Fitz-Enz’s new book evokes the War of 1812

Believe it or not, two centuries ago the eastern Adirondacks and Lake Champlain were at the heart of an international conflict. Mooers, Plattsburgh and the Saranac River framed tide-turning battles long before you could drive Route 9. In his recent book “Hacks, Sycophants, Adventurers & Heroes: Madison’s Commanders in the War of 1812,” author Colonel David Fitz-Enz writes with an urgency of detail that emphasizes storied past of our region.

Fitz-Enz links the conflict to his Adirondack home but also clarifies the connections between European power struggles and the nascent United States. At the time, our country was equipped with inexperienced military men and entirely unprepared for a war. The subsequent faceoff with the “most effective and efficient war machine of the day” is both surprising and deeply intriguing. Fitz-Enz brings this improbable struggle to life with extensively researched portraits of 25 soldiers and sailors under President Madison during our nation’s first war.

Fitz-Enz has written about the War of 1812 before, including “Old Ironsides,” “The Final Invasion,” and “Redcoats’ Revenge,” all full-length books of military history. His most recent book is a welcome investigation of characters. As he states in the prologue: “This is not a chronology of the War of 1812 but rather tales of fighting men, on land and sea, who will tell you the story of the war they fought. As in every story, there are the good, the not so good, the bad and the awful. Hanging around the fringes are the politicians who will speak for themselves.”

Though his characters shine through a mix of primary documents and exhaustively researched interpretation, Fitz-Enz’s protagonist is the war itself. Each chapter follows a few supporting characters, illuminating the different theaters and pressure points of the war. Though this storytelling style requires frequent rehashing of dates and events to carry each character between June 1812, and the Treaty of Ghent in December of 1814, it cemented the timeline of the war in my mind.

Fitz-Enz has unimpeachable credentials as a military historian and a member of our armed services. As a regular Army officer for 30 years, Fitz-Enz served in the Far East, Middle East, and Europe. He’s a well-traveled man whose human experience is a strong undercurrent of this book.

This grasp of human character is rooted in extensive, though occasionally parenthetical, biographical details for his characters. Dueling officers, petty slights and family letters all appear in this volume. Almost every profile is introduced with details about birth and early life. Though this technique builds admirable realism, Fitz-Enz undercuts his authority by fitting most of his characters into the titular categories of hack, sycophant, adventurer and hero.

This shoehorning is most apparent in the book’s peripheral players, especially the Native Americans — the only group with actionable claim on their ancestral land. Though Fitz-Enz carefully reports the feelings of the era through primary documents and quotations, his narrative sometimes mirrors their bigotry. In one lamentable passage, he writes:

“That evening the Prophet sprinkled his fairy dust, shook his rattle, danced his primitive steps, mixed his potion, and proclaimed that the enemy’s bullets could not harm the braves when they attacked the white men.”

While this type of belittling language is rare, Fitz Enz often inserts strangely cinematic readings into the stories. In one of many naval battles he states, “The noise of the American cannonballs thudding on the bulwarks sounded like the muffled drums of death in the dark, belowdecks.”

Stylistically, the book reads as a series of scholarly articles. Each chapter is capped with a chronology and bibliography, occasionally even naval battle charts listing ship positions down to the minute. Fitz-Enz’s prose clumps into lengthy paragraphs and generous quotations from primary sources. Though initially difficult to approach, the format is softened with careful transitions. Once accustomed to the cadence, I found that the stories flowed easily and integrated well with one another.

As Fitz-Enz states, “This may be the only book one needs on the War of 1812.” For both casual readers and military history aficionados, this is almost certainly the case. The carefully told stories of redemption and resolve, failure and arrogance give this forgotten war depth that I never expected.

This review reflects the individual view of the reviewer, not the views of the Adirondack Center for Writing or the Enterprise.