The diplomatic vocabularies of several current international conflicts echo, albeit distantly, 1812's route to war. Economic sanctions and (backfiring) embargoes aggravated U.S.-British relations. Britain's apparent lack of respect for U.S. sovereignty angered Americans. The forced "impressment" of U.S. sailors into Royal Navy service, usually backed by the threatened broadside of a RN warship, was a Yankee cause celebre.
The British, however, had legitimate gripes. The U.S., asserting neutrality, sought trade with Britain's most bitter enemy, Napoleon. The British argued that American goods strengthened the Scourge of Europe. Oh-so-self-righteous Yankee ship owners must cease supplying Bonaparte's France. The British also suspected the U.S. coveted Canadian territory -- with good reason.
In 1812, Great Britain presented U.S. war planners with a very challenging strategic problem, one with contemporary irony given America's 21st century military might: How do you wage successful war against a global superpower?
Two numbers illustrate America's quandary. The RN began the war with around 500 warships. The U.S. Navy had 14, though when the war began not all were crewed and seaworthy. Shipping and trade were critical issues to both belligerents, and RN lions ruled the high seas. In comparison, the USN was a poorly funded mouse.
However, as Kevin McCranie demonstrates in his new book, "Utmost Gallantry: The U.S. and Royal Navies in the War of 1812" (Naval Institute Press), the tiny USN was a talented, courageous, well-led and therefore dangerous mouse.
McCranie, who is a professor of strategy and policy at the Naval War College, addresses the oceanic (blue water) war. McCranie covers the war's great sea battles, including those of the most famous American vessel, the USS Constitution, Old Ironsides.
McCranie, a specialist in naval conflict in the age of sail, provides colorful descriptions of several engagements. His detailed explanations of sailing tactics, assessments of command decisions and astute use of direct quotations from battle participants add new material to the battle narratives without detracting from the drama. His handling of the Constitution's near capture (July 16-19, 1812) is a good example.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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