It’s probably hard for any reasonably well-informed American to know less about the War of 1812 than I did when starting an audio-read of Alan Taylor’s 2010 The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies.(Taylor just won his second Pulitzer Prize for history for a new book.) The extent of my knowledge was irritation that the British burned the National Archives, making my genealogical researches more speculative and numerous trips to Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, where I’d visited Fort George (British) and Fort Niagara (American), on the shore of Lake Ontario, and barely separated by the Niagara River. There, I’d heard a bit about Canadian heroes Sir Isaac Brock and Laura Secord. Despite growing up near Detroit, I escaped unscathed by information about the role of that city and the Michigan territory in the war or the legendary naval battles on the Great Lakes.
This book was remarkable in making this conflict so interesting and relevant. Taylor describes it as a “civil war” for several reasons. For one, Irish immigrants fought on both sides and the British claimed these former nationals as their own; for another, the uncertain allegiances of the northern New Englanders and Canadians alike, with allegiances to the new nation not as firmly fixed as we might think and much trade and movement across the weak border. Within the United States, Federalists (leaning toward Britain) and Republicans (anti-British) were at odds throughout, maneuvering against each other, thwarting efforts to recruit and equip an adequate army. Militarily, both sides made disastrous tactical mistakes and miscalculations. For example, the Americans thought the Canadians would welcome being “freed” from the oppressor Britain, but for the ordinary citizen of Upper Canada, the side to choose was the one most likely to end the war soonest.
Especially intriguing was Britain’s calculated use of Indians to terrify ill-trained American soldiers, who had such fear of the natives they would flee an impending battle rather than engage. And, while the conflict is often described as “a draw,” in Taylor’s analysis, the losers were the Indians, because the peace did not secure their lands, and the British no longer supported them against American expansion and territorial expropriation. A fascinating read.