PERILOUS FIGHT: AMERICA’S INTREPID WAR WITH BRITAIN ON THE HIGH SEAS, 1812-1815
By Stephen Budiansky
Knopf, $35, 422 pages, illus.
The War of 1812 was a no-win war. American invasions of Canada collapsed, British invasions of the United States foundered, and brilliant victories by single American frigates could not offset the punishing effects of the British blockade. The withering defeat Andrew Jackson inflicted upon veteran British troops trying to capture New Orleans occurred weeks after the signing of a peace treaty and so in a way was irrelevant, though it did ensure Jackson’s later bid for the presidency.
In “Perilous Fight,” Stephen Budiansky covers the entire war, including its preludes and causes, but concentrates on the naval aspects. His title comes, of course, from America’s national anthem, composed during that war.
The U.S. Navy has a long and glorious history. Established by the Federalist Party in l794, it came under severe budget restrictions when Thomas Jefferson was elected president. He had vowed not only to balance the budget but to reduce the national debt, and the Navy was a major consumer of revenue. When the question of dealing with the Barbary Coast pirates arose, Albert Gallatin, the secretary of the Treasury, pointed out that it was cheaper to pay them off than to maintain a navy that could deal with them.
Nevertheless, the Navy sent six ships to the Mediterranean to protect American merchantmen. One of those, the frigate Philadelphia, grounded, was captured and was towed into the harbor of Tripoli. In a not-very-seaworthy ketch of just four guns, 25-year-old Stephen Decatur sailed into the harbor with a reinforced crew and burned the Philadelphia, destroying whatever use it could have for the pirates. He retired with only one wounded and no loss of life. This brilliant accomplishment brought fame to the Navy and made Decatur a national hero and model for the young officer corps.
When the Navy was established in 1794, the department realized it could never build enough ships to compete with the formidable British fleet, so it asked its shipwrights to build ships better than those currently existing. Joshua Humphreys of Philadelphia envisioned a frigate that would have a keel of at least 150 feet, 20 feet longer than the largest British frigates of the day. It also would be slimmer, which would make it faster.
A series of arcing diagonal braces were planned, and the decks interlocked with structural elements of the bow and stern, allowing for the greater length of keel. The hull was to be made of live oak (quercus Virginiana) which, when sandwiched with white oak, made it impenetrable to a 32-pound cannonball fired at point-blank range. This new frigate could carry 44 guns, as opposed to a British frigate’s 38. It is worth noting that more than 200 years ago, the infant United States could achieve world technological superiority in the building of warships.
When James Madison became president, he was faced with serious problems concerning Great Britain. Napoleon was Britain’s archenemy; accordingly, the British had instituted a blockade of France and its allies - basically, all of Europe. Neutral ships could not pass through the blockade unless they held a British certificate exempting their cargo. The French countered by refusing access to any ship that had docked first at a British port. Shipping, the one American industry that had thrived after the Revolution, was damned no matter what path it followed.
Additionally, there was the British practice of boarding American ships to discover presumed British subjects. Those men, most of whom considered themselves Americans, were then enrolled in the British navy.
The inevitable occurred on June 18, 1812, when Congress finally declared war, an act that polarized the country. The Navy announced its strategy. Fleet conflicts were to be avoided because in no way could an American force prevail against overwhelming British numbers. Instead, single ships, frigates or sloops, would raid British commerce, causing the British fleet to cover much greater areas of ocean than normally, thereby loosening the blockade while also causing damage to British commercial interests.
Thus began a form of asymmetrical warfare that even today merits the detailed examination the author gives it. There were a number of single-ship encounters that, with only one exception, the American ships won because of the superior quality of ships, crews and officers. The account of these engagements is exciting. The author deftly shows the extraordinary heroism, cruelty and even chivalry of a world that no longer exists.
With the defeat of Napoleon and the ending of the British blockade of Europe, the reasons for the war disappeared, and after some unfortunate bureaucratic delays, a peace treaty was signed. Irresolvable problems such as the impressment of American seamen were simply ignored, and the borders between Canada and the United States returned to their prewar status.
Trade resumed, fortunes were made and lost, the inherent dynamism of the country returned. In some ways, the war had united the country and matured it more than ever before. Eyes then turned to the West, where some thought their future lay, but they could not forget the war they had just endured and fought to a satisfactory conclusion. Nor, for that matter, should we.
Sol Schindler is a retired Foreign Service officer.
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