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Through the Perilous Fight: Six Weeks That Saved the Nation

by Steve Vogel, Random House

The “dawn’s early light” on September 14, 1814, showed an exultant Francis Scott Key that the “flag was still there” at Baltimore’s Fort McHenry. In the darkness before that dawn, Steve Vogel writes in his compelling account of the battle for the Chesapeake, “every vestige of American leadership, power, or authority had…vanished.”

Washington had fallen to the British with embarrassing ease on August 24, and a humiliated President James Madison and his bumbling administration looked on as the Capitol and other public buildings burned. Baltimore, home port for American privateers who harassed British shipping from 1812 on, was next on the hit list. But the flag’s survival there meant that the city had been defended successfully, and that the United States would survive, too. The famous lines of Key’s “Star-Spangled Banner,” set to a familiar British club song, were a massive sigh of relief.

Vogel captures this desperate moment in the new nation’s short history by tracing the movements of his many American and British protagonists. But he draws back at critical points to offer a panoramic perspective on developments in London and in Ghent, where British and American negotiators wasted months in fruitless talks, waiting for news of definitive developments across the Atlantic. The approach is effective and revealing.

Key and his contemporaries had reason to fear for the country’s future in the summer of 1814, but not because of the threat to Baltimore. In fact, the Chesapeake Campaign was a sideshow, a series of punitive raids to improve Britain’s bargaining position at Ghent, not a war of conquest. Admiral Alexander Cochrane’s main objective was to move his fleet and British forces southward, where conquering New Orleans would have a decisive impact on the postwar settlement. Ready to beat a prudent retreat from the Chesapeake, the British were astonished at the weakness of American resistance, though Cochrane fatefully resisted the temptation to attack Baltimore for two weeks, giving the city “precious time to prepare.” By the time Cochrane’s fleet won the Battle of Lake Borgne in mid-December, then sent the British army to New Orleans to suffer a devastating loss at the hands of Andrew Jackson, war-weary negotiators at Ghent had already come to terms.

The mixed results of the Chesapeake Campaign combined with American successes at Plattsburg and Lake Champlain in September to mark a “stunning turnaround for British fortunes in North America.” The subsequent peace settlement at Ghent secured U.S. territorial claims—and left Indian country vulnerable to encroachment. The outcome reflected the war’s fundamental asymmetry. Britain had been in a war for its survival, fighting the French in Europe. Americans thought the War of 1812 was a second war for independence, but the British had absolutely no interest in re-colonizing the clearly ungovernable—if not unconquerable—rebels.

Yet Americans did find themselves standing at the edge of an abyss, in the darkness that Key’s dawn evokes. Perhaps they were incapable of defending—and governing— themselves. Perhaps their always tenuous union would collapse, blowing the lid off of their “peculiar institution”: Thousands of former slaves joined the British during the Chesapeake Campaign.

Vogel’s superb study enables us to grasp both the immediate danger and its broader implications for America’s future. Recognizing the perils, Madison and his National Republican allies launched a reform program to prepare the country for the next war. Tragically, opposition to their agenda, mounting sectional tensions and an expanding empire of slavery instead set the stage for the Civil War, the great and destructive conflict that has left the War of 1812 in the shadows.


Originally published in the October 2013 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.