on 30 September 2012
The War of 1812 is almost unknown in the UK today, where children are taught only about the Second World War, which happened between 1967 and 1893. When I try to tell Americans what actually happened in the War of 1812, as opposed to what their mythology claims, they also tend to say that no-one knows anything about that, nowadays (by which, I assume, they are trying to imply that it doesn't matter). Yet educated Americans, to this day, describe the war as the "Second War of Independence" and obsessively claim that the United States have never lost a war; the American national anthem (based on a London drinking song) dates from the 1812 war.
Both myths were exploded, very early on, by the lawyer William James, who found himself in the US when war broke out and was held there for the duration, although, it has to be said, pretty well treated and allowed access even to US Naval dockyards. Professor Lambert describes James as "polemical", apparently not as a compliment. The funny thing is that his own book is a lot like that of William James. He is ruthless in his relation of the facts and rips apart the stale American myths. It is not a history of the whole war and does not claim to be. As with William James, he explicitly concentrates on the naval war. He refers to the Canadian war, when it is appropriate, and to the incompetent New Orleans campaign, but anybody wanting to read in detail about these should go to the relevant Canadian and American literature, respectively.
What Lambert does is place the war in its context, in terms of American politics and expansionist ambitions and in terms of the continuing Napoleonic Wars. The war was started supposedly on the grounds of the wartime practices of the Royal Navy, but the states affected by those practices, those trading across the Atlantic, were not in favour of the war; the real war-mongers were those hungering for more territory on the mainland. The French adopted the same tactics as the British, but the United States never threatened war against Paris. Au contraire: the politicians in Washington clearly thought that Britain was bogged down in Spain and that France was due to conquer Russia. The catastrophic French losses in both Russia (where most of the Grande Armee wasn't actually French) and Spain (where most "French" soldiers actually were French, although certainly not all) sobered up President Madison pretty quickly, but, by then, it was too late. Canada had been invaded, leading to a humiliating US defeat, and USN victories over smaller RN vessels were all that the pro-war party had to show for going to war in the first place.
Lambert demonstrates how, given the incompetence of the US army and militias (the latter allowing Washington itself to be burned) the naval war became the crux of the conflict, since, in the context of the French war, to which Lambert rightly refers, repeatedly, as "existential", the sea was the place where Britain reigned supreme and expected to do so. It is hard to imagine now how much the British economy depended on Jamaican sugar. Lambert shows the efforts that went in to convoying the vital substance to England and the desperate, almost always unavailing, attempts that the Americans, in the form of the USN, or privateers, made to intercept the convoys. Then he shows how the RN turned the tables, initially concentrating on ports, such as Baltimore, which strongly supported the war, while sparing New York and Boston, which didn't.
In the end, the RN was blockading the whole Eastern Seaboard of the United States and the USN was effectively confined to harbour. At the end of the war, the USS President pointlessly engaged HMS Endymion and was defeated. I have seen an American account of the battle, published only about ten years ago, which shamelessly regurgitated the report of the vanquished American commander, Stephen Decatur, according to which he surrendered his ship only after the arrival of a larger British vessel. William James showed that that was a lie very soon after the war and Lambert backs up James. He also points out that the name of Decatur's frigate, "President", has never been re-used by the USN, although the name of the similarly defeated "Essex" has been endlessly recycled. Porter, captain of the Essex, clearly had a better publicist, or made fewer enemies, than Decatur.
Since that of William James, which is readily available and is extremely readable, this must be the best history of the naval war of 1812 in nearly two centuries. It's fairly long, but is always a good read; Andrew Lambert generally writes as well as he mines his sources. I do tend to think that plates are often rather superfluous, a random selection of pictures, to justify the book's price, but I actually believe the ones here are well chosen. I also like the maps and diagrams. If, as I do, you generally wear reading glasses, you may need them for the maps, but you shouldn't need a magnifying-glass, which I have had to use, for some historical tomes. All in all, I can gladly recommend this book, with no major defect to deduct a star from the maximum five.
on 21 May 2012
Revisionist history at its best, debunking the confusion of myth with fact that has persisted in the case of the war of 1812.
For two centuries American academics and writers have consistently outgunned their UK counterparts. In part this is not surprising: for Britain the conflict was a sideshow to the more crucial Napoleonic wars, in the newly independent USA it helped develop further the sense of national identity.
Rightly so in the case of the latter, yet anyone familiar with the tortured efforts by successive American commentators to gild the lily can acknowledge the need to redress the balance.
Teddy Roosevelt was a prime exponent of the tendency, with his convoluted mathematical attempts to downplay American firepower; Dupuy and Dupuy likewise offer a partial account of the President-Endymion encounter. Tellingly, the great US naval historian Mahan offered a more even-handed analysis of the war.
The truth was that the fledgling US navy had plenty of which to be proud. If the object of a battle was to win speedily, with maximum advantage and with the fewest casualties, there is plenty to commend the three victorious Amrican frigate actions.
Likewise, no amount of argument can detract from the fact that Shannon and Chesapeake were evenly matched and the better captain won on the day.
Lambert's book possibly won't find favour with everyone across the water. He might in fairness be faulted for too glibly dismissing American anger over the Royal Navy's high handed attitude to impressment (essential as the tactic may have been). Yet this is an outstanding contribution to the genre and to the pursuit of historical truth and well-written too.
on 10 April 2012
At last, we are presented with a seminal piece of work by a British academic on the Anglo-American naval conflict of 1812. This book blows away the often 'farcical' mythologies and misconstructions depicted by some American historians, who, so wrapped up in 'Old Glory' relegate their work to little more than pulp fiction rather than an accurate and mature account of true events. As a serious academic, Lambert, does not fall into this criteria, he remains impartial and pays respect to both sides and applauds the superb seamanship often displayed by the Americans. Nevertheless, he has put the record straight regarding the reverses suffered by the valliant but often out gunned Royal Navy; culminating in one of the greatest duels in naval history; that being, HMS Shannon under the command of the maverick, Captain Phillip Broke and the USS Chesapeake, one of the big 'original six' Yankee super frigates. Captain Broke had honed his crew to such perfection that they captured the much bigger and more powerful Chesapeake in less than fifteen minutes, a herculean breath taking achievement. Lambert presents the conflict in a global, eco-political context with Britain locked in a 'zero sum' war with Napoleonic France. The book is superbly written and flawlessly researched and a must for any naval historian or enthusiast.
on 3 July 2013
The war between Britain and America in the early nineteenth century is not well remembered on this side of the Atlantic; there was another war going on in Europe that was holding everyone's attention, and that has repercussions right down to today.
The author is a naval historian, and his handling of naval matters is exemplary; he is clearly sure of his subject. The strategy, tactics and individual battles are detailed and handled really well. However, that does mean that other areas are less surely handled, and the land battles are dealt with rather perfunctorily. I was also a bit unsure about a lot of the last but one chapter, where the author deals with how America handled the legacy of the war. He covered not just the 'official' version, which might loosely include the way politicians have used the war for their own ends, but also the way artists, writers and others have portrayed it. I felt he was on dodgy ground here, and some of this chapter seemed out of place. I note that some have also criticised the author's grasp of contemporary American politics; my knowledge is not good enough to comment on this, except to say that I found some of his explanations very plausible, so perhaps this comes down to which side of the Atlantic you come from!
In general, the author's writing style is a little heavy. There are some seriously repetitive sections, and although the book is generally chronological, at times, you suddenly realise the author has gone back or forwards in time, for no obvious reason.
Al in all, this is a good account of the war, but it could have been better.