David Curtis Skaggs devoted his academic career at Bowling Green State University to the history and study of the War of 1812, [End Page 112] especially assessing the early naval engagements on the Great Lakes. Skaggs’s latest publication leaves the open seas of Lake Erie to focus on the early life and military career of William Henry Harrison. This work is not a biography about Harrison’s entire life. Instead, it examines Harrison’s rise to the presidency based on his successful military career, despite his lack of professional military training. Harrison’s political life and rise to the presidency is mentioned only briefly in the last few paragraphs of the book.
Skaggs’s book is a detailed study about Harrison’s upbringing and how his upper-class Virginian classical education, as well as his frontier “understudy” role to General Anthony Wayne, helped form and develop his backbone and character, and helped him take command of the Army of the Northwest during the first decades of the new republic. Indeed, if I identified one area about Harrison that Skaggs emphasizes as the rudiment to all that Harrison accomplished, I would say Skaggs’s book is an in-depth, thoroughly researched treatise about Harrison’s unshakable character. Harrison had every right to call into question decisions made by peers and subordinate officers, who through poorly thought-out actions caused the defeat of men under their command; but Harrison did not. Harrison would not chastise or belittle his comrades, subordinates or otherwise. Instead, Harrison used poor decisions made by others as lessons for himself and for the men he led.
Especially indicative of Harrison’s character are the examples in which he coordinated with naval commander Oliver Hazard Perry to create the first dual army-navy amphibious assaults. As Skaggs notes, “The War of 1812 is the last American war in which the senior generals would be prominent citizens rather than professional soldiers. … Nothing so typifies the U.S. Army after this war than the dominance of professional soldiers at senior command levels” (p. 244). Indeed, “from the time Ensign Harrison reported for duty in Cincinnati to the day he resigned his major general commission, no one was more closely involved in the conquest of the Midwest than he” (p. 245). Harrison’s use of volunteer soldiers to supplement the [End Page 113] rank and file of professional soldiers is highlighted in Skaggs’s book as well—with many of the mounted volunteer soldiers coming from Kentucky. Some of Harrison’s contemporaries who fought side by side with him thought he should be given a third star following the Battle of the Thames in Ontario, but the constant bitterness and petty jealousies of Secretary of War John Armstrong Jr. and his cronies in the East negated that suggestion. Shortly thereafter, and in spite of the praises of Commodore Perry and Isaac Shelby, Skaggs notes that “it is hard to believe that just a few months later Harrison would resign his commission, with his honor besmirched, his military reputation tarnished, and his financial integrity questioned” (p. 218).
Skaggs’s book is a great read. It was thoroughly researched and is filled with new insights about Harrison, and the editors at Johns Hopkins University Press did a wonderful job editing the book. There is one minor error, however: he mistakenly refers to the Michigan fort, Fort Mackinac, as Fort Michilimackinac. In spite of this minor error, I found Skaggs’s treatise about the early years, military life, and strong character of William Henry Harrison to be an excellent contribution to the literature on Harrison and the army during the War of 1812. I recommend Skaggs’s book without reservation as a must read for anyone who wants to understand Harrison’s contributions to American victory during the War of 1812. [End Page 114]
KENNETH C. CARSTENS holds the rank of professor emeritus in anthropology and archaeology from Murray...