Defending the Old Dominion: Virginia and Its Militia in the War of 1812 by Stuart L. Butler (review)
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Virginia, Military history, War of 1812, Slavery

Defending the Old Dominion: Virginia and Its Militia in the War of 1812. By Stuart L. Butler. (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2013. Pp. 642. Cloth, $95.00.)

In the early 1960s, as Americans commemorated the sesquicentennial of the War of 1812, historians reexamined the causes of the conflict. Reginald Horsman, Bradford Perkins, and Roger H. Brown, among others, offered important contributions to our understanding of the nature and conduct of the war. In the 1970s and early 1980s, a new generation of political, military, and cultural historians, such as Don Hickey, J. C. A. Stagg, and Steven Watts presented new interpretations of the war. Still another group of historians dissected how the war impacted individual states. These included Sarah McCulloh Lemmon’s Frustrated Patriots: North Carolina and the War of 1812 (Chapel Hill, NC, 1974); and Victor Sapio’s Pennsylvania and the War of 1812 (Lexington, KY, 1982).

The bicentennial of the War of 1812 witnessed more scholars offering nuanced interpretations about the conflict. Troy Bickham’s The Weight of Vengeance: The United States, the British Empire, and the War of 1812 (New York, 2012); Kevin McCranie’s Utmost Gallantry: The U.S. and Royal Navies at Sea in the War of 1812 (Annapolis, MD, 2012); Gene Allen Smith’s The Slaves’ Gamble: Choosing Sides in the War of 1812 (New York, 2013); and Nicole Eustace’s 1812: War and the Passions of Patriotism (Philadelphia, 2012) all examine the war from nontraditional perspectives. Stuart L. Butler has dissected how the conflict impacted the state of Virginia, while setting the war in context for the mid-Atlantic region and the nation. [End Page 115]

Focusing on the military and political history of Virginia during the conflict, Butler’s book highlights in great detail the many problems the state faced during the war. The greatest flaw was that the militia did not have adequate training to prevent British army and naval forces from landing wherever they wanted. The federal government had stationed very few army forces in Virginia, and the United States had scant naval forces on the Chesapeake Bay. This permitted the British to treat the estuary as their own private harbor. Using shallow-draft ships and small boats, the British landed anywhere water permitted and at almost any time. Ill-trained Virginia militia could not anticipate where the enemy would attack next. They could not assemble in a timely manner, nor did they have the training to defeat an experienced and capable British fighting force. Moreover, the state did not possess adequate manufacturing facilities or the ability to supply and distribute arms and ammunition to isolated and exposed state militia units. Whenever British forces landed, Virginia militia often retreated because they lacked sufficient ordnance, ammunitions, training, and confidence. British troops advanced into the Virginia countryside, requisitioning tobacco and other valuables, liberating slaves, and destroying plantations. In fact, Virginia suffered disproportionally during the war as the British devastated the local American economy. The conduct of the war also revealed the contentious relationship festering between the U.S. and Virginia governments. Finally, the conflict demoralized Virginians who suffered from the ravages of war.

Additionally, Butler offers a brief discussion about the plight of Virginia slaves during the conflict. British troops raided plantations and liberated slaves, promising that the refugees could secure their freedom in a British colony. Several thousand fled slavery for the British promise of freedom abroad. From their base on Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay, the British efficiently relocated slaves from the mainland, to Tangier, then on to Bermuda, and ultimately to Canada and to Trinidad. The British used the former slaves as guides, pilots, sailors, and marines, and these armed black men terrorized the Virginia heartland. Slave owners thereafter found themselves grabbing their musket to meet a potential British invasion, while still looking over their shoulder with the expectation that slaves would flee or even worse, rise in revolt. Since the federal government could not protect their slave property, Virginians would have to do so themselves. The British liberated an estimated 2,000 from the shores of the Chesapeake. After the war...