Military Subjects:  War of 1812


The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 13: June 2010


Reviews: Books, Film, Collectables and Ephemera

Black, Jeremy.  The War of 1812 in the Age of Napoleon.  (Volume 21 in Campaigns and Commanders series).  Norman:  University of Oklahoma Press, 2009.  xvii + 286 pages.  Notes, bibliography, index.  ISBN 978-0-8061-4078-0 (hardcover).  $32.95 US.


The International Context of the War of 1812

Reviewed by Donald R. Hickey

The War of 1812 can only be understood in its larger transatlantic context.  The Anglo-American conflict was a direct outgrowth of British maritime policies adopted during the Napoleonic Wars.  Without the war in Europe, those policies never would have been adopted and there would have been no War of 1812.  Moreover, once hostilities had erupted, the war in North America was profoundly influenced by military developments in Europe.  Only after October of 1813, when the Battle of Leipzig had turned the tide in the European war, did the British begin to redeploy significant resources across the Atlantic, and only after the defeat and abdication of Napoleon the following spring did that redeployment gain momentum.  Even after the European war appeared to be over, European affairs continued to cast a shadow over British decisions on the War of 1812, shaping the final campaigns and the ensuing Treaty of Ghent.  The war weariness of the British people, the determination of the British government to economize, and the uncertainties of the Congress of Vienna all conspired to make the American war look increasingly like a dubious and unnecessary distraction that needed to be brought to an end.  Although Americans might consider this contest a second war of independence, to the British it was little more than a minor theater in a much wider war, and this determined not only how they prosecuted it but also why it is so little remembered in the United Kingdom today.

In his new book, Jeremy Black seeks to place the War of 1812 in its larger context.  A prolific military historian at the University of Exeter, Black has written more than 75 books in 25 years.  How does one produce so many works of history so quickly? Only with a lot of hard work, considerable haste, and a heavy reliance on the research of others.  Black’s book on the War of 1812 reflects all three of these elements.

The strength of the book is that it presents a running commentary on events in Europe and elsewhere in the world while the War of 1812 was under way.  More so than most scholars, Black keeps the larger picture before us, and this helps the reader better understand British war-making decisions.  Black might have pressed this approach further by telling the story from the British perspective and keeping his focus on the transatlantic context, although admittedly this might have pushed the War of 1812 too far into the background. 

Black’s work contains valuable insights.  Although most are not original with him, he performs a useful service by highlighting them.  He has a fair-minded assessment of American power (which was decidedly limited); he understands how much easier it was to defend a position than to attack it (especially given the logistical problems of the North American wilderness); he appreciates the value of forts (particularly when Indian allies were part of the besieging force); and he astutely points out that the War of 1812 began at a time when the British people were already war weary. 

Black explores a large number of “what-if” scenarios.  This kind of counter-factual second-guessing is a useful exercise in war colleges because it helps professional soldiers and policymakers better understand how to wage war successfully.  It is not clear, however, that it sheds much light on the War of 1812.  More questionable are Black’s many comparisons of the battles and campaigns of the War of 1812 with those of other wars, especially in North America.  Such comparisons are of dubious value because circumstances are never identical and rarely even similar enough to warrant the exercise.  Black himself seems to acknowledge this.  “It is necessary,” he says, “to give due weight to the circumstances of the day, to individual units, commanders, and terrain, and to their interaction” (p. 107). 

One of the great disappointments of Black’s book is how little space he actually devotes to the battles of the War of 1812.  In almost every case, his treatment is cursory.  He appears eager to rush through the battles so that he can get on with his analysis and comparisons.  His modus operandi seems to be to read several secondary accounts of a battle, write a short summary, and then present his analysis.  This is far from satisfactory for a work that professes to be a serious study of the war.

There are other problems with Black’s use of source material.  Many of his insights and observations have a familiar ring and appear to have been borrowed (without attribution) from the pioneering work of Canadian scholar Donald E. Graves as well as from my own publications.  Black’s choice of sources is also uneven and evidently based on convenience.  He makes commendable use of an Exeter newspaper, probably because it was available in his home town, but he ignores altogether the three great London dailies–the Times, the Courier, and the Morning Chronicle–which were surely more important for reflecting and shaping British opinion.  Black also relies heavily on the published papers of Henry Clay and James Madison, while ignoring the unpublished papers of Madison, James Monroe, and Albert Gallatin even though these documents are readily available on microfilm.  Similarly, Black makes use of British government records but ignores U.S. War Department papers, which are available on microfilm, and the Annals of Congress and American State Papers, which are available online.  He also makes no use of the many documents on the war assembled and published by Canadian scholar Ernest A. Cruikshank in the early twentieth century. 

Black’s citations suggest undue haste.  In a few cases, we are presented with block quotes with no citation at all (see pp. 147, 154, and 198).  In many other cases, we get no more than a broad citation to several books and/or articles without being told precisely where Black got his information.  In an odd contrast, we are given two sources to establish the date that the British re-embarked from North Point after the failure of their Baltimore campaign, although this date is well known and not in dispute (p. 182n57).  Black cites a children’s book with invented dialogue on the birth of “The Star-Spangled Banner” (p. 181n53); he relies on the first edition of Donald Grave’s book on Lundy’s Lane, although this was superseded by a revised edition (p. 157n19); and he attributes (without citation) Major General Phineas Riall’s exclamation, “Those are regulars, by God!” to early nineteenth-century secondary sources when in fact the first version of this comment appeared in Winfield Scott’s memoirs in 1864, and the version given by Black did not make an appearance until one of Scott’s biographers embellished upon the original in a study published in 1937 (p. 156).

The upshot of Black’s hasty and inadequate research is that he does not appear to be on top of his material.  As a result, errors abound.  These are especially numerous in the author’s treatment of the run-up to the war.  The Jay Treaty did not improve U.S. trade with the British West Indies; in fact, the U.S. Senate struck out the pertinent clause; it was, rather, Britain’s war with France that forced her colonies to open their ports to American ships to get the food they needed (p. 25).  In 1796 the British handed over eight forts to the U.S., not seven bases (p. 25).  The XYZ affair was not a French attempt to buy off Americans, but to shake them down for cash (p. 16).  During the Quasi-War with France, the U.S. did not focus on protecting trade in nearby waters while the British looked after the Caribbean; it was the other way around (p. 26).  Thomas Jefferson did not say that the U.S. was the strongest nation in the world in his first inaugural, but that its republican form of government was (p. 17).  Nor did the U.S. claim that the Louisiana Purchase extended beyond the crest of the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean (p. 33).  The Lewis and Clark Expedition took place in 1804-06, not 1805-07 (p. 34). The Federalist party was not dying out before the War of 1812; the embargo of 1807 had given it new life (p. 230).  The British critic of the U.S. was Sir James Stephen, not Stephens (p. 27).  British officials did not deny that their tars could become American citizens; they simply argued that they had not thereby shed their obligations as British subjects (p. 26, 39).  Shawnees did not play a major role in the Battle of Tippecanoe; it was mostly Kickapoos, Winnebagoes, and Potawatomis (p. 42).  The war bill did not speed through the House of Representatives because the War Hawks were strong but because the Federalists were unwilling to deliver any opposition speeches with the chamber meeting in secret session (p. 37).

Nor do the errors end when Black gets to the War of 1812 itself.  To suggest that British regulars “supplemented” Canadian militia and native allies significantly misstates the central role that British troops played in the conflict (p. 47).  The Americans were not without Indian allies; they just did not treat them in the same way as the British did (p. 32).  The main Baltimore riot occurred on July 27-29, not June 28 (p. 176).  The U.S. Navy did not perform convoy duty in 1812; rather, its cruises in the Atlantic forced the British to concentrate their Halifax squadron, thus permitting most American merchantmen to reach port safely (p. 126).  Commodore Isaac Chauncey was not subordinate to Major General Henry Dearborn; each reported to a different cabinet official (p. 91).  Major General Wade Hampton was not supposed to link up with John Armstrong on the St. Lawrence in 1813; the latter was secretary of war and had no field command (p. 104).  Sir George Prevost was not exactly “in the forefront of the action,” at Sackets Harbor in 1813; nor does it do him any credit to suggest that Prevost “acted decisively when he ordered the retreat” (p. 163). 

Moreover, it is surely incorrect to suggest that the Great Lakes “lacked the strategic significance of deep-sea naval capability” when control of them could determine the outcome of the war (p. 141).  The American ship bottled up at Norfolk was the Constellation, not the Constitution (p. 145).  The Virginia town that the British targeted was Hampton (not Hampden), and they attacked in 1813, not 1814 (p. 215).  Americans destroyed a post of the North West Company at Sault Ste. Marie, not on Mackinac Island (p. 151).  The British did not bring up a cannon in their assault on Fort Erie in 1814; they turned a captured gun against the defenders (p. 158).  Nor did they lift their siege of the fort because the American sortie had destroyed their artillery; they already had made the decision to pull back (p. 158).  The British claimed Moose Island long before Captain Thomas Hardy occupied it in 1814, which is why they required an oath of allegiance there instead of the oath to keep the peace that they required elsewhere in occupied Maine (pp. 165-66).  Andrew Jackson did not threaten to deport all French-speaking residents from New Orleans, but only those who claimed French citizenship to get out of militia duty, and in the end he relented and banished only the French consul who had been handing out certificates of citizenship so freely (p. 234).  The U.S. and Great Britain did not seek fishing and navigation rights at Ghent; rather, the question was whether they would retain rights established by the Treaty of Paris in 1783 (pp. 206, 223, and 230).  Mobile was not the sole American territorial gain during the war; it was a much larger stretch of West Florida that extended from the Pearl to the Perdido River south of the 31st parallel–upwards of 6,000 square miles (p. 219).  The postwar U.S. Army was fixed at 10,000 men, not 12,400 (p. 232).  New Hampshire’s boundary was not at issue in the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842 (p. 228).  Finally, there is no evidence that Americans gave up on westward expansion in the thirty years after Ghent because they feared British reprisals (p. 227).

A careful editor might have noticed some of these errors and helped Black clean up his citations.  An editor might also have caught some of the other oddities in the text.  American citizens should never be referred to as “subjects” (p. 27).  It was Captain David Porter, not someone called Essex, who named one of the Marquesas after President Madison; the Essex was Porter’s ship (p. 136).  The explanation of the distinction between Mackinac and Michilimackinac is garbled (p. xvii).  The War of Bavarian Succession, which began in 1778, ended the following year, not in 1809 (p. 36). The long quote from the Duke of Wellington urging that Prevost remain on the defensive in Canada sounds more like good advice than proof that he was “deeply suspicious and critical of British efforts being diverted from the peninsula” (p. 79).  And the U.S. Senate plays no role in negotiating treaties, although on occasion it has conditionally ratified them with modifications.  Far from suggesting that the Jay Treaty of 1794 be renegotiated, the Senate actually modified it; and far from negotiating with the British in 1806, the Senate never received the Monroe-Pinkney Treaty from President Thomas Jefferson, who returned it to London for renegotiation in 1807 (pp. 211-12).

A good editor might have aided Black in another way.  Although the author promises “a dramatic war narrative” (p. xiv), he fails to bring his story to life with compelling details, human drama, quotations, or anecdotes.  In addition, his prose is uninspired if not leaden.  He relies far too heavily on certain words and phrases, such as “indeed,” “not least,” “underlines” (for underscores), and “in the event.”  Not only do these terms appear far too often, but sometimes they are simply crutches to link disparate facts together.  Instead of using his paragraphs to develop an argument, Black sometimes simply includes all that he has learned about a given topic (see, for example, the first paragraphs on pp. 55 and 142 and the last on p. 71).

What, then, are we to make of Jeremy Black’s book?  Most readers will find the context and insights useful, and some may also appreciate the comparisons and counter-factual speculations.  But the book does not tell us much about the War of 1812 and contains far too many errors.  Those who seek reliable information on the conflict would be well advised to look to the classics.  Reginald Horsman’s set, The Causes of the War of 1812  (1962) and The War of 1812 (1969), offers a good account of the war and its origins.  J. Mackay Hitsman, The Incredible War of 1812:  A Military History (1965; updated by Donald E. Graves, 1999), and George F. G. Stanley, The War of 1812:  Land Operations (1983), present the Canadian perspective; and John Mahon, The War of 1812 (1972), and Robert S. Quimby, The U.S. Army in the War of 1812:  An Operational and Command Study, 2 vols. (1997), offer detailed accounts from the American perspective.

All of this is not to suggest that newcomers wishing to write on the War of 1812 are unwelcome.  This is far from the case.  Since outsiders are not bound by conventional wisdom, they can sometimes offer a unique perspective or unusual insights (as Jeremy Black sometimes does).  But anyone interested in producing a book on the War of 1812, especially a broad study that embraces the entire conflict, must be prepared to invest considerable time and labor. There is no shortcut to writing such a book, and anyone who imagines otherwise does a disservice to himself, to the 1812 community, and to the broader reading public. 

Don Hickey is a professor of history at Wayne State College in Nebraska.  He is the author of The War of 1812:  A Forgotten Conflict (1989) and Don’t Give Up the Ship!  Myths of the War of 1812 (2006) and is series editor for John Hopkins Books on the War of 1812.

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