Review: The War of 1812 by Walter Borneman

Brief Historiography of the War of 1812

In Walter Broneman’s 1812: The War That Forged a Nation, the author argues that this oft-overlooked war was actually the catalyst that finally united the United States. Borneman uses an argument often used in accounts of the American Civil War to sum up his own account of an earlier time: prior to the war the phrase was “The United States are,” while after the war it changed to “The United States is.” His account of the War of 1812 is riveting, but a little shallow, especially when compared to the titan of all 1812 material, Theodore Roosevelt’s Naval War of 1812 (1882). Other overviews on the topic include the respected Donald R. Hickey’s The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict (1990), Jon Latimer’s 1812: War with America (2007), and Reginald Horsman’s Causes of the War of 1812 (1962).

Walter Borneman

A veteran writer about the American West, Borneman decided to write a book about the original western frontier and naturally gravitated toward the War of 1812, which was pushed by the Western elements of the nation. Borneman traveled to sites like Fort McHenry and relied on the sources discovered by other authors. According to the author himself he found Hickey’s The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict to contain a “treasure trove” of sources that he used in his own research. Using many secondary and primary sources, he only mentions two specifically in the text itself: Theodore Roosevelt (several times) and Robert V. Remini, a biographer of Andrew Jackson. His usage of Roosevelt was especially helpful in understanding Roosevelt’s own The Naval War of 1812, which oftentimes became bogged down in confusing statistics.

Review of 1812

Borneman’s work aims at revealing the impact of the forgotten War of 1812 on the American psyche. His primary argument is that the war, despite splitting the nation into factions at the start, ended up uniting the Americans. Despite being a general history of the entire war, it focuses primarily on the Canadian front and the naval war, discussing the British raids along the coast only in reference to the attacks on Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, and discussing the rest of the war only in relation to Andrew Jackson.

It is clear that Borneman carefully represented both sides of the war so as not to do injustice to the British or the Americans, but he is also quick to point out the follies and leadership problems facing each side. Despite his attempts at balance, Borneman clearly intends to portray the American side of the war, seldom referring to British opinions or preparations. 1812 is clearly a book aimed at Americans. It is a history of the American war effort more than a history of the war as a whole.

Much attention is given to the leadership qualities (or lack of them) among those at the head of the war effort. The war was a bloody stalemate from beginning to end, with each side enjoying small bits of progress and devastating defeats. Borneman’s narrative clearly puts on display the pendulum nature of the early years of the war, essentially focusing entirely on the leaders. At times mentions were made to the inability of certain state militia in invading Canada, but the blame for defeats and the glory for victories ultimately goes to characters like American Generals Winfield Scott, Andrew Jackson, James Wilkinson, Secretary of War Armstrong and British officers Pakenham, Sir George Prevost, and Admiral Cochrane.

The Purpose of 1812

Borneman’s main thesis that the United States was united by the outcome of the war develops in three stages. First, the United States, as usual, was unprepared for the coming war. In a sense America rushed headlong into a war, expecting a quick and easy victory over Canada that would force Britain to stop the impressments of U.S. sailors. Being the first serious war the United States participated in, the military had to rely on political appointments and a handful of Revolution veterans to lead and organize the war effort. With a divided populace, a lack of a large standing army, and ineffective means of communications, the war was hampered from the start. Military maneuvers could not be coordinated and as a result many victories were short-lived and defeats were frequent. A motley assortment of militia and regular army combined with a confusing command structure guaranteed that cooperation among military officers would be difficult to obtain. Borneman gives detailed accounts of inter-service and personal rivalries that prevented American victories early in the war.

The second point is that out of this chaos came America’s next generation of leadership. Young officers like Oliver Hazard Perry, Winfield Scott, and Isaac Hull emerged with newfound reputations for leadership, while “elder statesmen” like Andrew Jackson gained a new name for themselves as formidable leaders. At the end of 1812, Borneman briefly discusses the future of these officers ranging from two presidents to a multitude of political and military leaders of significance.

Out of the overall stalemate of the War of 1812, these leaders combined with the few American victories to provide the nation with something to rally around. Out of the chaos and new leadership came a new sense of unity that would last until the Civil War.

Scope and Range

This volume covers the events leading up to the war, starting around 1807 and ending around 1815. Written in a lively, conversational tone, Borneman’s narrative is flowing, but a little lacking in substance. With such broad scope, it is unfair to expect a truly deep investigation of the war in all its detail and Borneman does an admirable job juggling the various historical figures and events scattered over the North American continent. While reading 1812, the reader might wonder what else was happening, especially on the southern front where Jackson was fighting the Creeks and waiting for glory at New Orleans. One also might wish for more detailed biographical information on important figures, but so many of them populate the book that it would be impossible to detail all of them. Another slight flaw in his work is that it focuses entirely on the political and military aspect. There is virtually no attention paid to the home front and the impact of the war on frontier families aside from brief mentions of reaction to the burnings of various American and Canadian towns. But despite these shortcomings, Borneman delivers an entertaining popular account of a forgotten war that had a large impact on the development of the United States.

In order to make this account more appealing to a casual history fan Borneman has included maps that help greatly in understanding some of the critical movements of the war. In particular his maps regarding naval battles come in handy in deciphering the prose covering the movements of the ships. In most cases the choices of maps is helpful, though some of the later maps seem less useful than other choices may have been. For instance, when discussing the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, he includes a map of a basic frontal assault over an open plain, when a more detailed map of lower Louisiana would have been more helpful in understanding the movements of the armies that brought them to that point.

Overall, 1812 is an effective introduction to the War of 1812. It is most certainly a popular account, and as a short, one-volume history of the war, it performs admirably at addressing the major issues of the era. The conversational writing style makes it accessible to the average reader and the areas Borneman leaves untouched leave the reader curious to read more. On the whole, it is a successful attempt at introducing readers to a frequently misunderstood event in American history. After reading his book his argument that the war united a nation becomes clear and the importance of the war in the annals of American history can finally be taught to the average reader. Borneman’s effort is highly recommended.