A Bancroft and Pulitzer Prize–winning historian’s unconventional and revealing take on one of America’s least understood wars.
The majority of the fighting during the War of 1812 occurred along the indistinct boundary between Loyalist Canada and the breakaway colonies. Paying scant attention to other theaters of the war, New Republic contributing editor Taylor (History/Univ. of California, Davis; The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution, 2006, etc.) chronicles all the signal battles—for the most part a tale of American fecklessness—in this “borderlands rather than national…history.” The geographic frame better serves the author’s overriding aim, elucidating the intense civil nature of the conflict, in which the allegiance of the continent’s peoples remained uncertain. In addition to the maneuvering for control of Upper Canada, Taylor identifies three other dimensions to the civil war: the Irish republican immigrants to America continuing their insurrection within the empire and facing off against their native countrymen who composed the bulk of British troops; the Indian tribes pitted against each other; and the shrill partisanship between Federalists and Republicans, which threatened to dissolve the Union over the war’s aims and conduct. These components of civil strife overlapped and extended to a range of issues including the composition and effectiveness of militias, the high incidence of defection and treason and the treatment of prisoners. The author writes especially well about the Patriot dream of conquering Canada and the Loyalists’ desire to recover America, the transition of American war aims from acquiring territory to merely maintaining military honor, the foul life of the soldier and the controversies over scalping on the frontier and impressment on the high seas. Most Americans reduce the War of 1812 to three episodes: the bombardment of Fort McHenry, the British burning of the White House and Andrew Jackson’s victory at New Orleans. Taylor’s nuanced treatment explains how a war that ended in stalemate still resolved the unfinished business of the Revolution, decisively dividing the continent between republic and empire.
An assiduously researched, brilliantly composed explication of the war’s true nature.