Alan Taylor

 

On his book The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, and Indian Allies

Cover Interview of November 15, 2010

In a nutshell

This book examines the War of 1812 between the American republic, the British empire, and their Indian allies.

Most of the fighting took place in the hotly contested region between Montreal, on the east, and Detroit, to the west.  In that borderland, two Great Lakes—Ontario and Erie—and three connecting rivers—the St. Lawrence, Niagara, and Detroit—served as the porous border between the republic and the empire.  Rather than examine other regions embroiled in the war, this book offers greater depth in time, devoting more attention to the roots of the conflict, during the 1780s and 1790s, and to the post-war consequences during the 1820s and 1830s.

The War of 1812 looms small in American memory: forgotten as insignificant because it apparently ended as a draw that changed no boundary and no policy.  At best, Americans barely recall the war as a handful of patriotic symbols: for inspiring the national anthem; for the victories of the warship dubbed “Old Ironsides”; for the British perfidy in burning the White House and the Capitol; and for the pay-back taken by Andrew Jackson’s Tennessee riflemen at the Battle of New Orleans.

This selective memory recasts the war as a defense of the United States against British attacks—and screens out the many defeats suffered by American invaders in Canada.  The war means much more to Canadians, who remember what Americans forget, celebrating their victory as a David over the American Goliath, repelled after burning the public buildings of Upper Canada’s capital.  And Canadians cultivate their own patriotic icons, particularly the martyr Isaac Brock and the plucky Laura Secord, their equivalent of Paul Revere.

Rather than recycle patriotic myths from either side of the border, The Civil War of 1812 explores the lives of ordinary civilians and soldiers caught up in a war that burned homes and displaced people as refugees.  On both sides of the border civilians faced hard decisions when confronted by the demands for support by rival armies. Brothers and neighbors fought in a borderland of mixed peoples who had intermarried.  I argue that this was a civil war within North America.