Probably more than a few journalists had to make a quick visit to Wikipedia after Prime Minister Harper announced his plans to celebrate this year’s bicentenary of the War of 1812.
It is a conflict that has languished in obscurity almost since it ended. Many North Americans remember it only as a footnote in a high-school history book, and many British historians view the war as little more than an over-sized bar-room brawl that happened to take place at the same time the big decisions were being made on the battlefields of Borodino and Waterloo.
Fortunately, Alan Taylor has written a superb one-volume history of the war. As you would expect from his earlier Pulitzer Prize, Taylor combines both painstaking research and a compelling narrative. Many Canadians recall the War of 1812 as an underdog’s triumph, with small bands of British redcoats, plucky Canadian militia and loyal Indian (as they were then called) allies fighting off the American colossus. Americans tend to forget the fighting along the Great Lakes borderland altogether, recalling instead their outstanding frigate captains, the heroic defence of Baltimore or Andrew Jackson’s shattering victory at New Orleans.
By the way, for those who have listened to the American anthem at hockey games and wondered about the “rockets’ red glare” and whose bombs were “bursting in air” … well, they were ours, during that attack on Baltimore.
Taylor paints a much richer, more nuanced picture of the war. He uses the word “borderlands” rather than “border” to describe the wilderness in Upper Canada, Michigan and New York where much of the fighting took place. The borderland was a grey zone, where traders, colonists and Indians travelled with little reference to where London and Washington thought the border was. Indeed, Tories in Upper Canada hoped to move the line south and Republicans hoped to erase it altogether.
Perhaps the biggest challenge to the conventional view of the war is in Taylor’s title, where he depicts the struggle as a “civil war.” In many ways, the War of 1812 was a continuation of the Revolutionary War. Both sides spoke the same language, brothers and friends fought on opposite sides, and many participants had grown up on the other side of the border. Many Upper Canadian colonists were Loyalists who had picked the losing side in 1776 and been forced to flee, while others were “Late Loyalists.” The latter group came under considerable suspicion from British officers and hard-core Tories in Upper Canada, since it wasn’t clear if they came north out of loyalty or a desire for cheap land.
Meanwhile, in the United States, there were extreme divisions between the Republicans, a populist party keen to rid the continent of British influence, and the more patrician Federalists who wanted no part of a war with the powerful British Empire. This split is difficult to picture today, but at the time it led to a severe weakening of the American war effort. Federalist merchants happily sold supplies to the British Army and their sons refused to take part in the war. Everyone remembered Benedict Arnold, and more than one American defeat was followed by accusations of treason.
The war was further complicated by the different interests of the participants. Besides the Republicans and Federalists on the American side, and the British and Upper Canadian establishment on the other, there were the Indians, the Irish, and the recently defeated French colonists. Each had very different interests in the war.
One of the charms of Taylor’s writing is the way he portrays this kaleidoscope of interests with the stories of real men and women. Joseph Willcocks is one example. He was an Irish-born journalist and member of the Upper Canadian Parliament. He helped British General Brock gather Indian allies and fought alongside the Six Nations warriors at Queenston Heights, but defected to the Americans after Brock’s death when Bishop Strachan and other Tory hard-liners clamped down on “disloyal” speech in Upper Canada. He ended up leading a troop of “Canadian Volunteers” who impressed American generals with their courage but earned the hatred of many Upper Canadians.
The story of Tecumseh, the charismatic Shawnee chief, is perhaps most poignant of all. His death during the Battle of the Thames, near Chatham, Ontario, effectively ended hopes for an “Indian confederacy” that might have been a counterweight to American colonists moving west. Even if no one “won” the War of 1812, it clearly had losers.
Taylor doesn’t sugar-coat the war. The violence is appalling to the modern reader, with scalping, looting, burning and mayhem an integral part of both sides’ campaigns. With the armies struggling to get supplies to the remote frontiers, soldiers relied on local farms and warehouses for food. With pay often months in arrears, looting soon followed. The descriptions of the American burning of Niagara-on-the-Lake and the scorched-earth zone around Buffalo following British and Canadian retaliation are harrowing.
Taylor also calls out the startling range of personal performance in the war. The reader is inspired by Brock, the charismatic Indian leader Tecumseh or the stalwart leadership of young American officer Winfield Scott. But for every one of these, there are a dozen lazy, venal, cowardly or drunk leaders. More than a few American campaigns end in disaster with their officers drunk or sleeping in a cozy bed miles from the action.
The Civil War of 1812 makes for great winter reading. It is a well-told story, and as the government gears up for the 1812 commemorations it wouldn’t hurt any of us to know a bit more about the war that guaranteed the survival of British North America.
The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, and Indian Allies, Alan Taylor, Knopf, 640 pages, $40.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.