1812: The Navy's War

  • George C. Daughan
  • Basic Books
  • 417 pp.
  • November 4, 2011

An engaging and vivid tale of how American sailors and political leaders navigated treacherous waters to further establish a nation.

Reviewed by Chris Tudda

In his new book, George Daughan provides vivid and detailed recreations of the U.S. navy’s significant battles during the War of 1812. In an era when the British Navy supposedly ruled the world, the U.S. navy successfully challenged British supremacy. Daughan picks up where he left off in his Samuel Eliot Morison award-winning If By Sea: The Forging of the American NavyFrom the Revolution to the War of 1812 (which Basic just released in paperback). 1812: The Navy’s War is an important, well-researched and timely book—next year marks the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812—which scholars and lay persons alike will enjoy for its descriptions of the battles and Daughan’s analysis of the domestic and international dimensions of the war.

The impressment of American sailors into the British navy was the most egregious example of the way that London flaunted its superiority on the high seas and thereby violated American sovereignty. Daughan demonstrates that London considered impressments vital to its national security because, thanks to the harsh treatment British captains meted out, their seamen deserted in droves. Instead of changing their practices, they assumed—often incorrectly—that seamen on American boats were British nationals. Daughan then contrasts the behavior of British captains with their American counterparts, who treated their men, including their black seamen, far better. This treatment, along with their brilliant seamanship, helped the American navy win many battles that on paper they never should have won.

Another important theme of 1812: The Navy’s War is that the United States paid a heavy price for not building a larger fleet during the last decade of the 18th  and first decade of the 19th centuries. The Federalists, who advocated a strong central government, had argued for a large standing navy and army, but small-government advocates such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison had successfully argued that the new nation could rely on privateers and citizen militias since it had won its independence by using these volunteers. When Jefferson and Madison subsequently advocated freedom of the seas, an end to impressment and other maritime rights, the large navy they needed to achieve these goals did not exist. However, what Daughan calls the “pipsqueak” navy succeeded without the support of the central government it needed.

Daughan also shows that Britain’s decision to concentrate the bulk of its naval (and armed) forces on the European continent in order to fight and contain Napoleon, which left the Atlantic as its secondary theater of operations, initially seemed to be a gift to the United States. However, Madison chose to repeatedly invade Canada rather than strengthen the navy. Britain’s army and navy in the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain regions turned back these attempts, and wooed Indian tribes led by Tecumseh. Their combined forces walloped U.S. forces in numerous battles in the Lake Huron and Michigan regions and led to the British annexation of the Michigan Territory. Madison, however, remained undeterred. Only after naval forces under the command of Oliver Perry won the battle of Lake Erie in 1813 was the U.S. able to reestablish its presence in the region.

Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia and the Duke of Wellington’s victory at Vittoria changed the diplomatic climate of the continental war and allowed the British to devote more resources to the fight against the United States. After the British burned Washington, D.C., in 1814, things looked bleak for the United States, and negotiations began soon afterward in Ghent, Belgium. News of the burning of Washington reached Ghent in late September, emboldened the British and unsettled the Americans. But the navy’s successful defense of Baltimore (memorialized in “The Star Spangled Banner”) and the defeat of the invading British forces at Plattsburgh emboldened Madison and forced London to come to an agreement with the United States. The resulting Treaty of Ghent ended the war as both sides essentially agreed to table the very issues—impressments, free trade and other maritime rights—that had led to the war in the first place, and the British returned control of the Michigan Territory to the United States.

At first blush, the War of 1812 looked like a waste of blood and treasure. However, Daughan convincingly argues that the navy’s performance, a bipartisan belief that the U.S. needed a permanent defense capability, and British Foreign Secretary Castlereagh’s realpolitik calculations led to a lasting peace between the United States and Great Britain. Castlereagh realized that the United States could no longer be pushed around, and the impressments and free trade disputes quietly disappeared.

Colorful descriptions of the battles, the American sailors such as Captain Stephen Decatur and Commodores William Bainbridge and Oliver Perry who waged them, as well as the famous ships they commanded such as the U.S. Constitution, dominate this book. The glossary of naval terms that Daughan included at the end of the book—I finally know what a jib and a mizzenmast really are—helped a landlubber like me understand their tactics and really brought long-ago battles, in particular the Constitution versus the H.M.S. Java, to life. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in (re)learning about the “Second War for American Independence.”

Chris Tudda is a historian at the Department of State. He is the author of The Truth Is our Weapon: The Rhetorical Diplomacy of Dwight D. Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles. His second book, A Cold War Turning Point: Nixon and China, 1969-1972, will be published in spring 2012. (Note: The views presented here are the reviewer’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State or the United States Government.)

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