BOOK REVIEW: 'Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron': The War of 1812 Examined in Readable Detail on Its Bicentennial

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron': The War of 1812 Examined in Readable Detail on Its Bicentennial

As a history junkie who's reviewed dozens of books on the subject, I was wondering (I do this a lot!) "Where are the books on a war that has been called 'the second American Revolution' on the bicentennial of its commencement?"


I'm referring, of course, to The War of 1812 between the fledgling U.S. and the British Empire, by far the largest naval power on earth. It officially began with Congress declaring war on Britain on June 18, 1812, but it began long before with the impressment of American sailors by the British, writes Ronald D. Utt in his comprehensive and very readable "Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron: The War of 1812 and the Forging of the American Navy" (Regnery History, 528 pages, illustrations, maps, notes, bibliography, cast of characters, index, $29.95).


Utt's telling of the war minces no words about who was responsible for the war: It was the Royal Navy and its policy of kidnapping, abducting -- whatever you want to call it -- of Americans to serve on their ships. In Chapter One he recounts the case of one of these victims: "in his memoirs of his time as a sailor aboard the American frigates Constitution and John Adams during the War of 1812, Moses Smith recounts a tragic story about an American seaman’s attempt to escape British impressment—a form of abduction and involuntary naval service practiced by recruiters for the Royal Navy in the early nineteenth century:

'About this time the John Adams arrived at Annapolis from a foreign cruise, and from her men we learned of a striking case of heroism, which is worthy to be told. A coloured seaman belonging to New York had been pressed into English service, and when the Adams was lying off their coast, he got an opportunity to come on board of her as one of a boat’s crew, sent with an officer upon some errand. Thinking now his time had come to escape from the Brit ish, he determined if possible not to return. Accordingly, as he stood on the deck of the Adams, he suddenly seized a boarding axe, and in the presence of the crew, cut off the fingers of his right hand at a single blow. Then with his left hand holding up the bloody weapon, he exclaimed, “Now let the English take me if they want me.” However disabled as he was, they took him back, our officers having no power to interfere. If patriotism be anything but a name, then surely this noble african deserved a better fate. There are exalted qualities often concealed beneath a darkened skin.'"


The numbers vary, Utt writes, from a low of 2,500 to a high of 25,000 sailors, with the number of impressments reaching 7,500 by the start of the war. Utt says there was no debate on the subject -- policy was driven by Britain's insatiable demand for manpower:

Ronald D. Utt
Ronald D. Utt

"Britain’s practice of impressment was driven by severe manpower shortages and the need to maintain a vast naval fleet and army to counter those of Napoleon. By 1812, Britain had been at war with France and its allies for all but a few of the past twenty years in a conflict that had been raging on and off for many decades before. The origins of the current conflict could be said to have stretched back to the Seven Years War, fought between 1754 and 1760, and known to Americans as the French and Indian War. That war led to the loss of French Canada to the British, and the pursuit of revenge led France to provide essential military support to the American colonies during their War of Inde pendence. When Napoleon seized power in 1799, Anglo-French warfare resumed with a vengeance and continued at a high intensity until Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo in 1815.

"This perpetual state of war stretched Britain’s resources to the limits. Among the many problems she confronted were substantial and pervasive manpower shortages in the navy. With the work demanding, pay low, discipline severe, and risk of death high from disease, injury, and combat, the British fleet—which at times numbered as many as a thousand ships—struggled with a perennial shortage of seamen."


Although he gives considerable space to land battles in "Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron" Ott, who has a Ph.D. in economics from Indiana University, devotes the bulk of his book to naval battles, including battles on Lake Champlain and the Great Lakes. Even the final battle of the war, the routing of the British at New Orleans in 1815 by forces led by Andrew Jackson , started out as a naval battle that moved onto a site in Chalmette, east of the Crescent City. The British launched this naval invasion to loot the city and to incite its multi-racial and multi-cultural residents to revolt against American rule. It turned out to be one of many British mistakes -- and not a few American ones -- in the war.


It's the classic underdog story, with the young nation employing a fleet of only seventeen ships besting the five-hundred-ship-strong Royal Navy in a string of early victories that astonished both sides, highlighting how American courage, gunnery, and skill could prove itself against the most daunting odds. The official Navy was of course supplemented by hundreds of privateers, which greatly evened the odds, but it was a remarkable, almost unprecedented achievement.


Ronald Utt paints vivid portraits of the heroes—including Stephen Decatur, James “Don’t Give Up the Ship!” Lawrence, Oliver Hazard Perry, and Francis Scott Key—to give readers an unforgettable experience of the War of 1812. After the British invaded Washington and burned down most of the government buildings and a few private dwellings, they tried to repeat the experience in Baltimore, a much bigger city. Utt describes how they failed and how the world's biggest American flag survived a battle at Fort McHenry, inspiring Francis Scott Key to write the lyrics of the future national anthem.


The signature naval battle of many in the war was the one described in Chapter 3, "Old Ironsides". The frigate U.S. S. Constitution, under the command of Isaac Hull earned the moniker "Old Ironsides" after its sinking of the British warship H.M.S. Guerriere on August 19, 1812 off Georges Bank. The chapter goes into detail on the construction of the Constitution and its sister ships and what made them special.


Ironically, the heroism of Isaac Hull wasn't matched by his uncle Gen. William Hull, a 59-year-old hero of the Revolution, who, in his capacity as governor of Michigan Territory, surrendered Fort Detroit to British Major Gen. Isaac Brock on Aug. 16 -- three days before his nephew's triumph in the Atlantic. Utt describes how the pessimistic William Hull, fearing the massacre of his forces by the Indian allies of the British (Page 33) surrendered the strategic fort without consulting his officers. It, and the surrender of Fort Dearborn -- in present day downtown Chicago -- under the command of Capt. Nathan Heald, ordered by William Hull, were major setbacks to the Americans.


Utt blames the timid Hull, in contrast to his audacious and heroic nephew. Utt writes (Page 353) that even Thomas Jefferson, "whose intense partisanship forced these incompetents upon a young nation at risk", confided in early 1813 to Benjamin Rush, 'so wretched a succession of generals never before destroyed the fairest expectations of a nation.'"


In fact, with the major exceptions of Generals Andy Jackson and William Henry Harrison, the hero of the battle of Tippecanoe in Indiana Territory, Jefferson, responsible for the appointment of many of the defective generals, wasn't exaggerating in his assessment: the Americans were not as well served by army officers as it was by naval ones, Utt points out. Both Jackson and Harrison became Presidents of the U.S., among the seven produced by the war. War veterans also included Texas heroes Sam Houston, Stephen Austin, David Crockett and Jim Bowie.


Perhaps the worst American general in the war and a candidate the worst ever in the history of the army was James Wilkinson, described on Page 353, the one-time ally of Aaron Burr, who ratted him out to Jefferson. During the Revolution, Utt writes, Wilkinson "cut his teeth as a conspirator against his country" serving under Gen. Horatio Gates, who "spent much of the war trying to undermine the command of Washington."


Before September 11 became a day of infamy in the U.S., it was a triumphal day, with the Sept. 11, 1814 naval defeat by the U.S. under Master Commander James Macdonough of British forces in Lake Champlain, described in Chapter 19, "Macdonough Sinks Britain"(Pages 375ff). Macdonough, who later changed the spelling of his name to Mcdonough, defeated the British Navy in the strategic long and narrow lake separating New York and Vermont at Plattsburgh Bay on the New York side, forcing the British to retreat back to Montreal. If the British had succeeded on that September 11, New York City, already blockaded by the Royal Navy, would have had no chance since the lake and the Hudson River were the quickest way for the nearly 400 miles separating Montreal and New York.


"Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron" is packed to the gunwales, to use a naval allusion, with stories like this. It reads like a novel but it's solidly documented history, with talented historian Utt never reluctant to present his judgments and opinions. The aforementioned timeline and cast of characters make the book supremely easier to read.




About the author


Ronald D. Utt is a former senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., with a long-standing interest in maritime warfare. He served in President Reagan's Office of Management and Budget and is the former associate chief economist of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He and his wife Michele live in Falmouth, Virginia, on the Rappahannock River.


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