War in the Chesapeake: The British Campaign to Control the Bay, 1813-14.
War in the Chesapeake: The British Campaign to Control the Bay, 1813-14. By Charles Patrick Neimeyer. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2015. Pp. 256. $44.95.)
There are so many facets to the War of 1812 on Chesapeake Bay that describing them is more akin to detailing all the crannies of an oyster shell than the smooth surface of the pearl inside. And yet, author Charles Patrick Neimeyer has managed to do just that in this gem of an 1812 book.
Logically, Neimeyer progresses from the causes of the conflict right through to its final chapter in March 1815 (long weeks after a peace treaty was signed) when the last British forces on the bay withdrew from Tangier Island. The chronological approach is most effective in providing an overview of this complex theater of war that involved military actions on both land and sea, over many months and miles.
Several chapters contain so much information that the pages seem to billow like the full sails of a British frigate. For example, Neimeyer writes at length about the role of privateers, many of whom were based in Baltimore. Armed with a letter of marque and several 12-pounders, the swift Baltimore schooners and their crews preyed upon British shipping and occasionally threatened the Royal Navy. These pages give an in-depth explanation of privateering, its impact on the war, and particularly of the special vessels built in Baltimore that made these successes possible. The exploits of Thomas Boyle, one of the best-known privateer captains, make for fascinating reading.
Another highlight of the book would be the detailed accounts of events at North Point and Fort McHenry. Neimeyer provides an in-depth look at preparations for the attack on both sides, as well as the death in action of General Sir Robert Ross.
Neimeyer effectively sums up the importance of 1812 when he writes:
The British presence in the Chesapeake for two summers had embarrassed James Madison, destroyed the national capital, and caused the American government precipitously to flee. British raiding forces had caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage and turned a number of Maryland and Virginia towns, such as Havre de Grace, Hampton, Frenchtown, Georgetown, and Fredericktown, to ashes. (203)
Readers looking for a few of the more colorful bits of 1812 history may be disappointed in the lone mention of Mary Pickersgill and the absence of Kitty Knight, but perhaps these sidebars do not have a place in a scholarly account. Also, though there are several period illustrations and good maps of battles at Bladensburg and North Point, what is missing is an overall map of Chesapeake Bay. Most readers of this book will likely carry such a map in their heads, but one on the page would help more easily to place locales as distant as Havre de Grace and Craney's Island.
Those are small quibbles because this work is one that serves the serious reader of 1812 history well and adds substantively to the (unfortunately) rather short bookshelf of volumes on this topic.