Book Review – ‘War in the Chesapeake: The British campaigns to control the bay, 1813–1814’ by Richard Hall

By Richard Hall, published October 2020


The term ‘forgotten war’ is one normally associated with the Korean Conflict of 1950–3. Yet such a term can also be applied to perhaps one of the most contemporarily traumatic, but now overlooked, wars of the early nineteenth century: the so-called War of 1812. It was once said by Francis Parkman that ‘great events obscure the great events that came before them’ and this is particularly true of a conflagration that set a former colonial ruling power, Great Britain, against its once fledging colonies, the (relatively) newly independent United States of America. For the former, of course, European Napoleonic events would immediately overshadow battles fought in far- flung America. As for Americans though, it is somewhat surprising that a conflict which saw Andrew Jackson set on the road to the presidency, the burning of the Capitol and White House, in addition to the creation of the national anthem, the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’, became almost a byword of history. That said, it perhaps the far more destructive Civil War of the 1860s that accounts for this.

Charles Neimeyer’s War in the Chesapeake provides an insightful analysis of the campaigns fought by the British in the Chesapeake during the years 1813 and 1814. Seeking to force a redeployment of US forces from the Canadian border in order to safeguard territories in Canada, the British undertook a series of campaigns designed to instil terror into the fledgling United States by utilizing its formidable Royal Navy and army, both of which had been blooded by wars in Europe. Of course, what they had not contended with was the resolution of President James Madison’s administration (notably the somewhat contentious Secretary of War John Armstrong) to leave the defence of the Chesapeake to the militias of Maryland and Virginia. The consequences of this, perhaps unsurprisingly, were, in the shorter term, disastrous for the defenders; though the successful defence of Norfolk in 1813 and Baltimore in 1814 offset, to a degree, initial humiliations …

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Filed under: Atlantic
Subjects include: Battles & Tactics | Navies | Strategy & Diplomacy

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