In August of 1814, Maryland was invaded by foreign troops. After months of naval clashes in the Chesapeake and raids on shore, the British landed a serious force at Benedict, on the Patuxent River. And who was tracking their every move from a short distance and sending dispatches back to President James Madison? The U.S. secretary of state.

Yes, James Monroe, known as “Colonel” Monroe for his Revolutionary War service, was personally skulking behind bushes, risking capture or death, as he scouted the enemy. Imagine, if you will, Hillary Clinton running agents in Kandahar. Of course, you can’t, and that’s the point: The U.S. was a sparsely populated, fragile country in 1814, with a tiny, amateurish government and an ill-trained army. Monroe was probably the best man for the job.

As we begin to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, author Hugh Howard brings that very different world alive in Mr. and Mrs. Madison’s War, an engrossing narrative history of a conflict that few today know much about. Howard ranges widely, as the war did, from the Great Lakes to New Orleans to the Mid-Atlantic Coast. His descriptions of the human carnage during the naval battles are particularly dramatic and moving. At the book’s heart is the personal experience of Madison and his gregarious wife Dolley, culminating in her legendary insistence on saving an iconic portrait of George Washington before she fled the White House ahead of the arrival of British troops in Washington. They burned the mansion and the Capitol, but subsequent American victories turned the tide.

Still, even the most positive assessment of the war, which was begun by Madison to end British impressment of American sailors and, he hoped (too optimistically), to expand U.S. territory into Canada, must conclude that it was hardly an American triumph. We lost as many battles as we won, and the ultimate peace treaty didn’t even mention the impressment issue, or much else. (The British stopped impressing Americans because they won the war against Napoleon and didn’t need the men anymore.)

And yet, this murky war was the source of what Howard calls the “rich, patriotic mythology” that helped solidify U.S. independence and fortify the country for the booming decades to come. It was a struggle of memorable personalities and phrases: “Don’t give up the ship.” “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” “Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave.” Howard reminds us of the gumption and bravery behind those words.

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