Book Review: “Through the Perilous Fight” by Steve Vogel

The War of 1812 gets little respect. It didn’t produce a clear victor, and there weren’t any of the great battles of the sort that armchair historians and military buffs love to study. That isn’t fair, according to author Steve Vogel. As his subtitle “Six Weeks that Saved the Nation” suggests, the war pretty much ensured the future of the United States.

He focuses on the Chesapeake campaign of 1813-1814. Rear Admiral George Cockburn (pronounced COE-burn) and Major General Robert Ross commanded the forces of the Navy and the Army, respectively. Together, they were more than a match for anything the Americans could bring against them. President James Madison had very few troops at his disposal; and Secretary of State James Monroe interefered to ill effect in tactics.

Drawing on personal letters and diaries, newspaper accounts, and government archives at every level, Vogel has written a gripping account of the campaign, including the Sack of Washington and the Battle of Baltimore. It flows smoothly from beginning to end, and the amount of detail is incredible.

Bracketing the narrative is what amounts to a short biography of Francis Scott Key. A lawyer in Maryland, the key battles were fought on his home turf. And we all know that as a negotiator for the release of prisoners of war, he was there to watch the attack on Fort McHenry outside Baltimore.

Vogel goes into great detail (without being boring) about the flag over the fort – who made it and what eventually happened to it – and the writing of “The Defence of Fort McHenry”, which appeared in the Baltimore papers almost as soon as the smoke had cleared.

The song became an instant hit, and the description of the flag gave the United States a meaningful symbol for the entire nation. No doubt there will be bicentennial commemorations this year; Vogel’s book is a great place to read up on what it’s all about.

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