US Soldier Versus British Soldier
Osprey (Combat Series No.54), 2021
This slim paperback (80 pages, including front- and end-matter and index) takes a format that will be familiar to those who have read other titles in Osprey’s Combat series. We are introduced in the first third of the book to the opponents who would face off in a particular conflict – in this case, the Northern Theatre of the Anglo-American War of 1812 – and this is followed by a series of case-studies to explore what happened on the battlefield.
We begin with a run-down of the causes of the war, which tries to be even-handed but does in places indicate a slight American bias – US designs on Canada are addressed somewhat obliquely, and presented primarily in the light of a desire to removing support for British-backed and -armed ‘Indians’ (the term is used throughout although one cannot help thinking that more acceptable language could have been employed in this day and age). We then move on to the state of the two armies, focussing on the organisation of the opposing infantry battalions which form the main focus of the book. This section is illustrated with a pair of uniform plates for each nation, giving front and back views of a typical line infantryman, as well as photographs of the main weapons employed. The author pulls no punches in outlining how woefully unprepared for war the US forces were, while also recognising that the British war effort was hamstrung by the fact that North America was, at best, a secondary theatre within a wider global war. The logistical difficulties of campaigning along the Canadian border are also rightly emphasised.
The first of the three case-studies is Queenston Heights, 13 October 1812, clearly chosen to exemplify the points made in the preceding section regarding the state of the two armies on the outbreak of war. The author rightly identifies Roger Sheaffe as the true, and forgotten, architect of the British victory, and dismisses Isaac Brock’s final moments as ‘useless heroics’, but then rather underscores his own point about Sheaffe’s lack of recognition by managing to get his forename wrong in the captions to the map of the battle. We then jump on by a year and some distance east to look at Crysler’s Farm, 11 November 1813, which shows the US forces trying to do the right thing but ultimately failing through a combination of poor leadership and lack of coordination in the face of a smaller but very professional British force. Finally, we review Chippawa, 5 July 1814, which finally sees the US forces, after another winter’s training and under commanders who had learned on the job, equal the skills of the redcoats and get the better of their adversaries in the open field.
The accounts of all three battles are clear and concise, each accompanied by a map showing the ebb and flow of the action (that for Crysler’s Farm is particularly helpful; that for Chippawa rather less so, with a captioning error that misidentifies the units operating in the woods on the British flank). It might have been more helpful had the orders of battle for the three actions, which are supplied together as an appendix, been given in the sections describing the battles; they are, however, detailed and give the strengths of the various units as well as identifying the calibres of the various artillery pieces employed. The two plates commissioned to accompany this part of the text are of rather less utility. The first, putting the reader in the viewpoint of a US NCO at Queenston Heights about to be on the receiving end of a British bayonet charge, is fine as such things go – although the computer-generated style is not to this reviewer’s taste – but is essentially set-dressing rather than a complement to the narrative. The second gives a pair of perspectives showing the view from the opposing ranks at Crysler’s Farm, but the effect is rather stylised, and the captions do not seem to completely correspond with what is depicted.
Although the themes of the book are made obvious through its structure, we do not really get any formal analysis until the closing section and this only takes up four pages, a portion of which is taken up by a recapitulation of the three battles just discussed. The basic thesis, and basic is the word here, is that the US Army came from a poor start but, by virtue of being obliged to fight what the author characterises as ‘the best in the world’, acquired through experience the skills necessary to match British regulars in the field. Nothing much wrong with that, but nothing ground-breaking either. As with the book itself, the focus of the analysis is on the US Army and its learning curve, and the British forces form a slightly two-dimensional adversary against which US success and failure is measured. The author seems also to rely a little uncritically on Winfield Scott’s account of his own part in the process – although he admits that Scott was most likely the after-the-fact originator of the alleged ‘Why these are regulars!’ attributed to Phineas Riall at Chippewa.
With only 80 pages, and a good deal of illustrated content within that 80, it is clearly unfair to judge this title against more heavyweight opponents such as the various full histories of the actions in question that are cited in the book’s own bibliography. As an introduction for a complete beginner to the topic the title has a deal to recommend it, but anyone seeking a more detailed overview, so long as they are happy to forgo the colour illustrations, could pick up a paperback copy of one of the single-volume histories of the whole war – Elting, say, or Latimer – for the same money and would probably find better value in doing so.