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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Books on military subjects

'Amateurs, to Arms!': A Military History of the War of 1812

Elting, John Robert. 'Amateurs, to Arms!': A Military History of the War of 1812. New York: Da Capo, 1995. 318 pages. ISBN# 0306806533. $16.00. Paperback.

Amateurs, to Arms cover

This gem of a book is the best overall history of military operations written on the War of 1812 since Henry Adams penned his authoritative account, painstakingly researched, over a century ago. It is also a badly needed chronicle of the most neglected war in American history, which saw the infant United States Navy establish a tradition of efficiency and victory over very long odds in both men and ships, and saw the emergence of efficient officers in the United States Army that would set the tone of professionalism down to the present day.

This is a military history, so it has much to do with marching and killing, and has much of the smell of gunpowder, vice printer's ink, about it. Written by a soldier, who knows soldiers, horses, and the smell of gunpowder, it deals little with politics and politicians, only insofar as they interfered with the war effort, and hindered American operations and the selection of competent officers to fight the war.

Starting out totally unprepared to fight the British, and coveting both Canada and Florida, the Madison administration, like its predecessor, the Jefferson Administration, disliked standing, Regular military forces, thinking them a threat to the fledgling Republic. Putting their faith in the dubious military virtues of the militia, Madison started his war on the proverbial wrong foot, choosing generals for their political reliability rather than martial ability, and disaster followed disaster on land.

At sea, it was quite different. Even though the Navy had been neglected and hobbled by Jefferson and his protégé, Madison, a level of professionalism remained, which had been hard-won in the Quasi-War with France and the campaigns against the Barbary Pirates. Without waiting to be told what not to do, the very individualistic navy captains, there being no Admirals as yet, 'decided to fight their own war' and put to sea. What they achieved rather quickly, with their larger than average frigates, and well-trained crews, was a series of startling victories over the cocky Royal Navy. What followed was really a contest of survival, the Navy trying to overcome the British blockade, while winning decisive victories on the Lakes, and the army definitely playing catch-up.

We read of that intrepid officer of riflemen, Benjamin Forsyth, who is finally killed in action in an outpost squabble, 'with his boots on.' And of Winfield Scott grimly training his troops on the northern frontier, finally leading them to whip the British Regulars at Chippawa, and to a drawn fight at Lundy's Lane. We also learn of the disastrous, for the British, siege of Fort Erie. We also experience the British forays into the Chesapeake and routing of the militia at Bladensburg which led to the burning of Washington, and of the British naval duo of Cochrane and Cockburn, rampaging unchecked up and down the Chesapeake, frustrated before Baltimore, and disastrously defeated, after the peace treaty, at New Orleans.

This interesting, accurate, and spellbinding volume is a much-needed addition to the literature of the period. Military professionals as well as historians have much to learn from it. If nothing else, it teaches us an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

The tale is told forcefully and expertly by one of the greatest historians of the Napoleonic period, definitely an authority on the period and a master of his craft. This book is a must —along with the superb battle studies by Donald Graves (reviewed elsewhere)— to have in every enthusiast's collection. It is accurate, told with aplomb and dash, and is fairly written, although some British readers might object to Admirals Cochrane and Cockburn being characterized as arsonists for their raids in the Chesapeake.

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