The Americans Who Fought
the Second War of Independence
By A.J. Langguth
Simon & Schuster. 482 pp. $30
On Aug. 8, 1805, Zebulon Pike was dispatched from St. Louis to find the headwaters of the Mississippi River. For eight months and 22 days, this young explorer -- his small party's supplies crammed on keelboats and canoes -- planted American flags along the river in present-day Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota. The detailed journals Pike kept on the trek are bracing, recounting his attempts to cope with broken sleds, waterfalls, frostbite and starvation. Later, he was ordered west of the Mississippi by the Jefferson administration; his mission was to locate the headwaters of the Arkansas and Red rivers. Along the way he "discovered" Pike's Peak and was arrested in Santa Fe by Spanish authorities. Eventually, he made his way back to Natchitoches, Tex., where he encountered an American flag. "Language cannot express the gayety of my heart," he wrote on July 1, 1807, "when I once more behold the standard of my country wave aloft!"
If there is a central theme to A.J. Langguth's finely written Union 1812, it's about the reach of that flag -- about how contentious the debate was over where the Stars and Stripes would fly following the American Revolution, in both the Great Lakes region and the Louisiana Territory. Framed as a sequel to Patriots, Langguth's bestselling book on the Revolution, Union 1812 seamlessly weaves together capsule biographies of historical heavy-hitters -- including Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, James Madison and James Monroe -- as they grapple with border disputes. This makes for popular history at its most accessible, full of colorful anecdotes and pithy quotes.
Many academics will cringe at Langguth's breezy prose and thumbnail sketches. They shouldn't. He practically brings the War of 1812 to life again, a literary accomplishment that would have made the old Yale diplomatic historian Samuel Flagg Bemis proud. Reading Langguth makes you pine to learn more about Isaac Brock, Tecumseh and John Armstrong Jr., among a dozen other central figures. "Historians differ on the best way to approach the past," Langguth writes. "The United States may have been carried forward on swift economic and political currents, but perhaps we may understand our history best by watching individual men and women as they struggle to keep afloat."
Langguth, a professor emeritus of journalism at the University of Southern California, argues that defeating the British at Yorktown was easier than governing the new country. Ominous differences regarding taxes, trade and slavery loomed over the original 13 states. Sectional strife kept the country teetering on the brink of anarchy. At any minute, the Union seemed poised to short-circuit. Langguth details how George Washington kept the United States together despite setbacks such as the Whiskey Rebellion, the Genet Affair and Jay's Treaty. Union 1812, in fact, is yet another confirmation that Washington -- not Jefferson or Hamilton -- was the indispensable man in the forging of our nation. The power of Washington's Farewell Address of 1796, for example, still reverberates today. Besides his famous warning against "permanent alliances," he also urged his fellow citizens to "moderate the fury of party spirit, to warn against the mischief of foreign intrigue, to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism." Still pretty good advice.
Langguth is at his best when illuminating the battlefield heroics of the second generation of Americans, particularly William Henry Harrison (at the Battle of Tippecanoe) and Andrew Jackson (at the Battle of New Orleans). These fearless generals -- ruthless to the point of insanity, willing to risk their lives for American honor -- epitomized a new breed of frontier hero. Because of their boldness, the roistering Henry Clay, a so-called War Hawk, boasted, "Now, I can go to England without mortifications."
The liveliest chapter of Union 1812 is about Oliver Perry, whose naval victory in the Battle of Lake Erie was a historic turning point. When the cannon smoke cleared and the Americans were shown to have pummeled the British fleet, Perry ripped off the back of an envelope and wrote his immortal words, "We have met the enemy, and they are ours," to Gen. Harrison, who was anxiously waiting for a military report at Camp Seneca. Then, in anticlimactic fashion, Perry inventoried the damage on the same scrap: "Two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop." Not that much to brag about, really. But the bottom line was clear: America, slowly but surely, was gathering momentum in its square-off with Britain.
Which brings us back to Pike. Serving as a U.S. general in the War of 1812, Pike, nicknamed "the Pathfinder," fought gallantly in York (present-day Toronto, then the capital of Upper Canada), led by fifes and drums playing "Yankee Doodle." He was determined to take down all the British flags in Canada. As he interrogated a British captive, however, a nearby ammunition dump went up in flames. Stones from its walls flew into the air, creating widespread carnage. "The Americans watched powerless as great slabs of wall seemed to hover for an instant and then come crashing down on them," Langguth writes. "Men within three hundred yards of the explosion were crushed to death."
One of those killed was the Pathfinder himself, the explorer who wanted to plant Old Glory all over the continent like some upstart Johnny Appleseed of Manifest Destiny. He was buried in Canada with little fanfare. But after reading Union 1812, you'll sign a petition to have this brave man re-interred on top of Pike's Peak in Colorado. Besides being a good read, Union 1812 allows you to discover the second wave of our founders with a renewed sense of awe and surprise. ·
Douglas Brinkley is professor of history and director of the Roosevelt Center at Tulane University.