Examining the land battle in the ‘Civil War of 1812’

By Michael Kenney
Globe Correspondent / November 13, 2010

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

‘How uncomfortably like a civil war,’’ remarked a British officer, on meeting several American army officers a year into the War of 1812. On the eve of the war, an Irish-American officer said bluntly that the British were “engaged in the hellish project of creating a civil war,’’ while a New Yorker commented that the hostility between the rival Federalists and Republicans was “little short of a civil war.’’

In “The Civil War of 1812,’’ Alan Tayor suggests that men on all sides of the conflict believed they were engaged in a civil war.

And, as Taylor notes, Americans, whether refugee Loyalists or newly-minted republicans, were in the majority on both sides of the border. But their ideological division “within a cultural and demographic overlap made for a dangerously unstable compound’’ and led inexorably to civil war.

If there is a conventional view of the War of 1812, triggered by the impressment of American seamen into the British navy, and anchored on stirring accounts of the exploits of the frigate Constitution, this is not it.

Taylor’s 1812 is a land war, and his account, taking the reader into the borderlands of upstate New York and Upper Canada (which generally comprised present-day southern Ontario), will go a long way in upending that conventional view.

As Taylor, a historian at the University of California Davis, defines the war, it had these “four overlapping dimensions’’:

Loyalists who had fled to Canada after the Revolution battled republican Americans for control of Upper Canada; Federalists often spied for the British and in New England “flirted with secession’’; Irish who were recruited into the British Army [renewed] “in Canada their rebellion’’; and many Indian tribes “allied with the British to roll back American expansion.’’

A vantage point is the Niagara Frontier. On opposite sides of the Niagara River as it flowed out of Lake Erie, within cannon range of each other, were the American Fort Niagara and the British Fort George.

In December 1813, American forces, unable to hold previously captured Fort George, retreated, burning the town of Newark as they fled. The British took revenge by burning the town of Lewiston after capturing Fort Niagara. At month’s end the British sent their Indian allies burning and pillaging into Black Rock, just north of Buffalo, meanwhile burning four American schooners trapped in the ice.

And there was political fallout, writes Taylor, as “the disasters on the Niagara front became a key issue’’ in the New York legislative elections in the following spring. “In a landslide, the voters endorsed the Republican promise of revenge,’’ with a new military campaign for that summer.

“The Civil War of 1812’’ contains comprehensive accounts of such matters as the political influence of Loyalists who had settled in Canada; the “porous’’ borders that enabled cross-border smuggling and trading; and the hostile relationship of soldiers and civilians—a bitter issue that will recur in the United States’ Civil War a half-century later.

President Madison is a distant presence, and the few familiar figures — General William Henry Harrison, the future president; Tecumseh, the Indian leader who was a British ally; and Commander Oliver Hazard Perry, whose fleet won control of Lake Erie in summer 1813 — appear but briefly.

Even the burning of Washington in August 1814 gets only a mention, as does Andrew Jackson’s anticlimactic victory at New Orleans.

These events, especially the war at sea, can confidently be left for books marking the war’s bicentennial in 2012. But Taylor’s account of a land war that roughly divided people with a common culture and heritage provides a new dimension for an understanding of 1812.

Michael Kenney, a Cambridge- based freelance writer, can be reached at mkenney777@gmail .com.

THE CIVIL WAR OF 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies

By Alan Taylor

Knopf, 620 pp., illustrated, $35