Book Review: The War of 1812
The British Attempt to Seize New Orleans and Nullify the Louisiana Purchase
by Ronald J. Drez
Louisiana State University Press, 2014
December of 2014 marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans, which signaled the end of the War of 1812 and rocketed its victor, Andrew Jackson, to national prominence. The British invaders were prompted to make a major effort on the city by the resentment England felt over the so-called Louisiana Purchase, in which Napoleon Bonaparte sold to the United States over 800,000 square miles of western territory in 1803; as Ronald Drez writes in his thumpingly entertaining and case-resetting new book The War of 1812, Conflict and Deception (the subtitle goes on for several more meandering months), the British seeded their New World armies with political agents whose job it would be to administer the vast territories they were expecting their armies to win back from the upstart Americans.
Drez puts the Battle of New Orleans front and center in his spirited narrative of the war. He calls it (in the kind of overstatement endemic to specialists) “the most overwhelming defeat in the history of warfare and has left little wiggle room” (despite the fact that the British soldiers and their commander Sir Edward Pakenham were not summarily beheaded, nor their families buried alive, nor their various hometowns torched and razed) and he positions it squarely as a pivotal point in early American history. He reminds us that “not one inch of land had been lost or ceded to the enemy,” in the war and points out that the ports along the Chesapeake immediately regained their vigorous trading the moment their years-long blockade was lifted. And Drez makes sure we keep the size of America’s outlay in mind:
All this had been accomplished with an army that never exceeded 30,000 men, and at no time were more than 4,000 men ever committed to a single action. The army’s entire losses for the war were 1,500 killed and another 3,500 wounded. These were the numbers of casualties that the Marine Corps suffered in World War II in the three-day battle to seize the tiny island of Tarawa in the Pacific Ocean.
Drez crafts a first-rate narrative out of the war’s familiar contours, and, thankfully, he spends almost no time complaining that the war isn’t well-studied – a few too many of the last 450 histories of the War of 1812 have tried that Little Nell routine, and it gets a bit tiresome. Instead, pricelessly, Drez wades into the ranks of those histories, doling out praise and blame with the fearlessness that only a confidently eminent authority can do:
When Walter Lord’s best-selling book The Dawn’s Early Light can be snobbishly denigrated to be “popular” history, meaning loosely researched and documented (which it is not), it is proper to recognize that the revisionist hijacking of this subject has continued since 1935. These artificial labels are bantered about by elitists and bad historians and are the epitome of parsing. Concocted lists of “best books on the War of 1812” that exclude any work on Andrew Jackson by acclaimed authors are the essence of quibbling.
His book encompasses the whole of the war and its background, and along the way he provides several wonderfully dramatic portraits of his key characters – and he’s refreshingly even-handed in his praise, giving it to the deserving English just as readily as he does to the Americans. Pakenham, for instance, gets his valor well-attested:
History has described Pakenham as Wellington’s most trusted staff officer. But he was much more than that. On July 22, 1812, at the climactic battle of Salamanca on the Iberian Peninsula, Pakenham had taken command of the Third Division, replacing its ailing regular commander. At the height of the battle, when a gap developed in the French line, Wellington sent him in to exploit it, and Pakenham’s lightning attack smashed through the French line and, within a half hour, secured the position.
And as to the one salient event of the War of 1812 that every average American knows – the burning of the White House in 1814 – it partially stumps our author, as it has stumped a great many authors before him. He would understand the decision of Admiral Cockburn to march on Washington and burn the White House if Cockburn had had logistical goals in mind or even the element of surprise, but:
In the case of the British attack on Washington, none of that existed. It was all in the mind of one man – Admiral Cockburn. It was his idea, and his insistence on that idea, even in the face of direct orders from his superior to abandon it, that makes the attack so remarkable. What drove Cockburn to do it is immaterial, and focusing on that motivation distracts from the actual event. Had he failed and lost his army, it is certain that he and General Ross would have had to pay a terrible price. Maybe even a sentence like that given to the American General Hull – to be shot!
The book’s long and climactic description of the Battle of New Orleans is by a wide margin the best account of the battle ever rendered, and Drez is equally good at rebutting the old canard that the War of 1812 was largely meaningless in its larger ramifications. He particularly notes the significance of the way the battle provided the most emphatic ratification imaginable of the Louisiana Purchase itself. “If possession was nine tenths of the law,” he writes, “the crushing British defeat at New Orleans provided the tenth point.”
Drez has produced a feisty, first-rate history of the War of 1812 and the Battle of New Orleans, a book fit to go on the same shelf as the half-dozen wonderful works on the same era that appeared around the occasion of the war’s bicentennial back in 2012.