Perilous Fight: America's Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 1812-1815

Perilous Fight: America's Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 1812-1815

by Stephen Budiansky


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In Perilous Fight, Stephen Budiansky tells the rousing story of the U.S. Navy during the War of 1812, when an upstart American fleet fought off the legendary Royal Navy and established America as a world power for the first time.
Through vivid re-creations of riveting and dramatic encounters at sea, Budiansky shows how this underdog coterie of seamen and their visionary secretary of the navy combined bravery and strategic brilliance to defeat the British, who had dominated the seas for more than two centuries.  A gripping and essential hsitory, this is the military and political story of how the U.S. Navy became a permanent and essential part of the nation’s defense.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307454959
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/17/2012
Pages: 456
Sales rank: 584,305
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Stephen Budiansky is a military historian and journalist. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Men’s Journal, MHQ, Civil War Times, and many other publications. His previous books include The Bloody Shirt, Her Majesty’s Spymaster, Air Power, and Battle of Wits. He lives in Leesburg, Virginia.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

That America would have a navy at all in 1812 on the eveof her mad war against Britain was the direct result of events of a decadebefore that had spoken more to the young nation's heart than to her mind. The American mind was dead set against the temptations that the republic's foundersbelieved always led governments to war and tyranny. A solid majority of America's political leaders opposed on principle the very notion of a standing navy, a solid majority of Americans opposed the taxes that would be required topay for one, and no sane American of any political inclination thought that anynavy their country could ever possess would be able to contend with those ofthe great European powers.

Yet from the Anglophile merchants of New England to thebackwoods farmers on the frontier, Americans had been stirred by the glory that had been won by the captains and men of the tiny United States navy in worldsfar away ever since its founding in 1794, and it was that glory that had kep tthe service alive against all rational calculation to the contrary.

Edward Preble had no illusions about the price to be paidfor that glory. "People who handle dangerous weapons," he once wrote,"must expect wounds and Death." Preble was a man of action to the core, possessed of a legendary decisiveness and a volcanic temper. Just a year before joining his country's young navy in 1798 as a not-so-young thirty-seven-year-old lieutenant, Preble had taken exception to something a fellow merchant sailor had said to him in Boston, and cracked him over the head with a musket. Preble ended up paying his victim's room and board and medical bills while herecovered, then gave him $200 for his troubles; he never apologized, though.

The first week of February 1804 found Commodore Edward Preble, forty-two years old, captain of the frigate Constitution and commander of America's six-ship Mediterranean squadron, going prematurely bald and gray.His dark blue eyes were as fierce as ever, but he was increasingly given tobouts of racking physical debilitation from a griping stomach complaint that laid him low for days at a time. On the outside he usually managed to keep up afront of self-control and even optimism; inside he was blackened by darts of despair at the task before him, at his mission in life, at the distressing runof bad luck that kept coming his way.

Just a year before taking command of the Constitution the previous May, he had tried to resign his commission from the navy altogether, pleading his shattered state of health, which had kept him bedridden more oftenthan not for weeks on end. Writing the secretary of the navy, Robert Smith ,with his decision, Preble had enclosed a statement from his physician confirming that he was "reduced to a distressing state of debility andemaciation," adding, "he is extremely susceptible of injury from thecares and fatigues of business." His ship's surgeon agreed that theburdens of the job had proved too much for a man of Preble's hard-driving and easily provoked temperament.

But Secretary Smith had spurned the resignation, orderingPreble on furlough to get some rest, and slowly his health had improved enough for him to return to the endless vexations of commanding one of the three plumships of the tiny American fleet. For more than two years the American squadron in the Mediterranean had been waging an anemic battle against the Barbary corsairs that were raiding American ships traversing the region. For centuries the semi-independent Muslim states of Tunis, Algiers, and Tripoli had flourished on piracy and tribute extorted from European shippers that sailedthe Mediterranean. On May 14, 1801, the pasha of Tripoli had made known his dissatisfaction with the amount of tribute he had been receiving from the United States in return for allowing American ships to pass unmolested: in a symbolic declaration of war, the pasha had sent his men to chop down the flagstaff in front of the American consul's residence.

Little had happened since. The American naval force foundit could not effectively blockade Tripoli's harbor and had been reduced to defensive measures, convoying American ships rather than directly confrontingthe Tripolitan corsairs. American consuls in the region warned that the UnitedStates' prestige was plummeting-as was her navy's, both at home and abroad. Jefferson's cabinet, true to the anti-navalist credo of the Republican party,was strongly inclined to simply pay off the pasha and be done with it; Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin wrote the president that he considered the decision "a mere matter of calculation whether the purchase of peace is not cheaper than the expense of a war."

Preble's and the Constitution's mission was to prove themwrong; or at least to prove that the navy had some value at all. Painfullyaware how much was riding on their mission, the secretary of the navyconfidently let be it known in Washington that Preble would be on station tenweeks from the date of receiving his orders. Instead, the months had slipped byas Preble struggled to get his ship seaworthy. The Constitution was only five years old but was literally rotting away at her moorings. She had served withdistinction during America's undeclared naval war with France from 1798 to 1800-the Quasi War, as it came to be called, triggered by French captures ofAmerican merchant ships trading with Britain and then by a wave of popularanger over the XYZ Affair, when an American delegation sent to Paris to resolvethe rising tensions was approached by three agents of the French government who demanded a large bribe. In February 1799 the Constitution had captured the French frigate Insurgente in the Caribbean; a year later she fought acourageous action to a draw with the much more powerful French fifty-two-gunwarship Vengeance. But with the signing of a peace treaty between America and France in September 1800, the ship had returned to Boston after one final cruise in the West Indies, and since June 1802 she had lain utterly neglected, accumulating weeds and decay, in the Charles River near Boston's Charlestown Navy Yard.

On May 20, 1803, Preble had come aboard, inspected herskeleton crew of one midshipman, one boatswain, and twelve men, and ordered a caulking stage brought alongside so he could examine the ship's bottom. The next day he climbed out onto the stage armed with a rake and began pulling upswaths of sea grass that had grown through gaping holes in the copper sheathing below the waterline.

Through the spring and summer of 1803 Preble worked dayafter day, morning to night, making "every exertion in my power," he wrote an old acquaintance, denying himself even "the pleasure of dining with a friend" as he urged the work on. Every seam of the frigate's planking had to be recaulked, a job that required all of the officers' roomsalongside the wardroom to be knocked out. There were cables to be made and tarred, ballast to be brought in, fifty-four thousand gallons of water in casksto be loaded, all new yards to be fitted, all of the ship's rigging to beremoved and rerigged. For the damaged copper sheathing to be replaced, the shipfirst had to be brought over to a wharf at Boston's North End, just across themouth of the Charles River, and all her guns and nearly all her ballast laboriously removed. Then the gunports had to be hammered shut and temporarily caulked tight to make them waterproof, everything that might slide around hadto be unloaded and the rudder unshipped, and then each day she was tipped overand held at a frightening angle by huge ten-inch-thick ropes running from herlower masts to a capstan on the wharf alongside. Massive poles braced the mastsagainst the edge of the deck to take the strain as the ship was heaved over, exposing her side all the way down to the keel, while relieving tackles running from the opposite side made sure she did not capsize altogether. Carpenters setto work from a stage, ripping off the old copper sheets and filling the exposedseams beneath with oakum. Then came a coating of tallow, tar, and turpentine;then sheets of tarred paper roofing felt; then finally the new sheets of copperhammered on. Sailing Master Nathaniel Haraden-his nickname was "Jumping Billy"over saw the back breaking schedule; work started at 5:15 each morning, and the laborers kept at it until seven at night, with an hour off for breakfast and dinner and fifteen minutes for grog at eleven and four. Some captains had found Haraden hardto take for having "assumed too much" in telling them how to run their ship, but the fact was no one knew the Constitution better, and the log Haraden kept of the repair operation spoke of a man justifiably proud of hismastery of the myriad technical complexities the job entailed. Preble told Secretary of the Navy Smith he thought Haraden knew his job and that he could keep him in line when he had to.

By August 9 the Constitution at last was ready to sail,awaiting only a favorable wind to carry her out of Boston harbor. Preble wrote a farewell letter to an old friend from Maine, Henry Dearborn, now ThomasJefferson's secretary of war. "I assure you I am not in pursuit of pleasure-excepting such as the destruction of the piratical vessels in the Mediterranean canafford me," Preble wrote. "If Tripoli does not make peace, I shall hazard to destroy their vessels in port if I cannot meet them at sea."

And he added: "None but a real friend would have given me the kind advice which you have respecting the government of temper. Be assured it shall be attended to."

Nothing about his command was calculated to improve the new commodore's temper. One early and spirited display of his legendary short fuse, however, did him some good with the officers and men under his command who were already growing weary of what one midshipman, Charles Morris, termedtheir captain's "ebullitions of temper." Nearing the Straits of Gibraltar on the evening of September 10, the Constitution's lookout had spotted through the lowering haze just at sunset a distant sail, tracking thesame course but far ahead. A few hours later, dark night settled in and theywere suddenly on her: the same ship, apparently, and almost certainly a ship of war. The Constitution's crew was brought swiftly and silently to their action quarters-no beating of the drums, but every gun crew at its station, gun ports open and gunsrun out, the men peering down their barrels at the stranger, slow matchess moldering at the ready to set off their charges the instant the order to fire came. Only then did Preble give the customary hail.

"What ship is that?"

Across the water a defiant echo came back: "What ship is that?"

"This is the United States ship Constitution. What ship is that?"

Again the question was repeated, again with the sameresult. At which Preble grabbed the speaking trumpet and, his voice strained with rage, shouted, "I am now going to hail you one last time. If a proper answer is not returned, I will fire a shot into you."

If you fire a shot, I will fire a broadside."

"What ship is that?" Preble thundered one lasttime.

"This is His Britannic Majesty's ship Donnegal, eighty-four guns, Sir Richard Strahan, an English commodore. Send your boat on board."

Now the volcano erupted. Leaping to the netting, Preble bellowed, "This is the United States ship Constitution, forty-four guns, Edward Preble, an American commodore, who will be damned before he sends hisboat aboard any vessel." And then, turning to his crew, he bellowed anequally loud, and theatrical, aside. "Blow on your matches, boys!"

An ominous silence ensued, broken by the sound of a boatsplashing down and rowing across. A shamefaced British lieutenant came on deckand apologetically explained that his ship was in fact the frigate Maidstone,no eighty-four-gun ship of the line at all. Her lookouts had been caught napping,and they had not seen the Constitution until they heard her hail; they had no expectation of encountering an American ship of war in these waters, anduncertain of her true identity and desperate to buy time to get their own mento quarters, they had stalled and dissembled.

The apologies were accepted; more important, as Morrislater recalled, "this was the first occasion that had offered to show uswhat we might expect from our commander, and the spirit and decision which he displayed were hailed with pleasure by all, and at once mitigated the unfriendly feelings" that their commander's irascibility had produced.

Throughout the fall of 1803 the commodore was vexed bythe subtleties of Levantine politics, the difficulties of securing reliable translations of Arabic and Turkish documents, and a furious altercation withCommodore John Rodgers, who insisted that as senior captain, owing to theearlier date of his commission, only he was entitled to fly a commodore's broadpennant on the Mediterranean station. Then disaster: on November 24, on the passage from Gibraltar to Malta, the Constitution spoke a passing Britishfrigate that gave them the appalling news that the Tripolitans had captured the American frigate Philadelphia and all her crew on the last day of October. The available facts were few but devastating. Chasing a corsair running intoTripoli harbor, the American frigate had struck a shoal and helplessly surrendered to Tripolitan gunboats that had poured out from the town; the enemy had since refloated her, and she now stood in Tripoli harbor, snug under the guns of the forts that ringed the shoreline. "This affair distresses me beyond description," Preble confessed to the secretary of the navy in a dispatch two weeks later, "and very much deranges my plans of operationfor the present."

Although Preble never publicly let slip a word ofcriticism of the Philadelphia's officers, he poured out his despair and dismayin his private letters. To the secretary he continued:

I fear our national character will sustain an injury withthe Barbarians-would to God, that the Officers and crew of the Philadelphia,had one and all, determined to prefer death to slavery; it is possible that such a determination might save them from either....If it had not been for the Capture of the Philadelphia, I have no doubt, but we should have had peace with Tripoly in the Spring; but I now have no hopes of such an event...I do not believe the Philadelphia will ever be of service to Tripoly; I shall hazard much to destroy her-it will undoubtedly cost us many lives, but it must bedone. I am surprised she was not rendered useless, before her Colours were struck.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“A joy to read for the interested reader of history, the amateur historian, and at the same time a worthy reference for scholars . . . With excellent narrative, battle diagrams and photos, this book is a keeper. It's timely, well-written, interesting and a recommended read.”
—Vice Admiral Robert F. Dunn, The Washington Times
“A rousing story . . . Budiansky writes with sure and vivid command.”
—Evan Thomas, The Washington Post
“Military historian Stephen Budiansky meticulously recreates three years of pitched and pyrrhic battles, while nicely folding in the collateral intricacies of rigging, reefing and tacking, the ambitions, caprices and cruelties of the captains and the exasperating policies of the politicians on both sides of the Atlantic . . . Budiansky is strictly on the beam, both with nautical and literary sensibilities.”
—Jonathan Lazarus, The Newark Star-Ledger
“The author’s colorful narrative is full of gory sea battles, chivalrous flourishes, mutinous tars, and charismatic performances by Stephen Decatur, David Porter, and other American naval legends . . . Budiansky’s well-researched and skillfully written account extracts a gripping true-life naval saga from an otherwise inglorious conflict.”
Publishers Weekly
“Perilous Fight showcases Budiansky’s rare talent for writing history that is simultaneously enlightening, insightful, and entertaining. Impeccably researched and artfully written, it is a thoroughly enjoyable and eye-opening account of how America’s ‘Big Stick’ navy got its start.”
—Bill Sloan, author of The Darkest Summer and The Ultimate Battle

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Perilous Fight: America's Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 1812-1815 2.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 27 reviews.
TOverton More than 1 year ago
Author, Budiansky, with good research writes in a style that requires your dedicated attention to follow well. If you are one who wants to absorb your reading well you may wish to read this book twice. It took me longer to read this than I assumed from the standpoint of it's number of pages. I thought this very informative but speaking for myself, if I were quized regarding it's contents, I would surely fail. I felt like I was carried here and there at times without the structure of helpful transitions. Books subject: The War of 1812. If you're looking for battle scenes at sea there's not much here. Primarily the circumstances resulting in war are what is covered and analysist of leading characters of the war. Englands disrespect and unwillingness to recognize the United States as a new partner in the world set the stage. Impressment and thuggery ignited the old revolutionaries once more. The U.S. finally faced the fact that good world defense starts at sea with a good Navy. How many of us know even a little about this war? "Perilous Fight" is for history buffs and for students of American history. I'm glad to have this one under my belt.
troutrivers More than 1 year ago
so many negative reviews, I enjoyed the book - definitely written from a Yankee viewpoint - as intrepid as the tiny US navy may have been, the war ended with none on the war aims of the Madison administration fulfilled, most importantly the conquest of Canada
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oldsewnsew More than 1 year ago
I love history books and would love to read this one, but, at $28.00 for an e-book? No thank you, I will not be purchasing the book at that ridiculously high price. The Amazon Kindle edition is $16.79. Is Barnes and Noble trying to price itself out of the e-reader community?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a truly ludicrous price for an ebook! I sincerely hope this is not a price point toward which ebooks are trending. Borrow the ebook from your public library and download to your Nook--do not encourage this type of predatory pricing, regardless of how good the book is!! Of course I'm reviewing the price rather than the book--how else are publishers going to get the message? I simply refuse to purchase ebooks priced like this.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
B & N is pricing themselves out of the ebook market with too much greed. I would live to read this book but I will not pay $28.
Drahthaar More than 1 year ago
Why even buy an Ereader if the book is going to cost this much more than the hardcover? I hope B&N gets the point here because I sure don't understand theirs. Like the other two reviewers I am just expressing my displeasure with this type of pricing. I have not read this book because I would never pay this price.
kukhri More than 1 year ago
Why would one consider paying $28 for an e-book? Higher priced books are exactly the reason people are turning away from the physical copies.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Is it possible that you B&N have the price of the eBook and hardcover reversed? The hardcover price of around $18 is more inline with Amazon's $16. The $28 price is more like a hardcover price. Would like to buy this book for my library but not at that price. Will wait and hope the library eventually offers it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
When I saw the title of this book I was ready to jump on it. It's a book I would really love to read but not at that price. Volume sales is what makes money. Price it to sell and it will.
Bossbus More than 1 year ago
How can Barnes and Noble price an e-book for 28 dollars and think we will buy it. This is by far the worse mistake they could ever make. If prices continue to be so high for e-books, which cost less that printed editions, all of us Nook owners will have to go back to printed books and sell our Nooks on Ebay.