An account of the heroics of the War of 1812, in which the White House burned and nobody really won.
Have you heard about the big War of 1812 bicentennial celebration? Then you probably live in Canada, where Stephen Harper's government is spending millions commemorating the repulsion of the American invaders -- complete with official War of 1812 iPhone app.
Down here, the anniversary is a mere shadow lost amid the continuing 150th anniversary of the Civil War. The War of 1812, despite the novelty of a war with a foreign power fought on American soil, has never had much of a hold on the public consciousness, probably because (A) nobody won it and (B) the White House and Capitol were burned to a crisp. John Wayne never made a War of 1812 movie.
For historians, however, it's publish and be damned -- and among the 1812-related books coming out this year is Hugh Howard's engaging and energetic "Mr. and Mrs. Madison's War."
The title carries a faint whiff of false advertising. The first couple, James and Dolley, figure prominently, as they should, but this is not a personal history told from their point of view.
It is as a work of military history that the book excels. Howard's recountings of the naval battles are especially vivid: James Lawrence and his U.S.S. Chesapeake's ill-fated engagement with the H.M.S. Shannon off the coast of Massachusetts ("Don't give up the ship"); Oliver Hazard Perry's stunning victory on Lake Erie ("We have met the enemy, and they are ours"), and, less famously but no less heroically, Joshua Barney's canny cat-and-mouse game with the Royal Navy in Chesapeake Bay.
The ground war exposed how unprepared and poorly led the United States was, from William Hull's shameful surrender at Detroit to the collapse at Bladensburg, Md., that left the city of Washington undefended. When a smashing victory finally came, under Andrew Jackson at New Orleans, the peace treaty had already been signed an ocean away.
Howard covers the war's other famous moments: Dolley Madison saving the White House's portrait of George Washington, just ahead of the British, and Francis Scott Key penning "The Star-Spangled Banner" after Baltimore's Fort McHenry withstood a fierce British bombardment.
In the end, not much was gained by the war, territorially or otherwise; in the Treaty of Ghent both sides more or less just agreed to call the whole thing off. (The war was a disaster for Britain's Native American allies, but that gets only scant mention in the book.) Still, "Mr. and Mrs. Madison's War" is a worthy look at a rite of passage making the nascent United States into a nation that, although far from a world power, would be here to stay.
Casey Common is a Star Tribune copy editor.