'Perilous Fight': A book review
Published: Sunday, January 16, 2011, 5:58 AM
Perilous Fight: America’s Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 812-1815
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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