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Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P.O. Box 425, Keller, TX  76244-0425

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Books for Adults - Nonfiction

Cover Art: Ships of Oak Guns of
   Ships of Oak Guns of Iron: The War of 1812 and the Forging of the American Navy
Ronald D. Utt
Regnery History, 2012, ISBN 978-1-935623-09-0, US $29.95 / CAN $34

It is said that the trouble with trying to learn history is that they keep adding to it. From the day our nation was founded, Americans have been making history at a heady pace. Finding space on the cluttered shelves of our memory for the new “stuff” forces us into periodic house cleanings to make way for it. In the process, events that no longer seem as important as they once did get condensed into smaller spaces, while others get carted off to the historical attic.

The War of 1812, in which a small, upstart country defied the world’s most fearsome military power, is one of those events that has undergone vigorous historical condensation . . . until . . . it looked like it was being packed up for attic storage. (xxxii)

These two paragraphs from the introduction of Ships of Oak Guns of Iron perfectly sum up how we’ve relegated this war to near obscurity. The bicentennial of the conflict, however, is bringing the war back into the forefront of American memory, and this book serves as an excellent overview of the War of 1812.

The book opens with a list of “Participants in the War of 1812,” and each entry notes the primary events in which each person was involved as well as a few other key tidbits about that individual’s life. This section is followed by a “Timeline of Key Events in the War of 1812.” The inclusion of both of these provides readers with a quick reference guide and an outline of what they will encounter in greater detail within the pages of this volume. Each chapter (listed below) is subdivided into segments, which makes it easy for readers to set aside the book when life intervenes, while the interesting narrative ensures they will pick it up again later. Diagrams and illustrations, maps, chapter notes, a bibliography, and an index are included.
1. America and Britain Drift toward War
2. Back on Land: The Fall of Forts Detroit and Dearborn
3. Old Ironsides
4. Back on Land: Failure on the Niagara
5. Stephen Decatur Finds the Macedonian
6. Back on Land: Harrison on the Maumee
7. Bainbridge Finds Redemption
8. Back on Land: Holding the Line
9. Into the Pacific
10. Back on Land: Harrison on the Maumee Line
11. The Tide Turns in the Atlantic
12. Back on Land: British on the Chesapeake, 1813
13. Henry Allen Ravages the English
14. Back on Land: Alabama Burning
15. “We Have Met the Enemy and They Are Ours”
16. Harrison Takes Detroit, Jackson Alabama
17. Letters of Marque and Reprisal
18. Montreal, and Back to the Niagara
19. Macdonough Sinks Britain
20. Back on Land: Washington and Baltimore
21. Challenging the British Blockade
22. New Orleans – Peace at Last

What sets this volume apart from other treatments of the war is the historical kernels not found elsewhere. They may not be of major importance, but they serve to make the conflict a more personal experience for the reader. They also show how divided Americans were. For example, citizens of Ogdensburg convinced American soldiers to set up camp at Sackets Harbor rather than their own town because the army’s presence might invite the British troops to attack. Once the Americans left, the citizens began supplying the enemy with needed supplies.

For those interested in piracy and privateering, several chapters include relevant information. A number of chapters include information on the Barbary corsairs. Chapter seventeen is devoted to privateers, discussing Captain Joshua Barney, Jean and Pierre Laffite, Nathaniel Shaler, Thomas Kemp’s schooners, Thomas Boyle, and Sam Reid. American privateers are also mentioned in a few other chapters.

While primary focus is on the naval engagements, the battles on land are also summarized to provide readers with a clear view of what happened when and how the war fit within the context of world events. Utt’s well-rounded treatment encapsulates all perspectives. The inclusion of quotations from primary source materials and authoritative historians from the past enrich the narrative, giving the reader a greater sense of closeness to the events and participants in the War of 1812.

Read an excerpt

  Review Copyrighted ©2013 Cindy Vallar
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