Some years back, I set out to rediscover American history through the best single books I could find to cover each era. I was stymied when I reached the “War of 1812,” where the historiography was pregnant with works that primarily put emphasis upon the military contests with little context on the greater issues on both sides of the Atlantic that provoked the conflict. Noted historian Alan Taylor has done much to redress this gap with his masterful contribution, The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies, which offers not only a fresh but strikingly new perspective to the saga. A brilliant and widely acclaimed historian – I consider his American Colonies: The Settling of North America to be one of the finest works ever written in American history – Taylor once again brings a macro lens to the wider arena of a topic and then narrows that focus with great acumen to restore complexity and nuance to that which has long been neglected in both popular and scholarly literature.
Most Americans know very little about the “War of 1812” – it does not even qualify for a real name but has come to be called after the year of its inception. Both its causes and its conclusion remain murky; United States forces lost most of the military engagements – with the exception of the much ballyhooed Jackson victory at New Orleans that occurred once the war was essentially over – and after the termination of hostilities in 1814 in what can best be called a stalemate it came to be largely overlooked. Most students of American history view it as little more than a punctuation mark between the period of the early republic and the Age of Jacksonian Democracy. Taylor artfully resurrects the war, positions it properly in its milieu and reveals why the outcome was in fact quite significant for the future of both Canada and the United States, as well as to a lesser extent Great Britain herself.
The Civil War of 1812 opens in the period that follows the American Revolution, with the British occupying the vast territory of Canada that was a consequence of their victory in the earlier French & Indian War, and bitterly licking their wounds as a result of their loss of the upstart British colonies in North America that were now the United States of America. Ironically, it was the victory over the French in the earlier conflict that ended in 1763 that led to the unraveling of the relationship between Britain and the American colonies as the British sought to get the Americans to pay a fair share for a costly war that benefited both of them. Now, south of the Canadian border was a new nation of former colonies largely hostile to the mother country. The bad feeling was exacerbated by the fact that large numbers of “Tory” Loyalists had fled to Canada when the war went against their interests. These settled largely in the western portion of British Canada known as “Upper Canada,” an administrative division that separated this geography from the former French portion to the east then known as “Lower Canada.” Moreover, economic instability in the new republic following the Revolution brought more Americans – known as “Late Loyalists” – to settle in “Upper Canada,” attracted by handsome financial incentives but deprived of the kind of participatory democracy they had been accustomed to in the United States. There were those among the British who imagined somehow regaining the lost American colonies and sought to position Canada as both a bulwark against the former rebels as well as a staging ground for a war of re-conquest.
One of the few things most Americans know about the war from grade school is that its chief causes included British interference with merchant shipping as well as the seizing and “impressment” of American seamen. We learn from Taylor that while such provocations indeed occurred, it was in the context of a wider war for its very national survival that pitted England (and much of Europe) against Napoleon, in circumstances perhaps not so dissimilar to its twentieth century stand against Hitler. Thus, Britain had little sympathy for its arrogant former colonists in the grand scheme of things when it came to neutral shipping and even the extraordinary “recruiting” methods employed to man its navy against the French menace.
What was never emphasized in school is that much of the action of the war was an attempt by the fledgling United States to conquer and annex Canada in a series of disastrous military campaigns frequently commanded by incompetent martinets who happened to hold to the right brand of politics, leading poorly trained Americans who resisted the authority of their officers and often fled in abject terror from the potential ravages of Native Americans tribes allied with a better trained and far more disciplined professional British army. The exception on the American side was the young General Winfield Scott in the days before his heroic reputation was established, who brings order and discipline to green volunteers whether they like it or not. Alas, as the Americans learned, one great army officer is not enough. Many on the British side were convinced that the “experiment” of an American Republic would be short-lived, and that soon the British would rule again south and north of the Canadian border. As it was, the antagonists shared far more commonality than either could have imagined.
The beauty of The Civil War of 1812 – the book’s title is delightfully both emblematic and metaphorical – is that unlike most accounts of this mostly obscure conflict it does not dwell on the military engagements but rather focuses upon the socio-economic-political dimensions of the war that are so critical to an informed analysis of the conflict and its aftermath. The majority Jeffersonian Republicans, now led by President James Madison, had in the past decade largely dismantled the army and navy, as well as the Hamiltonian central banking system. Thus, they used outrage to provoke a war they were entirely unprepared for militarily or financially. The new United States was hardly old enough to have developed a national identity. Nor had much of an identity evolved for the British Canadians on the other side, many of whom had fled from America. In fact, it turns out that those who lived in proximity on both sides of the long border had much more in common with each other than with the larger identity of their respective opposing nations, which bred an ambivalence over the outcome, at least at the start, for people who most wanted to resume the ordinary trade and relations that had been the status quo ante. Much of that ambivalence, however, was crushed by the depredations visited on both civilian populations by a combination of overzealous officers and rapacious troops, British and American alike. That was one “civil war.” Another less conspicuous one was the tension between the governing class of British in Canada and the former American citizens they at once dominated and largely mistrusted. Still another was between the ever-oppressed Irish, who hated the British yet fought on both sides and often found camaraderie with each other, whether garbed in a red or a blue uniform.
All combatants spoke the same language – except for the Native Americans allied with one side or the other who saw traditional tribal loyalties jeopardized in yet another kind of mini civil war. The British, stretched thin upon an immense long border, relied upon Native American allies, but habitually found themselves unable to control the Indians, which raised issues with the rules of “civilized warfare,” at least as defined by Europeans. Many of these tribes had rules of war that permitted the torture and execution of prisoners, and sometimes women and children, as well. Hence the sometimes hyperbolic fears that drove American troops to sheer terror and retreat at even a hint that Indians might be a component of enemy forces.
Perhaps the most fascinating example of civil war revealed here was the surprising one conducted within the fragile developing American political system. As the war broke out, the largely out-of-power Federalists held the moral high ground over the Republicans, who not only put the nation in jeopardy through its reckless bellicosity against a far stronger enemy, but did so after dismantling the military and the banking system put in place by Federalist founders. Moreover, the rough politics of the 1790s that saw Republicans generally favoring the French and the Federalists favoring the British still generally defined the nascent political parties, but with Britain at war with a France led by Napoleon there was indeed much more at stake both at home and abroad. Unfortunately, this moral high ground was soon abdicated as the Federalist forces not only loudly disapproved of the war – as was their right in a democratic system of government – but actively sought to assist the enemy in a series of actions that passed sensitive information on to the British, aided the escape of prisoners, and even actively toyed with the idea of the secession of New England states and a separate peace. Thus, the Federalists strayed radically from the cherished role of loyal opposition to that of aiders-and-abettors of treason.
The war itself ended in an uncomfortable stalemate. Having defeated Napoleon, the British had no heart for continuing a conflict that offered little long-term reward, and retarded trade and economic development. Both sides more or less agreed to walk away with lines drawn as they were before the outbreak of hostilities. The Americans, who lost most battles, achieved no territorial gains and endured the humiliation of the burning of their capital city, spun it as a great victory, which it most certainly was not. Critically, however, as Taylor makes clear, the war had extremely important after effects that are perhaps only clear in retrospect. First of all, the British accepted the United States as a separate nation in a way that it had never done before, and abandoned dreams of reconquering the lost colonies. Likewise, Americans gave up the notion of annexing Canada and accepted it as its northern neighbor. Finally, and perhaps of the greatest significance for students of American history, the war doomed the Federalist Party, which had shown itself to be composed of “fifth columnists.” That left the United States as a one-party nation for the time, which would have certain underlying repercussions as sectional tensions later developed and there were no longer James Marshall Federalists — who championed a strong central government — in Virginia or elsewhere in the south.
The Civil War of 1812 is not an easy read. There is more than four hundred fifty pages of text to navigate, all of it densely packed with information, plus a hundred pages of notes, great period illustrations and select fine maps. It gets off to a slow start, I felt, and parts of it can be a bit of a slog. Yet, Taylor is an excellent writer and the narrative is quite compelling, especially as it becomes clear how many pieces of the larger mosaic are effectively explored and deftly analyzed. I would recommend this book very highly as an essential read for anyone who seeks a better understanding of a central event in American history that has long been overlooked, as an outstanding scholar unwraps the cobwebs it has long been shrouded in to untangle strands of history that still inform our national identity today.
Note: I have reviewed other works by Alan Taylor here: