Correction to This Article
This review of "Perilous Fight: America's Intrepid War With Britain on the High Seas, 1812-1815" by Stephen Budiansky incorrectly implied that James Lawrence, captain of the Chesapeake, engaged in a ship-to-ship duel off Boston harbor with British Capt. Philip Broke of His Majesty's Frigate Shannon in response to a letter from Broke challenging the American captain. Lawrence never received that letter, but Broke had made his intentions clear in earlier messages.

Stephen Budiansky's War of 1812 account, "Perilous Fight"

By Evan Thomas
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 21, 2011; 10:27 AM


America's Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 1812-1815

By Stephen Budiansky

Knopf. 422 pp. $35

Reading Stephen Budiansky's rousing story of the naval War of 1812, it is hard not to hum a few bars of the old Aretha Franklin standby. Respect is what the Americans wanted from their former colonial masters, and respect is what they got.

Great Britain in the early 19th century ruled the waves. Her navy was 100 times the size of America's, and the British were arrogant, to say the least, about asserting their superiority from sea to shore. Routinely stopping American ships to "press" sailors into the Royal Navy, ever-hungry for manpower to fight the Napoleonic Wars, the British ignored American protests. Budiansky, who writes with sure and vivid command, describes three British warships "carrying on their usual routine of lobbing cannonballs across the bows of merchantmen passing into New York" on the evening of April 25, 1806. One of the cannonballs decapitated the helmsman of a sloop, provoking angry mobs in New York, and some Americans began to talk of war. The rumblings grew to a roar in 1807, when a British warship, the Leopard, casually fired into an American frigate, the Chesapeake, off the Virginia coast, killing four men and seriously wounding seven others.

The fledgling American navy had a strict culture of honor in its officer corps. "One in twelve American navy officers who died on active duty before 1815 were killed in duels, eighteen in all," Budiansky writes; "easily twice that number had fought a duel, and every officer lived with the knowledge that his reputation for courage was always liable to be tested on the field of honor." After the ignominious surrender of the Chesapeake to the Leopard, American officers fought nine duels over who should be blamed for the humiliation.

By 1812, America was engaged in a hopelessly lopsided naval war with Great Britain. Though outgunned, the Americans were blessed with several well-built heavy frigates and some indomitable fighting captains. One of them, a short, pudgy man named Isaac Hull, was unusual in that he avoided duels and rarely ordered his men flogged. But in August 1812 off the Grand Banks, his ship, the Constitution, astounded the world by taking a British frigate, the Guerriere, in a brutal close-range gun battle. When, after dark, the Americans boarded the wrecked British warship, they found a "slaughterhouse," Budiansky writes. "The men who were still sober were throwing the dead overboard, but many of the petty officers and crewmen had broken into the spirit locker and were screaming drunk."

That autumn, two more British ships fell in single-ship actions to the upstart Americans. After the Java succumbed to the Constitution off Brazil, the Naval Chronicle, a widely read official newspaper in London, cried, "Another frigate has fallen into the hands of the enemy! - The subject is too painful for us to dwell on." The British complained that the Americans ("a navy so small we scarcely know where to find it") were playing a dastardly trick by pitting their heavy frigates against slightly less well-armed British ones. It was ungentlemanly to take such advantage.

To avenge British honor, Capt. Philip Broke of His Majesty's Frigate Shannon challenged the Chesapeake (rebuilt from her 1807 wounds) to a ship-to-ship duel off Boston harbor in June 1813. "Choose your terms," Broke wrote the Chesapeake's captain, James Lawrence, "but let us meet." Lawrence took up the gauntlet. The battle, which lasted all of 15 minutes, was a bloodbath. Budiansky describes Capt. Broke "waving the heavy Scottish broadsword he favored in battle," clambering aboard the Chesapeake, dodging a pistol shot from the chaplain and hacking off his arm in return, while shouting for his men to follow him forward. Afterward, in England, "the exultation was hyperbolic bordering on the manic," Budiansky writes. But the Admiralty sent a "secret & confidential" directive to all British captains forbidding any further ship-to-ship combat with those pesky, heavy American frigates.

In 1814, the British burned Washington. The terms of the eventual peace treaty gave the Americans at best a draw. But the British never again attempted to press an American seaman or hinder American trade on the high seas. American sovereignty was now unquestioned.

Dueling went on, however. In 1820, one of America's most glamorous captains, Stephen Decatur, was mortally wounded by another captain aggrieved over a long-ago perceived insult. John Quincy Adams wrote sadly that Decatur possessed "a sense of honor too disdainful of life." Such sentiment seems quaint, almost archaic now; but a sense of honor was useful to a rising nation in 1812.

Evan Thomas, the author of "The War Lovers" and "John Paul Jones," is writing a biography of President Eisenhower.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company