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Perilous Fight: America's Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 1812-1815 Hardcover – Deckle Edge, January 18, 2011

4.5 out of 5 stars 65 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The deservedly overshadowed War of 1812 was redeemed by heroics at sea, according to this rousing military history. Journalist and military historian Budiansky (The Bloody Shirt) follows the tiny United States Navy, led by a handful of superfrigates, including the U.S.S. Constitution, in its oceanic struggle against the vastly larger, stronger, and haughtier British fleet, whose bullying practice of seizing American merchant ships and sailors provoked the war. Budiansky makes it a classic David and Goliath story, as the plucky Yanks, with better ships, sailing, and gunnery, win a string of resounding victories that wipe the smirks from their adversaries' faces. The author's colorful narrative is full of gory sea battles, chivalrous flourishes, mutinous tars, and charismatic performances by Stephen Decatur, David Porter, and other American naval legends; it becomes grayer and grimmer as the British blockade tightens and the Americans turn from pitched battles to prosaic commerce raiding. Budiansky's well-researched and skillfully written account extracts a gripping true-life naval saga from an otherwise inglorious conflict. 8 pages of color and 8 pages of b&w photos; 11 photos in text; 8 maps. (Jan.)
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From Booklist

Bedeviled on land, U.S. forces were more effective at sea in the War of 1812. Continuing a venerable tradition of historians (Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Adams, Alfred Mahan) drawn to this topic, Budiansky narrates events and ventures explanations for successes of the U.S. Navy against Britain’s Royal Navy. The prerequisite was the pre-existence of an American navy, whose establishment Ian Toll recounted in Six Frigates (2006). Those frigates scored initial victories in warship-on-warship combat (the Constitution’s sinking of the Guerriere) that exhilarated Americans and made U.S. captains (e.g., Stephen Decatur) famous. But naval war in the chivalric style did not strike the historically unsung William Jones as a sensible strategy. Secretary of the navy during the war, Jones is the most important character in Budiansky’s account. Jones thought that attacking Britain’s merchant marine would hamper her superior fleet far more than would destruction of her warships, and so it turned out, as Budiansky’s analysis of the forces tied to convoy and blockade duties verifies. Conversant in nautical technicalities of the age of sail, Budiansky will absorb the avid naval history audience. --Gilbert Taylor
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (January 18, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307270696
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307270696
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.4 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (65 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #286,037 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Hrafnkell Haraldsson VINE VOICE on December 23, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This is really an amazing book. Stephen Budiansky does far more than take us to sea with America's underdog fleet; he takes us back to the early 19th century and an unsure-of-itself, isolationalist little Republic.

He begins with some background - America's adventures - and misadventures - in the Mediterranean against the Islamic powers of the Barbary Coast. This sad episode has been blown all out of proportion by later chroniclers, as well as the Marine Corps Hymn with its "Shores of Tripoli" but as Budiansky remarks, not much happened on the shores of Tripoli. There was certainly no Marine Corps victory there.

Few Americans probably realize how pathetic America's military power was in the wake of America's independence. To say it was nonexistent is to put it lightly. It is not just that we had no military power - most people didn't want one. Military power - including naval power - was seen as an impediment to liberty.

Budiansky closely examines life aboard British and American naval vessels and we realize that no matter how much better American sailors had it, theirs was not easy life. Combat was brutal. When I first saw Master and Commander I had not realized how sanitized a treatment it was. Brutal as the sea battle seemed on the big screen, it paled in comparison to the reality of it.

The sailors were not the hearty, mostly earnest young men of Hollywood.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I have read quite a few books on the Naval war portion of the War of 1812. Usually, they will concentrate upon the thrilling single ship-to-ship battles of that war, mostly rousing and surprising-for-that-time American victories. This book does cover many of those battles and does so with style and panache, but it also covers the politics behind the War of 1812, and the human stories behind the battles.

For example the author shows us many explicit examples of American sailors being taken and impressed and their horrible mistreatment and even death by torture imposed upon them. "Perilous Fight: America's Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 1812-1815" also covers tales of British naval arrogance and the fact they simply ignored International Law and treaties is capturing American merchant vessels. This- combined with the fact that America's merchant trade was the major source of income in that period- puts a better perspective on the reason for the war.

Excellent use of period sources and quotes, extensively footnoted and researched, this book is a solid scholarly work.

My one quibble is that it does take a bit long to get to the action- there's more than a hundred pages between "The Shores of Tripoli" and the Constitution vs the Guerriere.

And- there's even almost enough maps!

Even if you (like I) have read other books on the naval portion of the War of 1812, this book belongs in your collection.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Budiansky is a masterful writer. He's a stylist. He knows how to tell a yarn: setting up the situation, coloring things with emotion, choosing the most important details, and then taking you through the events that lead to a conclusion. So I expected this book to be a "good read." And it was.

However, I was delighted to find that this is also a well-documented, thorough, and academically-sound bit of "real history." I'm not an academic and am certainly no expert on this era, but I often find that books which are "popular history" sacrifice complexity in order to achieve narrative flow. They're just too light-weight for me. In Perilous Fight, this author is to be commended for the rigor with which he sets up the dynamics between America's government, America's business interests, and the haughty British Empire. He tells tales, to be sure, but also provides the prescient overview that usually is the domain of the best history books.

(And...needless to say this is a fascinating topic. A young nation fighting a bully for the chance to sail the waters without interference. The Revolutionary War was about land; The War of 1812 was about sea!)
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I found Perilous Fight to be a surprisingly fun book to read. I was expecting a rather droll account of the naval portion of the war of 1812 (which I know very little about) but instead found a well-written book full of stories and life. Budiansky does a great job of bringing the historical figures and stories to life in a 'larger than life' sort of way. Besides the writing the history is well-researched and interesting. It was especially interesting since this is a largely forgotten part of history, so most of it was new to me.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Budiansky has given us a very entertaining, well written and fascinating account of the American Navy during the war with Britain, 1812-1815.
America had a small navy, thanks to John Adams (see Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy)at the start of the war. And no thanks to Thomas Jefferson, who believed that a navy was not necessary and preferred to do this thing "on the cheap" with gunboats, which were far less expensive and ineffective against British frigates and ships of the line.
We are introduced to all the significant American commanders. It is a minor miracle that they did not all kill themselves in duels because the slightest insult or perceived slight could bring out weapons and seconds.
For many, the most important action of this time was the defeat of the English ship Gueriere by the U.S. Constitution. American frigates were bigger and had more guns than British frigates, and the British were no match for them. Considering that this was only a few years after Nelson and Trafalgar in 1805, this action shocked the world. (There is an excellent sketch summary of the men-of-war from both sides on page 82, which provides you an excellent visual, which I think is worth the price of the book.)
American Secretary of the Navy William Jones was wise enough to concentrate naval forces against British commerce and distributed it all over the globe. He knew that an assemblage of American ships against the might of the British would be futile and he went the other way.
There are also good accounts of the individuals and the common sailors on the ships of both sides.
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