The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History. Vol. 3

Article excerpt

Crawford, Michael J., et al., ed. The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History. Vol. 3. Washington, D.C.: Naval Historical Center (GPO), 2002. 874pp. $70

During the War of 1812, the United States attempted to invade Canada three times in separate campaigns and failed on each occasion. Inept leadership, militia and service differences, and lost tactical opportunities marred translation of strategic aims into a workable operational plan. Vastly outnumbered by American troops on the land frontier along the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River, the British and Canadians remained on the defensive until events in Europe released regular reinforcements and ships of the Royal Navy. In 1814, Great Britain applied seapower against the United States and took the offensive. The resulting stalemate eventually brought the two adversaries to the peace table to sign the Treaty of Ghent, whereby British North America's territorial integrity was preserved for the later confederation of Canada into a nation. This documentary collection, the third volume of a projected series of four to be published by the Naval Historical Center on the naval side of the war, concentrates on the Chesapeake Bay, Great Lakes, and Pacific theaters from 1814 to 1815. The selection of documents, like the two preceding volumes, deals comprehensively with events and persons behind the main battles and campaigns on both sides, as well as with such matters as recruitment, logistics, shipbuilding, and social relations from a wider perspective.

Almost half the book is devoted to the British blockade of the Chesapeake Bay and American defense against the mounting amphibious incursions of General Robert Ross and Admiral Alexander Cochrane into the American heartland. Once the resolve of General William Winder and his sundry troops crumbled at the battle of Bladensburg, Washington was left wide open. The occupying British burned the White House and other public buildings (allegedly in retaliation for burning the provincial legislature at York [presentday Toronto] by American sailors in April the previous year). The documents highlight the flexibility accorded the British to choose when and where to attack from the sea, as well as the significant naval contribution in stiffening American defenses.

The British likewise demonstrated the possibilities of concerted military and naval action on the internal waters of Lake Huron, Lake Ontario, and Lake Champlain, the high point being Commodore Sir James Yeo's amphibious raid on the American transfer point at Oswego, and the low point definitely being General George Prevost's retreat from Plattsburg. On the opposing side, Commodore Isaac Chauncey's support of American armies on the Niagara frontier took second place to a growing ship-building race between the American and British naval commanders. …