Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Disrespecting America

Surely you've heard of The War of 1812? Maybe, although it's a good bet few people could tell you anything meaningful about it. ("Um yeah... it happened in 1812, right?") And that's unfortunate because it's some pretty fascinating history.

Even though the United States had won independence thirty years earlier, Great Britain hadn't really gotten the message. They still thought of - and treated - Americans as delinquent and troublesome subjects of the Crown. And when they intercepted merchant ships on the seas they frequently forced American seamen to serve aboard British ships - a practice called "impressment" - claiming they were British citizens.

Perilous Fight: America's Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 1812-1815The War of 1812 (a name not decided upon until the 1850s) actually lasted 3 years and sprang from this continual bullying. And while there were a number of stirring victories, there were also many ignominious defeats. The US was not a naval power, and certainly no match for the large and seemingly invincible British fleet, but their strategy of harassing the commerce of the enemy paid off in the end. It would be difficult to claim America won the war in any quantitative way, but they achieved their aims indirectly - and gained a measure of respect from Europe.

Stephen Budiansky brings it to life in a human and compelling way with stirring accounts of the ship to ship conflicts in his new book Perilous Fight: America's Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 1812-1815. The focus here is primarily on the naval aspects of the war, although he briefly touches on some of the land battles. He provides detail on the Barbary Wars when America first began to awaken to the value of a navy, but the real value here is in the background history: the political and commercial reasons behind the war, the life of sailors aboard different vessels or being a prisoner of the enemy, and the various personalities who commanded the ships. And the illustrations are very helpful as well, not always simple maps of the engagements but also diagrams of nautical practices and armaments used. I think it's not quite as good as Ian Toll's Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy, which gives a somewhat broader view, but certainly a fun historical account of a forgotten time when America had to earn respect from the old world powers.  (I received this book from Amazon Vine.)

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