Saturday, January 15, 2011

War of 1812

It may be just a trifle ironic that Ontario, a province that prides itself on its British heritage (or used to), was originally settled by Americans. No, not just the original 6,000 Loyalists who found asylum here after the American Revolution, but also an additional 30,000 Americans who came up between 1792 and 1812.

On the eve of the War of 1812, Americans were, in fact, the majority in Upper Canada (Ontario). It was enough to make the British despair of holding the colony, and prepare to cut it loose and withdraw into Lower Canada (Quebec). The American factor also contributed to the quaint U.S. delusion that “liberating” Canada would be a cakewalk.

But does it also make the War of 1812 a civil war? We all know the American Revolution was a civil war between the English-speaking inhabitants of British North America, but now Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Alan Taylor thinks the War of 1812 was too. Personally, I think that’s a bit of a stretch, but his The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies is a truly spellbinding narrative. Unlike other books on the War of 1812, which tend to be military histories, The Civil War of 1812 is about the hearts and minds of the people who planned it, fought it and lived through it. Almost every page brings a revelation.

Taylor, who teaches American and Canadian History at the University of California, Davis, is previous author of The Divided Ground (Indians and settlers on the northern borderland of the American Revolution), Liberty Men and Great Proprietors (the Maine frontier), and the Pulitzer-winning William Cooper’s Town (novelist James Fenimore Cooper’s father and the settlement of Cooperstown, N.Y.).

The influx of Americans was in part due to the fact that Britain’s wars with France since 1793 made British immigration difficult. But it was also a deliberate strategy in an ongoing cold war between Empire and fledgling Republic. Neither side, apparently, believed there was room for two political systems on the continent. Upper Canada’s first lieutenant governor, Colonel John Graves Simcoe, even ran secret agents into the U.S. in fond hopes of destabilizing the place. American settlers were recruited to become British subjects in exchange for free land and a promise to defend the colony in case of U.S. invasion.

So, when war did break out, a soldier in the Glengarry Light Infantry shot an American rifleman, only to find it was his own brother. When General Sir Isaac Brock won his spectacular bluff at Fort Detroit on Aug. 16, 1812, militiamen in his army recognized former acquaintances in the humiliated American garrison, and immediately asked after old friends and neighbours.

One of the bravest units in the U.S. army was the Canadian Volunteers, a group of disaffected Upper Canadians who defected with a disgruntled Irishman, Joseph Willcocks, sometime member of the legislature, who was hounded out of the colony for his efforts to reform the Scots-ridden colonial government.

Most of the American settlers remained loyal to the Crown, alienated by U.S. looting and heartened by British victories. But the British depended on Indian allies in the fight for Upper Canada. Predictably, they were the first thing the Brits forgot about at the subsequent peace settlement, but during the war their deployment fed Americans’ pathological fear and loathing of Indians. Soon Canadians were thought of as terrorists that needed obliterating, not liberating. For us, as our resistance stiffened, so did a nascent anti-Americanism.

We’re probably not used to thinking of Ontario as a place where traitors were hanged, quartered and their heads stuck up on poles; where spies and deserters were shot by firing squad; and where dissidents were kept in line by Indians who enjoyed nothing so much as terrorizing American immigrants who had been lording it over them for years. Towns and farms went up in flames as invading American troops plundered and looted the countryside. We weren’t so nice, either, when our side (British regulars) got even by burning Lewiston, Black Rock and Buffalo.

Taylor covers all the battles, both on the field and in American politics. A blundering Republican administration tried to do war on the cheap out of an ideological belief in small government and even smaller taxes. Remarkably, it was able to spin a failed invasion into a “glorious” war, capped by a last-minute victory at New Orleans on Jan. 8, 1815. On our side, a new-found patriotism severely restricted American immigration and replaced it with British immigration at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. By 1842, settlers of American origin were a minority.

You can only talk about a civil war when the combatants are part of the same body politic. In 1812, Canada and the United States were distinct geopolitical entities. A more fruitful analogy might be India and Pakistan after Partition, or the Dutch and the Flemish after Dutch independence in 1648.

For all that, The Civil War of 1812 is easily the best book I’ve read on the war, a definite must-have for a bicentennial that will soon be upon us.

Hans Werner is a frequent contributor to these pages.


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