When the War of 1812 broke out between Great Britain and the United States, most observers paid little attention to the conflict; after all, Britannia ruled the waves, and its army was battletested. America, in comparison, maintained a minuscule navy and a land force that had not seen action since the revolution 30 years earlier.
A litany of aggressions by the British against the American states are often cited as reasons for the war: restrictions on trade by neutral nations to a Europe dominated by Napoleon Bonaparte; the blockading of ports and trade routes; and forcible impressment of sailors from American vessels into Royal Navy service. There is little doubt that the French Revolutionary wars (1793-1801) and the Napoleonic wars (1803-15) set the stage for Anglo-American hostilities.
As a leading neutral during those periods, the United States reaped a huge benefit by trading with the belligerents. When Napoleon formulated his Continental System to prevent trade to the British Isles, London counteracted with stringent measures to restrict and eventually prohibit neutral merchant ships from entering French-controlled ports. The impact on American commerce was noticeable. Those restrictions, coupled with the perception that Britain was fomenting war among the Indian tribes on the frontier, and British impressments of sailors from American vessels—vividly demonstrated in their attack on the U.S. frigate Chesapeake in 1807—led to a declaration of war in June 1812. Noted historian A.J. Langguth, in Union 1812: The Americans Who Fought the Second War of Independence (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2006, $30), ably describes the personalities, diplomacy and military engagements of that conflict.
Langguth begins his examination of the War of 1812 with presidents George Washington and John Adams setting the stage for early American diplomatic relations with Britain and issues of international commerce. Internal politics soon became driving forces in pursuing a path toward war.
Among the personalities Langguth explores are William Hull, the American general whose march to Detroit ended in a debacle; Oliver Perry, victor of the important naval battle on Lake Erie; and Shawnee chief Tecumseh, whose confederation of Indian tribes threatened the American frontier.
Many historic events have a mythology that has developed over time, and the War of 1812 is no exception. History professor Donald R. Hickey, in Don’t Give Up the Ship! Myths of the War of 1812 (University of Illinois Press, Champaign, 2006, $34.95), suggests myths regarding the war continue to be perpetuated in modern histories. He blames recurring myths on 19th-century historians who wrote viable histories of the conflict, but were unfortunately influenced in their approach by distractions—such as one British writer’s need to protect the prestige of the Royal Navy, while a famous American scribe of the 1860s jotted down unverified stories related to him by veterans. These writings, myths and legends included, became the historic fabric of the war.
In comparing Langguth’s Union 1812 to Hickey’s Don’t Give Up the Ship! several discrepancies immediately emerge. For instance, Langguth, in describing the engagement between USS Constitution and HMS Guerriére in August 1812 suggests that the sobriquet of “Old Ironsides” applied to the American warship is a “yarn…[that] followed the Constitution into the history books.” Contrarily, Hickey notes that the story of British shot falling from the oaken sides of Constitution is a credible one based on a letter written by an American sailor after the battle, in which he notes his shipmates were already using the famous nickname.
Despite that and other relatively minor discrepancies, both books provide valuable insights and information regarding the conflict. Langguth’s work is eminently readable and clarifies the roles of the American presidents and political leaders before and during the war. Hickey’s intriguing work not only focuses on the mythology of the conflict, it also investigates and compares the British and American forces and their engagements through a series of categories such as “Who Were the Best British Generals?” “The Role of the American Militia” and “The Mechanics of Waging War.”
Both Union 1812 and Don’t Give Up the Ship! are welcome additions to the literature on the often-ignored War of 1812.
Originally published in the March 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.