- The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies
War of 1812, Canada, U.S.-Canadian border
The narrative framework for histories of the War of 1812 has been pretty well set for the last half century. They start by charting the causes of the war, then chronicle the military and naval campaigns (the heart of the study), and then conclude with the final battles, the Hartford Convention, [End Page 742] and the restoration of peace. The great strength of these works is that they present a clear chronology anchored by the battles and campaigns. The great weakness is that they usually slight domestic or diplomatic events and treat the war as a self-contained event detached from the past and future. This framework, which was forged by military historians, has met with some criticism. At the SHEAR meeting in Buffalo in 2000, John Stagg, the author of a fine study of the domestic history of the war, suggested that we needed to find a way to break the standard campaign mold and offer a new synthesis, one that linked the wartime themes of American unity and expansion to the nation's postwar history. Alan Taylor's new book may be the kind of study that Stagg called for.
Taylor's treatment of the causes and conclusion of the war, as well as the military and naval campaigns, is perfunctory. He focuses instead on the people, soldiers and civilians alike, who were on the frontier between Detroit and Montreal. In keeping with modern conventions, he discounts the importance of the international boundary and treats the region as a contested borderland where individuals interacted and cultures clashed. Because most people living there shared a common language and a similar culture, the border was porous and loyalties flexible. Those who were unhappy with their options on one side of the border could simply relocate to the other side and seek a new life.
Taylor contends that the war was really a multifaceted civil war, one in which "brother fought brother in a borderland of mixed peoples" (7). It was not simply a war that pitted Britain's former colonists south of the border against her current subjects to the north. Most Federalists in the United States opposed the war and were sympathetic to the British, and many "Late Loyalists" (Americans who had moved to Canada after 1792 to take advantage of free land and low taxes) remained loyal to their native land. In addition, large numbers on both sides just wanted to be left alone. Indians were also part of the mix. Most natives sided with the British, and their warfare could be ferocious. Kentuckians, who were a breed apart from other Americans, responded in kind. The Irish played a central role as well. As British subjects, they were impressed into Royal warships and enlisted in the British army. But large numbers also immigrated to the United States and Canada, and many harbored a bitter hatred toward Great Britain.
Taylor argues that few people on either side thought that empire and republic could long coexist on the continent. "Like the revolution," he tells us, "the War of 1812 was a civil war between competing visions of [End Page 743] America: one still loyal to the empire and the other defined by its republican revolution against that empire" (12). The British expected the republic to collapse, while Americans were sure that Canada would become part of the United States. But if some Americans actively sought the annexation of Canada, few British were interested in recolonizing America. John Graves Simcoe, an early governor of Upper Canada, had visions of leading an army into the American heartland, but it is hard to find any other British subject who shared his fantasy. Taylor suggests that the dispatch of a British spy to New England in 1808 constituted a revival of Simcoe's dream, but this is a stretch (130). By contrast, Taylor is certainly right to suggest that...