The Civil War of 1812, By Alan Taylor
Review By ANDREW CAYTON, Wall Street Journal, Oct 9, 2010.
Flanking the quiet disappearance of the turbulent Niagara River into Lake Ontario are restorations of two military posts. Many visitors no doubt find Fort George on the western bank and Fort Niagara on the eastern incongruous intrusions into such a tranquil landscape, but they once bustled with activity. Two centuries ago, the Niagara flowed through bloody ground and was bitterly disputed by Americans and British Canadians eager to dominate the Great Lakes and, by extension, the continent as a whole. In the end, neither side triumphed, and that, as Alan Taylor argues in the richly detailed “The Civil War of 1812,” made all the difference in the history of North America. Link to Wall St. Journal article
Historians generally narrate the War of 1812 from national perspectives as an episode in the history of either the United States or Canada. In both cases, the war is consequential mainly as a manifestation of national pride. The lyrics of “The Star Spangled Banner,” written during the defense of Baltimore, reflect Americans’ commitment to their new republic in the face of dis asters—such as the burning of Wash ington—and crippling disorganization and internal dissension. Canadians honor their successful defiance of imperial schemes to conquer Upper Canada (essentially the province of Ontario) and annex it to the United States. Mr. Taylor instead describes a war of irregular and nasty raids among the residents of a borderland. Like many historians, the author prefers the word borderland to frontier because it connotes a place of instability, a place of conflict among several sources of power.
The United States officially declared war on Great Britain in June 1812 for reasons including harassment of American shipping, ongoing Indian resistance to American expansion, the Royal Navy’s impressment (forced conscription) of thousands of American sailors, and a widespread eagerness to conquer Upper Canada. But for the people living around the Niagara borderland, the War of 1812 was simply a continuation of the American War of Independence (1775-83), the outcome of which they still disputed.
Citizens of the United States, honoring their republic even as they debated how its government should operate, resented the remnants of the British empire on a republican continent. Meanwhile, British officials were equally unwilling to accept the outcome of the Revolutionary War and consciously creating “a counterrevolutionary regime.” The province of Upper Canada, formed in 1791 to organize the English-speaking settlements around the Great Lakes, was to be “free from the social and political pathologies [they] attributed to the United States,” Mr. Taylor says, including “land jobbing, Indian warfare, African slavery, republican electioneering, libelous newspapers, majoritarian intolerance, and mob violence.”
To implement this vision, the British had recruited thousands of refugees from all over the empire. Some were Irish but most were either Loyalists who had abandoned the United States rather than abandon their king or “Late Loyalists” who had migrated after the American victory to take advantage of “paltry taxes and generous land grants.” In a war against the republic, the British also found willing allies among Indian tribes devastated by settlers during and after the revolution.
More than territory was at stake along the Niagara River. So, too, was the question of what constituted a nation. The founders of Upper Canada argued that people were permanently associated with the community into which they were born. A nation was a product of history and tradition, not of choice. The British insisted that the citizens of the United States were as much traitors to their king in 1812 as they had been in 1776. Defying this natal determinism, an American writer asserted that it “is not where a man was born, or who he looks like, but what he thinks, which ought at this day to constitute the difference between an American [citizen] and a British subject.”
“The Civil War of 1812” is easily the most sophisticated book ever written about a conflict that is often either neglected or seriously misunderstood. Mr. Taylor’s discussions of diplomatic and political maneuvering are woven with military set-pieces into a powerful narrative. The story is not a noble one. The behavior of such capable officers as Isaac Brock, the Englishman who captured Detroit in August 1812 only to be killed at Queenston in October, or Winfield Scott, who would later lead the American conquest of Mexico City in 1847, only highlights the incompetence of virtually everyone else. Indeed, Mr. Taylor’s officers and politicians are generally as blundering as they are blind while the “common people” in whose name they claim to act remain indifferent to their high-minded rhetoric, preferring to be left alone to maintain their households and practice their religion. Neither side got what it wanted from the War of 1812. But in its aftermath they learned to accept a stalemate; the division of the continent into two nations was soon commemorated as inevitable and good.
The Civil War of 1812
By Alan Taylor
Alfred A. Knopf, 620 pages, $35
Mr. Taylor won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for “William Cooper’s Town,” and his latest book affirms his gifts for prodigious research and patient narrative. Particularly impressive are the chapters on the treatment of prisoners of war and the ways in which the Americans and the British organized their armies. But readers should know that the title of the book is somewhat misleading. Neither a “conventional” nor “comprehensive” history of the war, the narrative focuses on the region from Montreal to Detroit. Mr. Taylor barely mentions major events elsewhere—including the 1814 Battle of Horseshoe Bend that all but destroyed the Creek Indians and opened Alabama and Mississippi to American settlement—even when they support his overall argument. Similarly, he neglects decisive moments much closer to his borderland, such as the Battles of Lake Erie and Moraviantown, to linger instead over the details of inconclusive encounters and foiled visions of military glory along the Niagara River. The raids tend to run together because they’re so similar, just as the characters tend to merge because they’re all variations on the theme of unscrupulous or naïve men undone by bravado that cannot compensate for lack of skill.
Nevertheless, Mr. Taylor makes it clear that the War of 1812 was a decisive moment in the history of North America; it established that the United States and Canada must be separate nations. Originating in competing visions of a reunited British America, unfolding in bursts of violence among people who mainly spoke the same language and honored the same history, the War of 1812 succeeded only in institutionalizing the constitutional crisis that had originally precipitated the American Revolution. Unable to resolve their differences, Americans and Canadians transformed a momentous civil war into a curious minor conflict that in historical memory scarcely merits serious attention. But readers of “The Civil War of 1812” will know that the Niagara River was once a hotly contested border and that Forts George and Niagara are monuments, not to the success of peace but to the failure of conquest.
—Mr. Cayton teaches history at Miami University of Ohio and is the author, with Fred Anderson,