- - Sunday, November 22, 2015


By Stanley L. Quick with Chipp Reid

Naval Institute Press, $32.95, 266 pages

Many Americans know little more about the War of 1812 than the burlesqued facts that the British chased Dolley Madison from the White House, torched Washington and locked up Francis Scott Key on a ship to witness the bombardment of Fort McHenry and write “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The authors of “Lion in the Bay” would have us know more, particularly that the burning of Washington was only the most infamous of many outrages committed by the invaders, who won many battles and lost the war.

Part of the story relates how these outrages galvanized these former colonies when opinion was deeply split over the wisdom of getting into a sea fight with the mightiest navy on the planet. One person responsible for the outrages was Rear Adm. George Cockburn, whom Britain would honor for ferrying Napoleon to exile on St. Helena and, as first sea lord in the 1850s, launching the royal navy’s conversion from sail to steam. He himself might have preferred to be remembered for those deeds, because his performance on these shores was atrocious — that is, involving atrocities.

Cockburn ordered blockading the rivers, scorching the earth and terrorizing the people of the Chesapeake. His forces burned towns and farms from Hampton Roads to Havre de Grace; they seized cattle, tobacco, crops, food, even the shroud from one corpse. Cockburn himself flirted with insubordination when he encouraged slaves to revolt against their masters, contrary to official mandate, though Britain had long since banned slavery on its own soil and Britons detested legal bondage. Such contradictions as these, which compounded personal rivalries, martial discipline and national policy, exemplify this war. As told by Stanley Quick and Chipp Reid, it was a mess on both sides, involving valor and cruelty in unequal measure, a few Loony-Tunes moments and many large-caliber debacles.

Britain saw this war as an effort to block its former colonies from expanding westward, and as an offshoot of its perpetual fight with France. The United States saw it as a symbolic duel for national maturity and a real one for commerce and the freedom of the seas. Within those parameters it was a three-front war: in the South as far as New Orleans, in the North along the Canadian border, and at sea. The fact of three fronts was the worse for Britain. For President James Madison’s government, the maritime front alone scuttled commerce and grounded the young nation’s economy which, as it happened, was powered by slave labor in sectors such as southern agriculture. Yes, all these factors overlapped; these were tangled affairs.

“Lion in the Bay” focuses on just one segment of the maritime front, and our mighty estuary offers quite enough material to fill a volume, especially as the authors often wade deep into the eelgrass of murky detail. Still, readers who know Chesapeake country will find special pleasure in their forays to landfalls like St. Michaels, Kent Island and Point Lookout and courses up the twisting tributaries of the bay. An interesting read, it illuminates familiar places in different light.

How is it that these writers honor this past? Thirty years ago the principal author, Stanley L. Quick, a naval engineer, retired with his wife to an old house on the water in Rock Hall on the Eastern Shore. According to the book’s preface, a pipe froze, leading the Quicks to undertake an unplanned renovation and in so doing discover damage that had prompted a previous renovation after the Battle of Caulk’s Field seven score years earlier. That inspired Mr. Quick to start researching the history of the house, the three-day battle, and in turn the region and the war.

The project consumed the last decades of his life, leaving his widow to find a home for the unfinished manuscript. The Naval Institute Press then enlisted Chipp Reid, an Annapolis writer with a book on the Barbary Wars to his credit, to complete the work. It is a perfect book for this specialized press, and vice versa, though sadly it got short-changed with a stingy design: nine-point type, unintelligible maps and a spotty index.

As for the burning of Washington, Mr. Reid’s concise account is incendiary enough to inspire readers to march on the British Embassy tomorrow.(Dolley Madison seems the most resolute soul in town, besides the officer who torched the Navy Yard to deprive the invaders of its stores.) As for Mr. Key, the authors report he had been sent to Baltimore to arrange the release of a captured doctor, a curious twist in the iconic story of Fort McHenry and the city’s valiant defense. A lawyer, Key later arranged federal compensation for the loss of a farmhouse at Caulk’s Field. He wasn’t just a songwriter.

Every work of history ought to contain a lesson or two. This volume’s lessons: Just because you can invade a country does not mean you should. And if you do it, be careful how you treat the natives, because even if you burn their capital, the locals may thrash you in the end and you will have to sue for peace.

Philip Kopper, publisher of Posterity Press, Inc. in Bethesda, has sailed American waters as far north as the Gulf of Maine and far south as the Caribbean.

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