The War of 1812 has always fascinated me. Based on the treaty that was signed by the United States and Great Britain, the war did not resolve much of the differences between the Americans and British. Ronald Utt in his book Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron: The War of 1812 and the Forging of the American Navy looks at the war mainly from the perspective of the United States Navy.
Utt brings a fresh light to a war that has not received as much attention as the other American wars of the 19th Century, primarily the Civil and the Mexican-American Wars. Utt argues that the War of 1812 laid a more solid foundation of the United States Navy (compared to the infantile beginnings in the Revolutionary War) and was a pivotal moment in shaping American foreign policy.
Although the book is primarily concerned with the actions of the U.S. Navy and the personalities that shaped it, Utt includes land battles that occurred in the course of the war. Utt does a fine job of bringing out the details of the major naval and land engagements. He highlights the superior leadership of many of the Americans, including Stephen Decatur, Isaac Hull, Andrew Jackson, and Winfield Scott. This leadership helped the fledgling United States fend off the advances of the British, especially in the beginning against Britain’s Royal Navy.
Leadership was not the only edge the Americans had over the British. They also had technology. Utt explains how Joshua Humphreys, America’s premier early naval innovator, gave the United States Navy an advantage over the Royal Navy. Utt goes into great detail to explain how the United States’ frigates were smaller than the British ones, but they were more solidly built because of materials and overall design. This design, in conjunction with excellent leadership, helped the Americans to win several early naval battles.
I like how Utt weaves in the eyewitness accounts of the various events into the narrative. He not only includes the accounts of the leadership, but also of those who served under that leadership. These accounts bring a more visceral understanding of the war. It is great to see a war from its strategic level, but to understand what it is like to experience a massacre by Native Americans can only be told from the perspective on the ground – not from a dry report.
Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron is a must-read for any enthusiast of American military history.