Book review: The Perilous Fight

The Perilous Fight
America's Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 1812-1815
By Stephen Budiansky
Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.

Stephen Budiansky likes to deeply explore a topic that is of interest to him, using an outsider's perspective to expose deeply cherished myths. In The Perilous Fight, he seeks to refocus the discussion of American naval successes in the War of 1812, from the traditional celebration of the frigate victories against the world's premier naval power, to a broader appreciation of the asymmetrical anti-commerce strategy pursued by the U.S. Navy Department. The book does not quite deliver on this promise, easily showing the plausibility of his thesis but not conclusively demonstrating that it had any effect in bringing the war to a close. At the same time, it is also a fresh and vivid account of the naval events of the War of 1812.

Intriguingly, Budiansky emphasizes the tenuous nature of American independence at the beginning of the 19th century. Very little progress had been made since the Revolution, cities had barely grown or even shrunk in size, and Southern planters lived in an environment of amidst "genteel poverty." This was before the Industrial Revolution, before the cotton gin. Yet America remained a large market for manufactured goods, and the merchant marine enjoyed the success that eluded the rest of the American economy. Indeed, British shillings remained more common than American coinage.

Since tariffs formed the basis of taxation, the Napoleonic Wars had severe effects on the U.S. Treasury, causing disruptions to the American merchant marine. Budiansky covers familiar ground from the history books: the debate over neutral rights, the British blockade of French-dominated Europe, Thomas Jefferson's pet project of Republican gunboats to replace Federalist frigates, etc. But he fleshes it out with details that rarely make it into the history books, describing the high interest rates that the Treasury was having to pay for debt, as well as appreciating the logistics behind navy operations. For example, Jeffersonian cutbacks had left the Constitution as the only American ship cruising on station in the Mediterranean. Thus, the Chesapeake affair was not only a national humiliation, to have a warship boarded by another power in sight of one's own shores. It also delayed the relief of the Constitution, whose crew grew near-mutinous as their original two-year enlistments were forcibly extended to four.

Legendary frigate duels

Budiansky may have concluded his research with an appreciation of commerce raiding, but he seems to have written large chunks of this book before coming to that conclusion. He spends a great deal of time explaining just how it was that the plucky little U.S. Navy was able to inflict such unexpected defeats on the mighty Royal Navy. Not satisfied with the properties of live oak in deflecting cannonballs from Old Ironsides, Budiansky explains just how much effort it took to obtain that live oak. 60 acres of trees had to be felled from barely-inhabited islands in the Carolinas just to supply the wood for one frigate. The trees had to be selected so that the trunks and branches corresponded to the curves in the ship, so that the lumber would not have to be cut against the grain. And then all of that lumber had to be transported to shipyards in the eastern states, as the Northern states were known then, in an age where ocean commerce depended on the winds.

Shipbuilding knowledge had come early to the British North American colonies with the emigration of skilled artisans from the mother country. In fact, the he Royal Navy had commissioned a ship from American shipyards as early as 1690. Conservatism and patronage in British shipyards had left them complacently churning out the same old designs, while the brand-new American navy was free to try fresh ideas, namely, the fast-sailing and heavily-gunned superfrigates.

As a specialized and technical service, the U.S. Navy had a more professional officer corps than the Army or the state militias. Personalities mattered, and one person could make a great deal of difference. Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith, whose chief qualification for the job was his willingness to preside over the Jeffersonian cuts that no navally-inclined person could stomach, turned out to have promoted an efficient officer corps, staunchly turned down request for patronage and promoted officers based on merit.

Personalities also mattered a great deal when it came to captains. Isaac Hull took over the Constitution when John Rodgers bumped him off the President, for Rodgers had seniority and the President was a slightly faster ship. Yet Captain Hull had an eternally-cheerful disposition and ran a happy ship no matter which one he was on. When Hull returned from his victory over HMS Guerrière, he got bumped from command again, this time by Bainbridge. The crew pleaded Hull to stay, knowing that Bainbridge was a harsh disciplinarian and would begging Hull to stay. Faced with this near-mutiny, Bainbridge seems to have had a change of heart and relaxed his usual practices considerably for his cruise. Hull and Bainbridge would have several run-ins of this sort, and Hull's much-younger wife, whom he married after having become a war hero, would find Bainbridge's wife to be not only unfriendly, but also unwilling to turn over the shipyard commandant's house to her. With such ego involved, it is no wonder that dueling became such an epidemic in the Navy.

The outcome of the frigate duels is easily explained in retrospect. American crews signed on to serve in a small Navy, of their own volition. The Royal Navy had to impress its sailors because it could not otherwise man such a large navy. American ships sailed out for short cruises, with the express purpose of commerce raiding and perhaps giving battle to British men-of-war. In contrast, British warships had to cruise for long periods of time over large stretches of ocean, during which their fighting skills became rusty. British naval tactics emphasized courage and a willingness to shed blood, preferring to fire at the decks rather than the superstructure and treating high casualties as a proud testament of superiority in battle. Since the French preferred to fire at the masts to cripple the ship, Anglo-French naval battles always ended with many more French dead, no matter the outcome of the fight. (Here Budiansky misses an opportunity to tie in Royal Navy history, which inspired the famous phrase "pour encourager les autres.")

Faced with better crews and superior firepower, and brimming with overconfidence from centuries of dominance on the high seas, British defeat in the frigate duels looks less surprising than it did at the time. British honor felt slighted by these defeats. Captain Philip Broke of HMS Shannon would later receive a baronetcy for his defeat of USS Chesapeake, an action that against a French ship would've earned him mere kudos and prize money. The Chesapeake was an ordinary 38-frigate, and Broke had been one of the few British captains to drill his crew in gunnery, going so far as to fit the guns with quadrants at his own expense for judging elevation angles. After seven years on station, he was so tired of his job that he wrote long letters to his wife planning out the flower garden that he would have upon leaving the service. He'd get it, but at the price of a cracked skull during the battle with the Chesapeake.

Asymmetric warfare

It is in the discussion of asymmetric warfare that the book falls short. It is certainly true that the morale effect of frigate duels was much greater than their actual contribution towards the conduct of the war. However, it is unclear just how effectively the war of commerce-raiding was carried out.

Indeed, as Budiansky points out, the much-hated Jeffersonian embargo eventually worked. The orders-in-council had been rescinded before the war began, precisely because of the disastrous effect it was having on British textile exports to America. (Ironically, the Confederates would try the exact opposite during the Civil War, seeking to pressure the British into intervention by preventing exports of cotton.) The Royal Navy began the war with an expectation that the Americans would call off the whole thing once they realized they'd gotten what they wanted. Since the war ultimately ended with a restoration of the status quo ante bellum, it is difficult to say just what was gained by commerce-raiding that the embargo had not already achieved.

Budiansky also makes a distinction between privateers outfitted specifically for battle, and letters of marque granted to ships whose primary purpose was trade. He first writes that the British were alarmed by the privateers, as they forced even more of their warships to be tied up in convoying duties. But towards the end of the war, privateers served largely to swell the ranks of Americans locked up in British prisons. A strategy that the enemy could shut down cannot be considered an effective strategy.

Insurance rates soared for British shipping when the Americans escalated the conflict and began burning rather than capturing enemy merchantmen. But this analysis also seems like wishful thinking, for the tightening of the blockade meant that the frigates were largely bottled up in harbor. The successes of lone ships that ran the blockade cannot be seriously considered to be proof of the success of commerce raiding as a strategy. And the privateers were not burning British ships — they wanted to take them as prizes. Budiansky refers to the leakiness of the blockade and the tedium of constantly sailing back and forth for ships on blockade duty. But without numbers, it is difficult to reconcile this assertion with previous statements about Americans captured while privateering.

The Civil War blockade was never leakproof, either, and Confederate raiders continued to plague American shipping into 1864, but it was good enough to strangle the Southern economy. The British were indeed growing tired of the war, but American government finances were near collapse. To refer to the "impotence" of the blockade, when the British were actually selling licenses for American ships to conduct trade, is taking credit for the failure of a policy that the British weren't even implementing full-heartedly. I am more impressed by the potential of commerce raiding than by its actual accomplishment during the War of 1812. It would not be until World War I that commerce raiding would really come into its own.

In fact, I am much more impressed by Cockburn's actions along the Chesapeake Bay, which Budiansky dismisses as a waste of scarce resources that could otherwise have been spent on the blockade. How is it that morale victories are acceptable when won by the Americans, but wasteful when carried out by the British? Is not the burning of the enemy's capital by an expedition from the sea an asymmetric action? Especially when you consider that the British force used on this expedition was smaller than the ones sent to the rebellious colonies during the Revolutionary War?


The War of 1812 tripled the U.S. national debt. It is true that no American seamen would ever again be impressed by British ships, but surely the end of the Napoleonic Wars deserves more credit for that than the War of 1812. The War did create naval heroes and a national mythology, and the United States did earn greater respect from Britain as an independent nation. The U.S. Navy would never again be neglected as it was in Jefferson's day. But if that is the primary achievement of the war, then the war might as well have ended right after the frigate duels.

So we come full circle, after all. The Perilous Fight seeks to demonstrate that American naval strategy was well thought-out strategically, and that commerce-raiding hurt the British asymmetrically. I suggest that the War really ended because neither side could win on land. Commerce raiding could not have continued for long if Baltimore had been burnt like Washington was, or if the British invasion of New York had succeeded. Neither side was accomplishing anything useful by prolonging the conflict, and the British were much more interested in sorting out Europe after Napoleon. So the history books were right after all. The war was a series of blunders, punctuated by singular successes.