by Donald G. Shomette
Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. Pp. xviii, 500.
Illus., maps, appends., notes, index. $38.00. ISBN: 0801891221
The celebrated American victories in a number of frigate actions (e.g., Constitution vs. Guerriere) and on Lakes Erie and Champlain obscure the fact that during the War of 1812 the U.S. Navy was largely marginalized by the enormous strength of the Royal Navy. By looking at naval operations in the Chesapeake with a focus on events in 1814, Flotilla helps illustrate the less spectacular achievements of the Navy in the war, despite its limitations.
Shomette (Pirates on the Chesapeake, etc.) opens Flotilla with some background on pre-war American naval policy, notably the Jeffersonian “gun boat” fleet, then discusses the repeated devastating British raids on littoral areas in the Chesapeake during the war, and the slow development of an appropriate response, which peaked with the advent of Commodore Joshua Barney, who turned the Patuxent gunboat flotilla into an effective force. Although unable to prevent the loss of control of the vast bay, which caused him to scuttle his vessels, Barney was able to provide immensely valuable assistance to the army in the Battle of Bladensburg, which, as Shomette demonstrates, was not as disastrous as is usually recounted, though it did indeed lead to the fall of Washington.
In the course of telling this story, Shomette gives the reader a rather detailed education in the construction, organization, and management of the gun boat fleet, as well as in the conduct of green water operations in the Napoleonic era.