Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Pass it on . . .

In the old days, ordinary books by real authors (i.e., people not on TV) got attention mainly because of the word of mouth provided by independent bookstores. (In the incredibly grating jargon of book industry sales reps, this is known as "hand selling.") But now there are hardly any independent bookstores around and this hugely important avenue for discovering new books and spreading the word about them is but a shadow of its former self. The chains have never cared about anything but volume and bestsellers; and the online sellers, despite their admirable efforts to create virtual communities that replicate the word of mouth that local independent stores provided, still are not places to browse.

So it's nice to see the independent stores that are still fighting the good fight, especially when they plug my book, as did the Northsire Bookstore in Manchester, Vermont, the other day:

Terrific. Proves that first rate history writing can be both exciting and scholarly. Makes a trip to visit the U.S.S. Constitution almost mandatory. And don't mess with American sailors...even if you outnumber them 100 to 1. 
Pass it on!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Two (count 'em) reviews in the Washington Times

Two nice reviews of Perilous Fight in the Washington Times:

1)  By Vice Adm. Robert F. Dunn
By Stephen BudianskyAlfred A. Knopf, $35, 368 pages, illustrated
The bicentennial of the War of 1812 will soon be upon us. Celebrations, observances and re-creations of all sorts will take place from Boston to New Orleans and from the Chesapeake Bay to Washington and Baltimore and on to Lake Champlain and the Great Lakes. “Perilous Fight” is an outstanding introduction to these celebrations of a war in which, as one scholar has noted, “Everyone thinks they won.”
The Americans scored tremendous frigate-versus-frigate victories that cheered even Americans who were against the war and established standards and traditions for the U.S. Navy that have lasted to this day. The British burned the American capital and, after the first year, bottled up those bothersome American frigates and choked down on American commerce with a close blockade of Atlantic ports.
The British Canadians repelled several American invasion attempts by land and preserved their territory pretty much as we know it today. All three sides were indeed successful, in their own way.
Stephen Budiansky doesn’t cover the whole war. As his subtitle declares, he concentrates on events on the high seas, but of particular interest to readers, he also includes the Chesapeake Campaign waged by Rear Adm. Sir George Cockburn of the Royal Navy, a campaign that terrorized settlements from below Tangier Island to Havre de Grace, Md., and led to the burning of Washington and the bombardment of Baltimore.
As the story unfolds, the reader is almost mesmerized by the awesome detail and clear prose. This book is a joy to read for the interested reader of history, the amateur historian, and at the same time a worthy reference for scholars. continue reading . . .

2) "The War of 1812 was a no-win war. American invasions of Canada collapsed, British invasions of the United States foundered, and brilliant victories by single American frigates could not offset the punishing effects of the British blockade. The withering defeat Andrew Jackson inflicted upon veteran British troops trying to capture New Orleans occurred weeks after the signing of a peace treaty and so in a way was irrelevant, though it did ensure Jackson’s later bid for the presidency.

"In “Perilous Fight,” Stephen Budiansky covers the entire war, including its preludes and causes, but concentrates on the naval aspects. His title comes, of course, from America’s national anthem, composed during that war.  continue reading . . .

Monday, March 14, 2011

Review of PF in the Charleston Post and Courier

The Post and Courier logo

History of fledgling U.S. Navy enlightening

Sunday, March 13, 2011
PERILOUS FIGHT. By Stephen Budiansky. Knopf. 422 pages. $35.
The War of 1812 was an anomaly in American warfare. Unique is probably not too strong a word. Its aims and results fade in comparison with the struggles that happened in the half-centuries on either side of it.
Nonetheless, it is of much greater historical importance than simply being the source of our national anthem.
Stephen Budiansky, a military historian with a number of books to his credit, has captured this swashbuckling era to perfection. From the elegance of chivalry to the squalor of a sailor's life in the days of sail, he paints all of the pictures from the grand to the gruesome.
The corner of history he describes so completely lasted only three years, 1812-15, but some important milestones and precedences were set. It not only marked the birth of the U.S. Navy, but truly established the United States, for the first time, as an equal player on the world stage. It also was a good example of what we would now call "asymmetric warfare."
The war almost didn't happen. Half the country didn't want it. The Yankee Federalists wanted a navy, but because of more than $100 million in maritime trade, did not want to confront the British. The Jeffersonian Republicans were saber rattlers who railed against lost sovereignty but felt that the new nation couldn't afford the debt required for the establishment of a navy.
Some might consider this conflict to be the last throes of the Revolutionary War, but the Napoleonic Wars between France and England had a greater impact. The competing blockades, the seizing of enemy commerce and the scourge of privateers of all colors turned the Atlantic into a most inhospitable ocean.
It was the British practice of impressing American sailors to man their large fleet, however, that caused the most consternation. Although it had been going on since before the revolution, by the early 1800s, the British held thousands of American prisoners, including those in a prison ship anchored off Fort McHenry.
In 1809, Paul Hamilton of Charleston was appointed secretary of the Navy. Although he was completely inexperienced in affairs of the sea and, in fact, was eventually forced to resign in disgrace, he was one of the earliest proponents of employing our few frigates as lone raiders to harass both the naval and commercial vessels of Britain. It must be remembered that the British of this era considered the Americans on the whole to be an unsophisticated, even vulgar, rabble, and it was an unimaginable insult to lose frigate after frigate to the tiny American Navy.
Today, when we spend billions to maintain command and control of our forces, it is eye-opening to consider the autonomy these ship's captains had. They would go to sea for many months without ever having any connection to a command authority.
They had been provided with the broadest of guidance to hit and run and to avoid combat with clearly superior forces. One of them even wandered the Pacific seizing significant pieces of the British whaling fleet.
This is not a novel; it is a history, and an enlightening one at that. It would take only the smallest of embellishments to turn this into a novel, but it is a thoroughly entertaining read just as it is.
Reviewer Frank L. Cloutier, a retired engineer living in Hanahan

Copyright © 1995 - 2011 Evening Post Publishing Co..

Friday, February 11, 2011


An excerpt from Perilous Fight appears in the spring issue of MHQ; read a snippet here.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

PF in the Cleveland Plain Dealer


With 'Perilous Fight,' Stephen Budiansky drags the War of 1812 out of obscurity

Published: Tuesday, February 01, 2011, 11:02 AM     Updated: Tuesday, February 01, 2011, 11:12 AM
By Plain Dealer guest writer
peril.jpgPerilous Fight, Knopf, 422 pp., $35 
By David Walton
Until Vietnam, no war in American history had been so unpopular and so divisive as the War of 1812. It was "the forgotten war," says Stephen Budiansky in "Perilous Fight: America's Intrepid War With Britain on the High Seas, 1812-15," an excellent new history of what was, in effect, American's second war for independence.
Here was a confrontation long in the making. It nearly bankrupted the young republic, still struggling to pay off its Revolutionary War debt. But it proved for a second time that these former British colonies were now a nation to be respected, and reckoned with.
For years Americans called it simply "the late war," until war broke outwith Mexico in 1846-48. Its enduring name, "The War of 1812," says Budiansky, conveniently "sidestepped any memory of why the war had been fought, or even whom it had been fought against."
Military historian Budiansky illuminates and brings to life a conflict that, even for those of us who think we know our history, has always seemed obscure. Its principal cause, British "impressing" or kidnapping American sailors off American ships to fill their undermanned crews, seems arcane until we learn the count exceeded 10,000, plucked from a nation of about 7 million.
British warships, too, regularly seized American merchant ships and goods they claimed (often correctly) were trading with Napoleon's France, then at war with Great Britain.
With nine-tenths of its citizenry living on farms, America was fast becoming an important trading force on Britannia's oceans -- its exports of cotton and wheat crucial to Britain's own economy.
Important here, however, was a healthy dose of "attitude" on both sides. "The Revolution had given America independence in name," Budiansky writes, "but her claims to a place among the civilized nations of the world struck even sympathetic British observers as pretentious or simply laughable."
On the high seas, where gentlemanly codes of honor prevailed, American seamen were seen as "inferior in both martial prowess and personal honor -- which in itself came to be a justification in the British mind for refusing to accord Americans the chivalric treatment due an equal."
Budiansky's narrative, like the war itself, spins on this opposition of minds and perceptions, as much as on the unequal struggle between adversaries with a 100:1 imbalance in sea power. It's a history by turns grand and grandiose, tragic and mean and appallingly bloody, and often mordantly funny, like the worst of family feuds.
While the British crews plied their traditions of "spit and polish" and made their vessels shine, the Americans relentlessly practiced their gunnery and improved their aim.
And the American technology revolution of the 19th century, then in its infant phase, was producing ships that were lighter, fleeter, and more maneuverable than the British. In short order, the U.S. triumphed in five one-to-one warship engagements, much to the shock and outrage of the British public.
"Perilous Fight" is highly readable and engaging. Budiansky is a master at cutting through complicated historical and technical material, and focusing on what's essential, in this case the war at sea, where the key issues were decided.
The War of 1812, where a small naval power successfully fought a hit-and-run strategy against the world's greatest naval power, offers innumerable parallels to our wars today, particularly in the way ingrained attitudes and perceptions shape strategies and tactics.
It's a book that many people, and especially those in the military, would read with profit.

David Walton is a critic in Pittsburgh, Pa.
© 2011 cleveland.com. All rights reserved.

Review of Perilous Fight in Kirkus Reviews

Editor Review (reviewed on October 15, 2010)

This early entry in the likely flood of books on the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 focuses on the naval action.

Journalist and military historian Budiansky (The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox, 2008) notes that 1812 has as good a claim as any American war to the title "the forgotten war"—understandably, considering that it was at best a draw for the United States. In Jefferson's administration, the government wasn't sure it needed a navy at all; only the Barbary pirates seemed to justify keeping a few warships. Attitudes changed when Britain, embroiled in its war against Napoleon, began raiding American ships for sailors. A British ban on American merchants trading with France also gave the U.S. a casus belli. Britain's refusal to concede these points resulted in open conflict, during which America was effectively forced to invent a navy from bare bones. Surprisingly, American sailors gave a good account of themselves in the early going. But William Jones, recruited to serve as Secretary of the Navy, recognized that single-ship duels were a losing strategy and issued orders to concentrate on commerce raiding. Consequently, for the majority of the war, American privateers and commerce raiders preyed on British ships, from the Pacific whaling grounds to the Irish Sea.

Budiansky gives a solid account of all major naval actions and a fine picture of the personalities of the key figures—especially the proud American captains William Bainbridge, Stephen Decatur and Isaac Hull, and their British counterparts. The author also looks at the fate of American prisoners of war and at the larger political issues behind the war. The Treaty of Ghent brought the war to an end early in 1815, with Britain formally conceding none of the American demands. In practice, the impressments of American sailors ceased, ending the major bone of contention. Budiansky sees the result as an early example of asymmetric war, in which a weaker power prolongs the conflict by choosing to fight only on favorable terms until its opponent grows tired of the exercise.

Highly readable and especially useful as an overview of the early days of the U.S. Navy.

8 maps, 11 photographs, 16 pages of illustrations, 8 pages in color


Thursday, January 27, 2011

MdHS event postponed

My lecture and book signing at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore this evening has been canceled due to the snow; it will be rescheduled for February 10.