Two hundred years ago, a young America was engaged in one of the most obscure wars in its history, the War of 1812. Most Americans, if they know anything at all about the war, may recall that Francis Scott Key wrote the Star Spangled Banner during the siege of Fort McHenry and that Andrew Jackson won a resounding victory at the Battle of New Orleans — after the war was over. For most of us, that’s about it.
“Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron, ” a new book by Ronald D. Utt, a Fredericksburg resident and occasional contributor to Bacon’s Rebellion on transportation issues, remedies the gaping holes in knowledge for readers. This is the perfect book for those who, like me, want to skip the boring stuff about the causes of the war, the politics and the diplomacy, and jump right to the good stuff, the tales of daring do.
While the United States’ land invasion of Canada was plagued by incompetent generalship — dudes, Toronto easily could have ended up as an American city! — our young Navy acquitted itself with valor against the world’s most powerful sea force, His Royal Majesty’s Navy. In a series of incredibly bloody one-on-one duels, the U.S.S. Constitution and other new-breed super-frigates bested veteran English warships of comparable size, and American privateers devastated British shipping all around the world. Because the outcome of most of these battles are unfamiliar, Utt’s tales of gallantry and heroism are exciting down to the last cannon shot.
Sad to say, Virginia played only a minor role in the war. Maryland had the good battles: the battle of Bladensburg, which led to the British occupation of Washington, D.C., and the siege of Fort McHenry, which turned back the Brits before they could occupy Baltimore, the privateer capital of the United States.
Utt does describe a couple of skirmishes in Hampton Roads, which were so desultory that no one ever bothered to name them. In the more significant of the two, the Americans turned back a British force intent upon capturing the Gosport Naval Yard in Norfolk and destroying the frigate, the U.S.S. Constellation, which it harbored. The Brits got bogged down in muddy muck and, after taking light casualties, abandoned the effort. Soon thereafter, the same force of Brits landed in Hampton and after a sharp skirmish chased out a smaller force of Virginia militia. In an incident highly unusual for a war otherwise noted for its civilized behavior, some French auxiliaries committed a number of rapes. As far as military action in Virginia, there wasn’t much material for roadside historical markers.
Utt devotes little ink to looking for larger lessons, but a few conclusions do jump out to me. First, that fine Virginian James Madison may have been a brilliant constitutional theorist but he wasn’t much of a war-time president. Some of our greatest setbacks occurred when he put politically connected but militarily incompetent generals in charge of American forces.
Second, while the War of 1812 essentially was fought to a draw, the United States did hold its own against England, the most powerful nation in Europe and vanquisher of Napoleon. The Brits left us alone after that. And third, the war also marked the last time that indigenous Indians were a consequential factor in a conventional war. Indians had been key players in the French and Indian War, when they were allied with the French, and the Revolutionary War and again in the War of 1812, when they were allied with the English. After that, the Indians were on their own and the western frontier was wide open to American expansion.
In sum, this work of popular military history is an easy and entertaining read.