Walter R. Borneman,
1812: The War that Forged a Nation
(HarperCollins, 2004)

1812: The War that Forged a Nation is a comprehensive, if somewhat superficial, look at the war that gave the United States a national identity, even as it ended in essentially a stalemate. Walter R. Borneman is mostly known for history books dealing with the western U.S., and he even mentions in his acknowledgements how this book seems out of his field. However, Borneman maintains that the war set the U.S. on a course that would result in the western expansion that is his bread and butter, and thus deserves to be looked at more closely. It's a very interesting book that covers the entire war and tells pretty much everything that happened, though it doesn't quite go into as much detail as I would have liked.

Borneman sets the stage for the war by discussing the relations between Great Britain and the U.S. in the first decade of the 1800s, including one of the main reasons for the U.S. to go to war: the impressments of American sailors into British naval service on the high seas. The U.S. at the time was still considered an extremely minor power and was bullied by pretty much everybody. While the French didn't impress sailors, they did do other things, and some hawks in the American government actually advocated going to war with both Britain and France! Another reason for the war, not as popularly known, was that many westerners wanted to steal Canada out from under Great Britain while they were distracted by Napoleon on the continent. They didn't see any reason why Canada shouldn't be part of the U.S., by force if necessary.

Thus, the war drums were beaten and war was declared. Borneman does a great job showing us all of the machinations that went on behind the scenes to get the declaration of war passed in Congress, along with a couple of incidents that almost got the war started before it really did. While this information is obviously well-known to history buffs who have studied the era, it was information that I hadn't known before and I liked how Borneman laid it all out for us. He shows how Madison went along with all of this, though he was almost hoping that Congress would bail him out of the course he had set for the country.

Once the fighting starts, Borneman also explains all the battles that happened during the war, sometimes in very vivid detail. He tells us about the horribly executed three-pronged invasion of Canada that resulted in the loss of Detroit to the British, as well as the first major U.S. victories on the high seas before the British finally started taking this upstart navy seriously. The level of detail is amazing sometimes, though for some reason I felt a bit removed from all of the action. I'm not sure if it's because he is sometimes unable to give reasons for what happened or if it's his style, but while the prose is detailed, I felt like something was missing. Perhaps it's because the book comes in two modes: detailed battle information and the reasons behind some of the events in the war, but these two modes never really mingle. Instead, we get some battle detail, then we get some "big picture" information, and then we go back to the battles, etc.

I do have to give Borneman credit, however, for making a (for lack of a better word) "boring" war very interesting to read about. He has obviously done his research and he gives descriptions of tactics in each battle (including wonderfully rendered maps). These descriptions make you feel like you are right there on the battlefield, hearing the explosions and feeling musket balls whistle past your ear. Sometimes his descriptions make it seem impossible that so few (relatively speaking, of course) men actually died in these battles. He describes men being mown down by rows of musket fire and then we hear casualties of 81 killed and 500 wounded or the like. Of note is his account of the Battle of New Orleans, a battle that was fought after the armistice had been signed but before news had reached the participants, and could have resulted in a resumption of hostilities if the British had won. This battle is even more lovingly described than the rest of them and he really shows Andrew Jackson's leadership and tactical expertise in this chapter.

The War of 1812 was a war that some in the U.S. wanted for their own purposes, but one that almost to a man it was desperate to get out of as Napoleon surrendered and the British were able to concentrate on this annoying gnat of a country. Nothing was resolved officially, but it turns out to be the war that would cement the feeling of "America" on an infant country that was just trying to find its feet in the world. Borneman does a great job showing how this occurred, with Jackson's resounding victory of a battle-hardened British army being the final piece of the puzzle. While there may be more comprehensive books on the War of 1812 out there, 1812: The War that Forged a Nation is a wonderful starting point.

- Rambles
written by David Roy
published 29 January 2005

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