THROUGH THE PERILOUS FIGHT: SIX WEEKS THAT SAVED THE NATION
By Steve Vogel
Random House, $30, 560 pages
Steve Vogel's "The Perilous Fight" is probably the best piece of military history that I have read or reviewed in the past five years. It is the story of the last six weeks of the war between Great Britain and the United States that began in 1812. The Americans went into this highly controversial conflict demanding freedom of the seas and an end to the impressment of U.S. seamen into the British Navy. The Americans also had their eyes on British-dominated Canada.
The British, who were fighting for survival against Napoleonic France, saw the American declaration as a stab in the back. In that spirit, they began their campaign of retribution against the Chesapeake Basin in the summer of 1814. That climaxed in the British capture of Washington, but culminated with their failure to take Baltimore. This well-researched and superbly written history has all the trappings of a good novel. There is great heroism, treacherous self-interest, cowardice and intrigue.
On the British side, there was the daring Adm. George Cockburn, who attempted to thwart American ambitions in Canada by advancing a daring strike at the American heartland, including the seat of government in Washington and its great port and shipbuilding center in Baltimore. Although he failed to achieve his strategic objective, Cockburn gave the Americans a hard lesson in how to execute a supporting diversionary strategy. In the process, he became infamous to Americans by capturing Washington and burning most of its public buildings, including the White House and the Capitol.
The great American hero of the campaign was Commodore Joshua Barney, who constantly harried Cockburn's fleet using an outgunned flotilla of small ships propelled by oars. Barney waged one of history's great naval guerrilla campaigns until he was finally cornered trying to defend Washington. Rather than surrender, Barney blew up his ships. He then escaped on foot to fight courageously at the Battle of Bladensburg. Interestingly, many of Barney's sailors were black, as were the much honored British Colonial Marines, who were slaves freed by the British.
The decisive British victory at Bladensburg opened the way for the British to capture Washington. It was the culmination of a perfect storm of military incompetence that highlighted the folly of depending primarily on raw militia for national defense, exacerbated by the incompetence of Gen. William Winder, the American commander, and the equally incompetent and insubordinate conduct of Secretary of War John Armstrong. The only American high point came from the ubiquitous Barney and his sailors, who were reinforced by Marines from the barracks in Washington. Their heroic stand earned British respect and caused horrendous casualties among the redcoats. Barney was severely wounded and captured, but was later paroled by the British as a mark of respect.
President James Madison and Secretary of States James Monroe were present at the battle; neither was a military genius, and Monroe's attempts to conduct reconnaissance provided comic relief. Madison could have been killed or captured when he got too far ahead of the troops early in the fight. He did not try to interfere with the tactical conduct of the battle, but probably would not have done much worse than Winder if he had. Both Madison and Monroe showed courage.
The central figure of the book is Francis Scott Key. Like the fictional Pug Henry in the "Winds of War" series, this anti-war lawyer was at every key event in the campaign. Despite his views about the war, he volunteered for the militia in defense of the city and was present at Bladensburg. He was trying to negotiate the freedom of an American prisoner during the siege of Baltimore and was detained as a "guest" at sea, where he could watch the Battle of Fort McHenry. He wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner" as an exact description of the battle. The "rockets' red glare" was his only proof in the night that the Americans were still fighting.
It is an inspiring story well told by Mr. Vogel, an accomplished author and a reporter for The Washington Post. No one who hears the national anthem at a ballgame will ever think of it the same way after reading this book, nor want the national anthem changed.
Gary Anderson, a retired Marine Corps officer is an adjunct professor at the George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs.