The Perilous Fight
America's Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 1812-1815
By Stephen Budiansky
Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.
Stephen Budiansky likes to deeply explore a topic that is of interest to him, using an outsider's perspective to expose deeply cherished myths. In The Perilous Fight, he seeks to refocus the discussion of American naval successes in the War of 1812, from the traditional celebration of the frigate victories against the world's premier naval power, to a broader appreciation of the asymmetrical anti-commerce strategy pursued by the U.S. Navy Department. The book does not quite deliver on this promise, easily showing the plausibility of his thesis but not conclusively demonstrating that it had any effect in bringing the war to a close. At the same time, it is also a fresh and vivid account of the naval events of the War of 1812.
Intriguingly, Budiansky emphasizes the tenuous nature of American independence at the beginning of the 19th century. Very little progress had been made since the Revolution, cities had barely grown or even shrunk in size, and Southern planters lived in an environment of amidst "genteel poverty." This was before the Industrial Revolution, before the cotton gin. Yet America remained a large market for manufactured goods, and the merchant marine enjoyed the success that eluded the rest of the American economy. Indeed, British shillings remained more common than American coinage.
Since tariffs formed the basis of taxation, the Napoleonic Wars had severe effects on the U.S. Treasury, causing disruptions to the American merchant marine. Budiansky covers familiar ground from the history books: the debate over neutral rights, the British blockade of French-dominated Europe, Thomas Jefferson's pet project of Republican gunboats to replace Federalist frigates, etc. But he fleshes it out with details that rarely make it into the history books, describing the high interest rates that the Treasury was having to pay for debt, as well as appreciating the logistics behind navy operations. For example, Jeffersonian cutbacks had left the Constitution as the only American ship cruising on station in the Mediterranean. Thus, the Chesapeake affair was not only a national humiliation, to have a warship boarded by another power in sight of one's own shores. It also delayed the relief of the Constitution, whose crew grew near-mutinous as their original two-year enlistments were forcibly extended to four.