From some standpoints the War of 1812 seems less a war than an agglomeration of widely scattered, often-chaotic clashes on land and sea. But during the summer of 1814 along the Chesapeake it was—as author Steve Vogel makes clear in his justly acclaimed recent book Through the Perilous Fight—a real war with real issues, serious strategies and tactics, daring maneuvers, death and destruction, crushing defeats and brilliant victories. For that one summer Americans knew all too well that the fighting and suffering were for real and that the stakes could not have been higher.
‘The British were in a life-and-death struggle with France, and they viewed the American declaration as a stab in the back’
The War of 1812 is not a fresh subject. What made you choose it?
I think it is fresh, certainly in comparison to our more studied conflicts, like the Civil War or World War II. Many people don’t realize that events they think they’re familiar with—the British burning Washington, the Battle of Baltimore, Fort McHenry and Francis Scott Key, and the Battle of New Orleans—all tie together. That chain of events makes a pretty compelling story.
Why did you build your narrative on Francis Scott Key and British Rear Admiral George Cockburn?
They were interesting characters, and everybody knows a bit about Francis Scott Key. But there is a whole story about how he got to Baltimore harbor on that night and about his own contradictions, his deep antipathy to the war. But Key did not just carp from the sidelines. He volunteered for the militia in 1813, when the British threatened, and again in the summer of 1814. He was totally opposed to the war—and ended up writing the most patriotic of all American songs.
He is an amazingly colorful character whose mission was to rough up the Americans. The commander of the North American Station, Admiral Sir John Warren, had been waging a pretty tepid campaign on the Atlantic seaboard, and the Admiralty decided that he could use an aggressive subordinate. Cockburn had extensive experience in the Napoleonic wars and had served as one of Horatio Nelson’s captains.
Americans tend to forget that the United States declared war on Britain in 1812, not the other way around. The British were in a life-and-death struggle with France, and they viewed the American declaration as a stab in the back. So people who had seen a lot of action against Napoléon, like Cockburn, weren’t going to treat the Americans with kid gloves.
I think that came as a bit of a surprise for a lot of Americans. Cockburn was practicing a form of total warfare in the Chesapeake, 50 years before William Tecumseh Sherman’s march to Georgia—not on the same scale, by any means, but according to the same principle. Torching any homes construed as being supportive of the militia. If it was abandoned, that meant the owner was off with the militia, fighting. If somebody stayed there to protect their home, well, if they took any steps of defense, their house would be torched and confiscated. There was no win almost, unless you gave over all your goods and became a collaborator with the British.
And then your neighbors would burn down your house?
Exactly. Cockburn was promoting fear and hatred, and his methods also ginned up a lot of opposition to “Madison’s war.” In southern Maryland the president was about the most unpopular man in the world, because they thought his declaration of war on England had brought this misery on them. Cockburn took advantage of that.
Whose idea was it to destroy the city of Washington?
Cockburn’s. He wrote to the new North American Station commander, Admiral Alexander Cochrane, in 1814 saying, “I am convinced that within a short period of time, with enough force, we could easily have at our mercy the capital of the United States.”
The U.S. government seemed inept and unprepared militarily. Was it?
That is the sad truth. The country was utterly unprepared for the war. The government had this idea that Canada was there for the taking, and that American forces would be greeted as liberators—an idea we would see again two centuries later in another part of the world.
What did President James Madison have in mind?
Madison thought the declaration of war would show the British how serious the Americans were about the violations of sovereignty, and that they’d reach a negotiated settlement. I think he was hoping they wouldn’t actually fight. But the British missed that nuance.
What was the state of the American military when Madison declared war?
We went to war with a tiny army, most of it up along the Canadian frontier. We had a very small naval force with few really good ships—and we were taking on the most powerful navy in the world. We were terribly unprepared in both the quality of our officers and the training of our forces.
Who was responsible for that lack of preparation?
Madison’s whole cabinet was dysfunctional. Secretary of State James Monroe, who had presidential aspirations, really wanted a military job. Secretary of War John Armstrong had his own baggage. The government could see there was a danger but couldn’t come together to act.
What was Armstrong’s problem?
Armstrong was almost too smart for his own good. He’d been an officer in the Revolutionary War and had some military talent. As secretary of war he improved some aspects of the Army’s performance. His biggest problem was arrogance: He refused to believe information that contradicted his preconceptions. He dismissed all evidence that Washington was in danger and did nothing to defend it.
Was the Battle of Bladensburg truly a comedy of errors?
Exactly right. The problem was poor American leadership, both political and military. But we have to give credit for what happened at Bladensburg to the British and particularly to Maj. Gen. Robert Ross. He conducted a brilliant campaign of deception, feinting one way or the other, marching and then doubling back, and was able to paralyze the Americans and prevent them from defending Bladensburg.
Why was Baltimore so much better prepared for an attack than Washington?
It was a city of 40,000 very hardy souls, a lot of them sailors, merchants and people working in the ship industry. Washington was much smaller—population about 8,000.
The other big difference was Sam Smith. He was a rich merchant who commanded the militia in Baltimore with the backing of the city’s wealthy merchant class, was a United States senator, and had served on naval and military affairs committees. The troops loved him because he was pretty liberal in doling out whiskey. Smith had taken it upon himself for over a year to get Baltimore ready: He had a good plan of defense and was prepared to block the harbor from a naval attack. Fort McHenry was a major asset—in a very good position to defend the harbor.
One more thing Baltimore had going for it was the lesson: Washington had been burned, and that was a pretty good wakeup call. As one of the soldiers in Baltimore wrote to a friend before the British attack, “We’d be worse than stupid if we didn’t learn from Washington’s mistakes.”
How strong was the British fleet that assaulted Baltimore?
There were at least 70 ships, though a lot of them couldn’t approach Baltimore because the Patapsco River was full of shoals. The real thing the British had going for them were the bomb ships—essentially floating artillery. The fleet had five of the Royal Navy’s eight bomb ships, all ready to pummel Fort McHenry. So the British were confident they could force the fort’s surrender in just a couple of hours.
How was the garrison at Fort McHenry able to hold out?
The most important thing that Baltimore did to defend itself was to sink ships to block the harbor. That meant the fort would have to be eliminated for the British to get to the city by water. And they couldn’t get close to the city because of these obstacles. Baltimore had time to do this because the British squandered about two weeks after the capture of Washington before deciding to attack Baltimore. The Americans put that time to very good use.
Also, the bombardment was ineffective because the battle was fought in raging weather. Rain was dousing a lot of the shells’ fuzes, and with the wind and the churning water it was impossible to aim. A lot of shells flew over and behind the fort, and the Congreve rockets were pretty worthless.
How important at the time was the fort’s flag (aka the Star-Spangled Banner)?
It was important for the morale of the American troops watching, including on Hampstead Hill, where the militia was protecting the city from the British land force. They could see this horrible bombardment, and if they had seen that flag come down and the British take over, who knows what might have happened?
The real importance comes afterward. Key saw the flag after the bombardment ceased, wrote the song and created an indelible image for Americans. I think it’s similar to the image of the flag being raised at Iwo Jima, or the flags being placed on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center site after 9/11. The flag becomes a symbol of national unity, really for the first time.
How much remains today of these events and battles?
It’s surprising how much there is, even in modern Bladensburg. If you look carefully and start talking to some of the folks who have studied the ground, you can see how much still exists. The topography is still pretty true in terms of the hills, and where the British had to cross the river and go uphill. You can really get a sense of that if you go to different vantage points.