Monday, May 31, 2010


A review of A.J. Langguth’s Union 1812: The Americans Who Fought the Second War of Independence (2006)

(Rating 4 of 5)

Union 1812 is a very well done narrative about the War of 1812, which is probably the most misunderstood conflict that the United States had ever engaged in. It was a conflict that bridged the last of the founding generation with the first the second generation. It was the only time an enemy has captured Washington D.C. and burnt the White House and Capitol to the ground. It would launch the career of Andrew Jackson who would reshape the country. The war would start over something already settled—British Impressment—and its last battle—New Orleans—would be fought after the war was technically over. Langguth most eloquently recaptures the essence of the conflict.

It is always dangerous to ask any historian for ‘a little bit of background.’ That statement is true here. Despite being a book about the War of 1812, this book really begins at the end of the American Revolution. Since Langguth had already written an earlier work about the American Revolution, I feel that he just never stopped writing and kept on going. Nevertheless, I did not feel overwhelmed with information. He just calmly takes the reader through the Constitutional Convention, the Washington, Adam, and Jefferson administrations covering everything from the Genet affair to the Louisiana Purchase to the trial of Aaron Burr. The book also covers how this conflict affected the Native American nations both leading to and after, Tecumseh trying to establish a confederacy to challenge the expanding American Union leads to an alliance with the British and unfortunately for them it would help usher in an end to aboriginal power in North America.

“During the next year, tensions mounted when Indians murdered four white men on the Missouri River and when the Prophet’s braves seized an entire boatload of salt, rather then the five barrels their government agreement entitled them to have. Summoned by Harrison once again, Tecumseh claimed the murders had not been under his jurisdiction and dismissed the dispute over salt. To Harrison’s repeated warnings against uniting the Indians, Tecumseh replied that, after all, he was only following the American example. To win independence from Britain, the colonists had once joined into a confederacy of Thirteen Fires—the Indian term fro comparing American states to their tribal councils. In recent years, Tecumseh said, the Americans had added four more such councils—Vermont, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio—until the United States now consisted of Seventeen fires.” p.166-7

When the war does come, it comes in a dramatic fashion. We, the Americans, perform well at sea but horrible on the ground. The most embarrassing moment of the war is not when Washington burns but rather when General Hull in Detroit surrenders to a force inferior to his own. This war, not the American Revolution, is where we get our national anthem. The shock of having our nation invaded and damaged against an enemy would create a new sense of urgency and union in the American people helping cement a national American identity.

I highly recommend this book it is an exciting look into one of the most forgotten chapters in American history: The War of 1812. Readers who give this book their time will enjoy it.

{Video is from the History Channel documentary First Invasion.}

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