‘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