Walter Borneman’s 1812, The War that Forged a Nation, is a narrative popular history with a thesis designed to get the reader to understand the significance of perhaps the United States’ least understood war. Not much is known of this 1812-1815 war in popular memory, which is a shame. The American national anthem, the Star-Spangled Banner, was written after the seige of Baltimore, the capital city was burned by an invading army, the US Navy acheived some of its greatest acheivements this side of Midway and the nation had its last real fight with a European power until World War I (considering the Spainish American War of 1896 was more of a rout), and it was the last time until Pearl Harbor in 1941 that America was attacked on its own soil by a foreign power.

Borneman’s principle goal, to inform and entertain the general American public on why the War of 1812 is significant is done with his thesis: that the war forced the United States to a greater sense of national unity than it had yet acheived at its ending than in 1811, when President James Madison was a weak executive and the nation was 18 states that coalesced into three or four distinct regions.

Borneman illustrates his thesis by how he starts his narrative, 10 years before the conflict, when former Vice President Aaron Burr was tried for a conspiracy to wrest much of the western United States away from the Federal government. His point being that America was so fractured by internal desires for power that even a high member of government, from the most conservative of families was willing to give up on the idea of the American republic. In the midst of Burr’s scheming, the British government was continuing its long-standing policy of impressment of sailors, that is taking any British subject, found anywhere, including in American ports, and forcing them into Naval service, the refusal to surrender forts on the northwest Great Lakes frontier that had been promised at the end of the War for Independence and various trade embargos.

None of these actions by the British government, in of themselves, were enough to push the United States towards a war that hardly anyone wanted. It was not unusual at all for Western governments to engage in small, limited naval wars, such as America’s quasi-war with France during the last years of the 1700’s. These small “wars” really amounted to nothing more than duels at water with oak and cannon and a few hundred crew.

The War of 1812 was in fact, two wars, fought over four different theatres of operation by an American military that was completely ill-prepared for battle in terms of supplies, personel and a distinct chain of command system.


The first theatre of operation, the naval war, saw the nascent United States Navy acheive actions beyond anyone’s hopes. Napoleon’s Navy had been unable to defeat the British in any single ship to ship combat in over 20 years of war. Led by ships like the USS Constitution, the US did this several times. Oliver Perry’s naval victory at Lake Erie is still used to inspire resourcefullness among today’s navy officers, and Borneman does a sufficient job of showing why. Borneman does an excellent job of describing the processes of naval combat in the early 19th century and still manages to keep to his narrative story telling style.
The second theatre of operations, the war on the Canadian frontier, occupies the greatest amount of text in the book as well as action in the war. The Americans were essentially fighting the Seven Year’s War over again, this time in a raw land grab for Canada by US frontier war hawks. The US and British acheived many tactical successes, but due to faulty command and control, neither side acheived a strategic victory worthy of the sacrifice of lives that were billed to both sides. Borneman has included excellent maps in his narrative, but could probably include in the sweep of his story the mental pictures of the empty vastness of the Great Lakes frontier and its Niagra Falls wilderness. Anyone with knowledge of the Seven Years War or the Arnold or Burgoyne’s campaign in the Revolution will recognize that the same ground is being covered and fought over in 1813.

The third theatre of operations on American soil was narrowly focused and the only real British offensive of the war that occurred during the lull in the wars with Napoleon before Waterloo, when the British had the manpower to devote to ending the American cause. Led by Admiral Cockman and General Ross, the expedentiary force burned Washington, while President Madison was powerless to direct his cabinet or local militia in the defense of the American homeland. Only the defenses of Fort McHenry, which inspired Francis Scott Key were enough to discourage the British to aim their efforts at the US gulf coast, ending with the post treaty battle of New Orleans, where Andrew Jackson laid the foundation for his national rise to power.

Jackson was more or less, the center of American military power in the last war theatre, almost a second war to secure America’s border with Spainish Florida and to keep local native nations from forming confedarcies in present day Alabama that might ally themselves with the British.

Borneman’s thesis, that the war forged an American nation faces trouble in the heat of the following years of history. While the next decade was known as the “Era of Good Feeling” for its lack of civil strife, the nation was only five years away from the first sectional crisis over slavery with the Missouri/Maine comprimise. The war forged an American nation in that it took political power forever away from New England as a region. America now belonged to the settlers moving west to Ohio, Illinois and Tennessee. It became Andrew Jackson’s America.

In a sense, Aaron Burr was right in saying that the war was fought over what he had been accussed of treason of 10 years before. But the war was the last armed conflict involving a European power in North America after nearly 200 years since the English military set foot at Jamestown and the wars of American colonial empire began in earnest. Never again would America be seriously challenged from an outside invader. The border with British Canada became a vast, peaceful marker in the Anglosphere, not region of constant dispute. If America became a forged nation after war’s end in 1815, it was because the nation now turned its attention westward and to the long-standing sectional differences that became the North/South dispute.

Walter Borneman 1812, The War that Forged a Nation, has been published in paperback in 2006 after a hardback printing in 2004. It contains excellent maps for a popular history book. For the casual reader of American history, this book is reccommended as an enjoyable read and a solid introduction to a little understood time period of American history. The book could have been a bit stronger in reference to the societal reactions to the war throughout the United States and British Canda more attention could have been paid to the political machinations of the time. Borneman’s work is almost entirely made up of secondary sources, so no new ground is broken with the book, but for 300 pages, it is effective prose that tells a strong story.

Advertisements