By George C. Daughan
Basic Books, $32.50, 491 pages

In 1812 the British Empire was pouring its naval and army resources into defeating Napoleon. The British were attacking our commerce shipping and taking the sailors to work in their naval ships. President Madison thought the time was right stand up to the “impressment” of US citizens. The Republicans were advocates for the war with England but were against instituting taxes to pay for it. The Federalists were against the war although profited handsomely due to the licensed trade with England to deliver supplies to the Wellington forces fighting Napoleon’s army in Spain. One of the early successes in the war was the victory of the Constitution over the British ship of the line Guerriere. The Constitution met the Guerriere on August 19, 2012. After 30 minutes the Guerriere was reduced to a “floating log” while the Constitution had received little damage. This single, two ship battle, shocked the English and earned the fledgling American navy grudging respect. Free blacks fought in the navy as well. One British captain commented, “They were stripped to the waist and like fought like devils, seeming to be utterly insensible to danger and to be possessed with a determination to outfight the white sailors.”

“They were stripped to the waist and like fought like devils, seeming to be utterly insensible to danger and to be possessed with a determination to outfight the white sailors.”

Initially President Madison was intent on attacking Canada. Unfortunately with few men, few ships and what seems like a never ending line of poor military leaders the US never did make much progress. The captains of the navy had no communications with shore and therefore could act in a decisive manor and make decisions on a moment’s notice. All captains wanted to distinguish themselves in battle and lead their crews into battle. The War of 1812 established the United States as a legitimate power and in time to be Britain’s most loyal ally for the next 200 years.

Reviewed by Brian Taylor