PERILOUS FIGHT: AMERICA’S INTREPID WAR WITH BRITAIN ON THE HIGH SEAS, 1812-1815
By Stephen Budiansky
Alfred A. Knopf, $35, 368 pages, illustrated
The bicentennial of the War of 1812 will soon be upon us. Celebrations, observances and re-creations of all sorts will take place from Boston to New Orleans and from the Chesapeake Bay to Washington and Baltimore and on to Lake Champlain and the Great Lakes. “Perilous Fight” is an outstanding introduction to these celebrations of a war in which, as one scholar has noted, “Everyone thinks they won.”
The Americans scored tremendous frigate-versus-frigate victories that cheered even Americans who were against the war and established standards and traditions for the U.S. Navy that have lasted to this day. The British burned the American capital and, after the first year, bottled up those bothersome American frigates and choked down on American commerce with a close blockade of Atlantic ports.
The British Canadians repelled several American invasion attempts by land and preserved their territory pretty much as we know it today. All three sides were indeed successful, in their own way.
Stephen Budiansky doesn’t cover the whole war. As his subtitle declares, he concentrates on events on the high seas, but of particular interest to readers, he also includes the Chesapeake Campaign waged by Rear Adm. Sir George Cockburn of the Royal Navy, a campaign that terrorized settlements from below Tangier Island to Havre de Grace, Md., and led to the burning of Washington and the bombardment of Baltimore.
As the story unfolds, the reader is almost mesmerized by the awesome detail and clear prose. This book is a joy to read for the interested reader of history, the amateur historian, and at the same time a worthy reference for scholars.
The beginnings of the War of 1812 lie in the early 19th century, when Britain, in a world war with Napoleon’s France, began running short of sailors to man her ships and resorted to impressment: the virtual kidnapping of foreign sailors, particularly Americans, from their ships and forced induction into the Royal Navy. Many Republicans (soon to morph into the Democrats we know today) were ready to go to war to force the Brits to stop the practice.
Western Republicans also saw an opportunity to march on Canada and make it part of the United States and, at the same time, take on the British-inspired Indians, who were harassing the westernmost settlements. Meanwhile, the Federalists, largely concentrated in the Northeast, the very citizens who owned the ships from which sailors were being impressed, opposed the war. Even while that debate was ongoing, an event most egregious took place near the Virginia Capes.
The USS Chesapeake, one of the nation’s frigates, had just gotten under way form Norfolk when HMS Leopard intercepted her and demanded the right to search for suspected deserters. When the Chesapeake refused, the Leopard delivered a broadside at close range, and the Chesapeake was forced to strike her colors. After intense diplomatic negotiations, further conflict was averted, but ever-increasing hostility continued until war was declared in June 1812.
Almost immediately began a series of frigate actions that brought glory to the American Navy and embarrassment to the Royal Navy: Constitution vs. Guerriere, United States vs. Macedonian and Constitution vs. Java - sea battles that live on in American naval history. The British had been hoping for a negotiated peace, but the frigate actions, along with undiminished American merchant shipping, convinced them that wouldn’t happen.
As a result, with their superior numbers, beginning in 1813, they blockaded American ports from Maine to New Orleans, and the frigates and merchants alike were bottled up.
At least one got away, however: David Porter in the USS Essex. Rounding Cape Horn, he wreaked havoc among the British whalers in the Pacific until he became trapped in Valparaiso, Chile, by an overwhelming force. The story of the Essex is the thing of novels and movies. Reading the sections about her voyage is itself worth the price of the book.
“Perilous Fight” is not all about war at sea, however; one John Wilson Croker, secretary to the Admiralty Board, ran the war from London, ordering admirals around, apparently on his own authority. On the other side of the Atlantic, the American secretary of the Navy, William Jones, set the tone for the U.S Navy.
Of particular note: Jones tried his best to manage the jealousies rife among his captains and tamp down their zeal to fight for “honor” when it didn’t serve the larger cause. In the end, he did as much as anyone to bring about the peace by establishing a campaign against British merchant shipping throughout the Atlantic, right up to the British Isles. Much of this time, he also served as secretary of the Treasury, a historical character little known, but Mr. Budiansky sheds some needed light.
With excellent narrative, battle diagrams and photos, this book is a keeper. It’s timely, well-written, interesting and a recommended read.
Vice Admiral Robert F. Dunn is the president of the Naval Historical Foundation.
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