The Civil War of 1812

The War of 1812 isan uncertain affair in American memory and legend.  Its touchstones—the composition of “The Star-SpangledBanner” and the burning of Washington—tend to overshadow the roots andconsequences of the three-year conflict.Historian Alan Taylor offers a corrective in The Civil War of 1812, arguing that the United States used the war to consolidate its victory in the American Revolution and become a fully sovereignnation.

Scholars frequentlyportray the war as a draw between Britainand the United States;each side of course thinks that it won. But to Taylor,bragging rights are less interesting than ethnicity and allegiance: the war wasa pastiche of loyalties and rivalries between Americans, Canadians, Irish,American Indians, slaves, and Britons. In a bold rhetorical move, Taylor recastsa frequently overlooked conflict not merely as pivotal to the development ofthe United States,but as a “civil war” for the North American continent.

The war’s maincause was British disruption of American maritime commerce. The British Navy seized (or “impressed”)sailors on American-flagged ships, claiming them for service in His Majesty’sgreat campaign against Napoleon. Britain defined its subjects by the location oftheir birth—even those who, like many Irish, had become naturalized U.S.citizens.  To the American government,divided politically and still unsure of itself, this act of contemptuouspresumption was not merely emasculating, it was reactionary:

By seizing supposedsubjects from merchant ships, the royal Navy threatened to reduce Americansailors and commerce to a quasi-colonial status, for every British impressmentswas an act of counterrevolution. Byresisting impressments and declaring war, the Americans defended theirrevolution. 

If only theAmericans had had the chops to do so! Taylor’s book chroniclesa blundering military ineptitude that will color the patriotic reader’scheek. For the first half of the war,the United States lackedable military leaders and foolishly tried to invade and seize Canada, Britain’s foothold on thecontinent. (Taylorlimits his focus to that theater, skimming over well-chronicled battles in New Orleans and Baltimore.) Whereas the British were battle-hardenedveterans of the Napoleonic wars, the Americans were weekend warriors moreinterested in cutting taxes than raising an army. Also, they were terrified of Indians, withwhom the British cunningly allied. Taylor vividly recreatesthe dread that Indian warriors, with their scalp-taking, corpse-mutilating, and “appalling war whoop”, inspired in the trembling American regular andmilitiaman. When no Indians were handy,the British impersonated them: “we yelled like Indians.  I tell you those simple fellows did run.”  Not only did the Americans fail to seize Canada, they lost Detroit.

Taylor argues thatnationality and loyalty were fluid variables that ebbed and flowed likeinitiative trading hands on the battlefield. Irish republicans joined the Americans against their English oppressors,while African Americans offered their own services to the crown, whichrenounced slavery. Many Canadians wereerstwhile American citizens who had gone north in search of cheap land; “[w]eary of both armies, [they] longed for one side to win so that both wouldgo away.”  Native American tribeshelped swing early momentum to the British, but were abandoned at the Treaty ofGhent (1815), which ended hostilities by returning Canadaand Americato their pre-war borders. Whereas the United States failed to expand northwards, itused the war’s end to split the tribes from England and to seize their land inthe west. The war’s greatest Americanhero, future president Andrew Jackson, was a man with an ugly talent forclearing a field of native opponents.

Taylor tells this complexstory with nuance and humor. Readerswill grin at his infrequent but effective use of wry phrases like the U.S.’s beliefthat “French Canadians would welcome a liberation,” and the American officerswho “partied like it was 1799.” A densebook of history requires a little cheek to stay lively, and Taylor is the rare writer who can pull thisoff without becoming a ham.  But is heright that this was a civil war? Yes andno. It is true that the English,American, and Canadian combatants shared a language and looked alike, and forthat reason hated to fight each other. Then again, Taylor’s theses coexist intension: civil war suggests a nation tearing itself apart, yet Taylor portrays the War of 1812 as aprerequisite to full nationhood. As oneBritish spy characterized the decentralized American republic, “Seventeenstaves and no hoop will not make a barrel that will last long.”  Such was the shape of the young country in1812.  By 1815, the coopering wasfinished and the thing stood up on its own. The United Stateswould never again be mistaken for a British colony.