Sunday, August 11, 2013

Picturing the War of 1812, ‘Rise of U.S. Navy’

Review by Bill Doughty

National Geographic’s gorgeous “The War of 1812 and the Rise of the U.S. Navy” is a coffee-table book that is literally a work of art.

The pages pop with high-resolution photographs of paintings, drawings and artifacts reminiscent of the great Dorling Kindersley DK Eyewitness Books (works of nonfiction from England for all ages, with sharp visual-bites of illustrations, information and insights) on topics of science, history and exploration.

Like some of the DK books, “The War of 1812 and the Rise of the U.S. Navy,” produced under the auspices of the Naval History and Heritage Command, is both nonlinear and linear; readers can open for a rewarding browse or follow events from 200 years ago in chronological order.  

For example, if you want to see what was happening 200 years ago this month, turn to page 140.  In August 1813, as Lt. Thomas MacDonough rebuilt a small force led by the sloops President, Commodore Preble and Montgomery, on Lake Champlain a British squadron attacked American facilities.

Meanwhile, British Commodore Sir James Lucas Yeo, aboard his flagship HMS Wolfe, played a cat-and-mouse game with Captain Isaac Chauncey while confronting storms on Lake Ontario, in which two armed schooners, Hamilton and Scourge were lost, along with more than 70 sailors.

“Neither commander, it seemed, had anything to spare for Lake Erie,” the authors write.

The book focuses on the events, equipment and personalities -- and drama -- of the war.  Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry is shown as an honorable leader facing the British at Lake Erie in August 2013 leading up to the inevitable confrontation.

“By August, a bad situation was made much worse when Perry's little flotilla effectively blockaded Barclay (in charge of the gunboat division on the St. Lawrence River before assuming command of the Provincial Marine squadron with HMS Detroit on Lake Erie under appointment by Commodore Yeo) in Amhertsburg.  The specter of starvation then reared its ugly head; it was critical that the water highway to the east be reopened.  The young Royal Navy lieutenant could no longer resist the pressure to give battle.  Off Malden, the Americans staked out his operation, finding him and his men hard at the task of making preparations for engagement.  Detroit was almost, but not quite, ready.  Some of Perry’s officers recommended striking them unawares, but Perry wouldn’t have it. ‘No,’ he said.  ‘I will take no dishonorable advantage of them, but wait until they get in readiness, and meet them fairly and openly on the lake.”

Perry moved on to Put-in-Bay the following month, leading to the Battle of Lake Erie in which Perry wrote, “We have met the enemy and they are ours...”
William Powell's painting of Oliver Hazard Perry and sailors: "Battle of Lake Erie"

Authors Mark Collins Jenkins and David A. Taylor present the history of the war from Boston Harbor to the Great Lakes, from Baltimore and D.C. to New Orleans, with a brief visit to the other side of the Atlantic.

The book features a personal and heartfelt foreward by Douglas Brinkley.  The preface by Hon. Ray Mabus, Secretary of the Navy, discusses the tradition of the Navy related to the War of 1812 and  puts in context not only in the lessons in leadership, commitment and sea-power but also lessons for the future:

“Much has changed in the past two hundred years,” writes Mabus.  “Britain, once our staunch foe, has become our strong friend.  Where we once depended upon the wooden walls of our sailing ships, we now sail ships of steel.  The smoothbore cannons of 1812 have become the modern naval guns, missiles, and torpedoes of today.  Wind power has given way consecutively to coal-fired steam power, then oil and nuclear power and now the fleet is on the cusp of another change to biofuel and renewable energy.  Situational awareness was once limited to the horizon, based on the eyesight of a keen lookout from a ship’s tops.  This has given way to instantaneous communications to any point on the globe, to submarines sailing the depths, to aircraft soaring the skies and rocketing into outer space, and to sailors on the cyber sea."

The book brings to mind CNO Adm. Greenert's tenets "warfighting first, operate forward and be ready." 

CNO Adm. Jon Greenert and SECNAV Mabus (second from right) kick off the War of 1812 Bicentennial.
Interestingly, the first introductory quote in this book is from Alfred Thayer Mahan from his “Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812”

“Both parties to the War of 1812 being conspicuously maritime in disposition and occupation, while separated by three thousand miles of ocean, the sea and its navigable approaches became necessarily the most extensive scene of operations.”

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