Through the Perilous Fight – Book Review
The War of 1812 stands at the top of America’s admittedly short list of “forgotten” wars, and therefore very few people know much about it. (Pop quiz: how long did the War of 1812 actually last?) Perhaps the apathy lies in the fact that even today, we as a nation do not really know who “won.” The Canadians claim victory, the British consider it a draw, and we Americans don’t seem to care either way.
Steve Vogel trains a microscope on a relatively short period of time within that war, illuminating the intertwined stories of one of the greatest infamies ever visited on our country alongside the story of a great triumph and a poem that emerged from the mind of a young lawyer turned militiaman named Francis Scott Key. Vogel does his best to interpret historical events and historical characters in such a way that the reader does indeed want to learn more about the War of 1812.
Vogel follows the stories of several “characters” on both sides of the fight, including British Rear Admiral George Cockburn (pronounced Coe-burn), American President James Madison, Secretary of State James Monroe, and American flotilla commander Joshua Barney, one of the few bright lights in an otherwise disastrous campaign to keep the British out of Washington. Vogel also threads the story of young Francis Scott Key into the narrative, following his life and career up to and beyond the war itself. With little military experience but an overwhelming sense of patriotism, Key volunteered for his hometown militia before embarking on a diplomatic mission to free a captured American citizen from the clutches of Cockburn. It was this mission that kept Key aboard ship during the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor, after which Key saw the Stars and Stripes “gallantly streaming” over the fort’s walls. Vogel goes on to describe the path Key’s Star-Spangled Banner took in becoming the nation’s anthem; although becoming the song of the country took a while, the song itself became immensely popular almost immediately—what could be considered a 19th-century version of a meteoric rise up the charts.
While the events surrounding Key’s witness of Fort McHenry’s bombardment are fairly well known, as is the story of Dolley Madison’s rescue of George Washington’s portrait, Vogel also sheds light on some lesser-known aspects of the war. Barney’s flotilla and its early victories against the British fleet stand out as one of the few positive aspects of the campaign to protect Washington, just as the disaster at Bladensburg, Maryland—now known as the “Bladensburg Races”—stands out as an embarrassment to the American military. Vogel also details the service of the Colonial Marines, a group of about two hundred escaped slaves who entered British service in order to fight against their former masters. This little-known aspect of the war is not only interesting in itself—Cockburn thought little of the Marines until he saw them in action, where they stood their ground and emerged victorious time and again—but also illuminates the inherent contradiction in a people who owned slaves fighting against the British in order to secure their rights and freedoms.
Through the Perilous Fight is a well-written, excellent addition to the War of 1812 literature. Vogel’s work not only holds interesting information for historians and scholars but is written in such a manner that it stands as an interesting, easily consumed book for the general public. If more works like Through the Perilous Fight emerge, perhaps the War of 1812 will come off the list of America’s “forgotten” wars.
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—even the roller-coaster-like Columbus Blue Jackets.