Reviews: Military Books

Warships of the Napoleonic Era & The Naval War of 1812

Gardiner, Robert. Warships of the Napoleonic Era. "Chatham Pictorial Histories Series." Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000. 160 pages. ISBN# 155750962X. $49.95. Hardcover.

Gardiner, Robert. The Naval War of 1812. "Chatham Pictorial Histories Series." Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1999. ISBN# 155750654X. $49.95. Hardcover.

The study of the Napoleonic Wars in particular and the epoch in general is one of the most popular, if not the most popular, periods in military history. The sweeping campaigns in central and eastern Europe, the secondary theater in the Spanish peninsula, the exotic campaign in Egypt with its mamelukes and dromedary units, fills its readers with excitement. This is the stuff of heroic legend, and all the color of uniforms and glory, are all centered around the terrible Emperor of the French and his deadly Grande Armée. The naval portion, however, except for the ubiquitous presence of the Royal Navy, is generally neglected.

Now, however, historian Robert Gardiner is making a Herculean effort to change that situation. Two new books, Warships of the Napoleonic Era and The Naval War of 1812, have added much to the literature of the period and have given the long neglected naval side of the conflagration a much needed shot in the arm.

These two excellent volumes are part of the "Chatham Pictorial Histories Series" and are a welcome addition to the naval history of the Napoleonic period. Anyone familiar with Howard Chapelle's History of the American Sailing Navy will appreciate Warships of the Napoleonic Era. This volume is part of the "Blueprint" series and it is published in association with the National Maritime Museum. It is a compendium of the plans of the types of warships employed by the navies of all major, and some of the minor, belligerents of the period.

Naturally the Royal Navy is listed first and has the largest portion in the book. The French Navy is next in importance, and the Danish Navy and the United States Navy are given their due. The Spanish, Dutch, Russian, Portuguese and Swedish navies are also mentioned, and are given credit for whatever they either did or failed to do in the period.

The text is expertly written, and concentrates on the design and utility of the different classes of ships, which designs were better than others were and the seaworthiness of each type of vessel covered. Gardiner also talks about the designers and shipwrights, those unsung heroes of the dockyards, without whose effort, no ships could or would have been launched. This is especially true of the campaigns in the War of 1812 on the lakes of North America.

Almost every conceivable type of ship is covered, from the mighty ship of the line to bomb vessels, schooners, and privateers. Information tables on the tonnage, gun allocation, length and number of ships in service by year are plentiful throughout the text, and help the reader understand the differences in the different 'rates' of ships deployed by the belligerents.

The Naval War of 1812 cover

The Naval War of 1812 is a studious, thorough and scholarly overview of the naval aspects of the War of 1812, covering them in enough detail for the use of this book as a handy reference. It is profusely illustrated, with both ship paintings by various artists and ship plans throughout the volume. This is not just another 'picture book,' however. It is a genuine historical study of a naval war England didn't need to wage, and of an 'upstart' U.S. Navy, a mere 'handful of fir built frigates,' that shocked the Royal Navy to its very foundations by a succession of frigate victories.

The strengths of this volume are many. Chapters on the privateers and the war on the lakes are the most valuable, and are especially well done. This is an added boon to readers and historians, if only for the reason that this isnšt covered very much anywhere else. Commanders on both sides are analyzed as to strengths and weaknesses, and on their impact on the naval war.

The author doesn't leave out the less pleasant aspects of the naval campaigns in North America. Admirals Cochrane's and Cockburn's campaigns in the Chesapeake which culminated in the burning of Washington D.C. and the British repulse at Baltimore are fully documented and chronicled (some American students and historians might characterize them as looting and pillaging expeditions, as the two British flag officers happily practiced arson up and down the Chesapeake).

There are two weaknesses that I can see in this book. Gardiner mentions that the Jefferson and Madison administrations were pacifistic, which is why they hobbled the US Navy and left it unprepared for a deep-water war against Great Britain. This leaving the defense of the United States to a dubious collection of unseaworthy gunboats, most of the excellent frigates, sloops, and brigs being either sold or kept in ordinary. Nothing could be further from the truth. None of those men were pacifists, neither those two presidents nor their cabinets. They waged war with the Barbary Pirates, while reducing the navy at the same time. At the same time, they coveted Canada; Jefferson believing its conquest 'merely a matter of marching.' What they were was extremely anti any permanent American regular military establishment, either navy or army. They believed it a danger to the Republic, and chose to trust the militia and privateers in time of war to defend the United States. This left the United States unprepared for war against anyone who knew their business.

The second problem is the last chapter on the Hundred Days. I have absolutely no idea why it was included in a book on the naval war of 1812. It is certainly off topic, but the author is serious about a Pax Britannia after the War of 1812 was over and Napoleon was 'safely' tucked away on St. Helena. Perhaps it is just old John Bull thumping his chest.

These two books are both welcome additions to the literature on the naval aspects of the Napoleonic period. They are scholarly written, are based on solid research and will set a standard for all future works on the subject. They belong in the collection of every student of naval warfare in the age of sail.

Reviewed by Kevin Kiley
Placed on the Napoleon Series: April 2000


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