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Roosevelt the Revisionist -Young TR takes on the War of 1812

By Meredith Hindley

Article below originally published in 2013 by the National Endowment for the Humanities:

Just after two o’clock in the afternoon on September 10, 1813, Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry was one of the few men still standing—or even alive—on the USS Lawrence. British cannon balls and grapeshot lobbed across the murky waters of Lake Erie by the HMS Detroit and her sister ships had torn his brig and crew to pieces. No amount of sand spread on the decks could soak up the blood that ran freely from the mangled and missing limbs of his men. Broadside after broadside had made the air thick with a pungent combination of ash and burning flesh. The Lawrence’s guns had ceased to work, leaving the flagship of the American squadron defenseless. Perry faced a choice: surrender or find a way to continue to fight. He knew that ceding the day would spell disaster for the American war effort against the British in the Great Lakes.

Perry turned his eyes to the USS Niagara, a ship equal in size and firepower to his shattered Lawrence. Despite the intense firefight between the American and British ships around it, the Niagara had sustained little damage. Perry turned over command of the Lawrence to his injured lieutenant and took a rowboat through a fifteen-minute gauntlet of bullets, grapeshot, and cannon fire. He arrived unscathed. Upon boarding the Niagara, he assumed command, sending her captain, Jesse Duncan Elliott, off in the rowboat with orders to redirect three American schooners. Perry then steered the Niagara alongside the ailing Detroit, unleashing a devastating wall of iron and fire. The American rally had begun. Within half an hour, the British, who had appeared to be on the brink of victory, had no choice but to surrender.

“We have met the enemy, and they are ours—two ships, two brigs, one schooner, and one sloop,” Perry said in a message to Brigadier General William Henry Harrison, commander of American forces in the Great Lakes.
The Battle of Lake Erie, fought two hundred years ago this September, was a turning point in the War of 1812. By controlling the lake, the Americans were able to take back Detroit, then a key trading outpost, and eventually defeat the Indian Confederation that had been aiding the British.
Perry became an instant war hero in a country hungry for victory and resolution. “For a long time yet to come, the name of Erie, will suggest that of Perry; and that future history of the late war, which should omit, or pass lightly over his distinguished services on that Lake, will not deserve the name of history,” wrote Washington Irving in American Naval Biography. Villages and towns were named after Perry, and the U.S. Navy commissioned two ships bearing his name during the nineteenth century.

But when Theodore Roosevelt sat down to write The Naval War of 1812 almost seventy years later, he refused to crown Perry with laurels and shower him with accolades for his heroics. In Roosevelt’s estimation, any American commander on that day with that fleet could have beaten the British. Why was Roosevelt so hard on Perry? For Roosevelt, it was all about giving credit where credit was due—and it was high time the British got some of their own. He also thought Perry’s real contribution was something more methodical and less swashbuckling: building and deploying an American force capable of fighting the British. Roosevelt reached these conclusions by writing an operational history using primary sources, something no other American naval historian had done before.

Historian in the Rough

In early December 1881, Teddy Roosevelt put the finishing touches on the manuscript for what would become The Naval War of 1812. It had been an auspicious year. The month before, he had been elected to the New York State Assembly. During the summer, while on break between his first and second year of law school at Columbia, he had taken his bride, Alice, on a delayed honeymoon to Europe. While in Switzerland, Roosevelt, an inexperienced climber, scrambled up 15,000 feet to reach the top of the Matterhorn. He was all of twenty-three.

Roosevelt’s interest in naval history came not from a class or lectures, but from his upbringing. He’d grown up learning to sail in the waters off Long Island, crewing everything from a rowboat to a yacht. During the summer between his junior and senior years at Harvard, he and a friend had steered a dugout canoe across Maine’s Munsungen Lake and tackled a stretch of the Aroostook River fifty miles long and infested with rapids. Then there were the familial tales of naval derring-do. His mother, Martha Bulloch, hailed from Georgia, and her brothers had distinguished themselves in the Confederate Navy. “My mother’s brother was an admiral in the Confederate navy, and her deep interest in the Southern cause and her brother’s calling led her to talk to me as a little shaver about ships, ships, ships, and fighting of ships, till they sank into the depths of my soul,” Roosevelt explained to a friend. The Bullochs, however, were no ordinary sailors. They were the brains behind the Confederacy’s secret operation in Britain to buy ships and turn cotton into cash.

“Before I left Harvard I was already writing one or two chapters of a book I afterwards published on the Naval War of 1812,” wrote Roosevelt in his Autobiography. “Those chapters were so dry that they would have made a dictionary seem light reading by comparison. Still, they represented purpose and serious interest on my part, not the perfunctory effort to do well enough to get a certain mark.”

What Roosevelt sheepishly omits is that he started working on the book just after Thanksgiving as a way to cope with a broken heart. He’d fallen head over heels for Alice Hathaway Lee, a golden-haired girl with a sharp mind who loved to laugh. “As long as I live, I shall never forget how sweetly she looked, and how prettily she greeted me,” he wrote of their first meeting in October 1878. Alice had gently refused his marriage proposal, tendered at the end of his junior year. When Roosevelt returned to Cambridge in the fall of 1879, he believed their romance would continue. Instead, he found her cold to his attentions. “Oh the changeableness of the female mind!” he complained in a letter home. His grief at losing her led to terrible bouts of insomnia, during which he read voraciously about the War of 1812. He found the differing accounts offered by American and British historians hard to reconcile, both in terms of fact and approach, so he decided to write his own.

His heart got a reprieve in the new year. While on a family trip to New York to visit the Roosevelt clan over Christmas, Alice warmed again to Teddy, and they announced their engagement on Valentine’s Day of 1880. “How she, so pure and sweet and beautiful, can think of marrying me I can not understand, but I praise God it is so,” he wrote in his diary. They married in the fall and Roosevelt entered law school at Columbia University shortly thereafter. Rather than set the book aside now that he’d won the girl, Roosevelt forged ahead. Mornings were spent in class and afternoons in the Astor Library doing research. To capture the British side, he used published sources, such as the London Naval Chronicle, Naval Records, and Niles’ Register. He reconstructed logs and muster rolls for ships from notices in the Gazette and Naval Chronicle. He translated French works on the war. For the American side, he used the records of the Department of the Navy, a privilege arranged for him by a well-connected friend. It was a valuable resource that no other historian had yet tapped. Roosevelt found the letters written by officers illuminating, while the log books were “rather exasperating, often being very incomplete.”

When he and Alice headed to Europe for their honeymoon in the summer of 1881, the book came with them. He began to worry that he had taken on an overwhelming task. There was a big difference between listening to tales of naval exploits at his mother’s knee and mastering the technical details required to write about them with authority. On a visit to Liverpool, his uncle Jimmie, a “blessed old sea-captain,” helped steer him through the shoals. Back in New York, Roosevelt devoted his energies to finishing the book. “How I long for the time when I am to have my sweetest darling back with me!” he wrote Alice in October. “But I am really glad that you are away now, for I am so busy that I could not be any company at all for you. I must get this naval history through and off my mind; it worries me more than I can tell now, and I wished it were finished.”

Roosevelt may have begun The Naval History of 1812 without any professional historical training, but the five hundred pages that he churned out could have qualified as a dissertation. He had original research and opinions galore, starting with decisive views on the books that had come before, which he felt didn’t do “justice to both sides.” He did, however, find three books to have merit, particularly when read in combination. William James’s Naval History of Great Britain, a six-volume study that covered 1793 to 1827 was “an invaluable work, written with fullness and care; on the other hand it is also a piece of special pleading by a bitter and not over-scrupulous partisan.” Roosevelt believed that successive generations of British and Canadian historians had been unduly influenced by James, a solicitor-turned-naval historian, to the detriment of the American story. James’s pro-British leanings could be offset by reading James Fenimore Cooper’s Naval History of the United States. While keen on the portrayal of the American effort, Cooper had, Roosevelt thought, written “without great regard for exactness.” Cooper needed to be read alongside the more technical History of the United States Navy by Admiral George E. Emmons.The ever-earnest Roosevelt set himself the task of writing an impartial narrative. “Without abating a jot from one’s devotion to his country and flag, I think a history can be made just enough to warrant its being received as an authority equally among Americans and Englishmen. I have endeavored to supply such a work.” But he also acknowledged that while he aimed to be nonpartisan, if he failed, it would probably be in favor of the Americans.

Roosevelt had grown up reading the adventure tales of Mayne Reid and engaging in plenty of his own, but The Naval War of 1812 tends toward the technical side. He favors facts and figures over a more human story, moving purposefully through the conflict, not afraid to show his work and point out where he believes others are wrong. Nowhere else in the book is this method so stark as in the account of the Battle of Lake Erie.

Roosevelt begins with a detailed reckoning of the American and British squadrons. The Americans had three brigs (Lawrence, Niagara, Caledonia), five schooners (Ariel, Scorpion, Somers, Porcupine, Tigress), and one sloop (Trippe). The British squadron, under the command of Robert Heriot Barclay, was significantly smaller: two brigs (Detroitand Hunter), one sloop of war (Queen Charlotte), two schooners (Lady Prevost and Chippeway), and one sloop (Little Belt). The Americans had 1,671 tons of ship to the British 1,460.

Roosevelt discovered that the real difference came in firepower. American writers had dwelled on the fact that Perry had only fifteen long guns to Barclay’s thirty-five, which seemed to give the British an advantage in distance fighting. But when Roosevelt listed the guns held by both sides, a startling fact appeared: Perry’s squadron had 936 pounds of broadside power, while Barclay’s fleet had 459 pounds. “The chief fault to be found in the various American accounts is that they sedulously conceal the comparative weight of metal, while carefully specifying the number of guns,” wrote Roosevelt.

Why was Roosevelt so intent on establishing who had what? Because he wanted to show that “the Americans were certainly very greatly superior in force.” Part of the aura surrounding Perry’s heroics rested on the idea that he had triumphed over a superior force. Roosevelt’s calculations showed that wasn’t the case. “The important fact was that though we had nine guns less, yet, at a broadside, they threw half as much metal again as those of our antagonist. With such odds in our favor it would have been a disgrace to have been beaten.” It also set the stage for him to make a more provocative argument: The weight given to Perry’s heroics was misplaced.

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