Gaining a sense of proportion…

Statistics.  A lot of people don’t like them.  A lot of people start to squirm when you bring them up.

Mostly, I think, because stats have his unseemly way of disproving our most favourite and cherished theories about our past.

But I do like statistics.  I like the fact that they don’t have feelings.  They’re not telling us stuff to make us look stupid or to be superior.  Statistics just are.

We’re the ones who put the negative or positive spin on things and therefore either accept that maybe we’d got it a little bit wrong or else, as is more often is the case, someone stomps off in a hissy fit…Indeed, statistics are a prime illustration of Shakespeare’s statement, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

Anyway, ever since I read Andrew Lambert’s fine examination of the War of 1812 in The Challenge, I’ve been weighing up the statistical evidence about that conflict and its relative importance to the rest of the world circa 1812.

(I mean, I’ve heard it called the Second War of American Independence–and this alongside of claims that the Americans won it.  Ehem.)

And  it seems to me that at least part of the problem with understanding the Anglo-American conflict of 1812-1814 or even properly evaluating it, or indeed appreciating why it merits so little attention on the world stage, derives from a failure to appreciate the size and scale of the thing or a lack of context, if you will.

And the only way I know how to clear up this confusion is through a study of the stats.

napo-creepAnd this is where my liking of stats turns to love.  Because, you see, they tell me all sorts of things I want to know.  Scale, for example.  For in this examination of the stats or facts, scale is most important.

Because if one weighs the colonial cousins’ claims of battles won, or casualties, or costs against what else was happening at the same time..well, there’s only one way to describe the situation…they’re utterly dwarfed by the Napoleonic conflict which was raging on the Continent and to which the contretemps with America was only a side-show.  And a tiny one at that.

But I don’t want you to take my word for it.

Let me illustrate what I mean.

Napoleon fought many great battles:  Austerlitz, Jena, Wagram, Borodino, Leipzig, Waterloo.  To name but a handful of the hundreds…(that’s right, hundreds…)

At Austerlitz on 2 December 1806, he and his 50,000 infantry and 15,000 cavalry took on the combined Russian and Austrian armies consisting of some 69,460 infantry and 16,565 cavalry.

Despite the odds against him, he won the day, losing in the neighbourhood of 10,000 troops to the Allies’ 16,000 dead and wounded and 20,000 captured.  (Though some believe the numbers of Russian dead to have been in excess of 21,000.)

Do you see what I mean about the scale of the conflict?  And that’s just one battle, one day’s action.

But let’s look at the year of 1812 itself.

When Napoleon crossed the River Niemen to invade Russia at the end of June 1812, he had some 550,000 troops (perhaps more), over 150,000 horses, and his private baggage train alone contained more than 100 vehicles with all the accoutrements of emperorship he thought he might need–silver, wines, books, posh outfits and uniforms, furniture, cooks with their saucepans, servants, china and crystal…

borodino4At the Battle of Borodino on the 7 September, between the Grand Armee and the Russian forces which faced them, there were some 200,000 men on the field that day.

By evening, the French casualties stood somewhere between 28,000 and 35,000, and the Russians had lost between 38,500 to 58,000 casualties.  (A year later, the corpses of 35, 478 horses were found and buried…)

So many lost and all on one day!  And yes, those numbers are shocking!  Horrifying even.

AlbrechtAdam20Sept1812When he scurried back over the border in December 1812, Napoleon had lost all but some 30,000 survivors, plus all the booty he’d tried to pillage, plus that rather splendid baggage train full of imperial geegaws and only 500 horses or so made it back–and they, bless ’em, were as you will imagine no longer fit for service.

And despite his casual, criminal loss of so many of the finest troops and horses the world had ever seen–some half a million men–despite that, upon his return to Paris in December 1812, he set about raising a new Grand Armee of 350,000 troops.

The number, honestly, beggars belief!  Can you imagine that many troops being marched all over the relatively small area of eastern France on their way to the front which would open up in Saxony in the spring of 1813?

sabres2Now remind me, how many troops did the Americans send up to take Canada during the conflict of 1812?  After an artillery bombardment, General Hull surrendered his 2500 American troops to the British General Brock and his 1300 Anglo-Canadian troops…

I hate to put it this way, but in terms of numbers, those stats put this in the realm of what in the European conflict of the day would be called ‘a skirmish’.  Nothing more.

(Wellington lost 4500 men at the Siege of Badajoz in April 1812, in a space of just over 200 yards and in less than two hours fighting…)

Likewise, the naval battles of this 1812 sideshow (because that’s what it was) tell a similar story.

We think of the great battles of the age:  the Battle of the Nile, the Battle of Copenhagen, the Battle of Trafalgar and what do we see?  Fleets of ships fighting it out, blowing each other to smithereens for the supremacy of the seas.

aboukirbay2The Battle of the Nile saw 13 British ships of the line plus 2 other smaller vessels take on 13 French ships of the line, plus 4 frigates of which, by the battle’s end, only 2 ships of the line and 2 others escaped.

The Battle of Copenhagen saw the British fleet of 12 ships of the line plus six others take on a combined fleet of 24 ships of the line, plus over 11 others.

And the greatest victory, the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson’s signature battle, saw 33 British ships (27 ships of the line plus 6 others) facing and defeating the combined French and Spanish fleets comprised of 41 vessels.

These are victories.  Victories in what was an existential struggle against Napoleonic terror and despotism.

And against the kind of stakes for which the British and their allies were fighting against this Napoleonic military empire, a one-off battle between ill-matched opponents, such as the USS Hornet against the smaller British sloop Peacock just doesn’t merit a look-in.

And if you doubt me, just look at those numbers again.  In all, some 5 to 6 million souls died in Napoleon’s wars of conquest and loss–and that’s not counting the refugee crisis, nor the overall loss of life due to starvation or disease which the presence of such vast armies living off the land caused.  (Frankly, it’s impossible to know how many thousands and thousands of peasants died during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, for example…)

And that’s nearly the entire American population in 1812…

leipzig2So before anyone comes after me to insist on the awesomeness of the firewall at New Orleans, or the brilliance of American ship-building at the time (the French were also building very sea-worthy vessels at the time…) remember I’m going to cite the torching of Smolensk, the bombardment of Vienna, the sieges of Acre, Badajoz and Ciudad Rodrigo, the conflagration of Moscow, the three-day battle of Leipzig…and all those friendly stats that I love so much.


Getting it wrong…

Funnily enough, I was just reading a blog by multi-novel historical fiction author, Allan Massie, about strong opinions and how too often they’re based on knowing or understanding less than we might before we blast our mouths off.


So anyway…recently I’ve been dipping into the research on the build-up to the War of 1812 again–reading the speeches given by those early presidential icons, Jefferson and Madison, for example, reading histories of the period written both by American and British historians, as well as various eye-witness accounts, plus the American press coverage of events and comparing those to the British reports…

…and spending quality time with the percentages of British sailors employed aboard American merchant ships at the time…and analysing other data, such as tax receipts…

(I know, I know…the wild and crazy world of an historian!  Where do I get the energy?)

And in the midst of all this, I have been forced to conclude that I have got something (many things) completely and utterly wrong.

And when I say wrong, I mean wrong.

assassination3You see, I had always, always, always believed and been wholly convinced in my mind that had the Americans in Congress known at the time of Prime Minister Perceval’s assassination on 11 May 1812 (which of course they didn’t due to the length of time it took for news to travel), they would never, ever, ever have launched into war so precipitately in June.

They would have respected our loss, respected the gravity of the situation, appreciated that we were in the midst of an existential struggle against the most powerful military dictator the world had ever known, and stepped back from the brink, or at least out of deference to the grieving nation, postponed their decision…and maybe sent flowers to the grieving widow.

Or something.

Well, I’m here to say today, I got that wrong.

And not just a little nibbling about the edges wrong.  We’re talking very wrong.

Because you see, I–like probably most people–had completely and utterly swallowed all the Anglo-American political PR that grew up during the 20th century, during two world wars, in which we were the firmest of friends, the most devoted of allies, that we had a special relationship…

Yet I have to tell you–what I have found is precisely the opposite.  And it has shocked the socks off me.

There were a great many reasons why I got it so wrong.

One, of course, was that I failed to realise the depth of Jefferson’s hatred of the British. And the same goes for Madison.

I failed to comprehend Jefferson’s absolute conviction that British commerce was corrupting the morals of the New England merchants and that he saw the moral purpose of the US to be in building an agrarian republican superstate, wholly independent of the sordid aspects of commerce and trade, ruled by those who agreed with him.  (No, I am not making this up.  If only…)

Equally, initially, I failed to read far back enough, and to note that the War Hawks in the Republican party had been making a vehement case for war against the British at least as early as autumn session of Congress which commenced in November 1811.

freetradequiltI also failed to understand just what a nonsense the whole “Free Trade and Sailor’s Rights” slogan was.

I thought–in my quaint little Japanese fashion, said Yum Yum–that the concept of stopping ships for deserters was some nasty-wasty thing the Brits had devised to annoy the Americans and that the Yankees were rightfully protesting.


And those stats I was telling you about?  Yes, well, it transpires, according to those stats, that some 50% of the seafaring workforce on American ships in the early years of the 19th century were in fact British.  And the American shippers were fully aware that they couldn’t function properly without British manpower.

hmsleopardMoreover, the law allowing the vessels of the Royal Navy to stop foreign ships in time of war and search for British sailors who by rights (I’m sure we’d all agree, if we think of it in terms of WW2, say) should be serving their country…that law dates back to the Seven Years’ War in the 1750’s.

It wasn’t something the British government hastily cooked up to vex their colonial cousins.

Furthermore, the American shippers and captains knew very well that Britain was at war with the French Empire and that it was a near run thing.  They may have lived on the other side of the world, but they weren’t stupid.

There’s another tricksy bit to this and that’s the matter of nationality.  Until the fledgling US introduced the idea, nationality and citizenship rested entirely on where one was born.  Full stop.  It was a non-topic.  If you were born in France, you were French.  If you were born in Britain, you were British.

However, the Americans introduced the idea of taking citizenship and made it possible for those coming from other parts of the world to take up American citizenship.  Fine, okay…

But this, unsurprisingly, gave rise to a nifty little scam in forged documents, which were cheap and easy to come by for sailors who’d prefer to work for better wages on American merchant ships, rather than be subject to the discipline, etc. of life in the Royal Navy. And come by them they did.  In droves.

So, when the Royal Navy stopped and searched ships looking for deserters (it was a time of war, no doubt about that), and these (often known to the Navy by name and description) tars then protested that they were Americans and here were the dodgy papers to prove it…well, I think you can see, it wasn’t really something one would go to war over.  Was it?  And everybody knew it.

Also, the number of genuine Americans (if I may designate them as such), taken from American ships in this way–well numbers indicate that not more than 10% of those taken were actually the people they said they were…

nap meissonierWhat I also failed to realise was just how chummy the American statesmen were with France and Napoleon.

I kept assuming–wrongly as I now know–that they were being naive, that Bonaparte was hoodwinking them as he had everyone else.  That they didn’t realise that Bonaparte would say one thing and do another and that he didn’t give a bean about anyone but himself.  Yup, got that wrong too.

Jefferson was a confirmed Francophile.  But so was Joel Barlow, who was sent as Ambassador to Paris in 1811.

And the fellow that the French sent over to be Ambassador in Washington, D.C., Serurier, well he was as honey-tongued a manipulator as ever there was and he smooth-talked anyone who would listen–a carefully regulated steady dripfeed of anti-British venom, plus suppression or denial of what the French were really up to, all wrapped up in a cherry-flavoured sugar coating of French endearments and protestations of eternal love and admiration.

Bonaparte pulled the strings and they all danced.

From 1808, he was telling the Americans that they must ‘defend their flag’ as he urged them to make war on the British.

He and his minions were constantly ragging the Americans–Jefferson, Monroe and Madison–to take on the British for their many anti-free market activities, whilst at the very same time he was ordering American ships and their cargoes seized, held, and confiscated, even as Barlow pressed for indemnity payments and Napoleon’s ministers hemmed and hawed.

shannonAnd every time Barlow was convinced he was reaching some sort of agreement for compensation payments and hammering out a trade agreement that would open up the European market to American trade, the French apparatchiks would dither, and Bonaparte would order stricter adherence to the Continental System particularly as regards the Americans.

Even the emollient language of American historian, P.P. Hill, cannot disguise the fact that the American policy was to turn a blind eye, no matter how egregious the French behaviour.  Even when in February 1812, French privateers burnt at sea the American ships laden with wheat and bound for Spain to feed Wellington’s troops there…

Here’s the recap written by Captain Philip Broke, who got his info from the American newspapers at the time:  “The war party are certainly a wicked and perverse set of men and acting in downright enmity to the welfare of all free nations as well as their natural allies–the mass of the party are sordid, grovelling men who would involve their country in a war for a shilling percent more profit on their particular trade and are perfectly indifferent whether they league themselves with honor or oppression–provided they get their mammon.  Some of their leaders wish for a war only to get places and commands…”

John Randolph wrote:  “Agrarian cupidity, not maritime right, urges the war…a war of rapine, privateering, a scuffle and scramble for plunder.”

And even in April 1812, when the French produced what the Americans knew was a fraud–the so-called St Cloud Decree–in which Napoleon claimed to have ended the trade embargoes against America a year earlier.  (He cunningly had it backdated, by hand…but one gathers the ink was barely dry on the page…)

Even then, when they knew they were being had, when Napoleon’s contempt for American compensation claims and their anger against extortionate French tariffs were at an all-time high, even then, they did not turn from their course.  Indeed, the Republican politicians suppressed all talk of the fraud and various other French cons.

napo-creepBecause, you see, the outcome had already been decided.  The Americans knew that Bonaparte planned to invade Russia; they expected him to triumph there, and then, they anticipated that he would turn the full might of his military Empire upon Britain.

And they wanted to be on the winning side, the side that would give them Canada, no questions asked, the side that would overlook their land-grab in Spanish Florida…And that side, they believed, was with Napoleon and his Empire.

Added to which, they firmly believed that with the troops tied up in Spain, Britain would lack the troops to send to defend the Canadian border, and they meant to enjoy that freedom by strolling up there and taking the place over.  (Just like they’d done in the Spanish territories of Florida…)

The British government, for their part, couldn’t believe it when Congress declared war. They were convinced–despite the tide of vitriolic abuse which had been pouring out of American newspapers for the past two-three years–that the American people did not want war, they wanted fair trade.

They also believed–knowing as they did just how costly a war actually was–that no one in their right mind would go to war over a principle such as “Free trade and Sailors’ Rights”.

So…I got it wrong.  The American Congress of 1812 wouldn’t have halted their determined march to war had they learned of Prime Minister Perceval’s death.  Indeed, it saddens me greatly to say, I think they may have held a party…

200 years ago today ~ War and a new Government…

I shall be brief. 

You may recall that on 11 May 1812, Prime Minister Perceval was assassinated in the lobby of the House of Commons. 

Now today this might have triggered a new Parliamentary election or an election of a new leader of whichever party held power, or even the accession of a Deputy Prime Minister to the post of Prime Minister. 

However, 200 years ago, the post of Prime Minister was in the gift of the Prince Regent.  And the chappie who accepted that gift-post needed then to fill the other various Cabinet positions from among his political allies, friends and even relations.

With Perceval’s death, many had expected the Prince Regent to turn to his former drinking cronies, the Whigs–those to whom he’d always promised power when he wasn’t in a position to give it–to find and form a Government from amongst their ranks. 

But that’s precisely what the Prince Regent didn’t do.

Instead, he turned first to Sir Richard Wellesley, Lord Wellington’s elder brother and another former drinking partner.   

Still, there was a problem. 

Too many of the current Cabinet Ministers and others in the Tory party distrusted Wellesley.  Also, he’d had published a critique of Perceval’s premiership after Perceval’s death, in the Times.  You couldn’t top this for being dishonourable. 

So, Wellesley needed to elicit the support of some of the front bench of the Whig benches.  However, the two biggest shots, and obvious choices, were Lords Grey and Greville and neither of them would join a Cabinet that did not promise to push through Catholic Emancipation in Ireland. 

And the problem with that was?  The Prince Regent was wholly against the idea and would have none of it. 

Hence, Wellesley had to eventually tell HRH that he couldn’t do the job, he couldn’t form a Government.  Full stop.

Then, on 21 May, a chap by the name of Wortley called for a vote of ‘confidence’ in the Government, claiming that “…the administration which was now upon the eve of being formed was inadequate to meet the exigencies of the times…” and “that the present government was not very strong, even with the aid of Mr. Perceval’s great talents…and that they were certainly worse than weak without them.”

Nice, eh?  We’ve got a little governmental crisis here, we’re in the midst of a world war, so what shall we do?  Oh, I think add the toppling of the Government to it, don’t you?  Great idea! 

The Foreign Secretary, Viscount Castlereagh, speaking in the House of Commons, addressed the motion thusly:  “At no period of our history was it more necessary that a Government should be formed of the united talent and honour of the nation…” 

He announced his readiness to resign from his position as Foreign Secretary.  Then he added, “But for the moment, but for the moment, the whole attention of the administration should be bent to the great difficulties in which the country is placed, and, above all, to conducting the war on the Peninsula on the largest possible scale.”

The Government lost the vote by four votes. 

The Prince Regent now did as was expected of him.  He turned to the Whig peer, Lord Moira. 

And Lord Moira had the cunning plan to form a coalition government by bringing in George Canning (Lord Castlereagh’s rival and enemy–they’d even fought a duel over Canning’s backstabbing ways–which ended with a bullet in Canning’s thigh…Whoops.) and his chums. 

But that didn’t work out so well either.  There were a number of people who didn’t quite trust Canning after the behaviour which had led to the duel.  He wasn’t, as it were, considered a gentleman

So…there we are…sitting in Brook’s Club on 8 June, with the Whig MP, Thomas Creevey , who was writing to his wife and telling her quite jubilantly that Lord Moira had been made Prime Minister that day.  When what should happen, but Castlereagh walked past him and stopped to have a brief word. 

Whereupon Creevey finished his letter this way:  “Well this is beyond anything, Castlereagh has just told us that Moira resigned the commission this morning, and that His Royal Highness had appointed Lord Liverpool Prime Minister.  Was there ever anything equal to this?”

The new administration was in place by 200 years ago today:  Lord Liverpool was Prime Minister; Lord Castlereagh remained at the Foreign Office and became Leader of the House of Commons as well; Lord Sidmouth took over the Home Office…

The first order of business that the new administration undertook on 16 June was to repeal the Orders in Council–those Orders which had brought the 50-year old United States to the point of declaring war with Great Britain. 

But their action came too late.

For on the very same day, the United States Congress–led by the War Hawks and President James Madison, who were eager to take full advantage of Britain’s large-scale military commitments in the Peninsula against Napoleon’s troops there to launch their own land grab of Canada, and fully expecting their favourite ally, Napoleon to conquer Russia–declared war on Great Britain. 

There were those who expected that with the repeal of the Orders in Council, the alleged cassus belli, the Americans back down by saying, “Righto, that’s us sorted,” and war would be averted. 

But that sanguine hope was not to be fulfilled. 

And there you have it.  A busy day all round, wasn’t it?

The Challenge: Britain Against America in the Naval War of 1812…

This is a bit awkward. 

On the one hand, it’s fair to say that I would have done just about anything to have on hand the information that Andrew Lambert brings to light in the aforementioned tome when I was writing my May 1812

I would have sold…well, maybe not my soul, but quite probably any number of cakes and mousse au chocolat for the happiness of having all of these documents and accounts so clearly and beautifully laid out before me relating to the three-way trade wars between Napoleonic Europe, Great Britain and the young United States. 

Instead, I spent months piecing together the history of the various Napoleonic and British acts and the American reactions to them.  It was always a case of two lines in this history providing a little information, another small paragraph in another history…

But even if it’s too late for me to include some of the juicier elements in my work, Andrew Lambert has now, at last, most concisely and exhaustively pulled together all the various strands of this messy historic sampler.  And it makes for eye-popping reading. 

(It doesn’t leave many of the American leaders of the time on their pedestals though.  Nor does it paint a very edifying picture of the American press at the time.  Napoleon doesn’t come out very different though–though Lambert did make my day when he called him a ‘fraudster’.  That was a truly happy moment for self.)

But perhaps the greatest challenge to modern American readers will be that Lambert unequivocally proves that the United States did not win the War of 1812. 

They lost.  They achieved none of their alleged aims.  Neither did they attain any of their genuine goals.

What they did achieve was the destruction of New England’s economy, the bankruptcy of their federal government, the burning of the capital, Washington, mass unemployment, destitution and…and…and…

For those who don’t know, who haven’t heard me rant on the subject, the whole thing got started when Napoleon came up with the cunning plan to wage economic warfare on Great Britain.  This he believed would economically cripple Britain so that she could no longer subsidise Continental powers to fight against him, thus allowing him to take the place over.  Very clever, eh? 

So he issued these decrees known as the Berlin and Milan decrees of 1806 and 1807 which were his attempt to exclude all British goods as well as the British ships that carried those goods from any and all Continental ports and markets. 

This was great!  It was going to screw British maritime power to the wall.  They were going to crumble.  Super-dooper, bring me a trooper!  (Well, he may have said words to that effect…who knows?)

Yet strangely, the Brits didn’t think having their economy or their naval power ruined by an upstart Mushroom Corsican, as they liked to call him, was such a good idea.  Nor did Napoleon have a navy with which to enforce his little programme–he’d lost that (oops) at Trafalgar. 

So they retaliated.  With the Orders in Council.  Which declared that all goods carried to the Continent had to be carried in ships which held a license from Britain, etc.  And most importantly, they stepped up their maritime campaign of stopping neutral ships and searching for British seamen who’d decided it was safer to go AWOL than to serve in the Royal Navy.  Which, given that this was a time of war, was both desertion and treason. 

This then, ostensibly, was what the Americans got hepped up about.  And the battle cry rang out, “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights!” Because it was mostly American ships they were stopping, which had, a hefty contingent of said British sailors…

And this is where Lambert’s work shines so brilliantly.  

For he demonstrates, beyond cavil, that this was really nothing but a political feint.  And it was a propaganda war from the get-go.  As he writes it, “Americans believed that large numbers of American-born sailors were being impressed.  In fact rather less than 10% of the American maritime workforce suffered this fate…A project to surrender all British sailors in American ships in return for the British ending the impressment of Americans was quietly dropped because half of all skilled seamen in American merchant ships were British.” 

President Jefferson was–he who headed off the American reaction to this economic war–as Lambert illustrates over and over again, fiercely Anglophobic and naively, determinedly Francophile.  He was putty in Napoleon’s Froggie hands.

He was also no economist.  He produced his response to the situation even before Congress had received notice of the British Orders in Council. 

And his cunning plan?  The Embargo Act which blocked the American export trade.  As Lambert says, “To punish Britain Jefferson made war on American merchants.  The results were disastrous:  economic hardship obliged American merchants and seafarers to smuggle…Jefferson hoped the Embargo Act would be a useful adjunct to Napoleon’s war against Britain, and that in return a grateful Emperor would give him the prize he really wanted, Spanish Florida.” 

But of course, the Emperor wasn’t playing. 

Yet as Lambert argues, “Jefferson’s futile Embargo had long antecedents:  in 1785 he had argued that America should follow the commercial policy of China ‘to practice neither commerce or navigation’.  He…never changed his view that American merchants were corrupt and corruptible.  He dreamt of an agricultural America…” 

And James Madison, his successor to the Presidency was just as blinkered. 

Though the Federal Government was kept afloat by the taxes and excise they collected from the New England states’ import/export businesses, to the tune of some 98%, in order to pursue their land-grab of Canada while Britain had all her troops otherwise occupied, they played into the hands of Napoleon, wrecked their own trade and economic viability and eventually were cozened into declaring war on Britain.

Lambert also puts on display the extreme bile Madison and his cronies pumped into a press too eager to play the jingoistic tunes of their politicians.  The accounts of the various naval actions–accounts which shew that British gunners were out-firing their American counterparts by 3-1–which actions were then twisted into triumphs…in a way, well, it makes for sickening reading. 

The lack of honesty or honour, the deceit on display is just…Truthfully, it’s a bit gutting.  I’d always thought that Jefferson was this visionary ‘liberty for all’ fellow, you know.  Brilliant with a quill.  With an eternally great way with words.  The most idealistic of the Enlightened thinkers.  An ingenious inventor. 

Professor Lambert has shown him to be the opposite–to be vindictive, vituperative, economically idiotic, predatory, and base.  Denying and lying about Napoleon’s tyrannical reign over Europe, sending gentle good men over to ‘negotiate’ with the monster, who obviously didn’t stick around to be negotiated with…

And the battles.  Holy wow! 

Of course, they’re written with all the verve and derring-do of a Patrick O’Brian clash at sea. 

But these were real men, and the actions pitted the professional seamen of the Royal Navy–men who drilled and drilled and worked hard at being the best in all weathers–against blaggarts and braggadocios, some brave, but too many who initiated actions against ships much, much smaller than themselves and then who crowed victory and lied about the disparity in size. 

And when they really were outgunned and outmanoeuvred and outfought, such as when the HMS Shannon took the USS Chesapeake in one of the bloodiest actions of any naval war on 1 June 1813–in 13 minutes, the American press invented scapegoats and declared it a victory anyway.

The whole unfoldment of action which led to the burning of the capital makes for pretty gob-smacking reading too.  There’s always been this prim, self-righteous shock and horror professed over those meanie Brits who came and burned (can you imagine anything so demonic, so savage?) the charming, innocent, delightful little American capital. 

(Forgive me if I’m sounding sarky here.) 

But hang on a minute, one wants to say to Madison and his mates.  This was war.  You declared it on Britain.  Did you think it’d be a picnic?  A riparian entertainment with sparklers? 

Did you miss the part about there being a world war on?  Did Jefferson, in his Francophile gushing, not notice that one of the methods of military engagement was the occupation [and destruction] of the enemy’s capital?  Such as Napoleon did to Berlin.  And Vienna.  And Madrid.  And Moscow.  Or did he fail to read those parts of the news bulletins?  

And what happened really? 

It had needed only 4000 troops to capture the American capital and torch the various public buildings, including the White House and the Navy Yard, as Lambert says, “revealing the unimaginable folly of a government that deliberately picked a fight with a global power, allegedly about questions of principle, without bothering to raise an army or navy capable of defending the country.  By 1814 the only effective American armies were attempting to conquer Canada.”     

The war whimpered to a close in 1814 with the American negotiators quietly dropping all the demands for which they’d allegedly gone to war.  They just wanted out.  They couldn’t afford any more of it.  And Napoleon hadn’t won in Russia as they’d hoped he would.  In fact, he’d lost all of his Empire and been forced to abdicate. (Ouch.)

So, they stopped whinging about British deserters being removed from American ships, etc.  They stopped sending troops up to take Canada–they changed their song from we’ll get Canada and land, land, land, to isn’t it great we haven’t lost any territory…that kind of thing. 

At this point, I’m probably just babbling. 

What can I tell you?  Lambert has simply blown me out of the water with his searing account of this disastrous American war which they’ve somehow blagged into an iconic victory over a 19th century superpower.   

And there are so many reasons for recommending this book that I can only gawp at the sheer number of them.  So all I can honestly say is:  Buy it.  Read it.  Wonder at it.  Andrew Lambert’s The Challenge.  It really is that good.

The artist who taught me how to see…

What with one thing and another, I haven’t had much to say recently. 

Part of that is down to having been reading The Challenge, a quite monumental history on the War of 1812 by Andrew Lambert.  And I shall be talking about that at a later date. 

Once I’ve calmed down and am no longer throwing things at the jingoistic journalists of 200 years ago who just made stuff up rather than reported anything like the truth.

(Breathing in.  Breathing out.  Am calm.  Very calm…)


But also of late I’ve been doing  a bit of garden writing for another blog.  And one of the subjects which I chose to visit was Gertrude Jekyll, the famed Victorian/Edwardian artist and gardener…

And this is a funny thing, really.  Because in collecting all my books about her together, and in reading through many sections of said books, I was suddenly struck by how much about her I’d known but had forgot.  Which came as a bit of a surprise.  But most of all, I was reminded of how much she’d taught me.  Not just about gardening and plants, but about writing, about seeing, about life, about beauty.

So I’ve continued to just read her collected works.  And it’s been a marvellous homecoming.

You see, I’d never really considered it before, but it’s Gertrude Jekyll who taught me to write what I see.  I mean, the woman was utterly brilliant.  And possessed of a pioneering honesty.  And the process begins first with seeing.  Not seeing what we believe is there, but seeing what is there.

Jekyll writes about it this way: 

“Those who have had no training in the way to see colour nearly always deceive themselves into thinking that they see it as they know it is locally, whereas the trained eye sees colour in due relation and as it truly appears to be.  I remember driving with a friend of more than ordinary intelligence, who stoutly maintained that he saw the distant wooded hill quite as green as the near hedge.  He knew it was green and could not see it otherwise, till I stopped at a place where a part of the face, but none of the sky-bounded edge of the wooded distance, showed through a tiny opening among the near green branches, when, to his immense surprise, he was it was blue.” 

Or this:  “On some of those cold, cloudless days of March, when the sky is of a darker and more intensely blue colour than one may see at any other time of the year, and geese are grazing on the wide strips of green common, so frequent in my neighbourhood, I have often noticed how surprisingly blue is the north side of a white goose.  If at three o’clock in the afternoon of such a day one stands facing north-west and also facing the goose, its side next one’s right hand is bright blue and its other side is bright yellow, deepening to orange as the sun ‘westers’  and sinks, and shows through a greater depth of moisture-laden atmosphere.” 

Wow!  Holy wow.  That is seeing!  Seeing what’s truly there, embracing it really, in all its brilliant or soft and wonderful glory. 

And then, once seen, written…

And behold, a whole world is created with those words…a whole scene…you can picture it…you can see it, taste it, feel the mist of it falling on your face, soft as lamb’s wool, cool as spring.

I remember her talking about bark–how it’s grey and black and ridged and often greened over with moss.  She saw what was there…and through her seeing, shews us.

But Jekyll listened too.  She knew how to listen. 

“I can nearly always tell what trees I am near by the sound of the wind in their leaves, though in the same tree it differs much from spring to autumn, as the leaves become of a harder and drier texture.  The Birches have a small, quick, high-pitched sound; so near that of falling rain that I am often deceived into thinking it really is rain, when it is only their own leaves hitting each other with a small rain-like patter.  The voice of Oak leaves is also rather high-pitched, though lower than that of Birch.  Chestnut leaves in a mild breeze sound much more deliberate; a sort of slow slither…”

She’s a wonderful guide, and it is most assuredly thanks to her that I have turned my whole being to this business of listening and seeing–with all pores open to the world around–which is at the heart of any effective descriptive writing.

As I’m sitting here, I’m recalling many of  the things she shewed me, scenes I could never have fully appreciated without her opening my eyes to what was there, scenes which I wrote in Of Honest Fame off the back of that seeing and which are as dear to me as the portraits of my children.  And thinking on that,  I believe I must owe her an enormous debt of gratitude. 

Though possibly–as she was such a wry and winsome creature–the thanks she might hope for and those I can most certainly give, rather as a disciple, is a going forth and seeing likewise…

A Froggie Forgery? Do you think?

Ha ha ha.

Well, following on from that charming little lecture on the Continental Blockade and Napoleon’s shifty behaviour which I posted the other day (The War of 1812…), I thought I would share this little bijou nugget-ette. 

You see, following the British Government’s announcement on 21 April that they would be repealing the Orders in Council, the American ambassador–a delightful poet by the name of Joel Barlow–hopped on a boat bound for Calais and made his way to Paris to tell the Frenchies that this had happened.  And to say, “Okay Monsoor, how about the Continental Blockade then, hmn?”  Or words to that effect. 

Joel Barlow

Diddled by the French?

But here’s the thing. 

When Barlow was finally admitted in to meet with the French Foreign Minister, the chappie handed him a decree, dated 28 April 1811, which said that Napoleon had revoked the Berlin and Milan Decrees.  Er, yes, that’s right–the thing was dated a year earlier.

And the oh-so-charming and effusive Minister went on to express his astonishment–“Nom d’un Nom!” etc.–that Barlow knew nothing about it, for he insisted that a copy of this had been sent to Washington on 2 May 1811. 

But Washington had never had such a document. 

Some American historians believe it a French forgery, cooked up no earlier than March or April, with the hope of hurtling the US into war with Britain.  (Perhaps as a distraction from the fact that Napoleon was about invade Russia?) 

The British Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, Lords Liverpool and Castlereagh respectively, also believed it a forgery.  It was just a little too convenient, wasn’t it? 

But unable to prove it to be so, they promptly repealed the Orders in Council as they had pledged to do. 

But here’s the thing.  In order for it to be genuine, we would have to believe that: 

1-a letter of such diplomatic and commercial import was received in Washington, but nobody noticed.  Not anyone.   No one opened the letter.  No one saw it.  No one mentioned it.  Right…

2-that having ordered such a letter to be written and sent, with an announcement of such import, no diplomatic follow-up occurred.  No little billet doux was sent mentioning in that cozening Napoleonic manner, “Here we are, such loving keepers of the peace, and all we want is a tender relationship as between siblings, how come you have not responded to our generous offer of the 2 May…”  Something like that.  Because Napoleon was always sending such revolting tripe through the diplomatic pouch, even as he was arming his lads for some invasion or other.

3-that Napoleon, who as we all know was never one to keep quiet about how he outwitted the British (even when he had to make it up), allowed this one diplomatic coup to go unmentioned.  He didn’t blab about it to anyone.  He didn’t have it proclaimed (as a sign of his magniminity) in le Moniteur.  Nothing.   And that’s just spooky.

So…Froggie Forgery?  Probably.  

Can I prove it?  I wish…

The War of 1812…

I’m feeling quite guilty about this.

There have been a number of searches on the War of 1812 showing up on my information page.  But because I haven’t written about it here, I suspect there may be some rather disappointed people who were looking for specifics about that British-American conflict which erupted into full-scale war in June 1812. 

My apologies. 

And I should have written about it sooner, because, of course, it did very much impact upon the world I write about in May 1812

So, shall I tell you some of what I know about it? 

I do warn you though–much of this is what we’d call today a trade war and/or economic sanctions and is like to be as boring as wallpaper paste. 

Equally, I beg that you will understand that from a British point of view at the time, it was never more than a sideshow to the main arena of the war against Napoleon in Europe.  And now it is always taught within this context. 


Go back a few years to that happy time known as 1806, November to be precise, when a short, stroppy Corsican adventurer by the name of Napoleon, (did I mention he was a tyrant?) issued a Decree.  He was in Berlin at the time, so it’s known as the Berlin Decree and is one of two…the second being known as the Milan Decree of 1807, for the obvious reason. 

And it was in these two decrees that he laid down the law regarding imports into Europe, also known as the Continental System or Continental Blockade. 

And this is what he’d decided:  that Britain had violated international law and therefore he declared Britain off limits to everyone and no one was to trade with them.  At all.

Also, all ports (worldwide) were to be closed to British ships; all British goods were to be excluded from the Continent; any ship which had called at a British port or paid duty to the Brits or been searched at sea by the Royal Navy was declared by him to be lawful prize; and all commerce was to be seized, even ‘letters written in English.’

Did you get that? 

What he’s saying is that because he says so, Britain is to be treated as a pariah, both at home and abroad.  What he’s saying is no British imports of any kind can be brought into any European country which is ruled by France, is an ally of France, or is a French satellite-state. 

And given that the French had walloped the combined armies of Prussia, Russia and Austria at a place called Austerlitz in December 1805; and that the French had already taken over most of Italy, the German states and the Low Countries, Napoleon was, ostensibly, in a position to call the tune in 1806-7. 

He’s also saying that any neutral country, such as the United States, which derived a great deal of its wealth from the shipping businesses operating out of the New England ports, could not, say, do a trip that included a stop first in Britain and then at a Continental port.  (Also, as Britain was the Americans’ largest market, especially for things like timber, these decrees were particularly onerous from their point of view.)

And finally, he’s licensing French piracy by declaring any British ship or ship that had anything to do with the British or the Royal Navy, lawful prize.  And yes, French piracy was already a huge problem at the time. 

There was only one small problem with his plan. 

The French had no navy–this having been wiped out pretty effectively by the Royal Navy at an encounter called Trafalgar in October 1805.  

So he trusted that the rest of the world was listening, (he was, after all, Napoleon) and that commercial exclusion would work as well as open warfare–and by depriving the British of the income their vast export businesses created, they could hit the British where it hurt–in their purses. 

Er, right.

But since the British (weirdly) didn’t recognise Napoleon as their sovereign, they didn’t feel any need to obey his orders.  

And then they responded.  The Council had a meeting and came up with a list–which came to be known as the Orders in Council. 

These were summed up pretty simply:  blockade all French ports; require all ships wishing to call at a Continental port to possess a British-issued license; and search all ships for deserters from the Royal Navy. 

(Oh, and unlike the French, they did possess a rather powerful navy which could enforce these orders…)

And before anybody gets all riled up about that last requirement, can I just say, in 1807, it wasn’t so easy to tell the difference between an American and a Brit.  The American accent as we know it today hadn’t developed yet.  Indeed, many Americans at that time were only one generation removed from their forefather’s mother country.  Many would have served on merchant ships alongside British sailors–so just talking to a chap wasn’t always a sure method of determining anything. 

Also, please, please, always remember, that in 1807, all of Europe had been embroiled in a bloody war since 1792.  Few of us can imagine what fifteen years of continuous warfare does to the psyche, let alone to the population levels.  What may seem a rational response or an irrational over-reaction in peacetime, may look quite different when viewed through the lens of interminable war. 

So, back to my wallpaper paste.  

President Jefferson responded to the whole trade war business with something called the Embargo Act of 1807 in which he declared that no American ships were to set sail for foreign waters.  Full stop.  

However, this caused, as you might imagine, a little bit of a problem for the prosperous American ship owners and exporters.  Their goods piled up in warehouses, their ships were confined to port, and lots of folk went bankrupt.   Ooops.  

So, under pressure from their own merchants, Congress repealed this in 1809 and issued instead the Non-Intercourse Act.  (No, I did not make that name up.)  This allowed American ships to trade with everybody except the British and the French.

Are we clear so far?  No? 

Well, stick around.  The paste is about to turn to mud.

By this time, the Continent was feeling the bite of Napoleon’s exclusion of British produced goods and also their shipping might.  To exclude the British suppliers meant no sugar (from the Caribbean), no tea or coffee (from India), no chocolate, no cotton (India again), little wool…It was a lot like rationing during WWII, only not that nice.  Great for dieters, I suppose, but not much good for anyone else. 

So Napoleon got huffy.  (He was quite good at that…he had a mouth like a sewer too.)  And he retaliated in March 1810, forbidding all ships sailing under the American flag and carrying merchandise from entering any French port.  

So, in May 1810, Congress repealed the trading restrictions against both Britain and France, but said that if either one of them would repeal their anti-commercial decrees, they’d stop trading with the other.   

But, Napoleon didn’t like that either so he decided it was time to play one of his double-games.  (Shocking, isn’t it?) 

He had one of his ministers write a very sweet little letter to the Americans saying that he would revoke those nasty decrees of Berlin and Milan on 1 November 1810–as far as the American merchants were concerned–if Britain would also revoke the Orders in Council at the same time.  

But (here comes the catch) if Britain did not revoke the Orders in Council by 1 November, then the US must resume the Non-Intercourse Act (I call it the Chastity Act, myself) and stop trading with Britain altogether.   

At this point, you may say, ‘Hang on a tick there, old thing.  Napoleon didn’t have the right to dictate to the US who they could or could not trade with.’  And you’d be right to say that. 

But Napoleon in 1810 was at the top of his game.  There was nothing he could not do–or thought he could not do.  He’d just kicked the Prussian and Austrian armies into smithereens at a series of battles so bloody it would make your eyes water. 

He’d just married an Austrian princess, Maria Theresa, and a baby was on the way, thus ensuring a legitimate heir to the throne he’d taken for himself.  All of Europe was his or his ally by virtue of his having put one of his brothers on its throne.  Only in Spain and Portugal were things a bit iffy–and he didn’t count them. 

So back to the fun and games…

The British heard nothing about his offer for some time and when they did hear of it, doubted that he’d written it.  They felt he lacked sincerity.  They felt he wasn’t very good at honouring his agreements either.  So they refused to revoke the Orders in Council. 

The Americans assumed he meant it, even though French privateers continued to prey upon American ships.  And the announcement that Napoleon was to revoke the Continental Blockade as far as the US was concerned had been met with dancing in the streets, so badly had these trade wars damaged the American economy.  

So they got hotter and hotter under the collar at the British intractability.  Then too, Canada looked awfully attractive up there to the north and a little war would justify a land grab, don’t you see? 

Eventually, the British sensed that the US were heading towards a war they didn’t want.  So they did revoke the Orders in Council–they announced that they planned to do so on 21 April 1812. 

But in this age of sail, ships carrying information could take weeks to get their news across the Atlantic. 

Prime Minister Perceval was assassinated on 11 May 1812.  The Government fell on 21 May.  And so you might say they had a domestic crisis or three on their plate now too.

Still.  One of the first acts the new Government, headed by a new Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, did was revoke the Orders in Council–on 16 June.  But this news only reached Washington well after Congress had declared war on 18 June.  

And in truth, the two countries had been unched into war by the only one who would benefit from it–Napoleon. 

Though he, himself, was on his way to his disastrous invasion of Russia–along with some 550,000 troops–of whom only some 35,000 would return.  He and they crossed the Nieman into Russian territory on 28 June. 

The war led to the senseless burning of Washington and the destruction of much of New Orleans. 

And I realise that this may be heresy from an American point of view, what with this war being seen as proof of America’s Manifest Destiny.  But the fact remains that historically one of the most effective ways to forge a single national identity from a diverse population is a great bout of ‘us versus them’ thinking.  And the war did provide that for the young nation at least.  

The British didn’t want war with the Americans.  They could ill afford it–either financially or in terms of manpower or naval power.  They were heavily committed on the Peninsula where their army was inflicting progressive damage on the French.   They were the sole financial support of the Portuguese and Spanish war efforts, as well as providing huge subsidies to their future allies, Prussia, Austria and Sweden.  And they certainly didn’t fancy fighting a war on two fronts, either at sea, or by sending troops to defend their Canadian territories.  To them it was little more than an expensive distraction which petered to a close by 1814.

And it is because of all these commitments, plus the fact that by 1812, Europe had been at war for twenty long years, (with continent-wide losses the equivalent of half of the British population of 1800) that the War of 1812 must be seen as no more than a sideshow to the main event in Europe, the wars of Napoleon. 

And it was Napoleon who was the both the main instigator of the trade wars which crippled American shipping and exporting, as well as the main beneficiary of Britain’s engagement in a separate theatre of war. 

Okay, lecture over.  Those of you in the back row can wake up now. 

Oh.  And a final word.  The 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky?  It wasn’t written in celebration of this war or about Americans opening any cans of whoop-arse over the Brits in 1812.  It was written to commemorate the repulsing of the Napoleon’s Grande Armee and their unsuccessful attempt to take over Mother Russia in 1812.