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The Challenge: Britain Against America In The Naval War Of 1812 Hardcover – May 15 2012
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About the Author
Andrew Lambert is Laughton Professor of Naval History at King's College London. His books include Nelson: Britannia's God of War, Admirals: The Naval Commanders Who Made Britain Great, Franklin: Tragic Hero of Polar Navigation, The Challenge: Britain Against America in the Naval War of 1812, for which he was awarded the Anderson Medal, and The Crimean War: British Grand Strategy Against Russia 1853-1856. His highly successful history of the Royal Navy, War at Sea, was broadcast on BBC Two.
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That said, this book puts many of the myths to bed, and puts the British response to the attack by the US into its proper global strategic perspective. It clearly shows that Britain went out of its way to avoid war and fought largely on the defensive both in Canada and at sea. The idea that the war was a second War of Independence can be firmly laid to rest: This was a war of aggression by the US against Britain at one of the most critical moments in her history, and the Americans finished it broken militarily, at sea and financially. They almost finished it in secession and civil war.
All this is clearly laid out by Mr. Lambert in a highly readable narrative, which if, like me, you have been interested in the War of 1812 for over 30 years, has been a long time in coming.
An interesting and myth-busting account.
- Bishop Adam de Moleyns, who managed to get this out before being murdered by unpaid sailors in Portsmouth in 1450.
On the north side of the A32 as you pass through Wickham in Hampshire is an antiques centre called the Chesapeake Mill. It was built using timbers recovered from the heavy frigate USS Chesapeake, fought to a standstill and taken in Prize by the much smaller HMS Shannon on the 1st June 1813, lured to her destruction by clever exploitation of Chesapeake's captain's psychology by his brilliant and very brave British opponent Captain Philip Broke. This seminal action and how it came to be, and much else besides, is the story told in this book.
Here we have a formal and very professional history of the (virtually forgotten) War of 1812 between Britain and the United States, by one of our foremost naval historians. To set the scene, Professor Lambert first explores and explodes the mish-mash of myth that passes for history in the United States, including demonstrating how the defeat of the Chesapeake by her much smaller, but smarter assailant was spun into less-shaming fiction by the mendacity of the subsequent US court martial. He goes on to show, via meticulously annotated research, how similar misrepresentation of the taking of the Essex and the President (both actions brilliantly described and explained), and other incidents, has been likewise used to create a wholly false fiction that America won this war. Actually she was reduced to bankruptcy by the sea-power exercised by a small fraction of the Royal Navy, which also wiped the deck with the fighting navy of the United States, often in single-ship actions against a much more powerful opponent. Lambert provides careful tabulation of the relative size, manning and armament of the contestants. He is good on the importance of gunnery and of the unwisdom of `smart' captains who minimised their rigging leaving their masts much more exposed to damage. While many of the American captains (and crews) were first-rate seamen, some demonstrating truly outstanding seamanship in escaping from combat, British captains such as Broke, Byron, Hayes, Hardy, Hillyar and Hope excelled in bringing their enemy to battle and defeating him or in evading a much superior enemy; unfortunately the verdict on such as Carden and Collier seems to have been `could do better'. It is incredible that after so many years of war the Admiralty should still have to write to captains to point out that gunnery is more important than paintwork.
Politically, Lambert starts with Jefferson, President 1801-8, revered idol who had drafted the magic words of the Constitution .. "all men are created equal ..". Not bad for a slave owner who seems to have used at least one of his black women as a concubine. He was a Republican, therefore at odds with the Federalists of the north-eastern states, and set out to screw them so as to focus on the Republican South and West, never mind that nearly all the US revenue came from customs duties from the eastern seaboard. The same interest demanded expansion, which meant expropriating and indeed attempting to exterminate the Indians, who were just as unequal as the blacks.
Nowadays `filibuster' is usually used to mean keeping the floor to talk out some legislative measure. Originally it meant engaging in unauthorized and irregular warfare [OED], and Lambert uses it in this sense to describe incursions into Florida, the Republican administration only too happy for this to happen. Next door in 1803 Jefferson had acquired a vast tract of land via the Louisiana Purchase at a rate of about $20 per square mile. Into this, displacing anybody who was already there, must pour the settlers and energy of his country. The Mississippi and the Ohio facilitated this penetration, for in a vast area with no decent roads water was the only way to move goods. Jefferson saw a fleet of coastal gunboats as cheap protection for this and the seaborne coastal trade.
However in 1794 the need to put down Algerine piracy had meant building some ocean-going ships. As far as shipbuilding went the result was a stroke of genius - 44-gun super-frigates, fast enough to evade any line of battle ship, while half as powerful again in respect of size, armament and manpower than any British frigate, their US Live Oak frame timbers 30% stronger and so able to carry planking several % thicker, so that British 18-pounder cannon balls fired at fifty yards just bounced off (as demonstrated on Channel 5, "Master and Commander - the True Story", 12.4.2012).
It is clear that none of Jefferson, his successor Madison or their administration understood the war raging in Europe. The measure of this is America's betting on the loser Napoleon. Jefferson, his virulent Anglophobia blinding him to reality, saw no contradiction as a democrat in siding with a megalomaniac dictator. Nap for his part saw the US as a ridiculous and unimportant sideshow and continued his attempts to catch and burn the American ships bringing American grain to feed our Peninsular army.
War was declared by Madison on 18th June 1812. We had shot his fox by withdrawing the Orders in Council relating to our blockade of Napleon's `Continental System' which were Madison's original fancied casus belli, so his focus shifted to our practice of apprehending deserters serving in American ships, supported by the fiction that such men could become Americans via some piece of paper; legally, British nationality, the gift of birth, could not be abjured. In any case this had ceased to be a very material issue as Jefferson's, and later Madison's internal measures destroyed many sea-faring jobs in the North-east anyway. Britons serving against us in American warships were of course traitors for whom the noose justly awaited.
As might be expected, news of the declaration of war reached some participants only slowly. Initially it was not taken seriously by the United Kingdom, but Admiral Sir John Borlase Warren, a man of sound strategic and tactical grasp (which was never acknowledged in London), was appointed C in C on 30th July, with overall command of both the North American and West Indies stations.
In each of the three years of the war America invaded Canada in pursuit of Jefferson's dream of adding Canada to the Union, and each time failed in spite of some early successes in the 1813 campaign. No account had been taken of the British Canadians' memory of being driven north by American terrorism during the Revolution, the French Canadians' loathing of Republicanism, and the Indians' awareness that their extermination would ineluctably follow American victory; nor of the unwillingness of the US' border states to have anything to do with this interruption to their trade. A curious little maritime war developed on the Great Lakes which is intimately described in the book. Mighty events impact individuals; the later need to garrison Canada meant that my forebear Gunner/Driver 3rd Class Cyrus Stannard found a wife there, and so without Mr Madison I should not be writing this.
The Board of Admiralty was as much delusional as Madison, maintaining that Warren could blockade the US' thousands of milesof Atlantic and Gulf coastlines, protect the West Indies and our Caribbean and Canadian shipping and also bring to battle the US navy, all with a handful of ships, which initially had to operate in groups of two frigates and a sloop to counter the firepower of the American frigates. Ignored was the impossibility of totally sealing a coast where fog, snowstorms and long dark nights provided cover for ships to slip out to sea regardless of how close the watch, so also the consequences to Warren's Halifax base and the ships therein of a hurricane in November 1813. In this Melville, the First Lord, was complicit, exhibiting the usual duplicity of the politician in blaming public servants who could not answer back. Matters did not improve until mid-1813 when Warren was sent 74s from our Mediterranean Fleet, and razeed 74s mounting fifty 32-pounders which could fight their American opponents one-to-one. This and further reinforcement was hindered by desperate shortages of both men and materials at home - the later ships had to be built of fir which rots quicker and splinters worse under fire than oak. The Admiralty tried to reduce the incentive of sailors to desert by publicly criticising captains who flogged too many of them.
Meanwhile Warren was harassed by Lord Melville, with fatuous `political' letters demanding that he achieve all three objectives regardless of the facts, and with political command appointments which degraded the general fighting ability of his ships. As it was Washington was generous in its issuing of privateer licences and Letters of Marque; the war called forth maybe six hundred fast, schooner-rigged US privateers, operating from any of dozens of small American harbours (but, particularly from Baltimore). They cruised, for instance, near Madeira and the Canaries where toothsome trophies from our India and China trade might be had, and further afield to the Cape of Good Hope, Greenland (to prey on our whalers) and even to the waters off Archangel.
There were two solutions: compulsory convoy, which had in any case been in place since 1798 because of French privateering; and as soon as resources allowed, blockade and control of the Chesapeake which cut all US north-south communication and trade and usefully bottled up one of the big frigates, USS Constellation. This last step hit the merchants of Baltimore hard as their export cargoes piled up in warehouses and commanded even diminishing prices. In the event no convoy was ever broken by the Americans and, even though they scored some wins over rompers, stragglers and independents, the measure of failure of American Guerre de Course was that it had no effect whatsoever on British marine insurance rates. Privateering was further inhibited because payment of ransoms was then illegal under British law (22 GIII c.25).
Both sides made good use of intelligence, the US finessing a British captain into giving up his signal book, we making good use of prisoner, civilian and neutral information and aided by the Post Office's `Black Chamber', the forebear of GCHQ used to decode American mail.
Warren's request for relief was turned into a politically-motivated sacking by Melville, but Warren had made a lot of prize money and perhaps Melville wanted this to accrue to a fellow Scot. Ultimately Warren's politically appointed successor, Sir Alexander Cochrane, was given 129 warships of all sizes to do the business - a mere 10% of the mighty navy that ruled the world (there are nearly 150 HM Ships in the index). Cochrane augmented his force by recruiting black `Colonial Marines' whose employment ashore played usefully on American terror of a slave rebellion. The Royal Navy's interdiction of the slave trade had started in 1807. There was always a hope that the war might result in dividing the Union.
After the battle of Vitoria (21st June 1813) Wellington's army could feed off France and we no longer needed American grain. The blockade could therefore be extended to the Canadian border and that sealed the United States' financial doom.
The end of the war was messy as Britain, diplomatically far more concerned with the Congress of Vienna and financially seeking cut costs, wanted merely to get shot of the American nuisance and, America withdrawing its objections to our belligerent right to interdict neutral cargoes, we signed off a peace via the Treaty of Ghent in December 1814. As earlier, the news did not arrive in time to head off our ill-advised (because under-resourced) attack on New Orleans, which was later used to shore up the American `victory' myth, which leaves out of account the virtually unopposed burning of the American capital where our commanders ate Mr Madison's dinner. Dolly Madison is said personally to have saved the curtains before the Royal Marines arrived. Professor Lambert closes his work with analysis of American historic myth-making, continued into our own day with the fraudulent attribution to the Spanish of an internal explosion in the USS Maine, Errol Flynn's victory in Burma, the Tonkin Gulf fable, Steve McQueen's participation in the Great Escape, and American capture of Enigma, all lies necessary to bolster the United States' essentially fragile (and rather guilty) self-image.
Warren's analysis had been that America "entertained the idea at some future time of assuming the Empire of the Sea". It was to take the United States another 130 years to achieve this, after being kicked into action by Japan, and after Roosevelt and Congress had finally and deliberately bankrupted Britain and her Empire, thus eventually winning Mr Madison's War. If you are ever in Boston, do go and visit `Old Ironsides' (the USS Constitution) but don't believe everything you see posted up about her.
Professor Lambert provides encyclopaedic and detailed coverage of a plethora of issues - political, economic, military as well as naval (such as our shortage of troopships). Illustrations, bibliography and index are brilliant. I have only one, and it's idiosyncratic, quibble about the production values; it would be helpful if the ship lists in the index included the number of guns.
This book should be required reading for any teacher of American history, if there are such who are interested in actual facts rather than fable; and it has lessons for us all, even in the present day. This unremembered war, a sideshow in terms of the titanic struggle against Napoleon, set firm America's westward ambitions. It exemplifies her people's and leaders' utter ignorance of any country other than their own, which in turn explains her frequent lurches towards isolationism, and her failure to grasp the point in 1914 and 1939.