‘The Civil War of 1812’ by Alan Taylor

640 p. 2010

It’s taken me a while to post this review.  I’d borrowed the book while in Melbourne, hoping to finish it before heading over to Canada, where I would hear the author speaking at the Canadian Historical Association conference.  I wasn’t able to finish it in time and, lured by the cheapness of books overseas,   ended up buying my own copy.  It was too heavy to cart around, so after completing it, I sent it home surface mail.  It hasn’t ‘surfaced’ so far, though.

Living on the other side of the globe, I hadn’t realized the challenge to both Canadian and American histories in the title.  But I had taken this book with me into our communal kitchen, where two American fellow-travellers were making breakfast.  “The Civil War of 1812?” he read from the spine of the book, “But the Civil War was in the 1860s”.  Americans tend to ignore the War of 1812 completely (even though they commemorate it every time they sing the Star Spangled Banner), while Canadians tend to see it in terms of a British/American conflict rather than a civil war amongst erstwhile compatriots.

But I think that Alan Taylor , an American historian, has chosen the title of this book very deliberately.  The full title  is “The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels and Indian Allies” , a title so long that it almost obviates the necessity of reading the book.  It is a title that sums up his argument very neatly: that the War of 1812 arose from fundamental disagreements about the world view of kindred people- beween Federalists and Republicans in America; between different definitions of “loyalty” in the states that were to become Canada; amongst Irish immigrants, and between the Aboriginal tribes who aligned themselves on either the Republican or British sides.  It was just as much a civil war as the conflagration some 50 years later.

In many ways, this book is a sequel to his earlier book The Divided Ground, and it shares many of the features of that book.  Chapters are headed with single words e.g. ‘Blood’, ‘Crossings’, ‘Scalps’.  As with his earlier book, his focus is on people, flawed as we all are by incomplete and uncertain views of the future, and acting for the best as they saw it, on the  knowledge they had at the time.  There are more players in this drama than in his earlier book, however, and when I heard him speak at the conference, he mentioned his fear that there were perhaps rather too many.  He was right to be concerned: he skates that thin line  but manages not to cross it.  He is helped in this, as he was in his earlier book, by a well-constructed index.

The book is constructed chronologically, but it is not at all a string of battles, written in that laudatory and sychophantic style that many military histories adopt.  Like John Keegan before him, he focusses on the felt physical experience of battle, embodied in pain, blood, smells and fear.  He also highlights the contingency and uncertainty of a civil war, in particular, where ‘loyalty’ can be so easily framed as ‘partisan’ activity with such brutal vindictiveness afterwards.

His focus in almost entirely on the war on the northern border, with only fleeting attention given to the battle of New Orleans and the burning of the White House- the aspects of the 1812 war that, to the extent that Americans remember it at all, are central to the American narrative.  He points out that the American victory at New Orleans was not a turning point at all, but that the the negotiations for ending the war had been set in train prior to this.

Next year will be the bicentenary of the war, and I’m sure that this book has been published with an eye to this market.  It should do well, especially with the paperback version due out later in the year.  It is immensely readable, even for a southern-hemisphere reader with limited knowledge. It mounts a challenge to the American hubris that discounts the war of 1812 as just a skirmish and the accompanying narrative that presents the Revolution as an all-powerful and irresistible phenomenon from the start.  In Taylor’s hands, the contingency and unpredictability is returned to the past- something that we do well to recognize.

You can hear a podcast interview between the author and Lewis Lapham here.

Rating: 9/10

Reason read: Because there was a roundtable with the author at the Canadian Historical Association conference, and because it predates my work on Upper Canada in the 1820s.

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2 responses to “‘The Civil War of 1812’ by Alan Taylor

  1. Didn’t the White House get its name after the War during which the British burnt the house (1814), and to cover the scorch marks they painted it white? It seems to me that Americans consider their revolution in an odd way, as if the founding fathers were modern Americans, and America had an autochthonous origin. I think the Revolution can be re-read as a British civil war and separation-the Revolution-was the outcome. It was a close run thing, and only 140 odd years after the first British civil war that led to the Commonwealth, commencing Sunday 23rd July 1637 in Edinburgh Scotland.
    Does the author say what happened to the loyalists? I believe many fled to Canada.

  2. I’m not sure if that’s why it’s called the White House, but certainly it was burnt during this war. Like you, I’m conscious of 20th century extrapolations and re-shapings of the founding fathers over topics and scenarios that they could not even imagine. Certainly, many of the loyalists did go to Upper Canada after the war, just as they did after the Revolution. But it was anxieties about just how “loyal” these refugees were that led to measures like the Aliens Bill in Canada for decades afterwards.

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