Inside the U.S. Navy of 1812–1815, by William S. Dudley, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Md., 2021, $54.95
Most naval histories of the War of 1812 stress stirring battles and sanguinary victories won by the young U.S. Navy against Britain’s Royal Navy, the greatest sea power of the day. Inside the U.S. Navy of 1812–1815 instead emphasizes the administrative and logistical challenges faced by the nascent Navy. Author William S. Dudley examines the roles of Paul Hamilton and William Jones, the successive secretaries of the Navy called on to cope with those challenges.
Given its present-day size, observers may find it difficult to comprehend how miniscule the Navy was in 1812. At the end of the Revolutionary War the Continental Navy ceased to exist. Prior to 1798 there actually was no Navy. Led by Thomas Jefferson, the Democratic-Republicans opposed the very idea of a national navy due both to its expense and the belief that any such organization might threaten the sovereignty of the individual states. By the late 18th century, however, U.S. maritime assets faced hostility both from Barbary pirates and the French Republic, which resented America’s refusal to join hostilities against Britain. In the face of powerful political opposition, President John Adams managed to establish a new fleet under the guidance of Benjamin Stoddart, first secretary of the Navy.
Dudley describes challenges faced by Stoddart and successors in creating the infrastructure of a navy from scratch and in confronting the challenge posed by the Royal Navy at sea and on the Great Lakes. Beyond developing a warfighting strategy, their tasks included the establishment of naval yards; shipbuilding; recruitment, training and retention of both a corps of professional officers and crewmen; the procurement of armament and stores; and provision for medical facilities. Remarkable though the Navy’s exploits may have been during America’s second fight with Britain,Inside the U.S. Navy of 1812–1815 gives overdue appreciation to the achievements behind the service’s very existence.
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