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The War of 1812 in the Age of Napoleon (review)

From: The Canadian Historical Review
Volume 91, Number 3, September 2010
pp. 560-561 | 10.1353/can.2010.0011

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Jeremy Black is a professor of history at the University of Exeter and senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute in Philadelphia. He is also author of seventy books, which consider almost as many differing topics.

As almost every historian of the War of 1812 has observed, Black presents the war as a forgotten conflict, lost to the larger events of the Napoleonic Wars. Black seeks to place the conflict within the context of the international situation while not ignoring the domestic American political situation. Indeed The War of 1812 in the Age of Napoleon offers much on these two subjects, while having little to say of the war itself.

The author provides a good overview of American power in the early nineteenth century, which relied on a stronger sense of moral superiority rather than martial capabilities. Black offers several interesting comparisons between the War of 1812 and the American War of Independence, such as the morale boost the rebels gained from their victories in 1775, whereas in 1812 American plans to defeat the British in Canada lay in ruins. Black also compares the British success of driving the Americans from Quebec and gaining a major operating base at New York in 1776 with 1814. This comparison misreads British intentions in 1814, where their goal was not to divide and conquer the United States, but to use offensive operations to eliminate the ability of the Americans to mount attacks against Canada.

While Black is comfortable with discussing British strategic concerns, European diplomacy, and American policies, his appreciation of the War of 1812 is modest. Several well-established myths are repeated and important areas are ignored. There is no exploration of the strategy followed by Sir George Prevost, the captain general and governor of British North America, during the war. Employing traditional historiography, Brock is the hero, as he defended Upper Canada, whereas Prevost was prepared to abandon it. Prevost operated within the strategic context and limitations of British strategy, which limited him to a defensive strategy with few resources. If the Americans attacked in strength, Prevost determined he had to retire on Quebec: if their attacks were piecemeal, which they were in 1812, Upper Canada could be held.

The major threat to Upper Canada in 1812 came not from Detroit or at Queenston Heights but from the establishment of American naval superiority on Lake Ontario; without control of the lakes, land campaigns suffered. The poor performance of the quasi-naval Provincial Marine led Prevost to request it be replaced by the Royal Navy. Again, Black employs traditional historiography to paint Commodore Yeo as both ‘dynamic and effective’ (94), but in North America he proved timid and subject to failure against an opponent he may have underestimated.

With the defeat of Napoleon, Britain sent reinforcements to North America, not with, as the author writes, ‘a focus on the conquest of American territory’ (149), but, as Earl Bathurst’s instructions to Prevost state, to ensure the security of Canada in anticipation of the coming peace talks. The emphasis of this new strategy was not on the American littoral, but Canada, where the majority of the army reinforcements went. They were not distributed throughout Canada as Black states (165), but concentrated at Montreal and Kingston. Operations against coastal America sought to provide a diversion to help Prevost in Canada, who received a large list of things to do: destroy Sackets Harbor, regain control of Lake Erie, gain supremacy on Lake Ontario and the Upper Lakes, and secure the frontier of Lower Canada from attack. Given the lateness of the season, it was possible to attempt only one of these tasks, which led to the Plattsburgh Expedition.

The Plattsburg Expedition is treated superficially and the author blames Prevost for its failure. There is no exploration of the serious problems within British naval affairs whereby Commodore Sir James Lucas Yeo proved less of a naval commander in chief and more of a resource-hoarding squadron commander who undermined the British naval power on Lakes Erie and Champlain; indeed Prevost would later propose a new naval command structure that would seek to overcome this problem. After the naval defeat on Lake Champlain, Prevost knew his flank...



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