The campaign in Chesapeake Bay that resulted in the disastrous burning of Washington in August of 1814 and the abortive attack on Baltimore a month later is not without its chroniclers. Walter Lord wrote a classic account, followed by more recent accounts that garnered regional interest by Anthony Pitch and Christopher George. All paint pretty much the same picture: a tidewater region wholly unprepared to defend itself suffered the depredations of the British for two long years resulting in the humiliation of the burning of the nation’s capital followed by the heroic stand at Fort McHenry. When Dave Schueler alerted me that Naval Institute Press alerted me that Donald Shomette was scheduled to release a new book in 2009 on this topic, I resisted my typical urge to run out and buy a copy. It’s take a while, but I finally borrowed Dave’s and finished reading it this week.
In many ways Shomette tells the same story as Lord, Pitch and George. If you’re looking for something uplifting about the conduct of the War of 1812 in the Tidewater region, there just isn’t a lot to see here. Well, that’s not true, there’s a nugget but only a nugget. Amid the various incidents of the British Navy setting up camp on Tangier Island, raiding both shores of Virginia and Maryland, there is also the story of Joshua Barney and his flotilla of gunboats. All the histories tell this story, but Shomette simply tells it better and more completely. Shomette reports on the authorization of the two flotillas of gunboats authorized by Congress, and focuses on those under Barney’s command. In addition, he shares the details of the little vessels’ construction and armament, as well as their fitting out problems. Finally, Sholmette details the bottling up of Barney and his valiant, but tiny navy on the Patuxent River, the British navy’s effort to get at him, and the resulting battles at St. Leonard’s Creek and the Flotilla’s flight to Nottingham.
If this is what you’re looking for from this book, you’ll be pleased. Unfortunately it consumes about a quarter of the book’s 355 pages. Almost any history of the Chesapeake campaign must focus on the British. Shomette also tells this story well. By any standard, the war on the Chesapeake was hopeless. The British had a vastly superior navy. As it’s size grew, either by seizing local vessels, or reinforcements from home, it’s mission capabilities also grew. In addition to deepwater ships of the line, frigates and sloops, the Brits were able to add vessels able to work in the shallow tidewaters and rivers, transporting raiding parties throughout the coastal region that carried off livestock, grain, tobacco and slaves, burned plantations and created general havoc and disaffection among the local landed classes. With the end of the Napoleon’s regime in France, elements of Wellington’s Peninsular army made their way to the Chesapeake and become the strike force that defeats the the American scratch force at Bladensburg and goes on to destiny in Washington D.C.
Shomette’s narrative is lively and offers considerable new information on Barney’s participation in the movements leading to Bladensburg. Shomette’s account of Bladensburg may be the most thorough I’ve read. The movements by all units leading to the battle, the political decisions made by American leaders until the battle, the fate of various American militia units and their unceremonious exits from the action, and Barney’s troops and their last stand are explained in more complete detail than other accounts.
Shomette’s book is a great addition to a War of 1812 library. Though the narrative provides considerable context,this highly readable volume provides depth and fills in gaps to the body of work readily available to those seeking additional knowledge of the Chesapeake campaign.
My rating: Five stars.