THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Book Review

British writers analyze military strategy in two US wars

Email|Print| Text size + By Michael Kenney
November 13, 2007

Fusiliers: The Saga of a British Redcoat Regiment in the American Revolution
By Mark Urban
Walker, 384 pp., illustrated $27.95

1812: War With America
By Jon Latimer
Harvard, 637 pp., illustrated $35

British military operations against American colonists began badly at Lexington and Concord in 1775, and ended just as badly at New Orleans in 1815.

Two British military historians have now explored those two conflicts, the American Revolution and the War of 1812, from their side's perspective.

While Jon Latimer in "1812" gives full credit to American accomplishments - especially for the naval victories on the Great Lakes and by the Constitution and other frigates at sea - he argues that the war "must be seen as a British victory, however marginal."

By the war's end in early 1815, he writes, "U.S. trade had been strangled to practically nothing, and the nation's capital city lay in ashes." Several American attempts to invade Canada had been turned back, and Britain had seized control of northern Maine, parts of New York, and a large area west of Lake Michigan. And the issue over which America had gone to war - the impressment of seamen - was tactfully ignored in the peace treaty.

That said, there are crisp and vivid accounts (with fine maps) of the major battles - Commander Oliver Hazard Perry's "We have met the enemy and they are ours" victory over a British fleet on Lake Erie in August 1813, which Latimer calls "the defining engagement of the war"; and General Andrew Jackson's decisive victory at New Orleans in January 1815.

And lesser-known battles, the American defeat at Crysler's Farm in November 1813 and their victory over British regulars at Chippawa in July 1814, are worth notice.

New England readers may be interested to learn that the British brought considerable pressure on the region in hopes of capitalizing on its disaffection from the war.

As early as November 1813, Vermont's governor had recalled his state's militia from service in New York State, "demonstrating the continuing divisions between New York and the rest of the country."

And by the summer of 1814, coastal shipping in Boston and other New England ports had been brought to "a complete standstill" by British blockade.

Consideration of secession by the New England states at the Hartford Convention in December 1814 ultimately failed. But, writes Latimer, the British were prepared to sign a separate peace with the New England states if the Madison administration had rejected the peace treaty in early 1815.

So while the War for Independence had been an uplifting experience for Americans, writes Latimer, "the War of 1812 depressed most of those who took part on the American side."

And while the War of 1812 was, for the British, "an irritating distraction" from the Napoleonic War, a war "of national survival," as Latimer puts it, the Revolution had been a major conflict, employing Britain's leading military leaders, mercenaries, Indian allies, and battle-famed regiments.

One of the latter, the Royal Welch Fusiliers, is accorded a stirring narrative in Mark Urban's "Fusiliers."

The regiment was in the force sent to rescue the troops being harried on their retreat from Lexington and Concord, and was badly mauled at Bunker Hill. It served notably in later campaigns, and then was at Yorktown where the war all but ended with a British defeat.

Drawn on the letters and diaries of rank and file members of the regiment as well as official accounts, "Fusiliers" provides a very human view of warfare.

Of considerable interest is Urban's account of how British commanders revised the army's tactics after its early defeats in Massachusetts, paying particular attention to the problem of fighting against a highly motivated enemy.

As General John Burgoyne put it: "Every private man in action will be his own general, who will turn every tree and bush into a kind of temporary fortress, from whence, when he hath fired his shot with all the deliberation, coolness, and certainty which hidden safety inspires, he will skip, as it were, to the next, and so for a long time till dislodged either by cannon or by a resolute attack by light infantry."

It is a military analysis that could find a place today in the US Army and Marine Corps "Counterinsurgency Field Manual."

Michael Kenney is a freelance writer living in Cambridge.

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