For sovereignty, of course. But for honor most of all.

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOKWORLD - book­world@wash­ Evan Thomas, the author of “The War Lovers” and “John Paul Jones,” is writ­ing a bi­og­ra­phy of Pres­i­dent Dwight Eisen­hower.

PER­ILOUS FIGHT Amer­ica’s Intrepid War With Bri­tain on the High Seas, 1812-1815 By Stephen Bu­di­an­sky Knopf. 422 pp. $35

Read­ing Stephen Bu­di­an­sky’s rous­ing story of the naval War of 1812, it is hard not to hum a few bars of the old Aretha

Franklin standby. Re­spect is what the Amer­i­cans wanted from their for­mer colo­nial masters, and re­spect is what they got.

Great Bri­tain in the early 19th cen­tury ruled the waves. Her navy was 100 times the size of Amer­ica’s, andthe Bri­tish were ar­ro­gant, to say the least, about as­sert­ing their su­pe­ri­or­ity from sea to shore. Rou­tinely stop­ping Amer­i­can ships to “press” sailors into the Royal Navy, ever hun­gry for man­power to fight the Napoleonic

Wars, the Bri­tish ig­nored Amer­i­can protests. Bu­di­an­sky, who writes with sure and vivid com­mand, de­scribes three Bri­tish war­ships “car­ry­ing on their usual rou­tine of lob­bing can­non­balls across the bows of mer­chant­men pass­ing into New York” on the evening of April 25, 1806. One of the can­non­balls de­cap­i­tated the helms man of a sloop, pro­vok­ing an­gry mobs in New York, and some Amer­i­cans be­gan to talk of war. The rum­blings grew to a roar in 1807, when a Bri­tish war­ship, the Leopard, ca­su­ally fired into an Amer­i­can frigate, the Ch­e­sa­peake, off the Vir­ginia coast, killing four men and se­ri­ously wound­ing seven oth­ers.

The fledg­ling Amer­i­can Navy had a strict cul­ture of honor in its of­fi­cer corps. “One in twelve Amer­i­can navy of­fi­cers who died on ac­tive duty be­fore 1815 were killed in du­els, eigh­teen in all,” Bu­di­an­sky writes; “eas­ily twice that num­ber had fought a duel, and ev­ery of­fi­cer lived with the knowl­edge that his rep­u­ta­tion for courage was al­ways li­able to be tested on the field of honor.” Af­ter the ig­no­min­ious sur­ren­der of the Ch­e­sa­peake to the Leopard, Amer­i­can of­fi­cers fought nine du­els over who should be blamed for the hu­mil­i­a­tion.

By 1812, Amer­ica was en­gaged in a hope­lessly lop­sided naval war with Great Bri­tain. Though out­gunned, the Amer­i­cans were blessed with sev­eral well-built heavy frigates and some in­domitable fight­ing cap­tains. One of them, a short, pudgy man named Isaac Hull, was un­usual in that he avoided du­els and rarely or­dered his men flogged. But in Au­gust 1812 off the Grand Banks, his ship, the Con­sti­tu­tion, as­tounded the world by tak­ing a Bri­tish frigate, the Guer­riere, in a bru­tal closerange gun bat­tle. When, af­ter dark, the Amer­i­cans boarded the wrecked Bri­tish war­ship, they found a “slaugh­ter­house,” Bu­di­an­sky writes. “The men who were still sober were throw­ing the dead over­board, but many of the petty of­fi­cers and crew­men had bro­ken into the spirit locker and were scream­ing drunk.”

That au­tumn, two more Bri­tish ships fell in sin­gle-ship ac­tions to the up­start Amer­i­cans. Af­ter the Java suc­cumbed to the Con­sti­tu­tion off Brazil, the Naval Chron­i­cle, a widely read of­fi­cial news­pa­per in London, cried, “An­other frigate has fallen into the hands of the en­emy! — The sub­ject is too painful for us to dwell on.” The Bri­tish com­plained that the Amer­i­cans (“a navy so small we scarcely know where to find it”) were play­ing a das­tardly trick by pit­ting their heavy frigates against slightly less well-armed Bri­tish ones. It was un­gentle­manly to take such ad­van­tage.

To avenge Bri­tish honor, Capt. Philip Broke of His Majesty’s Frigate Shan­non chal­lenged the Ch­e­sa­peake (re­built from her 1807 wounds) to a ship-to-ship duel off Bos­ton har­bor in June 1813. “Choose your terms,” Broke wrote the Ch­e­sa­peake’s cap­tain, James Lawrence, “ but let us meet.” Lawrence took up the gaunt­let. The bat­tle, which lasted all of 15 min­utes, was a blood­bath. Bu­di­an­sky de­scribes Broke“ wav­ing the heavy Scot­tish broadsword he fa­vored in bat­tle,” clam­ber­ing aboard the Ch­e­sa­peake, dodg­ing a pis­tol shot from the chap­lain and hack­ing off his arm in re­turn, while shout­ing for his men to fol­low him for­ward. After­ward, in Eng­land, “ the ex­ul­ta­tion was hy­per­bolic bor­der­ing on the manic,” Bu­di­an­sky writes. But the Ad­mi­ralty sent a “se­cret & con­fi­den­tial” di­rec­tive to all Bri­tish cap­tains for­bid­ding any fur­ther ship-to-ship com­bat with those pesky, heavy Amer­i­can frigates.

In 1814, the Bri­tish burned Washington. The terms of the even­tual peace treaty gave the Amer­i­cans at best a draw. But the Bri­tish never again at­tempted to press an Amer­i­can seaman or hin­der Amer­i­can trade on the high seas. Amer­i­can sovereignty was now un­ques­tioned.

Du­el­ing went on, how­ever. In 1820, one of Amer­ica’s most glam­orous cap­tains, Stephen De­catur, was mor­tally wounded by an­other cap­tain ag­grieved over a long-ago per­ceived in­sult. John Quincy Adams wrote sadly that De­catur pos­sessed “a sense of honor too dis­dain­ful of life.” Such sen­ti­ment seems quaint, al­most ar­chaic now, but a sense of honor was use­ful to a ris­ing nation in 1812.


Amer­i­can sailors on the Con­sti­tu­tion bat­tle the Bri­tish frigate Guer­riere dur­ing the­War of 1812.

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