In Perilous Fight, Stephen Budiansky tells the rousing story of the underdog coterie of American seamen and their visionary secretary of the navy, who combined bravery and strategic innovation to hold off the legendary Royal Navy.
Budiansky vividly demonstrates that far from an indecisive and unnecessary conflict—as historians have long dismissed the War of 1812—this “forgotten war” had profound consequences that would change the course of naval warfare, America’s place in the world, and the rules of international conflict forever. Never again would the great powers challenge the young republic’s sovereignty in the aftermath of the stunning performance of America’s navy and privateersmen in sea battles that ranged across half the globe. Their brilliant hit-and-run tactics against a far mightier foe would pioneer concepts of “asymmetric warfare” that would characterize the insurgency warfare of later centuries.
Above all, the War of 1812 would be the making of the United States Navy. Even as the war began, the nation was bitterly divided over whether it should have a navy at all: Jeffersonian Republicans denounced the idea as a dangerous expansion of government power, while Federalists insisted that America could never protect its burgeoning seagoing commerce or command respect without a strong naval force. After the war, Americans would never again doubt that their might, respect, and very survival depended upon a permanent and professional navy.
Drawing extensively on diaries, letters, and personal accounts from both sides, Budiansky re-creates the riveting encounters at sea in bloody clashes of cannonfire and swordplay; the intimate hopes and fears of vainglorious captains and young seamen in search of adventure; and the behind-the-scenes political intrigue and maneuvering in Washington and London. Throughout, Perilous Fight proves itself a gripping and essential work of American naval history.
Stephen Budiansky is a military historian and journalist. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Men’s Journal, MHQ, Civil War Times, and many other publications. His previous books include The Bloody Shirt, Her Majesty’s Spymaster, Air Power, and Battle of Wits. He lives in Leesburg, Virginia.
From our interview with the author
You have tackled a wide variety of topics in your previous works. What drew you to examine the War of 1812 now in Perilous Fight?
Military history has always drawn me not only because it’s intrinsically an interesting and important business, but because it’s a window on human nature. Many years ago, Calvin Trillin wrote a series of articles for The New Yorker about murders—a grim topic, but the point he made was that when something that dramatic and awful takes place in a town, it inescapably brings to the surface all kinds of things about people and communities and their relationships that otherwise remain hidden. Wars are the same—they bring out the best and worst in people; they also offer a unique penetrating look at the societies in which they take place.
This period was also an absolutely crucial moment in the history of America. The young republic was struggling to find a sense of identity; there were serious questions whether this brash experiment in democracy would even survive; there was a fascinating struggle and process of self-invention going on in the whole society as it tried to figure out just what it meant to be an American, to be freed of the old aristocratic culture of Europe. The War of 1812 not only was a test of whether America would indeed survive but also provides a remarkable look at this society in transition to the modern world.
In your opinion, why has the War of 1812 become relatively forgotten in American memory? Why do you feel that this war deserves a more extensive exploration and analysis now?
I think it’s actually quite complicated why this war has been so forgotten, though it’s interesting that very recently historians have been starting to pay more attention to it. Gordon Wood in his recent book Empire of Liberty notes that Americans at the time instinctively understood what the war accomplished even though historians ever since have found it all extremely puzzling.
It was a confusing war; it was a war America almost seemed to back into by accident; there were lots of blunders and mistakes; it ended in a military stalemate—but in the end it really did change the course of American history. Even the skeptics at the time, like Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin, acknowledged afterward that the war had forged a new sense of national feeling and identity; more than that, it established America as a nation on the world stage: the European powers never again treated American sovereignty as something they could trifle with or ignore as they had before the war.