Military history


MANY WARS have been called “the forgotten war”: those words have become a catchphrase much beloved of military historians seeking to excuse their obsession with obscurity. But rarely was a war—or at least large parts of a war—forgotten with such swiftness, and such mutual determination, as the War of 1812. America and Britain both had things they wanted to forget, and forget quickly, about this often brutal three-year fight that raged across half a globe, from the wilderness of the northwestern forests to the capital cities of Canada and the United States, from the seas off Chile to the mouth of the English Channel. The forgetting began almost as soon as the last shot was fired, and it has been going on ever since.

It would be decades before the war even had a name; until the 1850s this war that left thirty thousand dead, that pushed the fledgling American republic to the brink of bankruptcy and secession, that brought down some of the loftiest military reputations of the Revolutionary generation to ruin and disgrace, that saw hundreds of American citizens executed by firing squad for desertion, was most often just called “the late war” or “the late war with Great Britain.” “The War of 1812” came into widespread use only after the Mexican War of 1846–48 usurped the place of the “late war” in American memory. It proved a memorable phrase, yet like “the late war,” it sidestepped any memory of why the war had been fought, or even whom it had been fought against.1

Americans above all wanted to forget the disastrously mismanaged land campaign, which had been marked from the start by miscalculation, blunders, incompetence, and monumental overconfidence. No one had escaped humiliation; the wisest men had predicted easy success and quick victory, and had wound up with egg on their faces. A month into the war Thomas Jefferson, from his quiet retirement at Monticello, had smugly assured a fellow Republican politician that “the acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching.” One more year, Jefferson added, would bring the “final expulsion of England from the American continent.”2

Two weeks after Jefferson’s pronouncement, in the very opening of the offensive against British forces to the north, the American brigadier general William Hull surrendered his entire army at Detroit without firing a shot. He was subsequently court-martialed, convicted of cowardice, and sentenced to be shot by a firing squad until President Madison granted him a reprieve based on his meritorious service in the Revolution. DISASTER ON DISASTER ON LAND read the headlines in the anti-administration newspapers that winter as the debacles of the war’s opening months were repeated again and again.3

Along with the military blunders were a string of political embarrassments that both American political parties were eager to disown in the war’s aftermath. Not until the Vietnam War a century and a half later would a decision to go to war so divide the nation, and impassioned feelings had led to many injudicious words and ill-considered stances. The Federalists, the party of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, whose stronghold was mercantile New England, had voted in Congress to a man to oppose the declaration of war, and were unsparing in their bitter denunciations. Sermons preached week after week from northern Congregational pulpits added religious censure to the torrent of inflammatory words, warning that any “accomplice in the wickedness” of Mr. Madison in such an iniquitous and unjust war would become a very murderer in the sight of God, “the blackest of crimes” on his conscience, “the guilt of blood upon his soul.” By the end of 1814 disunion was being bruited in the northeastern states. But with the return of peace all such talk simply sounded wild, if not outright treasonous, and the Federalists desperately wanted to bury the recent political past.4

The Republicans had their own partisan excesses to live down, and they too quickly contracted a convenient case of amnesia, forgetting how for years they had denounced the very existence of an American navy as an evil of evils, a road to ruinous tyranny, an overweening Federalist ambition incompatible with the common-man values of a free republic. On the very brink of the war that they were clamoring for, the Republican Congress had voted down a modest naval expansion that the Federalists had strongly backed.

And so the Federalists had opposed the war, the Republicans had opposed the navy, and so the one thing they could agree on after it was all over was how gloriously the tiny American navy had triumphed. For decades afterward the whole complex history of the war was reduced to a simple romantic tale of patriotic pride and derring-do. The stories of a few glorious single-ship actions fought by heroic American captains would be the story of the war to generations of Americans. The glory was real and merited, yet it was a only a fraction of the story of the whole war, a fraction even of the story of the whole naval war. But it was the part that would command almost all the attention whenever the War of 1812 was periodically revisited by popular writers, notably in 1882 by a young Theodore Roosevelt (who nearly two decades later would become assistant secretary of the navy) and in 1956 by the novelist C. S. Forester (who two decades earlier had begun to write his Horatio Hornblower stories).

The one thing Americans could agree upon was precisely the one thing Great Britain wanted to forget: the humiliations her all-powerful Royal Navy had sustained on the high seas, the astonishing wounds to her prestige and pride she had suffered at the hands of the same upstart rival for the second time in thirty years. And so this second war with America became little more than a footnote to the contemporaneous, and much more important, Napoleonic Wars. In Britain too it became ever after a war without a real name, to this day something to be found in scholarly indexes under the musty title “Anglo-American War, 1812–15.” In his monumental fifteen-hour-long television documentary of the history of Britain, the British historian Simon Schama devoted less than one sentence to the war. Ask even a well-educated Briton today about the War of 1812 and you are likely to get a blank stare followed by a question about whether it has something to do with the piece by Tchaikovsky.

Where amnesia induced by political expedience and national shame left off, the haze of quaintness took over. Some of the nostalgia about the war was honestly come by: the world of sailing ships and sea battles would just a few generations later seem as remote and about as real as the Knights of the Round Table. The historian Henry Adams, the grandson and great-grandson of presidents, mused in his 1907 autobiography whether the “American boy of 1854 stood nearer the year 1 than to the year 1900” in the world he was born into, in the education he received, and in the habits of mind he was inculcated with.5 Like the year 1854, the year 1812 was barely beyond the medieval in its technologies and its rhythms of life, in its lingering feudal codes of personal and family honor. Nine-tenths of the seven million Americans alive in 1812 lived on farms, rising with the sun and going to bed with dusk, using tools unchanged for a thousand years; the rest lived in a few small cities of ten or twenty or thirty thousand hugging the Atlantic coast.

By the turn of the twentieth century literally everything had changed. One can read the memoirs and letters of soldiers and seamen from World War II or even World War I and instantly know these men: they were our fathers and grandfathers; they looked on the world much as we do; their jokes may be corny but are never incomprehensible; the mechanized, ordered warfare they fought is awful but familiar. The men of the War of 1812 can seem at times to be from another world entirely. The archaic tools with which they waged war are almost the least of it; their assumptions, their motives, their ways of thinking take work to get our minds around. The officers who commanded America’s fledgling navy of 1812 really did fight duels over tiny aspersions to honor, things we would literally laugh at today; they really did in the midst of war engage in the most astonishing acts of chivalry toward their foes; they really did endure suffering of an unspeakable blackness with a stoicism that can seem superhuman to a modern sensibility.

They also squabbled over money and promotions, lied and schemed, fornicated and drank, stabbed each other in the back when it suited them, and wrote very bad poetry. One of the enduring reasons to study war is that it shines a light on humanity hidden in ordinary times; it lays bare what is so often successfully hidden.

And how they did reveal themselves, if we care to look: not just the officers but the common men, too. The American Civil War was the first war in which the voice of the common soldier came to the fore, but a surprising number of ordinary American seamen from the War of 1812 were literate: 70 percent could sign their names, 30 percent with a practiced penmanship that clearly reflected formal schooling.6 A good many of them wrote letters home, or kept journals that ranged from the pedestrian and the mechanical to the eloquent and the wry, and along with some shipboard officers—these were mostly surgeons or chaplains—and a few of the more earnest midshipmen, some even possessed enough literary ambition to publish memoirs that, while they have to be taken with a grain of salt in places, are nonetheless full of life and surprises.

And then no one wrote as much as those occasional amazing Royal Navy captains of the era, soliloquizing in long, long serial letters nominally to lonely wives back home that were really inner dialogues with their own lonely selves. In an art that long blockade duty seems to have honed, they bared their souls as few of their contemporaries ever dared.

Newspapers of the day are not always a reliable source, but they too are full of life and surprises. News traveled much faster than we might imagine in the pre-telegraph era, and the press of the early American republic has a vitality and wide-awakeness, an excitement at repeating news, gossip, rumors, plagiarized snatches from newspapers just arrived from the next city or state or foreign port, an animation and immediacy that loses nothing from being viewed across the intervening span of two centuries. In 1812 there were some four hundred newspapers published in America, two dozen of them dailies; Boston alone boasted a dozen newspapers for a population of thirty thousand.7 They were serious and sarcastic, authoritative and vituperative; capable, as in Baltimore in the months after the declaration of war, of igniting lethal riots with their invective; but in their densely covered four broadsheet pages they also printed long verbatim extracts of official documents and foreign reports, songs and poems, accounts of dinners and funerals, prayers and Fourth of July orations, and ephemeral quips and retorts of the day that would otherwise have been lost to history.

Another unfailingly rich source of eyewitness views and contemporary attitudes is the British Naval Chronicle, a publication founded in 1799 that continued its monthly installments until 1818. Aimed at both a core professional audience of Royal Navy officers and a broader British public that had begun to follow the exploits of the navy through its heyday in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, the Chronicle included in every issue lists of promotions, biographies of notable officers, articles on navigation and scientific developments, official and unofficial reports recounting actions and battles, still more bad poems, and a surprisingly open and self-critical forum in which active and retired officers exchanged frank views—though often under pseudonyms—about the management and mismanagement of the service.

All of these help to reconstruct the woof and warp of the life and times of the men of 1812. A true account of the naval war of 1812 is first and foremost, like all true military histories, an account of humanity revealed under extraordinary circumstances. Like all wars, the War of 1812 is worth a close reading on this score alone.

This war is also one worth examining, and remembering, for the strikingly modern lessons it holds for the art of waging battle against a vastly superior opponent. Much of this story is embodied in the strikingly modern person of William Jones, America’s secretary of the navy for the most critical two years of the conflict, a man well ahead of his time who grasped that war is as much about strategy, politics, public relations, finances, manpower, and logistics as it is about fighting. Jones, ever unflappable and ever with a clear eye and a cool head, knew that the war was never to be won by the single-ship engagements that so electrified the American public, not when facing an opponent who held a hundred-to-one numerical advantage in ships and men. Jones made this clear in May 1814 when he wrote President Madison with the news that the American sloop of war Peacock had taken HMS Epervier off Cape Canaveral, Florida. “I like these little events,” Jones stated. “They keep alive the national feeling and produce an effect infinitely beyond their intrinsic importance.”8

His refusal to be misled about the “intrinsic importance” of “these little events,” even while acknowledging their value in bolstering public feeling, was the heart of the matter. Jones never lost sight that his own quietly resolute strategy of hitting Britain where it really hurt, in her vulnerable commerce and not her powerful navy, was what counted, and he tirelessly reiterated the point to his glory-seeking captains. Keeping the Royal Navy tied up and distracted by hit-and-run raids against Britain’s overextended merchant fleets would be a way to turn Britain’s vast presence on the oceans against itself. A later age would call this “asymmetric warfare,” and it would become the subject of intensive military study in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries as guerilla and insurgency warfare found the United States more and more often playing the muscle-bound Goliath. How America once skillfully played the nimble David is an enduring lesson well worth revisiting.

If popular accounts of the War of 1812 romanticized the clashes on the high seas, the work of modern academic historians went to the other extreme ever since Henry Adams’s incisive study of Jefferson’s and Madison’s presidencies revealed the enormous political and diplomatic complexities that lay behind the conflict. Untangling all the skeins of frontier and party politics, diplomatic maneuvering, and European statecraft that became raveled together in the war’s prosecution and inconclusive resolution has tended to occupy so much of modern historians’ attention that the actual fighting often seems to vanish altogether from their accounts by the time one reaches the end.

But there is a much stronger connection between the strategy and prosecution of America’s naval campaign and the lasting political and diplomatic consequences of the war than has generally been appreciated. Writing a century after the war’s end, with a bit of hyperbole but an essence of truth, Charles F. Adams Jr., another scion of the presidential dynasty, dated the exact moment of America’s birth as a world power to Wednesday, August 19, 1812, 6:30 p.m.—the instant the British frigate Guerriere struck her flag to America’s Constitution.9

However inconclusive the formal treaty ending the war may have been, the European nations never again attempted to interfere with American sailors or America’s oceangoing trade, the two great issues that had driven America to war. The war on land was a dismal stalemate, but the new de facto realities that the American navy established with its success after success at sea ensured that the war would have a lasting consequence that went well beyond the de jure terms negotiated by diplomats. The British diplomat Augustus J. Foster, who served as his country’s minister to America in 1811 and 1812, did not hesitate to acknowledge the war’s real, and enduring, significance.

“The Americans,” he said simply, “… have brought us to speak of them with respect.”10

ANYONE WHO writes about the navy of America’s early years walks in the footsteps of a remarkable group of scholars at the U.S. Navy’s Naval Historical Center (now the Naval History & Heritage Command), who for decades have tirelessly edited and made accessible in published form compendious collections of original documents, most recently three monumental volumes relating to the War of 1812. These works are models of scholarship, clarity, and judicious selection, as well as being beautifully produced books that are a true national treasure. I would add my personal thanks to Charles E. Brodine Jr. and Margherita M. Desy of the historical center for sharing their knowledge, expertise, and time in many ways. Mr. Brodine went well above and beyond the call of duty in generously sharing with me several hard-to-find images that appear in this book, as well as helping me locate other key materials; Ms. Desy spent most of a day giving me a fascinating and deeply informed tour of the magnificently restored frigate Constitution in Boston and subsequently answering my many questions about shipbuilding, seamanship in the age of sail, and much else. I am also very much indebted to Margherita Desy, Frederick Leiner, and William Cook for reading my manuscript and providing many corrections and suggestions and much sage advice.

I would like to thank the staffs of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania; the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England; The National Archives in London; the Library of Congress Manuscript Division; the Library Company of Philadelphia; the Earl Gregg Swem Library Special Collections Research Center at the College of William and Mary; the South Caroliniana Library; and the Duke University Special Collections Library for their untiring professionalism and eagerness to assist. And I again would like to give my personal thanks to my dear friends Peter and Celia David, who have both put me up and put up with me on my research trips to London.



You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!