Perilous Fight: America’s Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 1812–1815 (review)
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Naval history, American Navy, War of 1812, William Jones

Perilous Fight: America’s Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 1812–1815. By Stephen Budiansky. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. Pp. 448. Cloth, $35.00.)

Stephen Budiansky’s aim in Perilous Fight is to tell the story of United States Navy’s role in the War of 1812. Although Great Britain’s Royal Navy was the largest and strongest in the world, the infant U.S. Navy won the majority of ship-to-ship engagements during the conflict. Additionally, the U.S. Navy and American privateers inflicted heavy losses on the British merchant fleet throughout the war. The effectiveness of the American maritime forces in the fight with Great Britain helped secure the U.S. Navy’s future and established the United States as a growing naval power.

Budiansky narrates the story of American naval success well. He begins with the brief experience of the U.S. Navy in the Quasi-War and the First Barbary War before moving on to the naval causes of the War of 1812. Budiansky spends most of the book reviewing the key single-ship battles, including the victories of the USS Constitution and the USS United States. At the same time, he positions the sea war in the larger context of the War of 1812, in which the land war and the perpetual struggle for America to fund the conflict figure prominently. Perilous Fight is narrative history—Budiansky does not offer any strong theses to the reader, and the historiography that he seems most concerned with is the outdated writings of Theodore Roosevelt and Alfred Thayer Mahan. The one argument that Budiansky does forward is that the U.S. Navy owed its record of success to William Jones, the Secretary of the Navy [End Page 153] for most of the war. American leadership during the War of 1812 was fraught with indecision and incompetence, but in Jones, Budiansky sees a man of strength, intelligence, and vision. He credits Jones with the decisions to sail U.S. Navy frigates and sloops individually, instead of in squadrons, and to focus solely on the harassment and destruction of Britain’s merchant fleet. Budiansky does an commendable job of demonstrating the difficulties Jones faced; a British blockade, overly sensitive officers, a shortage of money and material, taking on the task as Acting Secretary of the Treasury, personal financial ruin, and a burnt Washington, DC all combined to make William Jones’s job a daily struggle. The author clearly establishes Jones a man driven by patriotism and a sense of duty, as well as one of the more admirable, if forgotten, figures of the War of 1812.

The strength of Budiansky’s work is his narrative of the individual ship engagements and the struggles and triumphs of William Jones. One of his greatest weaknesses is his lack of focus. Budiansky gets sidetrack too often, most notably by the goings-on in Federalist stronghold New England and the breakdown of the prisoner exchange system. Reading Perilous Fight one might think that New England was the only region of the nation concerned with the war—the Federalists’ antiwar sentiments pervade the entire book. Of course the Federalist view needs to be included, but not to the detriment of the rest of the country. After all, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore were the shipping centers of the United States and contributed significantly to the war effort. Unfortunately, the political atmosphere of New York and Philadelphia barely receive a mention and Baltimore only slightly more so. Even so, discussions of the Hartford Convention or anti-Federalist riots in Maryland do not add to a story about the naval war.

The prisoner exchange breakdown at least touches on the fringes of the naval war. The suffering of American seamen captured by the Royal Navy, particularly those confined to Dartmoor Prison, is an intriguing story. The story of Dartmoor Prison is not necessarily out of place in Perilous Fight, but Budiansky seems to give short shrift to other parts of the narrative while focusing on the prisoner situation. Most notably, Budiansky is far too dismissive of the...