The Magazine

Victory at Sea

The Navy comes of age in the War of 1812.

Dec 5, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 12 • By JOSEPH F. CALLO
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Towards the end of 1812 there’s a key passage. It contains a response by the Duke of Wellington to his prime minister’s suggestion that he go to Canada and take over the land war along the Canada-U.S. border. At that point Wellington had demonstrated his skills in the field in the Peninsula war against Napoleon’s army, and the War of 1812 had been dragging on for two years. His response went to a critical strategic point:

That which appears to me to be wanting in America is not a general, or a general officer and troops, but a naval superiority on the Lakes. .  .  . The question is, whether we can obtain this naval superiority. .  .  . If we cannot, I shall do you but little good in America.

Wellington articulated a truth that his civilian leadership was just beginning to grasp. His reply also reflects a penetrating analysis of the strategic issues of the War of 1812, in this case the question of which nation would control the crucial means of communication and supply associated with the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain. There was no question of Wellington’s confidence in the seasoned troops he would command, but he understood that even his Peninsula veterans could not succeed apart from strategic logistical realities.

Wellington had zeroed in on the kind of point that’s often neglected in analyses of the War of 1812. Frequently that war is seen as a sequence of freestanding, intensely dramatic events rather than as the tightly intertwined series of battles, military campaigns, diplomacy, and domestic politics that it was. But if a compulsion to concentrate excessively on the more spectacular bits and pieces of the conflict has been an endemic problem among academics and writers, this volume is an antidote. Daughan not only thoroughly illuminates the emotion-triggering events of the conflict; he also adds the background that connects the highlights. That background includes, for example, the American and British domestic politics and diplomacy, which were continuously both cause and effect in the process.

The importance of context is nowhere more important than when trying to establish the basis of the conflict. The American declaration of war in June 1812 is generally attributed to America’s need to assure “free trade and sailors’ rights.” But behind that memorable American battle cry there were strong political and diplomatic crosscurrents that shaped the decisions of James Madison and the two prime ministers who served during the conflict.

For example, during the runup to the war, and while Madison was leader in the House of Representatives, he had worked hard against pressure from Congress’s War Hawks. After he became president, and as war approached, he maintained that posture and believed it was possible to convince Prime Minister Spencer Perceval that war was inevitable unless Britain dealt with the issues of free trade and the impressments of American seamen. Madison’s belief that America’s disputes with Great Britain could be settled peacefully was supported by his expectation that Britain would continue to be preoccupied with Napoleon for the predictable future.

For his part, Perceval was convinced by political divisions within the United States, combined with America’s obvious military weakness, that Madison’s warnings were mere rhetoric. He firmly believed that the United States had no real alternative but to tolerate Britain’s aggressive maritime policies. Paralleling that opinion was the psychological residue left with the British public and its leaders after the American Revolution. Daughan doesn’t equivocate: 

The Treaty of Paris .  .  . hardly reconciled the king or his people to colonial liberty. Bitter about their humiliating defeat, the British watched with satisfaction as the thirteen states floundered without a central government. .  .  . Many in London expected the American experiment in republican government to fail.

In the lengthening perspective of history, those deep-seated feelings become possibly more significant as drivers of British attitudes and behavior towards the United States than the disagreements over current maritime policies. Both Madison and Perceval miscalculated, and similar mistakes in diplomatic judgment continued as the war evolved. There were the early, spectacular single-ship victories of the U.S. Navy, the impact of American privateers on British commerce, and American naval victories on Lakes Erie and Champlain. Contrasting with those American successes were the dismal failures of American attempts to invade Canada.

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