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.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Dallas News review of Perilous Fight

Book review:
‘Perilous Fight’ by Stephen Budiansky

By DAVID WALTON / Special Contributor
Published 21 January 2011 01:39 PM

The War of 1812 is America’s forgotten war, one that, as Stephen Budiansky makes plain in Perilous Fight, left both sides with plenty to forget.

America tried repeatedly to invade Canada and failed miserably. The British burned Washington, D.C. Adm.Oliver Hazard Perry performed admirably on Lake Erie, but without winning any strategic advantage. America’s most important land victory, Andrew Jackson’s at New Orleans, came after peace had been declared.

The important battles, Budiansky shows in this excellent new history, were fought on the sea, where the advantage in fighting power was 100-to-1 against the Americans, but where a scrappy little fleet operating hit-and-run could inflict disproportionate damage on Britain’s vast commercial empire. In the tradition of insurgent nations everywhere, the former British colonies, now a fledgling nation of 7 million, hit their enemy unexpectedly, and where he was most vulnerable, all across the world.

The immediate cause of the war was the British habit of “impressing,” or stealing American sailors off American ships to serve on undermanned British ships, on the pretext they were deserters or English-born, and thus English subjects. With impressment came the equally risible British habit of confiscating American ships and cargoes they claimed were intended for Napoleon’s France.

The vote to go to war, 79-49 in the House of Representatives, 19-13 in the Senate, was the closest margin in American history.

Perceptions would prove as important as cannon power. Behind Britain’s conduct of the war was British contempt for a foe “inferior in both martial prowess and personal honor.”

As in Adam Nicholson’s very readable 2006 Seize the Fire: Heroism, Duty, and Nelson’s Battle at Trafalgar, Budiansky looks forthrightly at the butchery of sea battle in the early 1800s, with its codes of honor and steadiness under fire. The toll in flesh in those bloody battles, where splinters of wood would do as much damage as a steel ball, is difficult to imagine today. Yet men endured the carnage, even exposed themselves to fire, in the name of honor.

On British ships much time was spent polishing and shining, little or none on gunnery practice. The Americans drilled their gun crews daily, and shocked the British public by winning five one-on-one gunship engagements early in the war.

Budiansky is a highly gifted writer, and this is a book well worth recommending, not just for the history buff. There is much to ponder here with reference to our own overmatched wars, to the toll of pride and arrogance in warfare, and the vulnerability of a great power to an uncoordinated, scattered, but single-minded adversary. Most relevant is the insight into the American idea of waging war that prevails even today, first defined on the high seas in 1812-15.

David Walton lives and teaches in Pittsburgh

Perilous Fight: America’s Intrepid War With Britain on the High Seas, 1812-1815
Stephen Budiansky
(Knopf, $35)

Washington Post review of Perilous Fight

Stephen Budiansky's War of 1812 account, "Perilous Fight"
Evan Thomas
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 21, 2011; 10:27 AM

Reading Stephen Budiansky's rousing story of the naval War of 1812, it is hard not to hum a few bars of the old Aretha Franklin standby. Respect is what the Americans wanted from their former colonial masters, and respect is what they got.

Great Britain in the early 19th century ruled the waves. Her navy was 100 times the size of America's, and the British were arrogant, to say the least, about asserting their superiority from sea to shore. Routinely stopping American ships to "press" sailors into the Royal Navy, ever-hungry for manpower to fight the Napoleonic Wars, the British ignored American protests.

Budiansky, who writes with sure and vivid command, . . . read more

Monday, January 17, 2011

Review of Perilous Fight in the Newark Star-Ledger

'Perilous Fight': A book review

Published: Sunday, January 16, 2011, 5:58 AM
Star-Ledger Entertainment Desk By Star-Ledger Entertainment Desk
Perilous Fight: America’s Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 812-1815
Stephen Budiansky
Alfred A. Knopf, 448 pp., $35

Reviewed by Jonathan Lazarus
News that Britain’s current financial woes had forced the Royal Navy to mothball its lone carrier, bearing the fabled name Ark Royal, was broadcast just as Stephen Budiansky’s salty, scrappy “Perilous Fight” was about to focus on the epic confrontation in 1812 between the frigates Constitution and Guerriere.
HMS Guerriere represented the essence of the thousand-ship, globally dominant Royal Navy, the same outfit that — only seven years before — had defeated the French at Trafalgar. The USS Constitution spearheaded a new class of vessels of the pitifully small and erratically managed fleet of a nascent nation, which impudently refused to yield up impressed seaman to his Brittanic Majesty’s insatiable manpower needs.
The David-slays-Goliath result of the encounter proved that the United States could confront Britain on the bounding mane with technologically superior vessels and a fighting spirit more intense than that in the ossified ranks of the enemy. While America’s military fortunes on land sagged during the War of 1812, its sea prowess swelled and provided inflections of pride in an otherwise exasperating conflict.
Military historian Stephen Budiansky meticulously recreates three years of pitched and pyrrhic battles, while nicely folding in the collateral intricacies of rigging, reefing and tacking, the ambitions, caprices and cruelties of the captains and the exasperating policies of politicians on both sides of the Atlantic.
Whether describing the mundane tasks of the 3,000 victualers of the Royal Navy, who did nothing but prepare hardtack, beef and herring for the far-flung fleet, or the dangerous exertions of bands of American woodsmen who felled “live” oak for the planking of U.S. vessels to make them sturdier than the “white” oak ships of the enemy, Budiansky is strictly on the beam, both with nautical and literary sensibilities.
Jonathan Lazarus is a former news editor of The Star-Ledger. He may be reached at
© 2011 All rights reserved.

Perilous Fight hits the tabloids

Read all about it in the venerable New York Post, January 16, 2011.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Why 1812

Why the War of 1812 is Worth Remembering . . .
By Stephen Budiansky
Although the official start of the Civil War sesquicentennial is still months away, the preparatory hoopla is already deafening: State tourism councils from Connecticut to Alabama actually began years ago hiring “Civil War event coordinators,” printing glitzy brochures, and developing “comprehensive strategic marketing plans” to assist in the separation of visitors from their dollars in the coming flood of anniversary celebrations. Major newspapers including the New York Times and the Washington Post have been at it for months with blogs, features, and even regular “live” tweets recounting what was happening 150 years previous at each moment. I have a vision of a veritable legion of Civil War reenactors already taking to their beds each night clad in their authentic Civil War flannel long johns, authentic Civil War muskets at the ready, in barely contained anticipation of the non-stop excitement of the next four years.
By contrast, the upcoming bicentennial of the War of 1812 has barely penetrated the public consciousness. To give you the full sense of just how little it has penetrated, I was half way through writing my book about that war before it even occurred to me that there was a notable anniversary coming.
Many wars have been called “the forgotten war.” The War of 1812 is more like the obliterated war. Or, the war chiefly remembered as the setup for one of Groucho Marx’s “Who was buried in Grant’s tomb?” joke questions. Or, to the slightly more erudite, the war best known for its major battle having been fought after it was over.
The war didn’t even have a name for decades afterwards. It was just “the late war,” until a later war—the Mexican War of 1846—usurped that title.
But the real historical coup de grace was administered by Henry Adams in his brilliant, often amusing, and mostly disdainful account of James Madison’s administration, published at the turn of the 20th century. Adams, the grandson and great-grandson of presidents, was one of the first true professional historians in America, perhaps the very first to depart from the credulous, flag-waving hagiography that had characterized American history writing up until then.
Adams drew on primary sources—letters, congressional debates, newspaper accounts—to paint a devastating picture of a feckless president, a Congress filled with rubes and demagogues, and a futile war filled with miscalculations on both sides that sputtered on for three years, left the young republic bankrupt, and terminated in a peace treaty that was a complete return to the status quo ante. (The Treaty of Ghent, ending the war, did not even mention, much less resolve, the two great issues America had ostensibly declared war with Britain over: the rights of neutral maritime trade and the British practice of forcibly impressing American seamen into their naval service).
Nearly every historian since has followed Adams’s lead, portraying the War of 1812 as a pointless and utterly avoidable conflict that settled nothing, dismissing the popular catchphrase of the time—“a second war for independence”—as rhetorical desperation by Madison’s party out to salvage something from the fiasco, and divining the real motive beneath it all as crass partisan politics, crasser territorial lust for British Canada and Spanish Florida, or the genocidal enmity of American frontiersmen toward the Indians, Britain’s ally.
 But lately, I would venture to say, the War of 1812’s stock has been rising a bit. The historian Gordon S. Wood observes in his recent book Empire of Liberty that while “historians have had difficulty appreciating Madison’s achievement, many contemporaries certainly realized what he had done.”
Simply standing up to the mightiest naval power in the world, one that outnumbered America in men, guns, and ships 100 to 1, had been a stunning display of national fortitude. Much like the United States in Vietnam a century and a half later, Britain found herself baffled and chastened trying to respond to a far weaker adversary who had mastered the art of what we would today call “asymmetric warfare.”
America’s miniscule navy had fewer guns than Britain’s Royal Navy had ships. (“Our navy is so Lilliputian,” scoffed crusty old John Adams at the outbreak of the war, “that Gulliver might bury it in the deep by making water on it.”) Three early victories by American frigates in single ship actions, though of trivial strategic significance, profoundly shook British complacency and offered a perfect illustration of the huge psychological impact that occurs when a seemingly outclassed foe gets in even one lucky blow. “I like these little events,” commented the American secretary of the navy William Jones after another single-ship victory, by an American sloop of war. “They . . . produce an effect infinitely beyond their intrinsic importance.”
But it was Jones’s shrewdly calculated strategy to avoid as much as possible such gallant warship-on-warship actions, and instead hit Britain in the soft underbelly of its oceangoing commerce in a kind of seaborne guerilla warfare, that would truly be the key to fighting the mighty Royal Navy to a standstill. 
As Jones noted with satisfaction, a single tiny American raider could tie up a hugely disproportionate enemy force vainly chasing across the ocean in futile pursuit: “Five British frigates cannot counteract the depredations of one sloop of war.” 
It is deliciously satisfying even two hundred years later to read the increasingly irate chastisements from the British Admiralty to its North American commanding admiral, and his obsequious apologies and excuses, after the American frigate President led no fewer than 25 British warships on a wild goose chase across the entire Atlantic Ocean for months before slipping past the British blockade off Rhode Island and making it safely back home (and not before snapping up the British admiral’s personal schooner as a prize on the way in).
And it was pressure from Britain’s panic-stricken merchants to stop this depredation of their trade—American warships and privateers by the summer of 1814 were operating right in British home waters, taking and burning prizes—that finally brought Britain to the bargaining table in earnest. 
William Jones is a man still far too little known or remembered today. But if anyone is a hero in my story, it's Jones, a strikingly "modern" figure in many ways.
Whatever the actual written terms spelled out in the Treaty of Ghent, something was changed forever by the war. The European powers recognized that America was now a nation to be reckoned with, and Britain never again interfered with American trade or attempted to press American sailors. During the war, Augustus Foster, Britain’s former minister to Washington, had arrogantly sniffed that Americans “were not a people we should be proud to acknowledge as our relations.” But afterward, he summed up the consequences of the war in one simple phrase: “The Americans . . . have brought us to speak of them with respect.”
At home, that same sense of new respect was palpable, too, as the war forged a sense of national identity and purpose that had been notably lacking before. As Madison’s Treasury secretary Albert Gallatin observed, the people “are more American; they feel and act more as a nation.”
But it was Virginia’s John Taylor who perhaps best explained both why the War of 1812 is worth remembering and why it has so baffled historians ever since. It was, Taylor said, a “metaphysical war, a war not for conquest, not for defense, not for sport, but rather a war for honour, like that of the Greeks against Troy.” Even 200 years later that’s indeed something worth remembering, and honoring.

Stephen Budiansky's new book is
Perilous Fight: America's Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 1812–1815, published by Alfred A. Knopf.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Perilous Fight at the Maryland Historical Society

I'll be giving a talk about my new book on the War of 1812 at sea, Perilous Fight, on Thursday, January 27, at 5:30 pm at the Maryland Historical Society. Please come along if you're in the greater Baltimore area that evening!