Military Subjects:  War of 1812

 

The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 2: February 2006

 

Reviews: Books, Film, Collectables and Ephemera

BOOK REVIEW

David G. Fitz-Enz. The Final Invasion: Plattsburgh, the War of 1812’s Most Decisive Victory.Cooper Square Press, 2001. 269 pages, illustrated with maps and including seven appendices. $28.95 (US) or $42.95 (Canadian).

Reviewed by: John R. Grodzinski

The Final Invasion

The Final Invasion is a study of the British offensive into northern New York in September 1814, which ended with the American naval victory near Plattsburgh on Lake Champlain and the British land commander's decision to retreat back to Canada shortly after commencing his attack on Plattsburgh. It claims, perhaps rightly, to be first book-length study of this important aspect of the War of 1812, although much of the same ground was covered by Alan S. Everest in The War of 1812 in the Champlain Valley (Syracuse, 1981). The Final Invasion has received several positive reviews and the author, Colonel (Retd.) David Fitz-Enz, has been awarded the Distinguished Writing Award by the Army Historical Foundation for this work. This is his second book, but his first title dealing with military history.

The author's central thesis is that once the British offensive, which had been based on a "secret plan" drawn up in London, failed the Plattsburgh campaign fell into obscurity as “the British kept it confidential for over a century.”  This claim hinges on a secret order received by Lieutenant-General Sir George Prevost in July 1814 outlining British offensive plans in North America for the remainder of 1814. Described in the introduction as “one of the best kept secrets in military and diplomatic history,” Fitz-Enz informs us that he obtained “a rare copy” of the order from a descendant of Sir George Prevost and he claims that the original document went missing sometime after 1922. This is not accurate. A copy of this "secret order" was obtained from the Prevost family in the first decade of the 20th century and has been available in the Colonial Office documents (CO 42, Secretary of State, In Letters, Canada) at the Public Record Office since 1910. It can also be found at the National Archives of Canada (CO 42/146 or CO 43/23) in Ottawa. Furthermore, the full text of the document was printed in the 1965 edition of J. Mackay Hitsman’s The Incredible War of 1812, (re-issued in a revised edition by Robin Brass Studio in 1999). In fact, historians have known about, and used this document for decades; its existence and contents are well known and as a result, Fitz-Enz is not shedding new light on this aspect of the Plattsburgh campaign.

As a result, the author's central thesis therefore stands on rather shaky ground. The Final Invasion lacks a bibliography and contains very few citations and those it does possess reveal a very limited use of the relevant primary and secondary sources for the Plattsburgh campaign. Several key documents and studies are totally ignored. The author consulted the diary (actually the memoir, as much of it was written years after the war) of Sir George Prevost's daughter but he neglected to consult the surviving papers of Major-General Frederick Robinson, one of the British brigade commanders at Plattsburgh, which are found in the Special Collections of The Royal Military College of Canada and include that officer's fascinating journal of the campaign. This is a major omission on Fitz-Enz's part, as this journal contains many relevant and interesting facts on the campaign.

Among the many relevant secondary works that the author could have consulted profitably are Wellington’s Headquarters by S.P.G. Ward, probably the best single study on British army staff organization, the essential Peninsular Preparation by Richard Glover, the best overall analysis of the army for this period, and Hitsman’s Incredible War of 1812, which incorporates that historian's own research into the generalship of Sir George Prevost. As a result of the author ignoring these works, several critical aspects of the structure, and principles of command and control of the British army - and how these evolved over nearly twenty years of continual warfare - are missing or incorrectly interpreted. For example, Prevost was both the governor-general and commander-in-chief of British North America - as such he answered directly, in terms of strategic policy and operational matters, to the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies and not, as the author believes, to the War Office or Horse Guards. His contact with that department was limited to such routine administrative matters such as officer postings and promotions. Lord Bathurst, the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, was primarily responsible for the prosecution of the war in North America, not the Duke of York, the commander-in-chief of the British Army at the War Office. It is (and was) a very confusing command organization but any historian who writes on the British army during the War of 1812 should first master its complexities.

Due to his limited research into that army, the author tends to perpetuate many myths and fails to acknowledge that nearly two decades of conflict had given the British considerable experience and accelerated the promotion of officers by merit, rather than birth or purchase. By 1814 only about 20% of the British officer corps owed their rank to purchase; the remainder had earned it the hard way.

The author appears to have misunderstood the strength and composition of the invading British, and has repeated a myth regarding the participation of “Wellington’s Peninsular veterans” in the campaign. In this case, the author is not alone. The figure often presented of 15,000 British troops employed in the British division at Plattsburgh is based on British military records in the National Archives of Canada. Historians have often overlooked two other important returns dated at Plattsburg and Odelltown in September 1814, which only appear in the Colonial Office records found in the same institution. These documents provide a total strength of approximately 10,000 officers and men but, deducting sick, personnel detached, and those absent for other reasons, the division upon reaching Plattsburg probably numbered no more than 8,200 officers and men. Six of the 14 infantry battalions in Prevost's army came from Wellington's Peninsula army. As two of these battalions and the greater part of two others served on the line of communications, they were not present at Plattsburgh. The author also exaggerates the level of British desertion, at one point implying that it was as high as 1,000 men. This estimation is completely without foundation - the two documents noted above show that, between 6 and 15 September, the army lost 239 deserters, most coming from three units which had never served with Wellington and one being a Swiss mercenary unit, notorious for high rates of desertion. The one brigade composed entirely of Peninsular units did not lose a single man to desertion. Scrupulous scholarship would have avoided the incorrect statements about this matter. This reviewer knows of only two living historians, Donald E. Graves and Alan S. Everest, who have studied these two documents in detail.

There are many minor errors of fact in this book - entirely too many. The Provincial Marine (not Maritime) was part of the Quartermaster General Department and not under the “scrutiny” of the Royal Navy during the first year of the war. It ceased to exist in the spring of 1813 following the arrival of Commodore (not Admiral) Sir James Yeo. The New York militia colonel, Solomon Van Rensselaer, was not killed at Queenston Heights in 1812; he survived the war to publish an interesting memoir in 1836. The appointments held by William Henry Robinson and Frederick Robinson are reversed between the text and the list of British participants in the appendices. William Henry Robinson, was the Commissary General for North America and not a major-general. The British did not participate in the peace negotiations to end the war in Russia, but choose to deal directly with the Americans at Ghent (which was not, in 1814, in Belgium but in The United Kingdom of the Netherlands). The Royal Americans were the 60th and not the 62nd Foot. These could be characterized as minor errors, but the sheer number of such errors in this book is disturbing and this, combined with an apparent lack of editing resulting in technical problems such as proper capitalization (major-general Brock, for example) detract further from the text.

The study of history is basically a dynamic process of accretion. One historian takes a subject so far in terms of research and analysis, and another historian picks up from that point and broadens our knowledge and understanding of that subject with further research and analysis. Unfortunately, the Final Invasion is a backward step in this process because its central thesis is not founded on fact. Its text betrays the author's failure to use key primary sources and relevant secondary sources which has led to fundamental errors regarding this campaign. This glaring weakness is compounded by the many factual errors in the text and the apparent lack of proper editing. As a result, this book cannot be regarded as a scholarly work or as a valuable addition to the literature of the War of 1812 and it is a curious matter why it has earned so many accolades.

Unfortunately, with all this in mind, I cannot recommend the Final Invasion to any serious student of either the War of 1812 or military history. Until a better work on this subject appears, Alan S. Everest’s The War of 1812 in the Champlain Valley remains the best overall study of the 1814 Plattsburgh campaign.

[ War of 1812 Magazine Issue 2 ]



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