1812: War with America
Jon Latimer. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2007. 408 pp. Illus. Maps. Notes. Bib. Index. $35.
Reviewed by Frederick C. Leiner
Many books have been written about the War of 1812 in the last few years, but none quite like Jon Latimer's 1812: War with America. The author of histories of British arms in the Burma and North African campaigns in World War II, Latimer has written the first book on the War of 1812 from the British perspective since William James nearly two centuries ago. The result is a thorough and elegantly written account that squarely places the conflict in the context of the Napoleonic Wars. Certain aspects of 1812 will be objectionable to American readers, but that is more the history itself rather than any bias that Latimer, a former officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, brings to it.
While acknowledging American complaints of British insults at sea in the decade before the War of 1812, including the impressment of thousands of merchant seamen, Latimer depreciates the maritime causes for the war. He asserts that many of the shanghaied Americans were not native Americans (unsurprising given the migration of Irishmen and Britons to the new United States), and notes that a booming business existed in fraudulent U.S. seamen's protection certificates. Besides, Latimer argues, Britain needed impressment to man its fleet; pilfering merchant seamen was essential in fighting Napoleon.
To the British, the War of 1812 was nothing but a landgrab, as the expansionist and opportunistic Americans had their eyes on Canada. Although former President Thomas Jefferson and the "war hawks" in Congress thought taking Canada would be a "mere matter of marching," the attempt was an abject failure. Latimer disdains the amateurish Americans going to war with an inept administration, old and incapable generals, a tiny and dispersed regular army, no logistics, no general staff, and a fragile financial base—woefully unready except for an overwhelming supply of hubris. Using the small and battle-tested U.S. Navy was almost an afterthought. The British and Canadian land forces, though small, were led by experienced professionals and were fighting for their country and homes.
Debacle after debacle ensued for the Americans on land and at sea. Despite early victories and irritating successes by privateers, the United States could not hope to prevail. The war ended essentially in a draw, with both countries spent financially, although British invasions down Lake Champlain and at New Orleans had been deflected. For Britain, with Napoleon defeated, there was no reason to continue what Latimer calls "little more than an annoying distraction." The one lasting result of the war was the securing of Canadian independence.
1812: War with America covers all aspects of the conflict, including diplomacy, finances, atrocities perpetrated by and against the Indians, the naval campaigns at sea and on the Great Lakes, and the land campaigns in the Old Northwest, the South, and Canada. Latimer details the nearly insurmountable logistical issues confronting both armies on the Canadian frontier and the naval forces on the lakes. With wit and pathos, he has drawn wonderful capsule sketches of the participants, and his staggering research has led to illuminating first-hand accounts of marches and battles from leading generals to lowly sergeants.
Despite being a redcoat, Latimer describes maritime action convincingly. He devotes five pages to the Chesapeake-Shannon naval battle (a British victory) and only two pages to the Constitution-Guerrière battle (a British defeat), but for Americans, this is history written from the enemy's side. As with other British military historians, he is almost religious in listing each battalion at each engagement, which to an American reader begins as a charming exercise but rapidly becomes tedious. In contrast to most American units, the British and Canadian regiments stood up bravely in the campaigns. As Latimer demonstrates, only on the water did the Americans consistently fight well. Yet 1812 is a needed antidote to the triumphalism that, as in William James' day, passes as legitimate history by American writers.
The audience to whom this book will appeal, however, is unclear. It seems too dense for general American readers, who may be confused by the bewildering number of characters who quickly take the stage, disappear, and sometimes reappear many pages later. The general American reader also may find himself lost in all the Canadian maneuvering, since there are not enough maps of Canadian territory. Yet this work may not be detailed enough for those with a deeper interest in specific battles or events. Perhaps Canadians will be the major audience for this book, since Latimer represents the war largely as a heroic defense of their homeland.
In a work of this scope and size, errors of fact and dubious interpretations are inevitable. They include Latimer's suggestion that the British "spared" Baltimore in September 1814, not that the British ground attack was rebuffed even as the bombardment of Fort McHenry was ineffective; his contradictory assessments of the impact of American privateers at various stages of the war; errors about the rate and design of some U.S. ships; and his explanation that a British ship was defeated when she "fired high, as usual," which was not British doctrine.
These reservations aside, 1812: War with America is a detailed study of a still-obscure war from the British perspective, insightful, written with panache, and backed by massive research.
Cruisers and La Guerre de Course
Ian Marshall. Mystic, CT: Mystic Seaport Museum, 2007. 232 pp. Illus. Notes. Index. Bib. $60.
Reviewed by Gale Munro
New technologies and the expansion of international trade in the 19th century created a need for a new type of ship, one that was fast enough to overtake a commerce raider and had the armament to engage it in battle without support. The ship type that evolved to fill this role came to be known as the cruiser. The cruiser, its evolution, its heyday, and its eventual demise is the subject of artist and author Ian Marshall's latest work, Cruisers and La Guerre de Course. A fellow of the American Society of Marine Artists, Marshall's credentials and previous successes with similar efforts on armored ships, ironclads, and luxury liners, raise expectations for an engaging volume, and in this he does not disappoint. He has created another pleasing work for the ship aficionado or one who wishes to know more.
Books that endeavor to combine art with historical narrative frequently do not succeed with both. The artwork either lacks interest or the narrative fails for a variety of reasons. In this work, Marshall distills recent scholarship into a readable form and illuminates it with beautiful art. He gives us the story of the cruiser, and in its context, a general overview of naval history of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. His artworks satisfy, both in their depiction and aesthetic appeal. A master of the watercolor medium, he is able to evoke detail with well-placed lines and create sweeps of land and sea with a few strokes of color.
Ships of all eras have their own elegance, and Marshall's images capture the particular grace of these vessels. He regards cruisers, which were eventually superseded in the public conciousness by submarines, aircraft, and their carriers, with a romantic hindsight, and recognizing the flaws that consigned these ships to a haze of oblivion, he paints them with a nostalgic soft focus. Though built as ships of war, they are depicted at peace and in calm waters, having passed from the danger of open sea to safe harbor.
The 52 watercolors and 30 pencil sketches make for an instructive exhibition on the development and life span of this unique ship type. From the prototype—USS Wampanoag, developed too late to be of use in the Civil War—to the last—KMS Admiral Graf Spee, scuttled at Montevideo in 1939 to prevent her capture—the artist carefully selected his examples for their illustrative value, as much from an educational standpoint as a visual one.
The author includes separate chapters covering various countries that built cruisers, discussing the concerns of each navy and how they dictated specifications. For the technical enthusiasts, details are included such as tonnage, gunnery, and top speed, making the book something of a desk reference as well, though it is not intended to be comprehensive.
The weakness of Cruisers and La Guerre de Course is that some plates are not as crisp as they ought to be, but as Marshall's style often gives a dreamy effect, this may escape the notice of the average reader. Overall, it is a fine work, one that will most certainly appeal to the ship enthusiast and is also worthy of consideration by all who enjoy marine art.
A Blue Water Navy: The Official Operational History of the Royal Canadian Navy in the Second World War, 1943-1945, Volume II Part 2
W. A. B. Douglas, Roger Sarty, and Michael Whitby with Robert H. Caldwell, William Johnston, and William G. P. Rawling: Vanwell Publishing Ltd., 2007, 633 pp. Illus. Maps. $60.
Reviewed by Captain James B. Bryant, U.S. Navy (Retired)
This is the second book of the official operational history of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) in World War II. Although I have not read the first book, No Higher Service, I found this volume easy and enjoyable to read. By the end of the war the RCN had become a well-balanced blue-water navy that included cruisers and escort carriers. This book is the story of how the service achieved this difficult task.
As expected of an official history written by experienced authors, it is a magnificent, incredibly well-researched book and is a must-have for anyone with interest in the Royal Canadian Navy. The authors made the effort to mention names of the sailors and officers involved with each key event and briefly describe their actions. For those with a family member serving in the RCN from 1943 to 1945 involved in one of the events, there is a chance you will find your relative's name.
A majority of the book covers antisubmarine warfare (ASW) because helping win the U-boat war was one of the RCN's most significant achievements. The details of ASW efforts and equipment developed to implement tactics is particularly interesting. This book gave me a much better understanding of World War II ASW despite studying these tactics since I was a midshipman.
Besides ASW, the RCN was also involved in amphibious assaults, motor torpedo boat operations, mining, and fleet operations. The authors describe all in some detail.
The maps, diagrams, pictures, glossary, and appendices on subjects such as warship losses, training, discipline, and morale add significantly to the value of the book, especially for those readers with no naval background. In particular, the appendix on training, discipline, and morale provides great insight into how the RCN ran on a daily basis and the problems it had to overcome.
The book covers not only the navy's victories but also its problems, such as food and pay issues that caused difficulties among Canadians serving in British warships, the dislike of the formal routine while serving on large warships instead of the more informal smaller warships, and many officers and sailors declining to volunteer for service in the war against Japan.
This book is a splendid joint effort by its six authors. They have produced a masterpiece that is well worth reading.
Tales from a Tin Can—The USS Dale—from Pearl Harbor to Tokyo Bay
Michael Keith Olson. St. Paul, MN: Zenith Press, 2007. 336 pp. Illus. $24.95.
Reviewed by Colonel William T. Anderson, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve (Retired)
This book tells the remarkable story of the USS Dale (DD-353), one of the eight Farragut-class destroyers built in the 1930s by Bethlehem Steel Company. Like all destroyers of this period, she was referred to as a tin can because of the thin hull plating the crew claimed came from such containers. She was at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 moored with her class sisters. By war's end the destroyer had earned 12 battle stars. Despite her enviable record of being present at critical Pacific naval operations while surviving typhoons, torpedoes, and kamikazes, at her decommissioning the Dale's crew could incredibly boast that her service was completed without a single combat casualty.
During operations from Guadalcanal to the Philippine Sea, the Dale escorted supply ships, screened task groups, and rescued downed pilots. In 1945, when Japan found itself with few ships but thousands of aircraft, it turned to its sacred tradition of the divine wind by launching kamikaze attacks against American naval forces. Between 3 and 13 January 1945, 53 U.S. Navy ships were struck. Later off Okinawa, 36 ships were sunk. Although the Dale was in the middle of these key engagements, she was never hit.
Hurricanes were terrifying for tin can Sailors, especially for those in ships of the Farragut class, which were designed without internal passageways. The only way for some crew to get to their workspace amidships, berthing aft, and the mess hall forward was to move across the weather decks. Orville Newman of the Dale was one of those Sailors who had to hazard the open to eat, work, and sleep. Years later he still wondered why the Navy would design such a ship and then send her to the Bering Sea in January. In rough winter seas the crew's dilemma was obvious.
In a poignant story of blind fate, Olson describes the sad end of the USS Monaghan (DD-354), one of the Dale's two sister ships lost to Typhoon Cobra on 18 December 1944. The Monaghan, which sank a Japanese sub during the Pearl Harbor attack, was returning to the Ulithi lagoon anchorage from screening tankers during at-sea refueling of fast attack carriers. Although scheduled for the next screening rotation, the Dale's sonar had gone down so she was directed instead to a floating dry dock. The Monaghan was ordered to take the Dale's place only to be lost during the horrific storm. As well as the sisters, the typhoon claimed one newer Fletcher-class destroyer. The destroyer crew losses made up the bulk of Third Fleet's total loss of 790 Sailors.
The author, the son of one of the Dale's Sailors during this period, has done a masterful job of preserving the crew's personal accounts. Each chapter relates to a calendar year during the war and begins with a general narrative of ongoing operations. Relevant entries from the ship's log are included in the terse shorthand of a unit's war diary. Personal accounts of the crew are then provided to give the human dimension to the story. Some accounts are from personal diaries, while others are recollections during interviews years later. We read of the boredom, good humor, and fear during the war in the Pacific as well as failures in leadership. Although the various records and narratives are separated in time and orientation, they are effectively interwoven to present a highly personal and compelling story of a destroyer at war. Tales from a Tin Can is a fine companion to James D. Hornfischer's Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors (Bantam, 2004) and C. Raymond Calhoun's Tin Can Sailor (Naval Institute Press, 1993) as an authentic narrative of the daily life of these heroic men—iron men in ships of tin.