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The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies [Hardcover]

Alan Taylor

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Book Description

12 Oct 2010
In this deeply researched and clearly written book, the Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Alan Taylor tells the riveting story of a war that redefined North America. During the early nineteenth century, Britons and Americans renewed their struggle over the legacy of the American Revolution. Soldiers, immigrants, settlers, and Indians fought in a northern borderland to determine the fate of a continent. Would revolutionary republicanism sweep the British from Canada? Or would the British empire contain, divide, and ruin the shaky American republic?

In a world of double identities, slippery allegiances, and porous boundaries, the leaders of the republic and of the empire struggled to control their own diverse peoples. The border divided Americans—former Loyalists and Patriots—who fought on both sides in the new war, as did native peoples defending their homelands. Serving in both armies, Irish immigrants battled one another, reaping charges of rebellion and treason. And dissident Americans flirted with secession while aiding the British as smugglers and spies.

During the war, both sides struggled to sustain armies in a northern land of immense forests, vast lakes, and stark seasonal swings in the weather. In that environment, many soldiers panicked as they fought their own vivid imaginations, which cast Indians as bloodthirsty savages. After fighting each other to a standstill, the Americans and the British concluded that they could safely share the continent along a border that favored the United States at the expense of Canadians and Indians. Both sides then celebrated victory by forgetting their losses and by betraying the native peoples.

A vivid narrative of an often brutal (and sometimes comic) war that reveals much about the tangled origins of the United States and Canada.

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Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  33 reviews
85 of 89 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars O Canada 26 Oct 2010
By wogan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Alan Taylor has written a well researched and very readable book on the War of 1812. It is a much overlooked war in the teaching of American history; so it was with much anticipation that I opened this volume. Unless you are able to read the editorial reviews, you might not have any idea that this book only covers the war on the Canadian border and frontier. That is the civil war of the title, one between Americans and their Canadian counterparts, not necessarily the British. There are only one or two minor references to the burning of Washington, the Battle of Fort McHenry or the naval battles and what their results were for the American nation. I would have preferred at least some sort of epilogue rather than a complete ignoring of the repercussions of, for example the sinking of the British HMS Guerriere, which was a major victory for a nation with no real navy. The peace talks are well recounted with the exception of leaving out what were some of these major factors in the war. There is some description of the Battle of New Orleans which was really after the fact.

Taylor's turn of phrasing and his writing style is marvelous, it is almost a forgotten art. He does build blocks of understanding, giving the background of social-political feelings pre 1812, explaining the feelings that were remnants of the revolution of 1776. He does well, also in presenting the Canadian view of the barbarous actions of some of the US patriots. International events that always add to the avalanche of wars, the French Revolution and British seizures of merchant ships and impressments of sailors are well described.
Part of the reasons for calling this a civil war were the elements of former Irish citizens fighting and the conflict of Anglican versus Catholic faith. The factor of the absolute terror of Americans of the `savage' Indians also is dealt with and its consequence on warfare.
There are maps and illustrations interspersed in the readings, which is much more helpful than just a section put in a group.

Alan Taylor is successful in proving his postulation that this was a civil war between what had been immigrants to the North American continent finally creating Canadians and Americans. I do wish his title would have been more explanatory that this was not a civil war between former British citizens - and therefore a broader view of the War of 1812; but instead a more focused examination into a part of the War of 1812. It is still a remarkable history of a Canadian/US war.
32 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Surprisingly fresh view of the War of 1812 26 Nov 2010
By S. Rupar - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The Civil War of 1812 is a fresh and fascinating look at a little understood war between the British Empire and the new American republic in the wilderness of North America. The book is not primarily a military history, although the war along the Canadian border is covered in great detail. Readers should be aware that the history of the war in other parts of North America, and at sea, are only very lightly covered. The history is also not restricted to the years of the war (1812-15) but instead covers the entire history of the border region from the end of the American Revolution through 1839.

In the years before the War of 1812, British policy in Canada encouraged American migration to its underpopulated provinces, as Britain actively sought to create an alternate vision of North America that would appeal to residents in what many thought would be a short lived republican expermiment in the United States. Britain offered free land to American settlers of Upper Canada, but offered a more restricted press and more tightly controlled government. When war came, many of the newest settlers actively rebelled against the British government, contrary to later popular Canadian myth. The United States eventually cold-heartedly sacrificed these rebels to their fate.

The United States had many problems including severe internal political divisions between Federalists and Republicans that prevented the republic from fighting an effective war against the British. The author presents lots of evidence of local Federalist betrayal of the war effort and slip shod management by the governing Republicans. It has always been a mystery to me why the United States strategic direction of the war was so flawed - repeatedly, the Americans attacked western Upper Canada and seemed fixated on the Niagara region which was of little strategic value compared to the St. Lawerence River valley. The author shows how political considerations dictated the strategy of the war.

The book includes information on several other internal conflicts in the border region. Britain, Canada and the United States each have both their bright and shameful moments in the tale. Many of these will surprise students of more general histories of this war. Native American policies are discussed at length, as are Irish immigration and the use of Irish soldiers on both sides, impressment, the causes and reaction to desertion by both sides, the treatement of prisoners and how that affected the war, hostages, relationships between civilians and the military, and the struggle over food supplies in the wilderness. The relation of each of these topics to the adoption of military strategies and tactics by both sides are described effectively.

The author makes a convincing case that this war was not the indecisive conflict it is usually portrayed as being. The war firmly established both the British Empire and the United States along firm boundaries along the Great Lakes, and destroyed the northwestern Native American tribes as a political force. It also firmly established republican ideals in both British Canada and the United States, although not in ways originally envisioned by either side.

The author writes in an entertaining style, and the book includes lots of period maps and illustrations. I highly recommend this book.
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Piece of Scholarship 5 Dec 2010
By David M. Dougherty - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This work concentrates on the conflict between the Canadians, British and Indians against the Americans along the Canadian border, specifically the western Canadian or Upper Canadian border, during the War of 1812. It is a valuable addition to the literature on the war, particularly since so many works concentrate on the Battle of New Orleans, the burning of Washington and the British attempt to take Baltimore, and sometimes the Battle of Plattsburgh.

The author takes pains to develop the ethnic divisions between Canadians and Americans, or lack thereof, before and during the war. Surprisingly, the author identifies the immigrants from Ireland all as "Irish", mostly adherents to the "United Irishmen", calling them a "mixture of Protestants and Catholics." In actually, they were almost all Presbyterian Irish, more commonly called Scotch-Irish, of mixed Irish and Scot ancestry. He is correct in his depiction of many settlers having become somewhat disillusioned with the nascent United States government, being forced to pretty much provide for their own security against the Indians with the Whiskey Rebellion fresh in their minds. The group that had emigrated to Upper Canada was up for grabs in respect to their loyalty, but the American forces, particularly through their reliance on militia and with incompetent leadership, squandered their chances to bring Upper Canada into the United States. Of course, there was never any chance of gaining the loyalty of Catholic Lower Canada that was steeped in Civil Law and adherence to a crown.

For the American reader, this conflict takes on a dreary litany of defeats, mistakes, heavy casualties, much suffering, and woeful leadership. Seen from the Canadian side, however, it is not much better. Very fortunately for the US, Great Britain was more interested at the time in defeating Napoleon than in re-acquiring the US as a colony. New England considered secession and from New York eastwards, Americans were unreliable and even seditious.

All the opportunities, attitudes and failures on both sides are brought to light in a masterly account, even if it is not thrilling. The Canadian loyalists considered British rule as necessary to defend their property rights and maintain law and order. The Americans considered the Republican Government of the US as necessary to defend their property rights and maintain law and order. And both sides came from the same ethnic stock -- that of the Scotch-Irish. Both sides were suspicious of their governments and relatively unhappy with their situation. The situation was made for muddle and suffering, particularly on the American side that was essentially unprepared for war on any level, militarily, economically, financially, and politically.

In the end Upper Canada remained as a British Colony (to rebel unsuccessfully twenty years later) and the US remained sovereign. The main losers were the Indians whose power was broken, and who were abandoned by the British and no longer able to maintain their independence facing the pressure of American westward-moving settlers.

The only major discussion the author failed to fully develop, in spite of a yeoman attempt, was why the Scotch-Irish of Upper Canada, many of whom were recent immigrants from the US, ultimately chose mostly to remain loyal to England. This is a very complex question, since only thirty-five years before that same group had been the backbone of the American Continental Army. Some were repelled by American looting and poor treatment, some were skeptical of republicanism, some felt the English would protect them from the Indians, some were willing to trade freedom and voting rights for security. The author makes all these points, but somehow the discourse is unsatisfying. Oh, well, maybe in the next book.

All in all, this is a very fine work, and there is much to learn from its pages.

Highly recommended to all history students.
60 of 81 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Falls short, with a poorly executed concept. 1 Dec 2010
By Historian - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Oh how I tried to like this book. In some ways I do like it--pretty well-written, prose flows, that kind of thing. Taylor also does a good job explaining the causes of the war, which was more than just "impressment."

But the book has 2 major flaws which should have been seen by the editor and the outside readers. 1st--the book is not about thew war of 1812, at least not in theatres other than the Canadian/US border. Everywhere else seems to get short shrift, or totally ignored. For example, nowhere does the battle of Horseshoe Bend appear, and the Creeks get hardly a mention. He simply ignores the Creek War, the Chesapeake Bay campaigns of 1813-1814, etc. It is too narrow. Hickey is still the best overall study, to be sure. So, if you are interested in the Great Lakes region in the conflict, this book would be of interest.

Secondly, this conceptual framework of a "civil war" is weakly presented and supported. It only comes out occasionally, and then only as an afterthought. It is not a bad idea, and should have been teased out with much greater detail and emphasis, but for pages on end, Taylor loses track of this theme--or ignores it totally, as in the case of southern Indians. That is to say, if the main theme was to be about "civil wars" within a war, there's no better example than the divided Creeks in the south, but we hear nothing about that.

Unfort., of late I have had to start putting the following in all reviews: for those who do not agree with me on my review, be advised that you are entitled to your opinions--as am I. Just because you may not see the book in the same light as I do does not mean you are better, I am worse, or give you the right to make ad hominum attacks on me. The maturity level of many history reviewers on amazon.com is very low, particularly among those with little or no training in the field of history. Please act and write maturely, and as if you were face to face with me.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The War of Aggression Against Canada, or what? 22 Dec 2010
By Herbert L Calhoun - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The War of 1812 between the U.S. and Great Britain (forever symbolized in American history by the resistance to British bombardment of Fort McHenry that inspired (and is enshrined in) the "Star Spangled-Banner," has many names - "The forgotten War, "the War of American Aggression, The War against Canada, etc. -- but this book explains why the name "The Civil War of 1812" is perhaps the one most appropriate for it. For as this author tells us, it was a war about what factions - the new revolutionary "Republicans" of the new nation, or the "Loyalists" of the old (who had fled to Canada in the aftermath of the revolution) - would occupy and control the North American continent. It became apparent, in the immediate aftermath of the revolution, that the continent was not big enough for both factions.

The author, an award-winning historian, restricts his talents, which are on full display in this rather prodigious research and analysis, to the peoples on both sides involved in the northern borderland squirmishes. And thus, although it is not a conventional chest-beating patriotic (America right or wrong) kind of history, it is still a fascinating and an interesting slice of the societies occupying the American and Canadian borderlands. In a way that is perhaps more suited for psychological or anthropological analyses, but that is certainly uncommon for history, this author in a very unobtrusive way, gets the reader inside the heads of the competing factions. (What a bonus for book already filled with enough excitement!)

His analysis is a fascinating way to parse history. It seems clear early on that whatever else was his aim, the author, in the end was trying to convey to the reader, the richness of the contrasts in the cultures (ways of thinking and "ways of living") of the societies on either side of the war. Thus another way to characterize his aim is to say that the real "tug-of-war" within this war, was not only metaphysical -- about which philosophy of government -democratic republicanism or the ancient regime - would prevail - but also about what kind of society the new nation would present to the rest of the world. There is both richness and pathos in his accounts on either side of the divide.

The way the author goes about his task keeps the reader maximally engaged, for it is almost as if the story was a novel populated with interesting and unpredictable characters. It does not focus solely on historical narrative of the war per se, nor only on the major events of the war as in classical history, but is divided chapter-wise by the categories of peoples (and their habits), occupying the borderlands, and by salient ideas of major interest to the author. This in the end proves to be a heady mixture and a rich mother lode of slices of history by races, characters, adventurers, charlatans, rogues and scoundrels. Along with the background themes of the war, the book is full of anecdotes, quotes and (did I already say) unusual characters. Altogether they all are befitting the strangeness of the war itself, which ended in a draw of little consequence, and with absolutely nothing being decided. How an Historian can make such an otherwise inconsequential war so interesting is a testament to the author's skills. This is certainly a rich tableau for the reader as well as a rich legacy for other historians. Five stars.
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