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Christopher Rose

Review of John C. Fredriksen, The United States Army in the War of 1812: Concise Biographies of Commanders and Operational Histories of Regiments, with Bibliographies of Published and Primary Sources. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009. Pp. vii, 303. ISBN 978-0-7864-4143-3.

United States Army in the War of 1812 fills a significant gap in the military history of the early Republic.  The organization of the U.S. Army during the war has been described in general terms, but not till now with depth of well-researched detail needed by serious students. In a feat of concision, John Fredriksen has managed to produce two monographs in a single volume. The first section provides short biographies of President Madison, his three secretaries of war, and the major and brigadier generals who served in the war. The second section provides brief histories of each regular regiment. The separate army corps and army staff and medical departments are listed with the U.S. Military Academy. Each citation has its own extensive bibliographic information, citing primary and selected secondary sources. Besides consulting the larger Government Record Groups in the National Archives, Fredriksen has also drawn on manuscript collections in smaller libraries and archives throughout the country. "The book you hold is the product of 33 years of painstaking work, and is specifically designed to facilitate the kind of research so lacking in this field. It is a hand-crafted assemblage of archival, manuscript, printed primary, and secondary sources, all carefully organized and arrayed to impart a maximum of information within the barest minimum of space.... The archival and manuscript sections are delineated by corporate authorship, the nature of materials, their holding depository, and their call number, dates, and selected information where possible" (7).

Fredriksen is too reticent about his achievements over the last thirty years. His research skills were established in Free Trade and Sailors' Rights[1], still the standard bibliography of the War of 1812. He has written widely on other topics related to the war, including a doctoral dissertation on the 1814 Niagara campaign.[2] He has practically single-handedly given an identify to the officers of the U.S. Army in the War of 1812. By editing and publishing their letters and diaries  in scholarly  journals, he has both revealed who they were and shed light on how the United States conducted its first declared war. In one of few U.S. Army regimental histories of this period, Green Coats and Glory,[3] he tracked the U.S. Rifle Regiment from its formation in 1808 until its disbandment in 1821, providing a campaign history of both the First Regiment and the three others raised for wartime service. The book blends meticulous research with a broad perspective on the war.

The volume under review takes a similar approach, although it lacks the level of detail in a monograph focusing on a single regiment. Nevertheless, its "pocket" histories are remarkably thorough.

Fredriksen's work has improved the study of the War of 1812 in two significant ways. First, it has brought a much needed balance to studies that relied on Canadian published primary sources, complied by Ernest Cruikshank, and others that drew on only a few secondary  works and did not progress beyond Henry Adams's history of the war. Second, Fredriksen's work has usefully shifted the emphasis back to the land war and the action of the regular army from histories in the Roosevelt mold that focused on naval actions, the Battle of New Orleans, and the militia.

This book dispels the obscurity of regiments and several brigadier generals. The summaries of each regiment's service also indicate areas where further historical work is warranted. The Fourth U.S. Infantry is one example. This well-trained and led prewar regiment had fought at Tippecanoe. The debacle at Detroit and the conduct of Isaac Hull (described s.v. "Hull") look much worse when the reader learns of the quality of the troops and subordinates like Duncan McArthur. This latter officer's success in holding much of western Upper Canada for the Americans provided an important bargaining chip during the peace negotiations at Ghent.

The book also refutes the idea that the prewar U.S. Army was nonexistent. Although small, it was not without a cadre to build from and had some good regimental leadership. It was, however, inadequate to invade Canada on three fronts, defeating a loose aboriginal confederacy led by Tecumseh, going to war against the Creeks, and watching Spanish Florida. That Madison's government conducted the war this way, without a large, well-trained army points to strategic challenges that even the best army could not have overcome. The book shows how the United States tried to overcome these challenges by raising a large army and ensuring good leadership. The latter was more difficult to find than new regiments.

A recurring theme in the biographies is poor leadership in the first two years of the war, plagued by divided command. As noted above, Hull fought with McArthur at Detroit, Wilkinson and Hampton clashed in the fall of 1813 during the offensive against Lower Canada, and Secretary of War Armstrong fought with almost all of his subordinates.

These controversies affected both the development of the army and national politics after the war. Fredriksen establishes continuity with the postwar professional army by describing the careers of its general officers after 1815. Harder to document is the overall effect of the war on the professionalism of the dwindling number of regiments and their officers. 

A previous book devoted to a similar subject is Robert Wright's 1989 volume, The Continental Army, [4] although it lacks campaign histories and descriptions of formations above the regimental level. Wright traces the lineage of the Continental Army's regiments and provides full bibliographic references. Although he omits extensive biographies, it is interesting to compare his Revolutionary period portraits of officers featured in Fredriksen's work. To cite one example, Wright describes Morgan Lewis flatteringly while for Fredriksen he is "a politically well-connected leader of marginal ability and less merit" (60).

Like Wright, Fredriksen has scrupulously investigated the reorganizations that befell regiments during the war. The unfortunate Fourth Infantry was reformed and served again in the northern frontier. Detachments were dispersed across the theater and assigned to different brigades. Until this book, this type of information did not exist in published works. It is information that links the book's biographical and regimental history sections. For only when the history and service of the regiments are known, can the leadership be assessed.

Given the re-formation of regiments, their wide distribution across the theater of war and their many defeats, we may better understand why it took almost two years for the army to achieve tactical skill. Fredriksen acknowledges Winfield Scott's role in training, and generals like Pike and Izard are recognized for their earlier efforts in 1812 and 1813. Tactical proficiency brought success on the battlefield.

In a related finding, the author shows that the U.S. Army was a good army by 1814, particularly its artillery. The regular army was able to defeat or fight to a standstill the regular British troops it faced by 1814. A question that requires more thorough examination but is outside the scope of this book is why, given the apparent size of the army, it could not achieve decisive numerical superiority over the British. Logistical issues and the role of naval cooperation will be factors to consider in pursuing this area of research.

The intensity of disputes among general officers seemed to diminish by 1814. Jacob Brown's quarrels with Izard and Ripley did not reach the same level of animosity as those between Wilkinson and Hampton the previous year. In addition, by 1814, the conflict had become less an Indian war than it had been at the outset. In this regard, the emphasis on Harrison's victory at the Battle of the Thames, found in traditional histories, seems warranted. This battle and Jackson's defeat of the Creeks at Horseshoe Bend signaled an end to one phase of the war and regular forces began to play a larger role. Militia generals like Brown, Harrison, and Jackson became regular officers, although Harrison resigned his commission with Brown having the most significant influence on the post-war army.

Authors writing even a brief summary of the War of 1812 will find in Fredriksen's book a more solid basis for their work and a corrective to conventional wisdom. They will, for example, need to rethink the notion that the Treaty of Ghent brought a period of "democratic peace" between the United States and Britain. In fact, the intensity of the fighting on the Niagara frontier, at Plattsburg, and at New Orleans, indicated future wars between the nations would be longer and bloodier. This led to an increase in fortifications along the border and the continued presence of regular troops to man them.

McFarland and Company deserves praise for publishing this fine work and introducing to a broader audience the generals and regiments of the War of 1812.

Ottawa, Ontario, Canada


[1] " Subtitled A Bibliography of  the War of 1812 (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1985).

[2] "Niagara, 1814: The United States Army Quest for Tactical Parity in the War of 1812 and its Legacy" (Diss.: Providence College, 1993).

[3] Subtitled The United States Regiment of Riflemen, 1808-1821 (Youngstown, NY: Old Fort Niagara Assoc., 2000).

[4]  Washington: Ctr. of Military History, U.S. Army, 1989.