Roosevelt, Theodore. The Naval War of 1812. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1987. Pp 289.
Theodore Roosevelt, who would rise to fame as a war hero, an adventurer, and the twenty-sixth president of the United States, was before all this, a writer and historian. In 1882, only two years after graduating from Harvard, Roosevelt made his mark as a military scholar with The Naval War of 1812, a detailed analysis of naval combat between the United States and Great Britain from 1812-1815.
Roosevelt’s purpose in writing was threefold. In the preface, Roosevelt says that there are no books that tell “the whole story” or “do justice to both sides.” (pg. xxiii) He also wished to refute the work of British author William James, whose Naval Occurrences of the War of 1812 extolled English naval supremacy and denigrated American successes. Finally, Roosevelt wanted to use examples from that conflict to illustrate what he saw as the foolishness of skimping on naval expenditures in peacetime, largely because he saw these same errors being repeated in his day.
The Naval War of 1812 is a scholarly work of substantial merit, with dozens of credible authorities cited, including many primary source documents such as captain’s logs, official reports and state papers, although these records are almost entirely American, and thus must be scrutinized for objectivity. Roosevelt also demonstrates familiarity with other historians’ work on the subject, sometimes using them as sources and occasionally using his evidence to point out their errors. The book is well footnoted, which gives the reader confidence in the quality of Roosevelt’s research, and the style is not overly technical, which could have been an obstacle to readability in a work of this depth.
Roosevelt begins his study with an introduction to the War of 1812, including the political conditions in the years preceding the war. It is here that Roosevelt begins to comment on the particularly American practice of ignoring military preparedness until hostilities are inaugurated, comparing the performance of Federalist-era frigates to the small (often single gun) gunboats favored by subsequent Republican administrations. Of the gunboats he says, “Their operations throughout the war offer a painfully ludicrous commentary on Jefferson’s remarkable project of having our navy composed exclusively of such craft.” (pg. 111) Later, he goes on to call Jefferson “…the most incapable Executive that ever filled the presidential chair…” (pg. 251) Theodore Roosevelt, just twenty-three years old, already is not one to temper an opinion sincerely held, even when that opinion is an attack on an American icon.
Events are presented chronologically, with each year of the war addressed in two parts, “On The Ocean” and “On The Lakes.” During these passages, Roosevelt follows the cruises of American commanders and individual actions between vessels. When analyzing battles at sea, Roosevelt not only details the movements of the combatants and the nature of the damage they inflicted, he also describes in great detail the strengths and weaknesses of each vessel, including types and numbers of guns, number and quality of crew and the condition of the ship itself. In addition, he presents the “comparative force” of each vessel, taking into account each ship’s tonnage, number of guns, weight of metal thrown, size of crews and total casualties in the action. In this way, Roosevelt helps the reader quickly size up the battle.
Roosevelt gives an assessment of each vessel’s performance under fire, and he is direct in assigning blame or glory to individual crews and commanders. Roosevelt, as shown by his scathing attack on Jefferson, has no qualms about taking on American mythology, and he does not spare Oliver Hazard Perry when he interprets the results from the Battle of Lake Erie. “Most Americans…if asked which was the most glorious victory of the war, would point to this battle…yet he (Perry) certainly stands on a lower grade than either Hull or Macdonough, and not a bit higher than a dozen others.” (pgs. 150-151)
Throughout the text, Roosevelt makes a point of correcting what he believes to be British misstatements of fact or, at the least, poorly drawn conclusions. He accuses James of a “…willful and systematic perversion of the truth” and concludes, “…we are certainly justified in rejecting James’ account in toto (emphasis original).” (pg. 171) These criticisms would have been more credible had Roosevelt included more English primary source documents in his research.
Roosevelt betrays a substantial Anglo bias, praising the “…stubborn, desperate, cool bravery that marks the English race on both sides of the Atlantic.” (pg. 21) On the same page, he goes out of his way to disparage mercenary sailors from Portugal and Italy as inferior due to their nationalities. Comments such as these leave the modern reader somewhat uncomfortable; they are useful, however, if one is interested in Theodore Roosevelt as an individual, and a product of his times.
The Naval War of 1812 is a seminal work and is an indispensable reference for students of that war and for anyone interested in the naval history of the United States in general. It was a success in its day as well. “By regulations adopted in 1886, at least one copy…was to be placed on board every vessel in the U.S. Navy.” (editor’s introduction, pg. xii-xiii) Roosevelt would go on to become Assistant Secretary of the Navy, where he was able to influence policy on fleet modernization, fulfilling yet another goal of the book. Its impact was not limited to America; in fact, his book so well received in England that in 1901 Roosevelt would write the War of 1812 component for the official history of the Royal Navy. Theodore Roosevelt established lofty goals when he began this project, and as was usually the case for him, he achieved them brilliantly.