The New Maine Times Book Review: '1812: The Navy's War'

Posted Wednesday, April 18, 2012 in Culture

The New Maine Times Book Review: '1812: The Navy's War'

"1812: THE NAVY'S WAR"

by George C. Daughan

Basic Books, 2011

491 pages, $32.50

ISBN 978-0-465-02046-1

 

reviewed by William D. Bushnell

In 1812, just 29 years after the American Revolution, the United States found itself fighting its "second war of independence" against a resurgent British empire determined to destroy its only maritime rival and re-establish British dominance in North America. Naval historian George Daughan of Portland calls the War of 1812 (1812-1815) America's most misunderstood war, and he is right.

"1812: The Navy's War" is Daughan's second excellent naval history, following his award-winning book "If By Sea: The Forging of the American Navy" (Basic Books, 2008), a comprehensive history of the U.S. Navy from the Revolution to 1812.

Here Daughan uses his considerable research and writing skills to present a vivid and exciting history of how a few stout warships (Constitution, Wasp, Essex and others), bold captains (like Stephen Decatur, John Rogers and Matthew Perry), and brave crews were the nation's only offense and defense facing the world's largest navy and a powerful and arrogant Great Britain. With careful deliberation and clear narrative, Daughan explains how America's fledgling democracy, militarily weak, fractured by regional political bickering, and totally unprepared for war was able to beat an empire that had never accepted defeat.

He deftly describes the complex political, diplomatic, and economic causes of the war, as well as Britain's unified and frightening strategic goals (control of Florida, Louisiana, Canada, and creation of a huge Indian nation west of the Mississippi River, destruction of American maritime strength, and continued impressment of American sailors into the Royal Navy), and the U.S.'s surprisingly confused and naive lack of cogent plans, strategic thought, and needed resources. He also highlights the incredibly inept American military and political decisions of President James Madison, and the bitterly contentious pro- and anti-war rivalries between the Republicans and Federalists.

Daughan clearly describes the land battles, actions like Lundy's Lane, Bladensburg, the burning of Washington, D.C., and the Battle of the Thames. Best, however, are his dramatic stories of how the tiny American Navy's victories at sea offset the Army's dismal performance on land, in a war that raged from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, across the Atlantic, to the Pacific Ocean.

He tells of famous single-ship sea battles like the USS Constitution's victory over HMS Guerriere, which shattered "the sacred spell of invincibility" of the Royal Navy, the amazing Pacific voyage of the USS Essex, and the successful raiding voyage of the USS Wasp, which ended in such mystery. He also describes how commerce-raiding privateers affected the war's outcome by severely disrupting Britain's sea-going trade. For example, the American privateer Yankee out of Bristol, R.I., captured more than 40 British merchant vessels valued at $3 million.

Other actions are much less well known, but had crucial impacts on the war. The American naval victories on the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain thwarted British efforts to invade the United States from Canada, and provided such inspiration as mortally wounded Capt. James Lawrence's defiant order to his crew: "Don't give up the ship!" They did anyway, but that's not what people remember.

He also tells colorfully how American naval audacity and sacrifice on the Mississippi River was critical to Andrew Jackson's crushing defeat of the British Army in the bloody Battle of New Orleans. Few people know that if it hadn't been for the U.S. Navy, Jackson would have lost that battle.

Daughan brings history alive in this excellent book that properly commemorates the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812.

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