From the Publisher
“Howard's descriptions, e.g., of the burning of Washington, are superb, as is his use of primary sources throughout. Highly recommended to all readers on this war's bicentennial.” Library Journal
“An entertaining look at the forgotten war.” Military History Quarterly
“It is as a work of military history the book excels. Howard's recountings of the naval battles are especially vivid…A worthy look at a rite of passage making the nascent United States into a nation that, although far from a world power, would be here to stay.” Minneapolis Star-Tribune
This fluent if glamorized history of the War of 1812 mines what heroism and romance it can from the woeful record of American military ineptitude, cowardice, political dissension, and lackadaisical leadership. Historian Howard (Thomas Jefferson: Architect) does find stirring moments, especially in his accounts of American frigates’ underdog battles with the British fleet, which yield gore (“his lifeless body fell to the deck, severed in two”) and gallantry aplenty, including Capt. James Lawrence’s immortal last words, “Don’t give up the ship!” (uttered just before the ship was, in fact, given up). The author’s foregrounding of the first couple, especially in a set piece recreation of the British sack of Washington, is less edifying. As much as Howard talks up his statesmanship, President Madison seems a feckless commander-in-chief who needlessly took an unprepared country to war and never got a grip. And Dolley Madison’s main impact was her star turn rescuing George Washington’s portrait from the Redcoats. Still, Howard’s entertaining saga extracts no little drama from an inglorious episode. B&w illus. (Jan.)
Here is the story of the War of 1812 not from the military, but the personal perspective of James Madison—the first U.S. President to declare the country at war—and the beloved Dolley Madison. Readers get a feeling for the period beyond the political and military contexts and gain salient new information. For example, Dolley Madison's social gatherings at the White House on Wednesday evenings did much to ease political differences between parties. In the midst of the war, President Madison was deathly ill with "bilious fever" and wasn't able to travel until early August 1813. With the British in the Chesapeake Bay region, committing depredations up and down the coast, a President's travel plans were kept secret for the first time. At the British devastation of the capitol in 1814, the Madisons had to flee. VERDICT Howard's descriptions, e.g., of the burning of Washington, are superb, as is his use of primary sources throughout. Highly recommended to all readers on this war's bicentennial.—D.L.P.
Numerous books have cast almost too much light on the "unknown" War of 1812, so historian Howard (The Painter's Chair: George Washington and the Making of American Art, 2009, etc.) take a different tack, writing largely from the point of view of President Madison and Dolley, the nation's most popular first lady before Eleanor Roosevelt. The author delivers a skillful history of the war itself, launched after five years of frustration at British seizure of American merchant vessels and impressment of sailors. The chief goal the American army was the conquest of Canada, which failed disastrously despite several attempts. The goal of the navy was damaging British commerce. This succeeded notwithstanding the distraction of a handful of minor but spectacular American naval triumphs, which did not prevent the immense Royal Navy from blockading our coast, damaging American commerce even more. Mostly the war was a three-year litany of inept generals, wrong-headed politicians and a sprinkling of heroes (Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Oliver Hazard Perry), whose victories made little difference in the war's outcome. British and American historians agree that it was a draw; ironically, Canadians consider that they won. Britain never agreed to stop seizures and impressment, but winning the Napoleonic wars made that moot. Dolley's contributions to waging the war were minimal, but Howard provides illuminating asides about her activities as Washington's premier hostess and a far more colorful correspondent than her husband. An entertaining portrait of the era's first couple and the social life of the young nation's elite.