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The Twilight’s Last Gleaming

In The Dawn’s Early Light: Britain vs. America 1812-1815, [(New York: Stein and Day) 1977], Kate Caffrey provides a reasonably comprehensive one volume book about the War of 1812. Caffrey writes about the peculiarity of this war where the British burned the American White House, even though engaged in war a war in Europe against Napoleon Bonaparte, fought a war in North America, and where the largest most famous battle was fought after the peace treaty had been signed.

Caffrey begins her book by discussing background for what lead up to the war. The years since the end of the American Revolutionary war had been a series of issuing of legal mandates by England, France and the United States. Each country was most interested in protecting its own economic self-interest so they issued tariffs, engaged in embargoes, and engaged in acts at sea that often little more than criminal acts. According to Caffrey, England often used impressments to fill her ships’ rosters.

The would essentially kidnap sailors who were on shore leave either by force or in cooperation with the local tavern owners who would “recruit” sailors from their drunken customers, for a fee of course. It was not unheard of a more powerful British ship to stop an American merchant ship and remove the so-called English sailors from the crew. The United States fought well, but was largely unprepared to fight against Britain. By the time of 1814, the United States’ hopes seemed bleak.

Surprisingly, they had victories at sea near Plattsburgh, New York and defeated the British at Fort McHenry in Maryland. Consequently, the British began to negotiate and end to the war in mid-1814 at Ghent. A treaty was signed on December 14, 1814 bringing an end to the war. However, because of the poor communications of the day, Andrew Jackson led a force against the British in New Orleans on January 8, 1815. He decisively defeated the British. Caffrey views this war as the last step in the complete separation of Britain and the United States.

The Americans gained confidence with their second defeat of Great Britain. This encourage the Americans to begin settling the Louisiana Purchase, recently purchased from Napoleon, and develop into the powerful country it is today. This book contains a lot of facts, and written in a concise style that does not engage in the many qualifications and meanderings that academic historians engage in. This is both its strength and weakness. Since the prose is simply written, it is easy to understand.

However, it is not easy to read. While it lacks the turgid density of some history books, its precision seems to drain the life out of the prose. While reading this book, it was difficult to maintain interest. It often felt like one was reading a mathematics textbook for fun; it didn’t quite work for this reader. Having said that, it is one of the most readily available popular history books available about this war and is worth reading to fill in some of the facts of this ignored war.

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