The War of 1812, in the reviewer’s opinion one of the least necessary wars we have ever fought, was in essence the finale of the American Revolution. Its end led to an era of cooperation between the United States and Britain that continues to this day. However, in 1812, both sides were serious adversaries, and American attempts to conquer Canada were countered by British efforts to attack the East Coast and take New Orleans. The Great Lakes were a boundary between the two countries and, although a few ships existed in those waters, it was the war that spurred a shipbuilding boom that lasted throughout the conflict.
It is not commonly known that the conditions of warfare on the Great Lakes were quite different from those in ocean-going warfare, and the leaders in the respective navies recognized this to the extent that the ships designed and built in those years had features not found on deepwater vessels. In general, they were much smaller, with different hull shapes and range requirements. The ships were built in shipyards next to the lakes, and sometimes the other side raided these and destroyed ships while they were still being built.
The book covers the topic from the historical and technological standpoint, explaining how ships evolved in that region during the war. Some of the personalities are also discussed, showing how they influenced ship construction. One factor that surprised me was the emphasis on getting a ship finished, whether or not it would last very long, using shortcuts such as green lumber and omitting certain structural features, as they figured that the ship would only have to last through its first engagement. Another factor was the British use of carronades while the Americans preferred the regular smoothbore naval gun, which was more effective at longer ranges. The carronade was a sort of naval howitzer, intended for close engagement, so if an American commander could stay out of carronade range, he could pound his opponent to pieces while taking little fire in return. These points are discussed, giving the reader some insights into naval warfare at that time. The photos, paintings, and drawings provided are excellent and serve to illustrate the events and equipment used at the time.
Some of the good points in this book include an extensive bibliography, a very useful glossary of nautical terms, a list of all of the ships built on the Great Lakes during this time period, and some maps which illustrate where all these things happened. Many ships are also illustrated. The only question I had is the use of the term “lb.” in designating the types of cannon. Most of the artillery texts I’ve read refer to guns as “six pounders”, or 6 pdr., rather than 6 lb. This refers to the weight of the solid round shot and has nothing to do with the actual weight of the gun, nor its bore or muzzle length. Rifles were listed in bore size, although they didn’t use rifled artillery during the War of 1812.
But all in all, it is a very good treatment of the warships of this time period, and it follows the Osprey tradition of providing readable military and naval histories to enthusiasts and modelers at reasonable prices. If you’re interested in this subject, this book is well worth having. I enjoyed reading it, and learned quite a bit from it. Get one while you can.
Thanks to Sara Batke of Osprey Publishing for the review copy and IPMS/USA for the opportunity to review it.