The War of 1812 may not be as well-known as the Civil War or the Revolutionary War, but it was an equally important conflict that reasserted the independence of the United States from Great Britain, which wanted to reestablish its control over their former colonies, or at least part of them.
A. J. Langguth begins his book with the post-Revolution history of the United States, after the nascent government under the Articles of Confederation proved not to be the ideal form of government to keep the states united. A convention of the states to create a new constitution and a new form of government was convened in Philadelphia in 1787. Langguth tells about George Washington’s election as the first president and the events that occurred during his term in office. He does likewise for the presidents following Washington and what happened during their administrations, especially regarding relations with Great Britain and other countries. Thus he sets the scene for the beginning of the story of James Madison, who became president in 1809.
During Madison’s (1809-1817) early days as president, Europe was engulfed in the Napoleonic Wars. The British Navy needed sailors to man their vessels and began stopping ships of other countries - notably the United States - and searching them for deserters from the British Navy. When the British found any of these so-called deserters, they would impress them to serve on their ships. Those impressed were not always deserters. Many were actually American citizens, and this angered many in the United States even to the point of calling for war. Initially the American government used diplomatic means to try to stop the British by embargoing exports and imports to and from Great Britain. This was ineffective in stopping the British conscriptions, and many - especially in the New England states - were very unhappy with this law.
By May of 1812, the Congress and President were ready to declare war since the impressments and other issues could not be resolved peacefully. The Americans did not always win the battles; when they did, it was sometimes by mere luck or the British underestimating the Americans. Langguth presents the stories of various people involved in these battles before and after they occurred. For instance, he tells the stories of Tecumseh, the Shawnee chief who united many tribes against the United States, and of Andrew Jackson. He reveals that many Americans wanted to annex Canada, a British colony. Some wanted to annex Florida, as well, which was controlled by the Spanish.
The War of 1812 brought the burning of the capitol, the White House, and other buildings in Washington, D.C. at the hands of the British. The American Army was not strong enough to keep the British out of Washington; later, though, they made them pay by killing British general Robert Ross and his army, who were responsible for the burning of Washington. Francis Scott Key, who was a prisoner on a British ship, wrote our present national anthem while the British bombarded Fort McHenry, which was protecting Baltimore.
Langguth discusses the long peace negotiations that eventually led to the Treaty of Ghent, which was signed before the two armies facing each other at New Orleans knew about it. That battle, though, showed that the United States could stand up to a European army that had been involved in the defeat of Napoleon. Even before the peace treaty, many Americans (especially in New England) had tired of the war; some even talked of having their states secede from the Union. Langguth’s afterword summarizes U.S. history from that time up to the Civil War.
Langguth employs the narrative style to his history of the War of 1812, making it an enjoyable read rather than a dry textbook rendition of the War. There are several maps in the front of the book, as well as several black and white illustrations throughout. Endnotes, a bibliography and an index are also included.
Langguth is professor emeritus of journalism in the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. He is the author of Saki: The Life of Hector Hugh Munro (2003), Our Vietnam (2002), A Noise of War (1994), Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution (1991), Hidden Terrors (1979) and Maccumba (1975). His Union 1812 is highly recommended to those interested in early American history and the War of 1812.