The Challenge: Britain Against America in the Naval War of 1812

May 24, 2012

Many Britons may not be aware that the bicentennial of the War of 1812 will commence in June. Before anyone thinks of Napoleon's ill-fated Russian campaign, the War of 1812 referred to here was a conflict between Great Britain and the US from 1812 to 1815. In a sideshow to greater European events that concluded with Napoleon's first abdication in 1814, the US attempted to resolve its differences with Britain by attacking Upper and Lower Canada (modern Ontario and Quebec) and challenging British naval and economic power on the high seas. The scale of this North American war may surprise some. By 1815, both the Royal Navy and the US Navy were building ships on Lake Ontario, the smallest of the Great Lakes, that equalled HMS Victory, Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson's flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar, in size and armament. On land, 50,000 British regular soldiers, supported by more than 4,000 Canadian provincial, embodied and militia troops and their native allies faced about as many American regular soldiers and 458,000 militiamen.

The publication of several books examining the conflict has served to herald the opening of the bicentennial of the war. As with all historical commemorations, some of the titles released thus far are of dubious quality, while others offer fresh perspectives derived from solid academic work: The Challenge falls into the latter category and is one of the more remarkable studies of the war to appear for some time.

The Challenge, as Andrew Lambert explains, examines the origins, conduct and consequences of the War of 1812 from a UK perspective. While the narrative describes the British blockade of the US and naval duels on the high seas, the author's interest is in how each nation recognised those events as part of an evolving cultural construction. Put more simply, Lambert considers how the modern perspective of the war emerged, particularly in the US, where in light of the unsatisfactory outcome on sea and land, failure in economic warfare and an ambiguous treaty, the Americans transformed defeat into a victory. By contrast, the cultural identity of defeating Napoleon left Britain with little need for fresh victories. Rather than linger on the effects of the war with the Americans, Britain got back to business, keeping just enough relics from the American war to subvert US triumphalism.

For Lambert, the victory of HMS Shannon over USS Chesapeake on 1 June 1813 marks the decisive point in the war. This 13-minute engagement removed the humiliation of three previous defeats to American frigates that, in combination with the end of the US threat to British shipping, the stabilisation of the war in Canada (where the ground campaigns ended in stalemate) and the failure of Napoleon's campaign in Russia (which, had it gone differently, would have served US interests), ended American hopes of gaining a strategic advantage. Lacking the military muscle to win, the Americans chose to develop a distinctive identity and with it, a different narrative of the war.

As Lambert reminds us, "history is neither fixed, nor agreed", and can sometimes be subject to the creation of a magical reality to obscure unpalatable facts, and by doing so, serve as a foundation for national identity. Once established, it is nearly impossible to erase a popular established narrative, even in light of evidence to the contrary. Lambert, in this masterful study of the War of 1812, reinforces this lesson on the use and abuse of history.

The Challenge: Britain Against America in the Naval War of 1812

By Andrew Lambert. Faber & Faber, 538pp, £20.00. ISBN 97805713195. Published 5 April 2012

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