Forgot your password?

Home  /  Books  /  Book Reviews  /  The Civil War of 1812:<br> American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies

The Civil War of 1812:
American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies

Support Canada's History in other ways (more)

by Alan Taylor

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2010
634 pp., illus., $40 hardcover

Just ahead of the War of 1812’s bicentennial, Alan Taylor, professor of history at the University of California’s Davis campus, has published a book on a conflict remembered by both sides as a series of setbacks climaxed by a famous victory. Almost no one before Taylor saw it as a characteristically savage civil war.

Not only does Taylor introduce a new image to a familiar topic, he sustains it throughout a daunting six-hundred-page book in which few, if any, of the horrors of war are ignored. Historians eager to contradict his new version of the war will have to contend with twenty-eight pages of bibliography and 110 pages of endnotes.

The conflict, Taylor suggests, reopened a civil war between the British and the Americans, better known as the Revolutionary War of 1775–1783, with the promise that Americans could eliminate the last vestiges of British rule with the enthusiastic aid of Canadians. Instead, the war deeply divided both Americans and Canadians.

Federalists, the more conservative of the two parties that dominated American politics after independence, saw no good reason for the war and a lot of excellent reasons to stop it. Republicans, in contrast, believed war with Britain would be immensely popular with their liberty-loving backers, and that victory would be easy, inevitable, and cheap. They expected that, thanks to the valour of all true Americans, it could be waged by untrained militia instead of by expensive, self-important regular soldiers, and that former Americans, drawn to Canada by nothing more than cheap land and nostalgic delusions, and then denied freedom by arrogant British officials, would welcome and join their rescuers.

Fully engaged in battling Napoleon’s bid to conquer Europe, the British were exasperated by the pro-democratic parroting of the French emperor’s only North American ally. They were expecting defeat in North America, believing the Americans would isolate Upper Canada by chopping the British supply line to the province and striking at Quebec. Instead, pro-war U.S. politicians sent armies westward to starve or die at Detroit or on the Niagara frontier.

Why didn’t the Americans attack the St. Lawrence? The answer, claims Taylor, was a German-American multi-millionaire named David Parish, who had been given a vast parcel of land along the river at Ogdensburg, New York. Parish sold land to hundreds of impoverished settlers and could protect his investment only if Ogdensburg was left in peace.

When Republicans refused to raise taxes to pay for the war they had demanded, U.S. President James Madison needed every dollar Parish could lend his government, and so the region was largely ignored. In a republic, the scornful British might note, political influence easily trumps common sense.

Perhaps the strongest reason for the American declaration of war in 1812, Taylor argues, was British support for the Indian nations struggling to retain the territories known on American maps as Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois, as well as the great prairie lands to the west. Indian support saved the British in Upper Canada — native war cries, Taylor reports, sufficed to terrorize American militia and sent them fleeing to protect their scalps and their sweaty bodies from desecration by brown-skinned “savages.”

While denouncing the British for condoning ruthless atrocities by their native allies, U.S. commanders had no compunction about launching their own Indian auxiliaries against farms, families, and tiny communities north of the border. By 1814, following the self-righteous and uncontrolled savagery of American invaders — including state militias, Kentucky or North Carolina frontiersmen, and native auxiliaries — and of the remnants of Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Willcocks’ renegade Canadian Volunteers, most Canadians had lost any longing to be Americans.

Whoever won the War of 1812, the First Nations certainly lost it. As in the past, British treaty-makers ignored old pledges of undying support. To get a desperately needed peace, American envoys pledged to return Indian lands, but the British knew the promises were unenforceable.

Signed late in 1814, the war-ending Treaty of Ghent would go into effect only after both sides accepted it, and the January 1815 British defeat at New Orleans effaced all the American humiliations in Canada and forced Britain to give up what her soldiers and allies had won. The Civil War was over. Everyone but the First Nations could claim victory.

— Desmond Morton (Read bio)

Desmond Morton is the founding director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada and the author of forty books on Canadian military, political, and social history.


You must be logged in to leave a comment. Log in / Sign up

Support history Right Now! Donate
© Canada's History 2016
Feedback Analytics