Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Book Review: "The Civil War of 1812"

It was (and is) my intention to read more than a few War of 1812-related books during the bicentennial of the conflict, and I've started at last, with Alan Taylor's The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies (Knopf, 2010). Taylor's one of my favorite authors, and this book definitely doesn't disappoint.

Let me just point out at the get-go that this book is not a comprehensive history of the War of 1812, nor does it pretend to be. Taylor focuses on the northern borderlands, specifically the region from Montreal in the east to Detroit in the west, where British Upper Canada bordered American territory along Lakes Ontario and Erie. The conflict in other regions is mentioned only in passing.

Taylor lays out his thesis of the conflict as a civil war "between kindred peoples recently and incompletely divided by the revolution" (p. 6) by noting some of the many "overlapping dimensions" involved: the American and Loyalist conflict over Upper Canada, the partisan battle between Republicans and Federalists within the United States, the continued revolutionary aims of Irish Republicans, and the status of American Indian tribes who called the border region home.

In his opening chapter, Taylor explores the origins of Upper Canada, formed in 1791 as a haven for American loyalists and as a base for the eventual reconquest of North America when the United States crumbled (which, of course, wasn't that far-fetched a possibility for a time). The imperial (and imperious) government of Upper Canada lured Americans across the border with cheap land and lower taxes; some 30,000 Americans moved north of the border in the two decades between 1792 and 1812. Much to the eventual chagrin of the Canadian officials, most of these "Late Loyalists" weren't drawn back to the bosom of the Empire for political or philosophical reasons, but for the aforementioned cheap land and lower taxes.

After laying out some of the many grievances which led to the declaration of war in the summer of 1812, which included a potent mixture of maritime and frontier issues unresolved after the Revolution, Taylor turns to the remarkable level of partisan discord between Federalists and Republicans over the conflict; his description of it as a "very political war" (p. 157) is understated to say the least. Taylor's depiction of the extreme partisan bickering, in which Federalists discouraged recruitment efforts and openly attempted to block loans to fund the war effort, makes for fascinating reading, and his portrayal of the American army, filled with incompetant officers who disliked their troops and were (understandably) distrusted by those who served under them, makes it remarkable that they were able to accomplish anything at all.

Much of the book is given over to a narrative of the several years of cross-border raids along the Great Lakes, in which one side or the other gained a brief advantage, only to lose it again not long after. The American goal of quickly conquering Upper Canada proved impossible after their string of defeats and their cross-border raids turned the region's residents against them and as the Madison government refused to publicly announce its intentions for Upper Canada should the United States have conquered the territory (whether it would be incorporated into the republic or if it would be returned to Britain as part of a negotiated peace).

The section of the book I found most amazing was about the decision not to take control of the St. Lawrence River near Ogdensburg, which would have (if successful) choked off the British supply lines to the Great Lakes. Taylor records that this failure was the result of the influence of David Parish, an Ogdensburg land speculator who loaned money to the government to fund the war with the understanding that the St. Lawrence valley be kept out of the front lines so that his lands and businesses would remain undamaged. Just one of astounding decisions made by the Madison government during the course of the war.

I was also very intrigued by and pleased with Taylor's chapters on the treatment of prisoners of war (on both sides), and by his concluding chapter on the ways the War of 1812 has been remembered and the consequences the conflict had on the British perceptions of both the United States and Canada. Even though the conflict ended in stalemate, it served to cement the status of America as a distinct political entity and ended the goal of adding Canada to the republic.

While I often wished for a slightly wider lens, or at least a zoom-in at some other places, overall I very much enjoyed this book, and Taylor's hefty section of notes and sources (almost 150 pages) has already yielded a bunch more books to add to the reading list.

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