Steven E. Siry
Review of Jon Latimer,
1812: War with America. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press,
2007. Pp. xiv, 637. ISBN 978-0-674-02584-4.
America's bungled effort in the War of 1812 is an excellent example of
how not to fight a war. The frequent incompetence of American generals
and government officials resulted in many defeats. Nor did the war
further America's diplomatic objective to protect its
rights of neutrality. With its provision to restore the status quo
ante bellum, the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war, made the
conflict seem senseless for the United States. John Quincy Adams, a
member of the American delegation that negotiated the treaty, stated:
"Nothing was adjusted, nothing was settled-- nothing in substance but
an indefinite suspension of hostilities was agreed
Yet many Americans believed United States
had whipped Great Britain in what was called a
second war of independence.
In 1812: War with America, Jon Latimer examines this apparent
contradiction between what actually happened and how it was
subsequently perceived by the American people. Presenting a decidedly
British perspective, Latimer, a former lecturer at the University of
Wales in Swansea,
disputes the "myth" that the war was "forced on a peaceable America by
continuous provocation by an arrogant Britain" (2). He insists that
the number of American sailors impressed into service in the British
navy has often been exaggerated and that Britain's serious encroachments on
America's neutral rights must be viewed in the context of its efforts
to remain a pre-eminent world power during its very long struggle
against France in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.
Moreover, though maritime grievances were the main issues pushing
America toward belligerency, it was desire for Canada that "would tip
the scales into war" (25).
Latimer's book concerns the military campaigns of the conflict as they
were affected by problematic financial and administrative conditions
and a logistics nightmare for both sides.
As he notes, the distances
in North America were greater than in Europe, the terrain often
significantly more difficult, and the climate harsher. This greatly
contributed to logistical problems that severely limited the size of
forces and operations.
Overall, the book offers extensive coverage of naval and land
operations, placing them within the context of the concluding years of
the Napoleonic Wars. Latimer points out that the Americans did not
suffer the full brunt of British military capabilities during the War
of 1812, since England was fighting Napoleon and the war in America was
"little more than an annoying distraction" (35). But he argues that
lack of preparedness undercut the American war effort: "Indeed, defeat
was practically guaranteed from the moment Madison and Congress
stepped onto the warpath with risible preparations that undercooked
the navy and put a half-baked army in the field: America would have to
go to war with the army it had, not the army it might want, or wish it
had" (59). American forces nonetheless won victories on the Great
Lakes and in the Northwest, as the alliance between the British and
Tecumseh's pan-Indian organization fractured. Furthermore, all of
Britain's invasions of the United States eventually ended in failure.
The inability to secure a crushing victory in 1814 pushed Britain
toward negotiating an end to the conflict that resulted in the Treaty
of Ghent, signed on Christmas Eve. News of the U.S. Senate's
ratification of the treaty reached London on 13 March 1815, just four
days after Napoleon escaped from Elba. This allowed the British
government to deploy troops to Belgium instead of America, helping
ensure the Duke of Wellington's victory at Waterloo.
In evaluating the conflict's outcomes, Latimer stresses America's
failure to conquer Canada and ridicules the myth of a second war of
American independence: "the one really decisive and lasting result of
the War of 1812 was the complete British victory in Canada that
secured Canadian independence" (408). Further, by war's end, the
United States had achieved none of its aims, its trade had been almost
eliminated, and the nation's capital lay in ashes: "in these terms,
the War of 1812 must be seen as a British victory, however marginal"
Clay, another American negotiator at Ghent, asserted that, while the
United States had earlier suffered scorn and contempt for failing to
defend its national honor, after the war it had gained
"respectability and character abroad--security and confidence at
Moreover, Americans had again proven they could survive a fight
against the greatest power in the world. The eruption of national
pride following the stunning American victory at the Battle of New
Orleans just two weeks after the Treaty of Ghent was signed indicated
a perceptible change in the country's mood: "in asserting itself on
the world stage in a fight against a major power, … [a] new assertive
and ambitious United States emerged, … for the war vindicated the
United States to itself as a nation" (403-4).
fashioned a richly detailed and deeply informed analysis of the War of
1812. Of the many books on the war published in the past twenty-five
his should be ranked near the top.
 James West Davidson, et al., Nation of Nations,
5th ed. (NY: McGraw-Hill, 2005) 281.
 And author of six other books, including
Deception in War (London: John Murray, 2001) and Buccaneers of the
Caribbean (Cambridge: Harvard U Pr, 2009).
 For historiographical analyses of the causes of
the War of 1812, see Jerald A. Combs, American Diplomatic History: Two Centuries of Changing Interpretations (Berkeley: U Cal Pr,
1983) and Michael J. Hogan, ed., Paths to Power: The
Historiography of American Foreign Relations to 1941 (Cambridge:
 For excellent studies of the administrative and
political aspects of the war on the American side, see Leonard D.
White, The Jeffersonians: A Study in Administrative History,
1801-1829 (NY: Macmillan, 1951) and J.C.A. Stagg, Mr. Madison's
War: Politics, Diplomacy, and Warfare in the Early American
Republic, 1783-1830 (Princeton: Princeton U Pr, 1983).
 Davidson (note 1 above) 281.
 See, e.g., Donald Hickey, The War of 1812: A
Forgotten Conflict (Champaign: U Illinois Pr, 1990).