Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron – Book Review
At first blush, Ronald D. Utt’s Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron seems like the type of book that would focus solely on the naval war between the United States and Great Britain during the War of 1812. The beginning of the first chapter seems to support that by focusing on the issue of naval impressment, where British ships stopped American ships and pressed sailors into British service—whether or not they were actually citizens of Great Britain. Once the issue of impressment became a hot-button topic in American politics, President Thomas Jefferson decided to punish the British and force them into halting the practice by employing an embargo on trade with Britain. The embargo was a disaster for the United States and did little to halt the practice of impressment.
Utt goes on, however, to describe another key factor that led both sides to war: the belief that the British were inciting the American Indian tribes in the Northwest against the American settlers in the area. The British saw the Indians as a buffer between their holdings in Canada and the United States, and tried to use their allies as a check against any American moves into the sparsely populated Canadian wilderness. For his part, Utt believes that this “forgotten war” was also an avoidable war, in that “there were no compelling issues of empire, plunder, revenge, ideology, religion, territorial integrity, or territorial gain. Instead, issues of grievances and insult drove the Americans to declare war on the world’s greatest power.” Though Jefferson’s embargo failed, his successor James Madison nevertheless still sought an end to British interference in the Northwest and at sea; the United States declared war when no solutions were forthcoming.
Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron is set up in an interesting way. Utt divides the chapters between the ground war and the war at sea, with more space and time devoted to the naval conflict between the two countries. These battles are action-packed and exciting, much like the Master and Commander series of novels that Utt quotes from throughout the book. Personal stories and backgrounds of the sailors and leaders create a connection between the modern-day reader and the men who fought for the United States at sea. Men like Stephen Decatur, Oliver Hazard Perry, and Thomas MacDonough were real, however, and so were their exploits against the British fleet.
Utt also dives into the personal histories of the British commanders in order to give a more balanced view of the events that took place throughout the war. While we as Americans tend to look at the War of 1812 purely as a conflict between the United States and Great Britain, Utt’s book brings the realization that our war was merely part of a larger, global conflict. Most of the chapters on the land war include a tidbit about Napoleon and the movement of his army, in order to remind the reader that Great Britain was already in the middle of a conflict when we declared war on them. Though Utt never expressly says so, the war against Great Britain could have been very different if the British had brought their entire military might to bear against the United States.
Utt does a great job expressing the action, disappointment, and elation that surrounded the conflict against Great Britain on land and at sea. The victories of the Constitution, Perry on Lake Erie, and Andrew Jackson in New Orleans are offset by the loss of several forts in the Northwest, a failed invasion of Canada, and the British attack on Washington, DC, where troops burned the White House, the Treasury building, and the Capitol Building. Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron is a fantastic addition to the scholarship that is shedding new light on this “forgotten” war, and one perfectly timed to celebrate the bicentennial of the conflict.
Adam Koeth graduated from Norwich University in 2012 with a Master’s of Arts in Military History. He also holds a Bachelor’s of Arts degree in History from Ohio University. A native Ohioan, Adam lives with his wife and two children near Columbus, and enjoys reading everything he can get his hands on, writing, and watching sports—especially the Cleveland Indians. (Go Tribe!)