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Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
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Books for Adults - Nonfiction

1812: The Navy's War                    The Shining Sea

Cover Art: 1812
1812: The Navy’s War
By George C. Daughan
Basic Books, 2011, ISBN 978-0-465-02046-1, US$32.50 / CAN $37.50 / £21.99


Although wars begin in specific years, the root causes of those wars often date back to years prior to the declaration of hostilities. Daughan opens his examination of the War of 1812 with an exploration of the Treaty of Paris (1783) and the election of George Washington as President of the United States in 1789. He also examines the differing political parties and opinions that divide the fledging United States, discusses British resentment toward their former colony, and explains how their navy’s practice of forcing sailors from American vessels into the Royal Navy becomes a point of honor that leads to the war. Throughout the narrative, the author focuses primarily on American perspectives, but he shares the enemy’s perceptions as well.
At the start of the war, President Madison felt privateers would be the “potent sea force” America needed, rather than the navy. How could a mere twenty warships be expected to engage the greatest sea power in the world and win? The book’s subtitle clarifies Daughan’s primary focus, but he incorporates to a lesser degree the importance of the American privateers, and succinctly summarizes the internal struggle between the Federalists and the Republicans, as well as the British government’s stubborn refusal to alter attitudes and practices concerning their former colonies, all of which impact the war. In doing so, he presents a well-rounded look at the entire conflict, as the table of contents below shows.
The book opens with a series of maps to assist readers in following the various confrontations and venues for which the two nations fought. The author further supplements his narrative with portraits and paintings, extensive end notes, a glossary, and a bibliography. The index provides quick access to specific events, ships, and people discussed in the book.
Daughan, an award-winning naval historian, pulls no punches in this gripping examination of the War of 1812. He paints vivid pictures of the people (complete with blinders on), the fiascos, and the stirring victories in a war that eventually becomes America’s second war of independence. Of particular importance is the inclusion of European events and internal strife that impacted the war between the United States and Great Britain.  Doing so demonstrates that nothing happens within a vacuum. Equally interesting is the ineptitude and single-mindedness that prevented the War of 1812 from being a grand victory and more than once came close to ending the American Republic in its infancy. What makes this an important study of this conflict is Duaghan’s skillful presentation of how the victories of American naval and privateer vessels brought about a begrudging change in the British Admiralty’s opinion of American seamanship, and how that adjustment eventually aided in the peace negotiations.
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Review Copyrighted ©2011 Cindy Vallar
 Table of Contents
  1. Road to War
  2. Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights
  3. Jefferson’s Embargo and the Slide Toward War
  4. Madison’s Strategy
  5. The United States Declares War
  6. Blue-Water Victories
  7. The Constitution and the Guerriere
  8. Ripe Apples and Bitter Fruit: The Canadian Invasion
  9. Canadian Disasters Accumulate
  10. More Blue Water Victories
  11. The Constitution and the Java
  12. A Sea Change
  13. Napoleon and Alexander
  14. The Canadian Invasion Resumes
  15. The Chesapeake and the Shannon
  16. Raids in Chesapeake Bay
  17. Oliver Hazard Perry
  1. Attack on Montreal
  2. The War at Sea in 1813
  3. The Allies and Napoleon
  4. British and American War Plans
  5. The British Blockade
  6. The Essex
  7. Burning Washington
  8. The War at Sea Continues in 1814
  9. Negotiations Begin at Ghent
  10. Baltimore
  11. Plattsburgh
  12. A Peace Treaty
  13. The Hartford Convention
  14. New Orleans
  15. An Amazing Change
  16. A New Era
  17. From Temporary Armistice to Lasting Peace: The Importance of the War

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Cover Art: The Shining Sea
The Shining Sea: David Porter and the Epic Voyage of the U.S.S. Essex during the War of 1812
By George C. Daughan
Basic Books, 2013, ISBN 978-0-465-01962-5, US $29.99 / £34.50

Although the American navy had few ships when compared to her opponent, the British Royal Navy, its excellent officers were seasoned young men who had fought before, unlike their army counterparts who hadn’t gone to war since the Revolution. One of these officers was David Porter Jr., who first defended his country during the Quasi-War with France. During the war with Tripoli, he was aboard the Philadelphia when she went aground and spent more than a year as a prisoner of that Barbary state. He saw the War of 1812 as his chance to shine, to make a name for himself and become famous. That chance came when he assumed command of the 32-gun frigate Essex and set sail on a cruise that lasted seventeen months. But the saga began in August 1812 when he captured HMS Alert, a sloop of war armed with twenty guns. At the time, the United Stated possessed twenty warships in total, whereas the British fleet had 500-600 vessels, 83 of which sailed in American waters. Most people believed Britain would soon decimate the American fleet, but the young officers in command of these ships thought otherwise. Porter finally proved just how daring and skilled he and his fellow commanders were when the Alert surrendered – the first time an American warship captured a Royal Navy vessel in the War of 1812. By the time he returned home to Chester, Pennsylvania in September to refit the Essex for her next cruise, the value of the various ships he and his men had captured totaled more than $300,000.

Assigned to William Bainbridge’s squadron, he was ordered to rendezvous with the commodore either in African waters or off the coast of South America, depending on when the Essex finished her repairs. But Porter never found Bainbridge, and so he struck out on his own. He felt his best opportunity for fame lay in attacking Britain’s whaling fleet in the Pacific. Just sailing around Cape Horn would mark the first time an American warship did so. This account incorporates political strife in Spanish colonies, whaling ships, and the exotic places and people they encountered. Also included in the book are maps, illustrations, end notes, a bibliography, and an index.

The Shining Sea is the story of Porter’s epic voyage and reads more like a novel than a history. After setting the stage and providing basic information about the war and the navy, Daughan steps back in time to discuss Porter’s family, friends, early life, and first years in the navy. All had a profound effect upon the man he became, the way he commanded his ship, and how he dealt with the challenges he faced. This fascinating book is also the story of the Essex, from the laying of her keel in 1799 until she was sold for scrap in 1837, and the men who sailed her.

Review Copyrighted ©2014 Cindy Vallar

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