Joe's Reviews > 1812: The War That Forged a Nation

1812 by Walter R. Borneman
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Jul 06, 2011

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Read in July, 2011

Borneman's exhaustive account of the War of 1812 covers every base and gives the necessary perspective to understand the importance of this war in American (and world) history.
Here's what I took away from this fact and research heavy tome:

Although the war was ostensibly over impressment and shipping rights on the high seas, the fact that the initial battle plan exclusively focused on a three-prong invasion of Canada rather than a strategy of building up a stronger navy suggests that 1812 was a pretty naked attempt at land-grabbing. The U.S. wanted Canada, expected to be greeted as liberators and used British violations of American maritime sovereignty.

The "status ante bellum" resolution to the war meant that, technically, nothing changed in British/American relations. However, the war had tremendous impact in the growth of America's national identity. Furthermore, a lot of people who would emerge as key players in America's future seem to get introduced to the country and to cut their teeth in this war:"
Future president Andrew Jackson
Future general and president Zachary Taylor
Future Mexican War and Civil War commander Winfield Scott, etc.

Also given fair attention is the enigmatic and rarely understood James Wilkinson. Wilkinson is not a name even known to most students of American History, but was a tremendously important and interesting person from the early years of the republic. Significantly, Wilkinson served with iconic villains Benedict Arnold and Aaron Burr in the Revolutionary War. By 1812, Wilkinson had become a Brigadier General and was one of the longest serving American officers. While serving the U.S. in uniform, Wilkinson also served Spain as Agent 13, a highly-paid spy and secretly sent valuable intelligence to the Spanish. Wilkinson would commit treason again as he conspired with Burr to set up an independent nation in the West. Of Wilkinson it would later be said that "he never won a battle or lost a court martial." During the War of 1812, Wilkinson did his best to hinder the leadership of Andrew Jackson who had testified against him at an earlier court-martial.

Finally, Borneman's book is notable for the effort he takes to explain the war's many naval battles. The type of ships and naval warfare used in the war was so totally different from what would be seen after the widespread use of steam power, a great deal of explanation is necessary and helpful.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Mark (new)

Mark This book sounds great Joe. Why only three stars?

message 2: by Joe (new) - rated it 3 stars

Joe Great question. In favor of five stars, I should say that it would be impossible to exaggerate how well researched this book is. The historian explains down to the exact number of pounds of ordnance each ship is firing at each other in the many naval battles. He has maps giving almost minute by minute accounts of the placement and orientation of the ships at battle. He gives exhaustive historical and personal background on each of the players (and sometimes even their parents and grandparents.) He even includes the cool parts like when Tecumseh eats an American commander's heart in front of other American captives.

However, that said, the prose lacks the lyrical, mesmerizing quality that one can encounter in a book by David McCullough, David Halberstam, Joseph Ellis, or Doris Kearns Goodwin. These astonishing historians can give you the facts and perspective, but serve it up to you in a florid narrative style like first-rate novelists. I began reading Goodwin's Team of Rivals immediately after completing 1812 and from the first page, the difference is obvious.
I have done some historical writing of my own in giving accounts of some of my ancestors and I have seen how difficult it is create something of both historical and literary value. Borneman's book is perfect for anyone wanting a deeper understanding of the War of 1812, but for history that you can't put down, look elsewhere.

message 3: by Mark (new)

Mark Thanks for your thoughts Joe!

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