington. and catastrophic results, madison didn't do enough to ensure his instructions were being carried out so he bears some responsibility. lessons that were burned in the burning of washington were applied for three weeks in
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baltimore. this includes a new show of strength by madison and more effective commanders on the scene in baltimore. >> a narrative, there are a great deal of characters in the book, like game of thrones, a lot to cover. there is one character in particular who keeps coming up like a piece of red zone throughout the narrative and that is francis scott key. tell us about him. he was a washingtone n. >> fascinating figure. we sometimes think he was beamed down from outer space from the enterprise or something and ended up at fort mchenry to watch the bombardment but he represents the fears, the conflicted feelings of many americans during this conflict. he was from maryland originally,
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not that far from here in gaithersburg. he was born in what is now carroll county but he practiced law in georgetown and was vehemently opposed to this war, a terrible mistake to declare war on great britain and he actually cheers when one of our many invasions of canada fails and he says to john randolph of virginia, this may be treason but if so i embrace the name and yet when washington and maryland are being attacked he rises to the defense and get involved with the militia and involved in the debacle, he gets more or less volunteers for this mission to try to gain freedom for an american doctor who is taken prisoner by the british after as they leave washington. this puts him in position to witness a very pivotal moment in
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american history. >> what was that moment and what did it ultimately do? >> his timing was interesting because the british after leaving washington don't stay very long. they capture the city, why didn't they just hold it? this was a pretty small force. 4,000 men in the army force in the midst of a much larger country and even though the american militias had not fought very well there were plenty more of them. and move towards the region, they wanted to get back to their ships in order to move on to their other targets which included baltimore, new orleans was their ultimate goal. he launches this mission after they leave washington and it is actually the mission itself is
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fascinating. is an important one. he has to get the blessing of the madison administration to do it because the americans are upset this doctor has been taken prisoner in violation of rules of governing the taking of prisoners and they don't want to have to swap a genuine prisoner for this doctor who set a bad example to encourage the british to take more americans prisoner. francis scott key is an effective negotiator but the smartest thing he does is take some letters from british prisoners attesting to the good care they have been getting in washington and together with the rest of the american delegation they end up intercepting the british fleet just as the commander alexander cochrane has been waffling on whether to attack baltimore right away. he was thinking of leaving the bay to come back later but make the decision to attack baltimore and francis scott key shows up
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at that moment. again and again showing that these critical moment so he gains freedom for the british doctor. the bad news is you are all coming with us because you know too much and we are on our way to baltimore and he hears in the coming days their plans for really devastating and baltimore in a way that washington had not. washington had been given kids glove treatment, there wasn't much damage done at all to private property because of general ross but that was going to change for baltimore which the british disliked a lot more and for francis scott key it was an opponent of the war, he fought the british would be a vat as gentlemen, he was quite disillusioned by what he is hearing. he writes to john randolph that he heard them talking about the plunder and destruction of
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baltimore, women and children in baltimore, he is quite fearful but when he is watching the bombardment over the course of 24 hours, he believes that many lives are at stake and not just in baltimore, there is fear that if baltimore falls, three weeks after washington then you will have a chain reaction, philadelphia and new york couldn't be much farther behind. the union seemed to be holding together by a pre precarious thread at this moment and for francis scott key who is watching this, the thing we have to remember about the song that he writes the we all sang at ball games is you have to remember there's a question mark at the end of the first verse. when he is witnessing this he is not sure baltimore or the country itself are going to survive this moment. >> in the book you have a great balance between the british side and the american side and you
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had to go overseas a bid to research the british side. how many trips did he take? >> i loved it largely into one trip to inclined to go to the national archives and then down to portsmouth will marine museum and the navy museum, greenwich, london national maritime museum, wonderful facilities and a lot of letters, diaries and official papers, i didn't want to just have this written as the american account of what happened in washington and baltimore. august trying to present both sides in a fair manner. the british had their grievances too and also turned out to be the most fascinating characters. admiral coburn, very jovial, brutal, effective flow, general
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ross, quite a gentleman and ross and his papers like a lot of the army that ends up attacking washington they came from northern ireland. his papers are up there in belfast and that was a real treat. the great irony was some of the best stuff even for the british side, you know where admiral coburn's papers are today? the library of congress. one of those great ironies. he burned down a library of congress but today they hold his papers. wonderful facilities at the national archives, the maryland historical society in baltimore has tremendous archives and a number of smaller, local archives in this region and also just visiting the sites themselves is always instructive. >> we have the bicentennial of the burning of washington coming up in three months. how will you be commemorating the burning of washington?
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>> there's a lot going on this summer. key's manuscript is going to be reunited for the first time with the star spangled banner at the smithsonian in washington starting on flag day. they have the money joint display several weeks. and also sponsor some sort of anthem for america encouraging people to sing the song and think about what the words mean. for the burning of washington, there will be quite a day of activities in blaine'sburg where they are dedicating a memorial to joshua barney, one of the real american heroes of that day and almost single-handedly turned around the battle, we didn't get much of a chance to talk about that so far but it was a pretty dramatic day and barney was his flotillaman, almost changed the flow of w

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