The War of 1812 in the Age of Napoleon (review)
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Keywords

War of 1812, James Madison, Napoleon, Military history

The War of 1812 in the Age of Napoleon. By Jeremy Black. (Norman: Oklahoma University Press, 2009. Pp. 286. Cloth, $32.95.)

As the author or editor of nearly one hundred books, Jeremy Black is perhaps the most prolific historian of his generation. In this volume he [End Page 703] applies his considerable expertise in military, political, and diplomatic history to the War of 1812.

Although still described as a "forgotten war," the War of 1812 has garnered increased interest from historians as it nears its bicentennial. Yet almost all of the histories are parochial in that they are rooted firmly in North American national histories. Black's approach is to place the war in the broader, global contest between Britain and Napoleonic France, and at under three hundred pages Black's narrative is clear, concise, and accessible. His introduction includes an impassioned lament for what he describes as the "hostility to the teaching of military history in many American university history departments" (4-5), and he proceeds to make his case in the chapters that follow for how armed conflict shaped national institutions and ideologies. The structure is unsurprising, yet clear. The first chapter examines the path to war, followed by chapters on the American campaigns in 1812 and 1813, a chapter on the naval war, and a chapter on the British counterattack in 1814 and 1815. The book ends with two chapters by way of conclusion—a chapter labeled "consequences" and an actual "conclusion." The former alone is worth the price of admission and invaluable to anyone teaching the subject, both as a study of how wars shape nations and as a case for the international importance of the War of 1812.

Specialists hoping for an acute strategic analysis may be disappointed. Black's approach to military history here is much broader in that he gives substantial consideration to geographical, ideological, economic, and diplomatic factors. His narrative of the war and his portrayals of the commanders in the field do not make major breaks with traditional assessments— Isaac Brock is praised, George Prevost is blasted, the U.S. Army is described as incompetent for much of the war, and James Madison is not deemed up to the task of leading the United States in wartime.

Specialists in North American history are not likely to find bombshells in his telling of the North American side of the story, nor will British historians be surprised about his assessments of Britain during the Napoleonic Wars. However, if the accusations of North American parochialism and British disregard when it comes to the War of 1812 are true (and I believe they are), specialists in both North American and British history will find much that is both new and interesting in Black's more global account. Black points out that American touchiness about sovereignty was well founded, as stronger European powers had a habit of dismembering vulnerable states like Poland in 1795, bullying weaker states like Spain, and thrashing uncooperative neutrals, like Britain with [End Page 704] Denmark in 1807. Worse still, Britain had genuine, if vague, designs on expanding its remaining North American possessions. Americans also had good reasons to fear the threat of a strong military, as military coups had toppled the revolutionary governments of France and Haiti and caused problems throughout Spain's American empire. Even England's own foray into a government without a king in the seventeenth century had resulted in the military-backed rule of Oliver Cromwell. Black argues that these two conflicting concerns shaped American foreign policy and drew the United States into a war it was not prepared to fight. Not until 1814 did the U.S. Army possess the organization and professionalism necessary to face British regulars, but by this time the United States was broke and Britain was on the offensive, having defeated Napoleon, and shifted considerable military resources to North America. By placing the war in a more global context, Black chips further away at American exceptionalism and lays siege to the idea that the United States was the sole master of its own destiny during this period...