Sunday, January 1, 2012

1812: The Navy’s War

by Bill Doughty
We don’t know what we don’t know, and ignorance of history condemns us to repeat past mistakes.
That could explain why the bicentennial of the War of 1812 -- which has lots of lessons from the past, of the present, and for the future -- is so important to the Navy.
It was:
  • Our second war for independence;
    • A war with Great Britain and Canada, now among our strongest allies; and
    • A rebirth for the U.S. Navy, inspiring the Star Spangled Banner.
    Author George C. Daughan gives a Navy-oriented history lesson in his 2011 overview, 1812: The Navy’s War.  A reading of the history of the War of 1812 teaches why this conflict was so important to the nation’s development, especially as a world economic power.
    We see familiar themes and how they apply today in chapters like “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights,” “Jefferson’s Embargo and the Slide to War,” and “From Temporary Amistice to Lasting Peace: The Importance of the War.”
    The book reveals how the Navy committed to being a blue water, forward-deployed and ready force for a nation that was less than 40 years old, just 25 years since the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and a mere five years after two big milestones: Robert Fulton development of the first practical steamboat and the British Parliament’s declaration that it was illegal to buy, sell and transport slaves.
    Daughan shows that the strength of the Navy -- demonstrated at Lake Erie, Plattsburgh Bay, Baltimore and New Orleans -- proved to the British that their former colonies made a formidable partner.  The collaboration and cooperation earned on the seas and in the littorals in 1812 would prove invaluable in the next century in two world wars.
    Madison - Painting by Chet Jezierski 
    The book begins and ends with a discussion of economics and commerce.  President Madison was enthralled with the British Empire’s economic might but, like Thomas Jefferson, championed the more French ideals of human rights and equality.
    Daughan shows how Madison’s pragmatic approach with former enemies and strategic conduct of the War of 1812, “within the confines of the Constitution,” contributed to lasting military and diplomatic success.  “In conducting himself in this manner, he immeasurably strengthened the democratic forces that had been building in America since the start of the Revolution and that had accelerated under Jefferson.”
    1812: The Navy’s War inspires the reader to think about the rise of nationalism, the effects of the Industrial Revolution, and everything else that was happening in the world during that pivotal time, including and how it might affect history in generations to come:
    • 1812 - Napoleon led his Grand Army from France, Germany and Poland into Russia (read Tolsoy’s War and Peace), which had just finished fighting the Russo-Finnish War and was already fighting the Russo-Turkish and Russo-Persian Wars; 
    • From 1808 to 1813 - Napoleonic Peninsular War in Spain and Portugal;
    • From 1811 to 1818 - the Egyptian war with Wahhabis, with Egyptian forces retaking Mecca from the Wahhabis in 1813;
    • From 1811 to 1825 - Latin-American wars of independence;
    • 1812 - Russian establishment of Fort Ross outpost near Bodea Bay in Northern California, Fort Ross. (The Russians tried to lay claim to Alaska in the previous century and established three forts on Kauai, Hawaii beginning in 1817.)
    • From 1804 to 1813 - Serbian Insurrection (with WWI implications); and 
    • 1812 - Siamese invasion of Cambodia.
    Connecting all of those nations, directly or indirectly: the world's oceans and a still-developing world economy.  The slogan for the bicentennial is  "America's Navy... Keeping the sea free for more than 200 years."  The Navy has a 200-years-ago-today timeline on its 1812 bicentennial site as well as an interactive map, historic paintings, classroom curricula, and a list of events, starting with the Navy's kickoff event in April 2012 in Washington, D.C.

    Last year we reviewed books tied to the Centennial of Naval Aviation.  This year we look forward to exploring the significance of the bicentennial of the War of 1812 and how it shaped the Navy, the United States and the world.

    The USS Constitution had a special role to play in 1812, as did its skipper.
    According to "Captain Hull's time on Constitution was eventful. He took the ship on a European cruise in 1811-12, returning home before the War of 1812 broke out between the United States and Great Britain. An enemy squadron closely pursued his ship off the East Coast in July, but Hull skillfully evaded them. On 19 August 1812, Constitution encountered the British frigate Guerriere at sea and pounded her to a wreck in an action that electrified the Nation and demonstrated that the small U.S. Navy was a worthy and dangerous opponent for Britain's otherwise overwhelming maritime might."

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