The White House Is Burning book cover image

The White House Is Burning

  • 1995

By: Jane Sutcliffe

Enemy soldiers invade Washington, DC. Americans defeated.

In the early hours before dawn on August 24, 1814, a cry went out that the British were advancing on Washington, DC. Less than forty years independent, America was two years into another war with Britain-The War of 1812. By nightfall on the 24th, British soldiers were setting fire to DC, starting with the Navy Yard, then they were on to the Capitol and the White House, where First Lady Dolley Madison still kept watch.

"A noble library, several printing offices, and all the national archives were likewise committed to the flames, which, though no doubt the property of Government, might better have been spared."
-Lieutenant George Gleig

"At first I thought the world must be on fire-such a flame I have never seen since. We were told the British had taken Washington and [were] burning it up.. I was told not to cry."
-seven-year-old Matilda Roberts, Baltimore

This "biography of a single day" recounts the terrible day that the British attacked and destroyed the young nation's capitol. American soldiers were forced to turn and flee. Drawing upon first-person accounts, including First Lady Dolley Madison, a British officer, a teenage American soldier, and a nine-year-old slave, the compelling chronology of the events of August 24, 1814, will have readers young and old riveted.

Archival images and portraits of the major players provide readers a greater understanding of the geography and feel for life in 1814. Images of the fires are stark and frightening.

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Author & Illustrator Bios:

Jane Sutcliffe, author

Jane Sutcliffe was born in Providence, RI, in the days when library fines were a penny. One of her earliest memories was her weekly trip to the local library with her father. She has loved books ever since.

Read more about Jane Sutcliffe.

Awards & Honors:

  • NCSS/CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People

Editorial Reviews:

The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, starred review

If it seems that the War of 1812 doesn't thrive in the classroom, crammed as it is between the massive units on the Revolutionary and Civil wars, look to Sutcliffe's title as an antidote. With just enough requisite scene setting, the author launches straight into a gripping reconstruction of the events of August 23 to 24, 1814, when the British invaded Maryland and the nation's capital, burned its government buildings, terrified those citizens who hadn't already fled, and then snuck silently out of Washington in the middle of the night. The reporting is kept lively by its heavy reliance on primary source material, with witnesses and participants ranging from an American soldier who went to battle in his formal dancing pumps, to British admiral Cockburn, who couldn't resist taunting the people he vanquished, to Dolley Madison, who kept up a running letter to her sister even as she ordered dinner as usual and packed up the silver (and George Washington's portrait), just in case. Throughout the narration Sutcliffe keeps a keen eye open for those details that convey the terror of an attack, and she reminds readers how coverage of such an event might play out today: "Admiral Cockburn might have called a press conference aboard his flagship, the Albion. There might have been . . . a banner proclaiming 'Mission Accomplished.'" With a gallery of well-selected images, source notes, bibliography, index, and illustration credits which supplement the captions, this account will be a first-rate addition to the American History collection.

Kirkus Reviews

A graceful narrative skillfully draws from primary sources to shed light on a key historic day.

In 1814, the United States lost a battle to the British on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., with shocking results. American soldiers fled from the battlefield, and many residents of the capital fled from the city. "Then the unthinkable: foreign invaders marched into Washington, torching first the Capitol building, then the White House," reads the introduction to this history. The chapters that follow detail the day, starting before dawn and going through night, with two final chapters about the aftermath. Sutcliffe deftly sets the battle and invasion in the context of the War of 1812, introduces major players, and explains unfamiliar material, like the use of rockets as weapons. Quotes from those involved make the tale personal, with reminiscences of a 15-year-old tourist, two young slaves and a British officer. Many apt observations come from first lady Dolley Madison, who wrote a letter throughout the day as she waited bravely in the White House until danger was imminent. The polished prose is matched by an attractive, open design with frequent headings, pullout quotes and effective visuals, including paintings, etchings and maps.

Elegant and illuminating.

School Library Journal

Sometimes referred to as “America’s Second Revolution,” the War of 1812 found British forces invading the newly founded capital city of Washington, DC. Following the Battle of Bladensburg and the embarrassing retreat of the U.S. militia, the British arrived at the capital during the most oppressive weather conditions imaginable to find the city largely abandoned. In this hour-by-hour narrative, Sutcliffe provides a harrowing account of the day, culminating with the burning of both the Capitol building and the iconic White House, the flames of which could be seen as far away as Baltimore. Extensively researched and thorough in coverage, this book gives readers a full view of this compelling story and the events leading up to the conflict. The title is enhanced by the original maps, portraits, paintings, and drawings of key personalities. Sutcliffe’s use of primary sources is impressive as she weaves together a seamless tale from a variety of perspectives. The author draws upon firsthand accounts from a variety of sources (respected military personnel, political figures, everyday citizens, and slaves) to provide an impartial, well-rounded look at this pivotal day in our nation’s history and its aftermath. Certain to spark interest in history aficionados, this title would be a welcome purchase for most collections.


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ISBN: 978-1-58089-656-6

ISBN: 978-1-60734-544-2 EPUB
ISBN: 978-1-60734-654-8 PDF
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Ages: 9-12
Page count: 128
7 1/2 x 10

Correlated to Common Core State Standards:
English Language Arts-Literacy. Reading Informational. Grade 5. Standards 1-4, 6, 8, and 10.
English Language Arts-Literacy. Reading Informational. Grade 6. Standards 1-6 and 10.
Literacy in History/Social Studies. Grades 6-8. Standards 1, 3-7, and 10.

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