‘The Civil War of 1812’ by Alan Taylor
With the annual commemoration of the Battle of Plattsburgh approaching, my attention turns to the War of 1812. This is the war, remember, that almost no one knows about, even though it spawned our national anthem and the emblematic Uncle Sam.
A good way to learn more about the conflict is by reading Alan Taylor’s “The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, and Indian Allies” (Random House, 2010). The author, winner of both a Pulitzer Prize and a prestigious Bancroft Award for American History, tries to make sense of the issues leading to the American declaration of war against Great Britain in July 1812. Then he spends considerable time on the fighting itself and its political ramifications.
He uses the term “civil war” for good reasons. Here was a conflict between two countries who spoke the same language, had citizens who had migrated in both directions across an international border, and featured families with members living on both sides of that border.
Taylor gave a good analysis of the British practice of “impressment,” in which the King’s navy boarded American trading ships and took sailors who had been born in Britain. The English had no consideration for the concept of changing citizenship; someone born in the Empire was
forever beholden to the Crown. To the Americans, in contrast, this was kidnapping.
This was one component of what Taylor calls a “synergy of muliple grievances” leading to desire for war. Not surprisingly, inflammatory political rhetoric revved up feelings as well.
American readiness for war was questionable at best. Early forays around Detroit and on the Niagara peninsula became debacles. An irrational fear of Britain’s Native American allies contributed to American ineffectiveness on the battle field, as did a cadre of poorly trained officers.
Battlegrounds near the American-Canadian border get the most attention, including several germane to northern New York. Plattsburgh and Lake Champlain earn mention, although considerably more time is spent on Sackets Harbor, the Niagara frontier, and the area around Ogdensburg. Thus, the book will resonate with North Country readers.
With the end of hostilities in late 1814, the world largely reverted to its pre-war status.
The Treaty of Ghent didn’t directly address the issues that led to fighting. Borders between the United States and Canada changed little. One might argue the biggest losers were the native peoples. They lost traditional lands north of the Ohio River, and failed to gain the protection they expected in exchange for aiding the British. But the infant United States gained in stature, both internally and in the world view.
The sense of solidarity of the former colonies had grown. No longer did Europe look at our country as a
fledgling democracy inevitably fated to fall apart. It would be decades before Congress adopted Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem. But Uncle Sam’s ascension in the world theater came immediately. The nickname referred to Samuel Wilson, a
meatpacker in Troy who supplied meat to American forces.
This is the way history should be written. Taylor shows how one can be scholarly yet readable. The flow of the story proceeds smoothly. A mix of anecdote and personality description melds easily with passages on military strategy and considerations of diplomacy. Footnotes provide plenty of documentation for those seeking deeper probing.
Anyone wanting a more in-depth analysis of this oft-understood war will benefit from reading this volume.
This review reflects the individual view of the reviewer, not the views of the Adirondack Center for Writing or the Enterprise.