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Reviewed by:
  • 1812 War with America
  • Barry Gough (bio)
Jon Latimer . 1812 War with America. Harvard University Press. 2007. xv, 637 US$35.00

Historical writing about the War of 1812 began as a partisan fight between William James, a British subject who thought the Americans were taking credit for a victory they never won, and the American press. The fight against James was later taken up vigorously by Theodore Roosevelt, a good historian who became a US president. James was particularly interested in those splendid 'single ship encounters' between vessels of the Royal Navy and the United States Navy. The victory of HMS Shannon over USS Chesapeake gained outside of Boston was one of these duels that ended in favour of the British forces. One of the great naval illustrations of all time pictures the entry of the Shannon into Halifax Harbour, with the captured Chesapeake alongside, a British flag atop her masthead. That arrival electrified Haligonians. St Paul's, where evensong was in progress, emptied in minutes, we are told, the minister and choir following the congregation down to harbour side. What had transpired? One does not need a C.S. Forester, a Patrick O'Brian, or a Sean Thomas Russell to describe the gunnery duel and the hand-to-hand fighting that brought this great American frigate into British hands. Captain Lawrence of the Chesapeake had barked out, 'Don't give up the ship,' now a watchword in the US Navy. Captain Broke of the Shannon, as confirmed a gunnery enthusiast as could be found in the Royal Navy, had prepared his gun crews for a fight to the finish. Broke, the first of the boarding party, took a sabre's slash to the head - delivered, as it turned out, by British deserters fighting on the American side (they would have been hanged or flogged around the fleet, as were five others who were taken afterwards, once Halifax was reached). Halifax-born Provo Wallis, then the first lieutenant, took command of the Shannon. From the wharves and vessels in the harbour came many cheers; the ships' bands played 'Rule Britannia' and 'Britons Strike Home,' and the yards were manned. Lawrence meanwhile had expired, and a great American ensign that flew at the Chesapeake's yardarm, now was wrapped around him. He had an admiral's funeral; six captains bore the pall. Broke, who nursed his wound for many a year, received many laurels. Wallis did well, too, eventually rising to admiral of the fleet, thus being kept on the active list of the Navy until the time of his death at the age of 101 years. Ah, those great days of fighting sail! We will not see their like again, but the echoes of this Anglo-American war echo down the years, even nowadays fuelling patriotism on both sides of the forty-ninth parallel and often distorting the historical record.

As the author says, correctly, the War of 1812 is not known in British history. Historian William Kingsford observed more than a century ago that the events in North American between 1812 and 1815 were not [End Page 376] forgotten in Britain, 'for they have never been known there.' Why was this? The war was a sideshow to a British nation preoccupied with bringing Napoleon to account and ending his version of imperial overstretch. Once again the Royal Navy stood between him and the dominion of the world.

Author Latimer set out to correct the record and to pitch his book particularly at British and American audiences. With a popular historian's zest for description, poignant words, and powerful narrative he has nicely recreated the ethos of the times and analyzed the nature of international politics and international rivalries at the time. His digging in archives and particularly the appropriate periodical literature is as prodigious as it is rewarding, putting many a PhD thesis to shame, and War of 1812 scholarship has never seen such a depth of research over such a wide canvas for this war. As he points out, it was the Canadians who won the war, and certainly not the Americans. That the Canadians received an assist from the British is less his theme...


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