With the bicentennial of the War of 1812 soon upon us, a plethora of books on the subject are in the market. Some treat individual actions or single theaters. Some deal with politics, and some deal with diplomacy, but “1812: The Navy’s War” deals with it all. The full panoply is described in detail with charts, diagrams and references enough to please the most demanding scholar, yet it is pleasantly readable to amateur and professional alike. In the end, the reader will know full well why some scholars call the War of 1812, “America’s Second War of Independence.”
The reader should know that despite the subtitle, the book covers much more than “the Navy’s war.” While it’s true that the American frigate victories early in the war - the victories on Lake Erie and Lake Champlain and the strong assists at Bladensburg and Baltimore - were key to eventual success, the author covers land actions as well. Perhaps that’s because except for the Army’s defeat of Wellington’s veterans at Plattsburgh, N.Y., Andrew Jackson in the South and especially at New Orleans, the American Army and militia failed to collect much glory. Nor did the nation’s politicians.
These situations and that the British leadership had vowed to punish the Americans - possibly even take over some of their territory in New England and the Northwest, and see that Louisiana reverted to Spain - caused the war to drag on for almost three years. It caused deep splits among Americans. Some in New England even threatened to withdraw from the Union. However, in the end, with the British distracted by Napoleon, again on the rise, and tired of war and its attendant expense, it was they who blinked.
Despite near-complete control on the high seas in late 1814 and a tight blockade of American ports, after British defeats at Baltimore, Plattsburgh and Fort Erie and British debt at an all-time high, British Prime Minister Lord Liverpool wrote, “[W]e must let the people taste the blessings of peace.” When that message got to the erstwhile intransigent British negotiators at Ghent, a treaty with the United States followed shortly.
In telling the story, George C. Daughan does more than merely bring out the rather well-known facts; he also reveals a number of situations and incidents relative to the War of 1812 that are not well-known, many of which do not reflect credit on the Americans of the day. For example, a significant number of Americans openly sided with the British, not only the Federalists and New Englanders, but some from places in the South as well.
Southern Marylanders were split as to whether to support the British or not, and the city of Alexandria, for example, willingly supported the Royal Navy with supplies and local knowledge as the fleet made its way up the Potomac to assault Washington. The American Army was made up largely of militiamen, many of whom refused to serve outside their own states. Army leadership was a mixed bag, but the secretary of the Army himself bordered on incompetency.
Congress, the same body that had voted to go to war with Britain, consistently refused to vote the monies needed to maintain and operate an Army and Navy. On the other hand, as is well-known, American frigates scored tremendous victories that cheered even Americans who were against the war. Perry’s victory on Lake Erie, Joshua Barney’s actions on the Patuxent and at Bladensburg and McDonough’s victory on Lake Champlain established standards and traditions for the U.S. Navy that have lasted to this day.
In the deep South, Andrew Jackson’s campaigns rightfully deserve great credit for preserving the territorial integrity of the United States. Jackson reaps much criticism for his scorched-earth campaign against the Creeks in the South. Perhaps he might have achieved the same ends more humanely, but it’s little known that the British were dealing with and supporting the Creeks in their effort to gain a foothold in Florida and Louisiana. Had they done so, Liverpool never would have agreed to a peace treaty, unless the United States ceded Florida and Louisiana.
Then, as a crowning achievement as a general, Jackson drove Wellington’s veterans back from New Orleans to save that city and, indeed, the whole territory, for the United States. Mr. Daughan points out that merely because that battle happened after the Treaty of Ghent was signed, had Jackson lost at New Orleans, it could well have changed the political structure of the entire Louisiana territory and shipping on the Mississippi River.
It also should be noted that Mr. Daughan is one of the few history writers who gives the U.S. Navy credit for what it did at New Orleans. Without the enfilading fire from naval guns across the river and Navy ships in the Mississippi, the outcome at the Villere Plantation might have been far different.
So what was the end result of all this? Mr. Daughan sums it up nicely in the book’s Chapter 34: “America’s newfound unity and her commitment to a strong military forced Europe to take her more seriously. She was an incipient power that Britain and other European imperialists could no longer treat lightly.”
Also, “America proved that its republican form of government could deal with a crisis and deal with it successfully without discarding its Constitution.”
Other authors in the recent past have covered various aspects of the War of 1812, but George C. Daughan has put it all together in one well-written and most interesting volume. It’s a book hard to put down and is most highly recommended as a good read. Its coverage of an important time in the history of the United States will make it a worthy reference for years to come.
Vice Adm. Robert F. Dunn is president of the Naval Historical Foundation.