The Naval War of 1812 By Theodore Roosevelt (1882)

WERE 1987 not the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution, probably nothing more than a postage stamp would cause us to confront an unhappier historical fact: That this is also the 175th anniversary of the War of 1812.

For a very good reason Americans tend to forget that conflict. If Great Britain had not had to concern itself with the climax of the Napoleonic Wars and instead concentrated on the bothersome American brushfire, it could have devastated the young United States. Even as things were, a relatively small British force burned the White House and Capitol in August 1814 and might have done the same to Baltimore if Fort McHenry had not held through all those bombs bursting in air.

There were two prominent exceptions to what otherwise was a disaster for American arms. One was Andrew Jackson's victory at New Orleans, which occurred two weeks after the Anglo-American armistice was signed at Ghent. And the other was the truly remarkable success of the U.S. Navy on the oceans and the Great Lakes against history's greatest force afloat.

For over a century, the standard work on this subject has been The Naval War of 1812 by the 23-year-old Theodore Roosevelt. When his professors at Harvard rejected the topic for his honors thesis, TR (never "Teddy") spurned any formal academic distinction and went to work on his book. Published in 1882, it was immediately acclaimed for its scholarship, went through seven editions, and by order of the U.S. Navy was placed on the reading list at the Naval War College in Newport and aboard every ship in the fleet -- this when the author was still 15 years away from becoming assistant secretary of the navy and 19 years from becoming commander-in-chief.

The Naval Institute Press at Annapolis has reissued The Naval War of 1812 (for $21.95), which TR biographer Edmund Morris says "remains the definitive work in its field." The handsome edition is part of the Classics in Naval Literature series, which includes such other titles as Herman Melville's White-Jacket, Joshua Slocum's Sailing Alone Around the World and Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny.

While there's never any doubt for which side TR is rooting, he pored through ship's logs and official reports in both Washington and London to achieve what he wanted: a book that could be "received as an authority equally among Americans and Englishmen." The proof of his success came when the Royal Navy asked him to write the section on the War of 1812 for its own history.

Roosevelt's monumental research shows in the intense detail he puts into the book, cataloguing the number and type of guns, the size of each crew, and (using simple ratios) which side had the advantage going into an engagement. But, just as with "the begats" of the Bible, a reader can skip over these without much guilt and get on to the clash of cannon and cutlass.

THESE BATTLES form the bulk of the work, its prose practically caked with salt and pitch. For this reason, the Naval Institute Press would have done well to include a glossary of sailing terms and a diagram of ship's rigging. Perhaps only William F. Buckley Jr. knows what's going on when TR describes the encounter between the American ship-sloop Wasp and the British brig-sloop Reindeer: " . . . {T}he Reindeer again tacked, and, taking in her stay-sails, stood for the Wasp, who furled her royals, and . . . brailing up the mizzen, . . . gradually came up on the Wasp's weather-quarter."

It was not TR's aim merely to retell the glories of a bygone age of sail, and here is the value of The Naval War of 1812 in our own time. The United States in 1882 was once again in one of its periods of trusting its defense to the breadth of oceans and the goodwill of other nations. The navy consisted of little more than rusting monitors left over from the Civil War. Bewhiskered admirals, whose love for days of yore made nostalgia into national naval policy, insisted on keeping sailing ships in the fleet while other powers seized on our technological advances in the 1860s -- ironclads and submarines to name two -- and were rapidly perfecting their ordnance, engineering and hull designs.

The secretary of the navy in 1889 rated our naval strength as 11th in the world, behind Turkey and Austria-Hungary. Two years later only the sufferance of Chile kept that country from blasting the U.S. fleet out of the Pacific after a sailors' brawl in Valparaiso.

In 1882 as 70 years earlier, TR warned, naval unpreparedness invites catastrophe. He blamed "the criminal folly" of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in letting the fleet dwindle to only a few good vessels like the fabled Constitution ("Old Ironsides") and Constellation, which were built by their Federalist predecessors. (TR called Jefferson "perhaps the most incapable executive that ever filled the presidential chair.") It is shocking to see one Mount Rushmore icon attack his neighbor.

In the end, TR teaches, it is the skill and courage of a nation's sailors which makes the difference in war, even against great odds.

"The Republic of the United States owed a great deal to the excellent make and armament of its ships, but it owed still more to the men who were inside them," he wrote. And, as if speaking to the modern U.S. Navy, on guard today around the world, he said: "I honestly believe that the American sailor offered rather better material for a man-of-warsman than the British because of the freer institutions of his country."

Chase Untermeyer is assistant secretary of the navy for manpower and reserve affairs.