Stephen Budiansky’s PERILOUS FIGHT: America’s Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 1812-1815 takes us back to the time when “The Star-Spangled Banner” was first written and when America was proving itself as a young nation.
For Presidents’ Day, Budiansky talks about the heroic actions of the newly-formed U.S. Navy during the War of 1812 and the impact that this often forgotten war had on the development of our country.
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.
Certain events of the war were not forgotten, in fact they were memorialized (“The Star-Spangled Banner,” the USS Constitution, etc.) How did this selective memory influence our national identity in the years that followed?
If you ask most people what the words of the national anthem refer to, they don’t know that “the rockets’ red glare” was the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in the War of 1812. If you look at history textbooks and curricula, the War of 1812 is about a paragraph—I may be exaggerating, but not much. People have heard of “Old Ironsides,” the USS Constitution, but again most people can’t tell you why that warship is famous.
The war was vividly remembered in the decades immediately afterward as a “second war of independence” but with the rise of the first professional historians in the late 19th century the shine began to wear off—there was a great effort to find the “real” motive behind it all, and historians ascribed it to petty politics, land lust, and so forth. I think part of why historians have had a hard time was that it was that rarest kind of war, one that really was about honor, almost a throwback to ancient times in that way.
America during this time was on the cusp of transforming from a fledgling nation to the dominant world power we recognize it as today. How was the War of 1812 a catalyst for this monumental change?
Of course it would be only the end of the 19th century and then finally World War II that really made the United States a dominant world power, but you have to remember how weak and insignificant the America of 1812 was in the eyes of the then-great powers of the world. It had essentially no army; it had a tiny navy, one hundredth the size of Britain’s; and even many liberals in Britain looked askance at American democracy as little better than mob rule. They thought America was hopelessly vulgar, backward, and doomed to fail as a republic. It was a stunning blow to British assumptions that America did not bow to the Royal Navy’s might, that Americans were willing to fight for principles, that this country of boors and bumpkins and “democrats” was even able to defeat them in sea battles.
And it’s interesting that it was British naval officers who saw the writing on the wall sooner than most. There was one remarkable editorial in the British Naval Chronicle, right after the end of the war, noting that the real significance of the conflict was the emergence of a new naval power on the world’s stage that would only grow mightier in the years to come. Britain’s former ambassador to Washington, who had made his share of disparaging remarks about American society, probably said it best: “The Americans have taught us to speak of them with respect.”
While the war on land saw many embarrassments and defeats for the U.S., its sea battles were a surprising success—a David and Goliath story with the young American fleet fighting against the legendary British Royal Navy. What was different about the land and sea campaigns that led to such divergent outcomes?
Partly it was that America really had no professional army. Militia officers up to the rank of colonel were elected by their men or appointed by state governors and it was all very much a popularity contest or political cronyism at work. Many of the generals from the Revolutionary War were old and over the hill. And there was huge overconfidence about the land campaign—a widespread attitude that we could just march into Canada and take possession while scarcely firing a shot.
By contrast, the navy was tiny but it was a very professional service. I was struck by how resistant to political pressure the American navy secretaries were, how hard they worked to set objective standards for training and evaluating officers for promotion, how much they emphasized seamanship and ability rather than connections. It really was one of the huge hidden strengths of the American navy over their British counterparts.
What did naval technology look like in 1812? In what significant ways has the nature of naval warfare changed from 1812 until now?
The huge difference was the reliance on wind—almost unimaginable to us today. The complexity of maneuvering and strategizing a battle while taking into account the constraints imposed by the prevailing winds is just a fascinating study in and of itself. But I think actually more important is the extreme short range of the weapons and the sheer physical demands of combat. A long-range cannon on a warship of the era had an effective range of maybe 1,200 yards. Today, in the age of very long-range naval weapons like missiles and aircraft, information is the force multiplier—things like radar and air reconnaissance are key. Two centuries ago, maneuvers—and raw courage—mattered much more. And then you had boarding actions, which were the most concentrated and intimate violence you were likely to encounter in warfare of any kind: Hundreds of men in a space that was half a football field’s length and at most forty feet wide, with no possibility of retreat on either side, battling with swords, pistols, axes, tomahawks, anything.
Within the U.S., the War of 1812 was marked by vicious partisan politics between Federalists and Republicans (reminiscent of what we’re experiencing today). How did that division impact U.S. foreign policy?
Support for the war divided almost completely on party lines. The vote for the declaration of war was by the smallest margin for any war in American history. By 1814 there was even a serious threat that the New England states, where the Federalists were strongest, might secede or seek a separate peace. It clearly constrained Madison’s options in pursuing the war and was undeniably a factor in his decision by 1814 to try to end the war on any even vaguely honorable terms. The British tried in a small way to exploit these divisions but never really seemed to grasp American politics. By contrast I think America’s overall naval strategy was much more effective in sowing political dissension in Britain and equally forcing Britain to come to terms to end the war.
Can you tell us more about the primary sources that you used in researching Perilous Fight? What documents were available written by average Americans during this time? What new material are you bringing to light for the first time?
There is a possibly surprisingly rich variety of written sources—letters, diaries, official records, newspapers. Many American sailors were literate and there are some amazing journals, especially from American seamen held prisoner at Britain’s notorious Dartmoor prison. While most of these sources have been known to historians for some time, they haven’t been drawn upon in telling the comprehensive story of the war in the way you’d expect. The famous histories of the naval war of 1812 by people like Theodore Roosevelt and Alfred Thayer Mahan and C. S. Forester take a very top-end view and focus almost completely on the naval battles from a command and tactical point of view. There’s very little about the experience of ordinary seamen, about the background and personalities of the captains, and even less about the political figures like American naval secretary William Jones. Jones’s letters are at the Pennsylvania Historical Society, and while his important official correspondence has been published, there’s a remarkable trove of letters to his wife that in many ways are like the famous correspondence of John and Abigail Adams—very revealing about his tribulations, his personality, life in Washington, and the political and personal struggles he faced during the war.
In London I spent many days at the National Maritime Museum reading through the papers of the British admiral John Warren, which include many ephemeral details that really add to the richness of the story—for example, lists of punishments meted out on British warships, and accounts of all the prize money the admiral was collecting for seizing American merchant ships. Before I began my research, I had read that the prize court records from Bermuda had been lost, but I found the papers of Warren’s prize agent in Bermuda (containing his own complete copy of the Bermuda court records), so I was able to come up with pretty exact numbers of how many ships the British were able to capture in the first two years of the war.
Mainly, though, what I tried to do was to bring the modern historical approach to this story in a way I think really hasn’t been done yet—drawing on many different kinds of primary sources in order to paint as broad a picture as I could of the total experience of the war—from sailors to captains, from politicians to ordinary citizens—explaining the technology and exploring the human dimension.
Two of the primary reasons for declaring war were the impressment of American sailors and the restriction of free trade by the British. How were these issues resolved by the Treaty of Ghent? What happened to the seamen who had been taken before and during the war?
One of the great criticisms of the war by the Federalists, and one reason I think historians have tended to downplay the war’s significance, is that the Treaty of Ghent did not even mention, much less resolve, these two great issues that had led America to declare war in the first place. But the fact is that the British never again tried to impress (forcibly enlist) an American seaman, and the British and French never again interfered with neutral American trade in the high-handed manner they had been accustomed to before the war. It was a huge American victory in that sense.
Some two thousand American sailors had been forced into British naval service before the war, and the British put them in prisons when the war began. Many died there and all were held until the end of the war, along with the thousands more taken prisoner on American merchant ships and privateers. The story of the prisoners is a very important part of the war, and one I found extremely moving and powerful.
Are there lessons that the U.S. should take from our experience during that war now that we are the world power?
The strategy we pursued two hundred years ago was what we’d call today “asymmetric warfare.” Outnumbered one hundred to one, we couldn’t possibly win a direct confrontation with the Royal Navy, so instead we pursued a kind of guerilla warfare on the seas that struck at Britain’s weak points and flanks—going after British whalers in the Pacific, snapping up merchant ships in the mouth of the English Channel, darting around the world, and sometimes tying up dozens of British warships in vain pursuit of a lone American raider. How we once played the nimble David to the muscle-bound Goliath is a lesson worth remembering in this age of insurgency and terror when we’re all too often on the other side of the equation.