As we commemorate the 200th anniversary of the first major war waged by the new United States, what happened starting in 1812 remains poorly understood. This was a conflict, after all, in which the greatest battle was by definition not decisive because, unbeknownst to the armies fighting it, it occurred in remote New Orleans in January of 1815, after peace had been declared. Here are three books to help us see through the murk left by the cannonfire.
1In 1812: The Navy’s War (Basic, $32.50), George C. Daughan observes that “there was a certain inevitability about the War of 1812.” Its origins lay in a lingering Yankee belief that Great Britain had never accepted the loss of its American colonies, a suspicion that was confirmed when the British adopted the high-handed policy of impressing — or drafting into service — seamen from U.S. vessels during the naval portion of Britain’s wars with Napoleon. The British were supposed to impress only their own citizens, but sometimes they nabbed Americans as well. As Daughan succinctly puts it, “Nothing rankled Americans more than the issue of impressment.” The impressers, however, considered the practice “essential to the Royal Navy and thus to British security. Calling the practice into question was, in their view, tantamount to asking the country to abandon the main weapon in her life-and-death struggle with Napoleon.”
2 The War of 1812 seems to have had more than its fair share of spectacle. There were those bombs bursting in air about which Francis Scott Key waxed so lyrical. And there was the battle chronicled in Knights of the Sea: The True Story of the Boxer and the Enterprise and the War of 1812 , by David Hanna (Caliber, $25.95). The fight, which took place on Sept. 5, 1813, became a show by virtue of taking place within sight of land, namely Pemaquid Point, Maine, residents of which, Hanna writes, “ ‘strained their necks’ to determine who the victor was” — the brig USS Enterprise.
3 Epaulettes abound in Donald R. Hickey and Connie D. Clark’s The Rockets’ Red Glare: An Illustrated History of the War of 1812 (Johns Hopkins Univ., $39.95). And those shoulder decorations, along with the double-breasted uniforms they adorn, make for a much more impressive appearance than today’s boxy military dress. In addition to the plentiful pictures, this book contains a thoughtful text. The war ended successfully for the United States but not without exposing a host of weaknesses in the victor. “The U.S. army had to contend with chronic recruitment and desertion problems,” the authors write, “the government was short of funds and teetered on the verge of bankruptcy, trade with the enemy was unchecked and growing, domestic opposition remained intractable, and there was ominous talk of secession in New England.” Two hundred years later, the authors conclude, “the legacy of the War of 1812 is still visible to those who know where to look for it.”