Friday, April 8, 2011

Book review - The Civil War of 1812 by Alan Taylor

I finished this book a while ago now, so I hope I make a good fist of recalling the author's main points!

All previous reading on this topic confirmed my belief that of all the pointless wars of history (and most wars are fairly pointless, let's face it; history written by the victors tends to glorify and reinforce the reasons why wars are fought), this one seemed to me to be the ultimate waste of lives and money. No land was conquered, no punitive indemnities were levied. What changed at the end of this war? Nothing!

The author sets out clear arguments that challenges these assumptions. He doesn't dispute the incompetence of the US government, in particular, in waging the war, but instead analyses why the US was driven to war and how it, and Canada, benefited from the results of the war.

While the physical border between the US and Canada had been settled at the conclusion of the American War of Independence, the psychological border between the two nations was not established. . The so-called 'late-loyalist' settlers who'd been enticed across the border in an effort by the British authorities white-ant the new republic, still had extensive family and financial ties to the US, while the self-proclaimed status as protector of the native nations gave the British an extensive claim to influence in areas nominally ruled by the US. While political control over both sides of the border was in theory established, the practicalities were still very fluid and honoured more in the breach than in the observance. This lack of clarity favoured the British and made the US government fearful of a steady erosion of US power and control over the people and territories it claimed. Soon after the revolution it was the policy of the British administration in Canada to do exactly this in order to eventually subsume the upstart nation back into the embrace of empire, but by the time war broke out, Britain had larger fish to fry with its attention almost exclusively focused on Europe.

Central to both nations during this period was the question of allegiance; Britain considered that all people born in Britain or in British dependencies were British subjects, no matter which country they now called home. Of course, the US believed that once a citizen swore allegiance to the flag, that they were from then on an American citizen and all ties of allegiance to their countries of origin were absolved. This disparity was not an issue until Britain was fighting for its life against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, and required all the man-power it could muster for the sinews of its empire, the Royal Navy. Britain crewed its navy by forcible recruitment, or pressing, of sailors from merchant ships, so anyone who looked and sounded British was fair game in the eyes of the Navy. Indemnities signed by the American government were looked upon as not worth the paper they were written on by the Navy, so many Americans were taken from their merchant shipping.

To the Americans, the Indian nations were not independent, but were subject to the US government and were required to be brought to heel to allow westward expansion of European settlement. Britain viewed them as independent allies, mainly as a bulwark against American expansion, which gave rise to the view in America that Britain was behind the frontier war fought between the native nations and the American settlers.

The author counters the common view that the conquest of Canada was a significant pull factor in the slide to war. The perceived view that politicians from the western states were agitating for the conquest of Canada is refuted by the author, as he points out the loudest voices were junior western politicians who didn't have the necessary clout to influence national policy.

All these issues pushed the two nations towards war, but the main push factor was the notorious 'Orders in Council' that restricted neutral trade with occupied Europe by forcing all shipping to dock in a British port to have its cargo searched. France also required all neutral trade to stop trading with Britain as part of its Continental System, but as Britain's Royal Navy was the more active in enforcing its laws, as it dominated the seas, Britain was seen as the greater threat to American trade.

The descriptions of the American incompetence in conducting their war preparations is just as, if not more, breathtaking than usually portrayed in histories of the war. The idea of war on the cheap is always destined for disaster, but coupled with political appointees in crucial command positions culminated in all sorts of cluster-fucks, only to be retrieved by the Battles of Lundy's Lane and Chippewa in 1813, where the only strategic goal was to win a battle to retrieve the army's honour! British successes on the Great Lakes front often owed more to the American militia's terror of the Indians to any British tactical genius, with the appearance of Indian allies on the battlefield often resulting in a pell-mell dash for the rear.

The civil war of the title refers to the 'late loyalist' settlers who were caught in the middle of the war, distrusted by the British as American 5th columnists, and by the Americans for not rising against the British once the Americans crossed the Niagara and Detroit rivers. These settlers really wanted to be left alone by both sides, not wanting to be forced into the Canadian militia, or to join the fight on the American side. It was only after the Americans' penchant for looting put the lie to all the high sounding proclamations about liberating them from the British yoke, did the settlers throw their lot in with the British against the invaders.

The other civil war was between the Irish on both sides. A lot of Irishmen escaped poverty by emigrating, or by joining the British army, so they found themselves facing each other on both sides of the border in the respective armies.

Also, despite the fact that the Indian nations overwhelmingly sided with the British, there was a tribe that threw its lot in with the Americans after being persuaded that the Americans would eventually triumph. They quickly learned that that wasn't going to happen and became somewhat reluctant allies. Still, they fought bravely against the British and the British-allied tribes.

So all around, it was a particularly messy war that degenerated into looting, burning and scalping on both sides, embittering all, but, strangely enough, not the regular soldiers who looked to each other with respect as equals, especially after the hard-fought battles of Chippewa and Lundy's Lane in 1813.

Once peace was signed, the separation of both nations was established firmly, with the British giving up the idea of attracting settlers form the States and instead, encouraging more British settlers, especially Scots and Irish. The Americans also got what they wanted in that the British abandoned their Indian allies and were able to forge ahead with settling the frontier without the running wound of Indian warfare supported tacitly by Britain. This was the hardest pill for some in power in Canada to swallow as they had encouraged the Indians to fight on their side with the promise of preserving the Indians' independence. These, in the author's view, were the greatest outcomes of the War of 1812; the establishment of clear boundaries between the two nations and an equal footing for the sharing of the North American continent.

However, the issues of neutral trading and sailors' rights were quietly swept under the carpet after Napoleon's defeat and the end of the resumption of peace!

Again, another good piece of historical analysis that puts a new angle on a well known tale .

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review. This is a not very know affaire here in Spain.
    Best regards


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