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This review is from: Perilous Fight: America's Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 1812-1815 (Hardcover)
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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. Unlike the Americans, the British sailors tended to be impressed men, forced into service, often times foreigners taken off ships, and criminals: "half the men on a typical British warship of the year 1812 had been impressed and another eighth were the none-too-voluntary "volunteers" who had chosen to remain in the navy over rotting away in the county jail or worse; in all, probably only a quarter of the crew of a British ship were there in any sense of their own free will." These "quota" men demoralized the rest of the crew with their behavior, including "shirking" and "thieving" and brought harsh discipline down on the heads of all.
And the punishments. A list from British ships "on the American station for two months in the summer of 1812" offer the following: 48 lashes for striking a stargent of marines, 36 lashes for desertion, 24 lashes for pissing in the manger and skulking, 42 lashes for drunkenness, 24 lashes for contempt, and so on. The smallest infraction could get you flogged.
Life was rough for those sailors. As the author tells us many men were missing fingers or other body parts, just from the day to day accidents that took place aboard ship. Worse followed when the ship went into battle. Drawing on period accounts, Budiansky tells us how men had cannonballs take their heads off, arms, hands, legs, or go through the abdomen. Men were not always carried below to the "cockpit" (which was nowhere near as spacious as the film makes it appear) but were sometimes simply tossed overboard to get them out of the way, even before they died.
And disease...as Budiansky relates, the "cure" was often worse than the disease, which of which were treated with toxins, "nearly all of them worthless and most of them poisonous" including mercury and lead.
Glamor and glory? Hardly.
He also touches on the land war, far less successful than America's war at sea. It seems clear that America lacked the inspirational (and successful) leaders of the Revolution, and some of those old Revolutionary hands who tried their hand in 1812 were miserable failures. There was no George Washington to restore American fortunes and no one with the dash of Benedict Arnold. It seems almost unreasonable that the country survived such a bumbled, at times half-hearted war for survival. You have to wonder, had Britain not been tied up fighting Napoleon, how long the United States would have lasted.
If there is anything missing from this account of the war it is a sense of the overall situation - what were America's and Britain's relative assets and where were they?
This is far more than an account of the naval war of 1812, but a book about naval warfare in the post-Revolutionary period, strategy and tactics, and life aboard ship. I highly recommend it - one of the best books about naval war I have read.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Feb 15, 2012, 5:38:09 PM PST
David McIntyre says:
A very fine review,you just made another sale for Mr Budiansky as you can order the book on British Amazon,many thanks.
In reply to an earlier post on Feb 15, 2012, 6:36:10 PM PST
Hrafnkell Haraldsson says:
Glad to hear it!
Posted on Sep 15, 2012, 6:55:21 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 15, 2012, 6:55:56 AM PDT
Regarding the land war, the Americans were amateur soldiers without the tradition of professionalism of the British army. American army leaders & soldiers of the Revolutionary War did a better job because the war lasted much longer than the War of 1812. So, they had a lot more time to learn their trade, and got much better as the war progressed. A good example of the amateurish tactics and fighting at the beginning of the Revolutionary War was the fighting around New York in 1776.
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