Tuesday, July 31, 2018

1812: The Navy's War by, George C. Daughan

The Korean War is often referred to as "The Forgotten War", but in many ways the War of 1812 is also forgotten. Sandwiched between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, most Americans' knowledge of the subject is relegated to the burning of the White House, Francis Scott Key and the Star-Spangled Banner, and, if you're really knowledgeable, something about Andrew Jackson and the Battle of New Orleans. To be sure, there aren't as many memorable battles in the War of 1812, but its consequences shaped the modern world in ways that very few realize.

In the years after the Revolutionary War, many in the British government held animosity toward the crown's former colonies. They refused to abide by the Treaty of Paris and left troops behind in many of their North American forts. The interdicted American ships, interfering with trade and engaging in a practice known as impressment. In this practice, officers of a British ship would board an American ship, single out members of her crew, identifying them as British subjects and forcing them to serve in the British Navy. President James Madison entreated the British government to put an end to this practice, but his words fell on deaf ears. With Napoleon wreaking havoc on the European continent, Madison saw an opening to declare war on June 18, 1812.

In early 1812, Napoleon looked invincible. His troops won so many battles so quickly, it appeared that world domination was within his grasp. Toward the end of the year, he set his sights on conquering Russia, which most military experts thought would be accomplished easily. Once Russia was under his control, almost everyone felt he would turn his attention to the tiny island nation of England. Madison thought if he harassed the British enough, they would be quick to settle on neutral trade and impressment so they could turn their full attention to a defense against Napoleon. The American Navy, though small, won some early victories against the vastly superior British Navy which, at the time, was the most powerful navy the world had ever seen. Madison ordered an invasion of Canada, which ended up being a series of blunders and half measures. But after Napoleon's retreat from Russia and eventual exile to Elba, the British government was able to turn its full attention to the American theater.

Flush with victory, Lord Liverpool, the Prime Minister, saw the moment as a perfect opportunity to pursue aggressive action against the United States. He upped the British blockade of American ports, sent word to slaves in the American South that any man who escaped from his master would be given his freedom after serving in His Majesty's Navy for the remainder of the war, fomented unrest in New England with the goal of having is secede from the Union, attempted to establish an Indian colony in the West, and planned an two-pronged invasion from Montreal and New Orleans that would crush the United States and re-establish English dominance over North America. It was during this time that a squadron of British soldiers landed in the Washington Tidal Basin and set fire to the White House and nearly every other public building in Washington D.C..

Though the British won some major victories and essentially destroyed the American capital, the American forces hung tough. The peace treaty negotiated by Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams didn't address neutral trade or impressment and essentially left everything the way it was before the war. But with the victories at sea and in New Orleans (technically fought after the peace treaty was signed), the British had newfound respect for their American cousins. The government ended impressment and the practice of harassing American trade and worked as partners with the other major English speaking nation on Earth.

For the American side, the Revolutionary War won the rights we all enjoy today, but the War of 1812 cemented them. Not entirely by resisting British imperialism, but in the ways President Madison acted. There were no sedition laws passed to punish his detractors. There was no aggrandizing more powers into the Executive branch. And there was a change in mindset of the American people that a standing army and navy, rather than being a danger to democracy, was an essential bulwark against those who wished to do us harm.

These are just some of the things I learned from Daughan's excellent book on the War of 1812. The subtitle of the book, The Navy's War, is misleading in that it is a book about the entire war. Daughan's focus is primarily on the navy, so I wonder if my perception of the war is skewed in that direction at all. The book is well-written and deeply researched. Sometimes I think Daughan spent too much time in describing how many of which types of guns a ship had or how many men were killed, injured, or wounded after a battle (his "butcher's bill" was rendered after every naval skirmish), but that didn't detract from the overall worth of the book.

The War of 1812 deserves to be studied and talked about more than it is and Daughan's book is an excellent place to start increasing your knowledge of the subject.

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