If you’re looking for a Christmas gift for a friend or relative who loves a) military history, b) tales of seafaring adventure, c) inspiring true stories about America’s past, or d) all of the above, I recommend Ronald D. Utt’s new history of the War of 1812. Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron: The War of 1812 and the Forging of the American Navy is a readable account of the war that established the U.S. as a power on the global stage and played an important part in America’s self-understanding for more than a century. Utt writes that “the men who served in uniform and in positions of political leadership in the War of 1812 became a 19th-century version of the ‘Greatest Generation’”: Seven of them — James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, John Quincy Adams, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, and James Buchanan – went on to be president. And, almost half a century after the guns of 1812, Winfield Scott was commander of the Union Army at the beginning of the Civil War.
One of my favorite stories of the post-war careers of veterans of 1812 is that of Uriah P. Levy, a Jewish man from Philadelphia who volunteered for the war at age 21 and became a sailing master on the USS Argus, a brig sloop that captured a number of British ships before itself being captured. Levy was subsequently a POW in England, where, writes Utt, “confined in the infamous Dartmoor prison, . . . he organized a minyan among the Jewish prisoners.” His most consequential achievement came long after the war: He bought the dilapidated Monticello estate of the late President Thomas Jefferson, did a lot of repair work on it, and tried to leave it as a bequest to the United States after his death in 1862. The U.S. Congress didn’t accept it, because of Civil War exigencies; it was seized and sold by the Confederate government; Levy’s heirs recovered it and were finally able to sell it to the nonprofit Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation in 1923. Visitors to today’s lovely Monticello should spare a kind thought for the work done by that War of 1812 Navy veteran.)
(Disclosure: Ronald D. Utt’s wife, it turns out, was a coworker of mine 20 years ago. I did not know this when I got the book; warm congratulations to both Mr. and Mrs. Utt!)