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Book Review: The Weight of Vengeance

The Weight of Vengeance: The United States, the British Empire, and the War of 1812

by Troy Bickham

Oxford University Press, 2012

The War of 1812, the subject of Troy Bickham’s densely-researched and fascinating new book The Weight of Vengeance, lasted less than three years and racked up less than 4000 casualties. It was the second and final conflict between Great Britain and the fledgling United States, and in some ways it was the more vital of the two, hinging as it did on the complicated question of national places-in-the-sun. As Bickham writes, “Britain did not go to war simply to protect its maritime rights. It went to war to crush an emerging rival.”

Even so, to claim, as our author does, that the war “is often overlooked” is stretching the blanket a bit much. Recent years have seen the publication of several books on the subject, written with zest by several skilled and engaging historians (1812: The Navy’s War by George Daughan being the most noteworthy example from 2011). 2012′s centenary has prompted its own outpouring of observations, in many formats and genres. The war is certainly no longer ‘overlooked’ – the claim has become a straw man all on its own.

Luckily, Bickham abandons any town-crier pretence almost immediately and instead settles down to telling the old familiar story in refreshingly unfamiliar ways. He’s a prodigious researcher (the book has forty pages of end-notes in microscopic print), and he often comes at facts and aspects of the war from angles that feel entirely new. Alongside his familiarity with a dazzling array of primary sources, he never forgets to write engagingly for the general reader:

In early July 1812, James Madison laid out his case for war in a message to Congress. The message, which appeared in newspapers throughout the Anglo-American world, was not the president’s best propaganda. It rambled, lacked punch, and betrayed whast might be mistaken for a lack of conviction.

That array of primary sources consists in large part of contemporary newspapers, government reports, and personal diaries, a veritable library of which Bickham has read and absorbed. When he tells some of the war’s most dramatic little episodes – as when rogue Massachusetts governor Caleb Strong sent an envoy to Sir John Coape Sherbrooke, the lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia, proposing an independent alliance – readers are guaranteed to get every aspect of the episode pinned down in local newspapers or the actual minutes of meetings. You’d think such an approach would be lethal to any sense of drama, but Bickham handles it all so adroitly that the tensions of events are if anything increased. An effect almost of reportage is achieved and then sustained, complete with far more precise numerical details than can be found in any of those other recent works on the period:

… for all its supporters’ efforts, the War of 1812 failed to produce a public patriotic outpouring comparable to the one in 1776, let alone their idealized version of the Spirit of ’76. Female patriotism was ultimately partisan, with few women in districts opposed to the war producing clothing for troops or raising funds in the support of the war. The tales of mothers enlisting their sons originated in teh southern or western states, not New England, and alcohol was a far more common tool of recruitment than a mother’s shaming. The actual recruitment figures temper claims of the effectiveness of such tales. By 1813 only 9,823 of the pre-war authorized regular army of 35,000 had been recruited.

The key to the success of this approach is the careful way Bickham balances it with his bigger portraits of the war’s setting:

The autumn of 1814 was a precarious time in Europe, as the Congress of Vienna faced collapse and with it renewed war. Without Napoleon to bind the allies, they quickly fell into their old bickering habits as each nation pursued its own interest. Neither had much love for the other, they had all gone to war against each other at least once in the last century, and so intrigue, secret treaties, and backroom diplomacy prevailed.

If the American Revolution was fought for a national existence, the War of 1812 was fought for a national validity – the “certain rank” James Monroe invoked in dealings with the fractious British diplomats who sought to codify the new nation as a permanent junior partner on the world stage. The fight for that rank was carried out far more importantly in the press of the day than on the limited battlefields of the war itself, and Bickham, by exploring that fight, has made an invaluable contribution to our understanding of Mr. Madison’s War. What the book lacks in epic sweep it makes up in vigorous monographic focus, showing us what people actually thought and said and yelled on the subject, two hundred years ago.

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