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.
“Leaders on both sides expected the border to collapse, sooner or later. Either the United States would collapse, with the British picking up the pieces, or the Americans would sweep into Canada to oust the British from North America.”
I came to see the War of 1812 as a civil war between kindred peoples, recently and incompletely divided by the revolution. To call the War of 1812 a “civil war,” now seems jarring because hindsight distorts our perspective on the past. We now underestimate the uncertainty of the post-revolutionary generation, when the new republic was so precarious and so embattled. We also imagine that the revolution made a clean and lasting break between Americans and Britons as distinct peoples. In fact, the republic and the empire continued to compete for the allegiance of the peoples in North America: native, settler, and immigrant. On both sides of the border, the people thought of the new war as continuing the revolutionary struggle between Loyalists and rebels.
The revolution had divided Americans. While the majority supported an independent republic, a strong minority remained loyal to the union of the empire under the leadership of the king and parliament. When the Patriots won their revolution, many Loyalists became refugees in Canada.
So the revolution created a new boundary between the victors in the United States and the Loyalists in Canada. But that border seemed fluid, weak, and unstable. Leaders on both sides expected the border to collapse, sooner or later. Either the United States would collapse, with the British picking up the pieces, or the Americans would sweep into Canada to oust the British from North America.
Meanwhile, within the republic, bitter partisan politics led the dominant party, the Republicans (of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, not today’s Republicans) to denounce their Federalist opponents as crypto-Loyalists. Some Federalists became so alienated from the national government that, during the war, they covertly helped the British as spies and smugglers. Many more Federalists hoped that defeats would discredit and topple the Republicans from power. In turn, those Republicans believed that the Federalists were conspiring with the British to break up the union. And the leading Federalists in New England did flirt with seeking a separate peace with the British.
The war also embroiled native peoples. In the Great Lakes country, the Indians allied with the British to roll back American expansion. By intimidating and defeating American forces, the native warriors obliged the republic to seek their own Indian allies from the reservations within the United States. The fighting especially divided the Shawnee and the Haudenosaunee nations.
Between 1792 and 1812, about 30,000 Americans left the republic to seek land in Upper Canada. They became known as the “Late Loyalists,” but most were just looking for the cheap land that the British granted to new settlers who would take an oath of allegiance. By 1812, these Americans and their children were most of the inhabitants in Upper Canada (now Ontario).
That fact led American leaders to target Upper Canada for invasion—in the hope that the settlers would welcome and assist the invaders. But the British expected those settlers to defend the colony against any American invasion. When war came, these newcomers faced a tough choice: would they fight for their farms and against their kin and former neighbors in the invading armies?
At the same time, thousands of British emigrants poured into American seaports. Primarily from restive Ireland, the newcomers fled from British rule to seek economic opportunity and political liberty in the republic. Becoming staunch Republicans, the Irish-Americans sought a revenge on the empire. They served in disproportionate numbers in the armies that invaded Upper Canada. Defeats cast scores of Irish-Americans into British prisons, where they had to enlist in the royal forces or face trial as traitors. The British took that hard line because they feared for the loyalty of their own soldiers in Canada—who were mostly from Ireland. By punishing the Irish captured bearing arms for the United States, the British set an example meant to preserve discipline in their own heavily Irish army along the border.
To save the imprisoned Irish-American soldiers, the American government threatened to execute a captured Briton for every American immigrant hanged by the British. In an escalating spiral, most of the prisoners on both sides became hostages for the fate of the Irish-American soldiers threatened with British trial. So this civil war pitted the Irish against the Irish, Americans against other Americans, and native peoples against their own kin.
“This civil war pitted the Irish against the Irish, Americans against other Americans, and native peoples against their own kin.”
The War of 1812 began as a second round of the revolution but it ended as a transition into a new era where the United States and the British had to coexist, however uneasily, along a more sharply defined boundary. Despite later boundary controversies and even cross-border raids by private adventurers, the two nations avoided another war.
Paradoxically, by producing a military stalemate, the War of 1812 reassured both sides that they could survive the presence of the other in a shared continent. Canada and the United States took shape from the bitter experiences of a civil war in a shared borderland.
Alan Taylor is a professor at the University of California at Davis. The Civil War of 1812, featured in his Rorotoko interview, is his sixth book. His William Cooper’s Town won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for American history—in addition to the Bancroft and Beveridge prizes. Of his other books, American Colonies won the 2001 Gold Medal for Non-Fiction from the Commonwealth Club of California, and The Divided Ground won the 2007 Society for Historians of the Early Republic book prize as well as the 2004-7 Society of the Cincinnati triennial book prize. Recipient of numerous teaching awards, Alan Taylor is active in the History Project at UC Davis, which provides curriculum support for K-12 teachers in history and social studies. He is also a contributing editor for The New Republic.