War in the Chesapeake

War in the Chesapeake

The British Campaigns to Control the Bay, 1813-14

Charles P. Neimeyer

U.S. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 2015, 256 pages

Book Review published on: March 24, 2017

Though its recent bicentennial generated a modest uptick in interest, the War of 1812 remains largely understudied in the United States, despite the chilling fact that much of the conflict was waged on American soil against a foreign invader. Dr. Charles P. Neimeyer, the current director of Marine Corps history and the former dean of academics at the Naval War College, gives an engaging account of the war’s impact on the Chesapeake Bay region. War in the Chesapeake: The British Campaigns to Control the Bay, 1813-14 brings to life both the fear and bravery of the terrorized American citizens, while also acknowledging the audacity and professionalism of the British forces tasked to raid the coastline.

Neimeyer argues the key role of the Chesapeake Bay in the war’s prelude and conduct, the speed and lethality of the combined arms tactics exhibited between the Royal Navy and British ground forces, and the ability of the American militia, which is typically lambasted in War of 1812 histories, to succeed when provided adequate preparation and competent leadership. The campaign eventually culminated in one of the United States’ most-humiliating defeats, the burning of the young capital of Washington, which the nation quickly followed with one of its most-stirring victories, the defense of Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, forever immortalized by the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Neimeyer avoids exclusively fixating on the landmark battles of 1814. He enriches the narrative with detailed accounts of the previous year’s military activity, including the forgotten defeats of the American coastal towns Havre de Grace, Frenchtown, and Hampton, all unceremoniously put to the British torch.

War in the Chesapeake is organized into seven chapters: two dealing with the war’s origins and outbreak, two on the British 1813 Chesapeake campaign, and three chapters on the engagements of 1814 (which include the fall of Washington and the triumph at Baltimore). Neimeyer’s research demonstrates that he is clearly plugged into recent historiography on the War of 1812, and he effectively bolsters his arguments with the liberal use of strong primary source excerpts from both sides of the conflict. One of the book’s more fascinating sub-topics involves a well-researched and evenly told account of African American slaves fleeing their Maryland and Virginia masters to the safety of the Royal Navy, the British commitment to ensure their new freedom, and the willingness of many of those former slaves to enlist in ad hoc British “colonial marine” units set to fight against the United States. Neimeyer also makes a conscious effort to occasionally provide the larger strategic context of the war, both in Canada and in Napoleonic Europe, and how those theatres affected the course of the war in the Chesapeake. In contrast, the book occasionally lacks balance as land battles are not discussed with quite the same level of detail or enthusiasm as naval operations.

Overall, War in the Chesapeake is a fantastic regional history of the War of 1812. It effectively demonstrates the prowess of British combined arms, while simultaneously redeeming the performance of the American militiaman in the Chesapeake.

Book Review written by: Capt. Mark E. Bergman, U.S. Army, Fort Campbell, Kentucky