Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P.O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
Books for Adults - Nonfiction
Today, we know the war fought between the United States and Britain from 1812 to 1815 as the War of 1812, but that moniker didn’t come into use until after the Mexican War nearly four decades later. Americans wanted to forget the disastrous land battles and military blunders that characterized much of the conflict. The war was also rife with political strife, pitting Federalists against Republicans. About the only thing the two parties agreed on “was how gloriously the tiny American navy had triumphed.” (xi) And that, of course, was precisely what the British wished to forget – their humiliating defeats inflicted by the same rebellious nation that had defeated them thirty years before.
The author’s intent in this examination of the War of 1812 is to focus “on humanity hidden in ordinary times; it lays bare what is so often successfully hidden.” Budiansky looks at both the glorious aspects of the conflict, and the not so glorious ones, by concentrating on the opposing navies. He interweaves memoirs, personal and public letters, news reports, eyewitness accounts, and contemporary views. Aside from a story of the American navy’s early days, Perilous Fight is also about William Jones, the secretary of the navy for two critical years of the war. Another purpose of the book is to show the most enduring significance of this conflict, of which Augustus J. Foster, a British diplomat, said: “The Americans . . . have brought us to speak of them with respect.”(xv)
Unlike many books about the War of 1812, this one opens with the United States Navy and its interactions with the Barbary pirates, the early days of the American government, and why the navy lacked the support that we today take for granted. From there, Budiansky explores how the British viewed her former colony and the dangers American tars faced from Royal Navy ships in need of additional crewmen. Another key component concerns the greater threat from the British perspective – the Continental war with Napoleon. Subsequent chapters focus on the strengths and differences between the warships of both sides, key naval people and politicians, the issues and confrontations that brought both countries into battle, the war itself from both perspectives, battles between warships, the British blockade of the American coasts and the effect that blockade had on the economy, how the face of war changed as the conflict progressed, prisoners of war, privateers, the burning of Washington and the attack on Fort McHenry, peace, and the consequences of the war.
To enhance the narrative and enrich the reading experience, the book contains maps, diagrams, and two sections of illustrations, one in color, the other in black and white. Chapter notes, a bibliography of primary and secondary resources, and a detailed index appear at the end of the volume.
Perilous Fight is an engrossing account of the War of 1812 from the perspective of the navies and people involved. The inclusion of snippets from personal writings and other private correspondence breathe life into the participants and make them more than simply names upon a page. Budiansky adeptly meets his goals and does so with a narrative that reads more like a novel than a history. Even those unfamiliar with naval histories and maritime ways will easily comprehend what is written here. Readers come away with a better understanding of what led to the war and the conflict itself, as well as an appreciation that some of the issues currently facing our nation seem eerily reminiscent of this earlier period in our history.
Review Copyrighted ©2012 Cindy Vallar
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