Book Review: Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron
by Ronald D. Utt
Regnery Publishing, 2012
The centennial of the War of 1812 has flushed out a great many new histories from the printing presses of the West – big, plump volumes designed to redress the neglect this odd, furtive conflict has suffered for the last century. Last year, George Daughan’s 1812: The Navy’s War was the superb and much-lauded entry, and this year it’s very nearly outdone by another thick book on the exact same subject with the exact same emphasis, Ronald Utt’s fast-paced and confidently mesmerizing Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron (in a beautifully designed volume from Regnery Publishing). Like Daughan before him, Utt tries his best to be even-handed in covering all aspects of the war – the politics, the scattered land encounters, the bigger picture – but also like Daughan, he focuses a good deal of his narrative zest on what will always be the defining aspect of this conflict: the David-and-Goliath confrontation of the tiny U.S. Navy and the warships of Great Britain, the greatest fighting navy the world had ever seen.
As Utt points out, although the United States could boast that glory of the sea, the U.S.S. Constitution, the nation still practically had to start from scratch:
By any standards, Constitution was a thoroughbred, and her pedigree could be traced back to the fast American frigates of the Revolutionary War – the Alliance, Hancock, and Randolph, to name just a few – and the brilliant men who designed and built them. But that tradition came to a temporary end in the early years of the nation. Pressed by debts incurred during the War of Independence and unable to raise much revenue from the thirteen fractious states of the postwar confederation, America’s Continental Congress had to save money wherever it could. Even the tiny navy, reduced by combat from fifty-three commissioned ships to only two when independence was won in 1781, was still too heavy a burden for the bankrupt confederation. The Hague was sold first, in 1782, but Congress held onto the Alliance, a sentimental favorite because it was once commanded by John Paul Jones, until 1785, when it was sold to the Philadelphia merchant Robert Morris for twenty-six thousand dollars. Upon its sale, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps were effectively disbanded.
When war erupted, that imbalance by rights should have spelled the doom of the little upstart nation. Famously, the opposite happened. Through nimble, enterprising seamanship in epic confrontation after confrontation – the U.S.S. United States vs. the H.M.S. Macedonian in the Western Atlantic in October of 1812, the great squadron-battles like that fought off Put-In Bay on Lake Erie in September 1813, and naturally the victories of “Old Ironsides” herself, the U.S.S. Constitution fighting H.M.S. Java off the coast of Brazil in December 1812, fighting H.M.S. Cyane and H.M.S. Levant simultaneously in the Western Atlantic in February 1813, and that epic, signature mauling, the Constitution vs. H.M.S. Guerriere in August of 1812, which set the pattern for much of what was to follow.
Utt shows an unfailing sensitivity in his gripping, headlong descriptions of naval action – he’s neither dry naval annals nor warmed-over Forester, and he very wisely lets his ample primary sources do a good deal of the talking for him, as in a climactic moment during the battle between the U.S.S. Chesapeake and the H.M.S. Shannon off Boston Harbor on June 1, 1813:
Below decks, Shannon’s well-aimed shot took a swift and heavy toll on Chesapeake’s gun crews. After the first few volleys, Second Lieutenant George Budd, commanding the guns, was horrified to discover that only a portion of the 150 or so crewmen stationed on the gun deck remained on their feet and continued to work their guns. Still, Chesapeake‘s faltering return fire left a trail of devastation across the decks of Shannon. “Thomas selby, able seaman on the fo’c'sle, had his head smashed from his body, Neil Gilchrist was cut in two by a 32 pound ball, Thomas Barry, a young lad, was taken off by a star shot across his middle.” [Captain Sir Philip Broke narrowly escaped injury himself when shot from Chesapeake shattered one of the guns on the quarterdeck and hurled shrapnel between his legs. The captain of the gun, Driscoll, was not so lucky: the same shot fractured both his knee caps, while the gun’s loader took a shot of grape in his stomach. Falling to the deck in bloody agony, he begged those near him to put a hand into his wound and remove the shot. “I shall do well enough if you only do that.” He did not live out the day.
Seven future U.S. Presidents served in the War of 1812, and much of the nature of Western politics during the next half-decade was codified during the brief, intense window of the conflict, during which the United States, in managing successfully to defend its recently-acquired nationhood, took its first real standing among the nations of the world. The dramatic, picturesque naval battles on which Utt concentrates so successfully were, unbeknownst to their participants, doomed to complete irrelevance only fifty years later, when the Monitor and the Merrimac took one loud and messy afternoon to end the Age of Sail forever. But the telling of those battles – especially when it’s done as well as in Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron, is something of its own reward. If the War of 1812 is this well served in 2112, it’ll be one lucky war indeed.