In June 1812 the still-infant United States had the audacity to declare war on the British Empire. Fought between creaking sailing ships and armies often led by bumbling generals, the ensuing conflict featured a tit-for-tat "You burned our capital, so we'll burn yours" and a legendary battle unknowingly fought after the signing of a peace treaty.
During the course of the war, the young American navy proved its mettle as the USS Constitution, "Old Ironsides," sent two first-rate British frigates to the bottom, and a twenty-seven-year-old lieutenant named Oliver Hazard Perry hoisted a flag exhorting, "Don't Give Up the Ship," and chased the British from Lake Erie. By 1814, however, the United States was no longer fighting for free trade, sailors' rights, and as much of Canada as it could grab, but for its very existence as a nation. With Washington in flames, only a valiant defense at Fort McHenry saved Baltimore from a similar fate.
Here are the stories of commanding generals such as America's Henry "Granny" Dearborn, double-dealing James Wilkinson, and feisty Andrew Jackson, as well as Great Britain's gallant Sir Isaac Brock, overly cautious Sir George Prevost, and Rear Admiral George Cockburn, the man who put the torch to Washington. Here too are those inadvertently caught up in the war, from heroine farm wife Laura Secord, whom some call Canada's Paul Revere, to country doctor William Beanes, whose capture set the stage for Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner."
1812: The War That Forged a Nation presents a sweeping narrative that emphasizes the struggle's importance to America's coming-of-age as a nation. Though frequently overlooked between the American Revolution and the Civil War, the War of 1812 did indeed span half a continent -- from Mackinac Island to New Orleans, and Lake Champlain to Horseshoe Bend -- and it paved the way for the conquest of the other half.
During the War of 1812, the United States cast aside its cloak of colonial adolescence and -- with both humiliating and glorious moments -- found the fire that was to forge a nation.
This thoroughly readable popular history of the War of 1812 may exaggerate in its claim that the war forged America's national identity; after all, there were enough regional identities left lying around after the conflict to cause a national civil war. But otherwise it's a fine narrative history that traces the major of events of the war, from the preliminary plots by James Wilkinson and Aaron Burr that revealed the ambitions of Westerners for territorial expansion, through New England's secessionist Hartford Convention to the Battle of New Orleans, which wrapped up the war in 1815. Borneman makes clear that the performance of the American army was mostly disgraceful, that the Canadians can pat themselves on the back for courage and endurance and that the decisive victory of the American navy was not the famous frigate duels but the Battle of Lake Champlain in 1814. Borneman (Alaska: Saga of a Bold Land) is also strong in vivid personal portraits (the gigantic Winfield Scott and the diminutive and sickly James Madison) and evenhanded as far as atrocities (too many, by all parties) are concerned. Even the annotation and bibliography of this sound introduction will propel those whose curiosity is piqued to read further in all directions.
-- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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October 05, 2004
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Excerpt from 1812 by Walter R. Borneman
To Steal an Empire
In the early twilight, the swollen waters of the Ohio River swept a wooden flatboat up to a landing on a small, tree-covered island. On the river's east bank lay the western reaches of the state of Virginia; on the west, the shores of the state of Ohio, now, in the spring of 1805, barely two years old. The flatboat was much grander than the normal river craft that floated by or landed here. Indeed, its owner had commissioned its recent construction in Pittsburgh, and he himself described it as a "floating house, sixty feet by fourteen, containing dining room, kitchen with fireplace, and two bedrooms, roofed from stem to stern ... "
The flatboat belonged to Aaron Burr. With jet-black eyes, a silken tongue, and the refined dress to match the accoutrements of his vessel, Burr cast a larger shadow than his diminutive height suggested. For four years, he had been the proverbial heartbeat away from the presidency, but once he had also been just one particular heartbeat away. Why the recent vice president of the United States came to make this journey down the Ohio River evidences just how tenuous the American union still was in 1805, and that the very last thing it should have come to contemplate was another war with Great Britain.
In the presidential election of 1800, there were as yet no strictly organized political tickets. Prior to the Twelfth Amendment, the Constitution merely ordained that the person receiving the highest number of electoral votes be declared president and the second highest, vice president. Party electors were supposed to withhold a vote or two from the agreed-upon vice presidential candidate, thus assuring the election of their presidential favorite.
Such informality didn't work very well. In fact, so many Federalist electors withheld votes from John Adams's running mate in 1796 that Republican Thomas Jefferson ended up with the second highest number of votes and the vice presidency. (Jefferson's Republicans were the liberal predecessors of the Jefferson-Jackson Democrats and not the "Grand Old Party" of Abraham Lincoln.) To avoid such a result in 1800, Republican vice presidential candidate Aaron Burr obtained Jefferson's assurance that no southern elector would drop a vote for Burr, but that Burr would arrange for a Republican elector from Rhode Island -- supposedly a solid Jefferson state -- to withhold one vote for Burr. That strategy backfired when the Federalists proceeded to win Rhode Island, and the remaining Republican electors cast the identical number of votes for president and vice president.
Thus in only the nation's fourth presidential election, Thomas Jefferson handily defeated incumbent John Adams, but imagine Jefferson's surprise when his vice presidential running mate received the same number of electoral votes as he, and the election was declared a tie. With Jefferson and Burr each receiving seventy-three votes, the election went to the House of Representatives, where the contest was suddenly not between Federalist and Republican, but between Republican and Republican.
Vice presidential candidate Burr professed allegiance to Jefferson, but made no outright disclaimer of the higher office. Indeed, there were plenty of whispers in Burr's ear to suggest that the higher office was his for the taking. New England Federalists, who were rarely as unified in anything as they were in their opposition to Thomas Jefferson, actively courted Burr, vastly preferring the New York lawyer -- Republican though he might be -- to the Virginia planter.
Not all Federalists felt that way, of course. Alexander Hamilton for one was appalled at the possibility of Burr becoming president. Four years before he would die by Burr's dueling pistol, Hamilton wrote: "There is no doubt but that upon every virtuous and prudent calculation Jefferson is to be preferred.