Scrapping With the British Navy

The usual round of books and look-backs on the War of 1812 commenceth. Austin Bay seizes upon a book on the naval war between the US and Britain:

In 1812, Great Britain presented U.S. war planners with a very challenging strategic problem, one with contemporary irony given America’s 21st century military might: How do you wage successful war against a global superpower?

Two numbers illustrate America’s quandary. The RN began the war with around 500 warships. The U.S. Navy had 14, though when the war began not all were crewed and seaworthy. Shipping and trade were critical issues to both belligerents, and RN lions ruled the high seas. In comparison, the USN was a poorly funded mouse.

However, as Kevin McCranie demonstrates in his new book, “Utmost Gallantry: The U.S. and Royal Navies in the War of 1812” (Naval Institute Press), the tiny USN was a talented, courageous, well-led and therefore dangerous mouse.

It’s not the size of the navy in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the navy.

Of course, having your opponent distracted by Napoleon never hurts.

The War of 1812

It was our first official war, and we very nearly lost it. Today it is remembered chiefly for giving birth to the poem that became our national anthem. It wasn’t the most important war even then: Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, which occurred the same year, was far more significant. But there are some resonances that remain even today:

  • After the Battle of Lake Erie, Oliver Perry sent a note to William Henry Harrison with  the words: “We have met the enemy, and he is ours.” When Walt Kelly parodied that to “We have met the enemy, and he is us,” people actually knew the reference.
  • Speaking of which, William Henry Harrison’s career was made by the war. Whatever the tragicomedy of his thirty-day presidency in 1841, thirty years previously, Harrison was a military hero second to George Washington and Andrew Jackson.
  • Speaking of which, while Harrison was conquering the Midwest, tossing out the British and breaking the power of the Indian tribes, Jackson was doing much the same in the Deep South. The Battle of New Orleans was a thundering defeat of the same British military that would crush Napoleon at Waterloo later that same summer (the British commander at New Orleans, Packenham, who died in the battle, had served under Wellington in Spain).

It’s our first official war, and its our first forgotten war. Maybe over the nest three years we’ll remember it a little.