Thursday, December 16, 2010

Booklist review of Perilous Fight

From Booklist, December 15, 2010

Bedeviled on land, U.S. forces were more effective at sea in the War of 1812. Continuing a venerable tradition of historians (Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Adams, Alfred Mahan) drawn to this topic, Budiansky narrates events and ventures explanations for successes of the U.S. Navy against Britain’s Royal Navy. The prerequisite was the pre-existence of an American navy, whose establishment Ian Toll recounted in Six Frigates (2006). Those frigates scored initial victories in warship-on-warship combat (the Constitution’s sinking of the Guerriere) that exhilarated Americans and made U.S. captains (e.g., Stephen Decatur) famous. But naval war in the chivalric style did not strike the historically unsung William Jones as a sensible strategy. Secretary of the navy during the war, Jones is the most important character in Budiansky’s account. Jones thought that attacking Britain’s merchant marine would hamper her superior fleet far more than would destruction of her warships, and so it turned out, as Budiansky’s analysis of the forces tied to convoy and blockade duties verifies. Conversant in nautical technicalities of the age of sail, Budiansky will absorb the avid naval history audience. —Gilbert Taylor