Military Subjects:  War of 1812


 

The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 5: December 2006

Reviews: Books, Film, Collectables and Ephemera

BOOK REVIEW

Collins, Gilbert. Guidebook to the Historic Sites of the War of 1812. Second Edition, Revised & Updated. Toronto: The Dundurn Group, 2006. 389 pages, illustrated, bibliography, index. ISBN# 10:1-55002-626-7 and 13:978-1-55002-626-9. Softcover. C$24.99 (Canadian), £12.99 (Sterling).

Review by Major (Retd) W.E. (Gary) Campbell, CD

When asked to review this book, I really didn’t know what to expect.  Not having seen the first edition, I had anticipated a slim book that perhaps concentrated on the main battles along the Niagara Frontier, the St. Lawrence River and the Detroit area.  I must say that I was very positively impressed when the book arrived in the mail.  Frequently, the phrase “comprehensive guide” is used somewhat euphemistically but, in this case, it is an accurate description.  While I haven’t checked the count, the narrative on the back cover states that the book “covers more than 400 historic sites of the War of 1812, both well-known and obscure, in both Canada and the United States”.  I am inclined to agree as the breath and scope of the book is amazing.

The author, Gilbert Collins, is an amateur historian who has spent much of the past thirty-plus years developing his interest in the War of 1812 sites.  He has traveled widely through Canada and the United States to visit many of the sites listed in his book.  While on his early travels, the need for a detailed guidebook became clear to him and, as no one else appeared to be writing one, he took it upon himself to be the author.  The first edition of the guidebook was published in 1998 and updated earlier this year, in 2006.  His dedication to his hobby is admirable as any revenues from book sales are not likely to offset the costs of his travels.  Collins lives in Ottawa, Ontario and is preparing his next book, which will be a guide to the historic sites of the French and Indian War, also known as the Seven Years War.

Collins has divided the book into twenty-nine chapters based on geographic areas that range from Ghent in Belgium to Fort Astoria, Oregon in the western United States.  The fortunes of war have dictated that the bulk of the entries pertain to where the main activities of the war took place.  The Niagara Frontier has six chapters dedicated to it and the coverage is quite extensive.  I am more impressed with the information that is provided about the lesser-known areas.  In two chapters, Collins has provided good treatment of the sites in South-western Ontario, which tend to be overlooked as they were on the periphery of the main events of the war.  Yet, the skirmishes that took place in this “no man’s land” are worthy of note as they highlight the civil war aspects of the conflict.  The listings of the sites in the old Northwest around the tip of Lake Michigan and in Western Ohio are equally interesting.  Based on comments received on the first edition of the book, he has also included sites in the American south that, while not strictly part of the War of 1812, did involve notable figures of the war.  Collins had also managed to identify and include some of the sites along the Atlantic coast that were the scenes of British sea borne raids.  These were in addition to the better-known activities of Rear Admiral Cockburn and Major General Ross during their raid into the Chesapeake Bay area in August and September of 1814.

The arrangement of the book is very informative and easy to use.  Each chapter begins with a map of the area under discussion.  The locations of the various sites are shown and keyed to a symbol that indicates what is to be found there, such as a museum, cairn, historical marker or some sort of structure.  While the book is not intended to be a history of the War of 1812, each site has an accompanying description of varying length, which does give a thumbnail sketch of its history and its significance.  For more extensive sites, such a Queenston Heights, Collins provides a step-by-step description of the events, in this case based on the Parks Canada walking tour.  Collins adds extra impact to the guide by juxtaposing illustrations from Benson Lossing’s, The Pictorial Field Book of the War of 1812, and current photographs of sites.  It is interesting to see just how much the sites have changed, or not changed, since Lossing’s visits prior to publishing his book in 1869.  Collins also provides narrative comments about changes to the sites, some of which have been saved from destruction while others have apparently recently perished such as the Lundy House. 

While I am greatly impressed with this guidebook, there are areas for improvement.  Some are minor and involve only updating entries.  For example, a group of volunteers from the Barrie area are working on developing and interpreting the Willow Creek Depot site and this should be acknowledged.  The coverage of the Castine Expedition focuses on the sites in the area around the town of Castine, Maine and doesn’t follow the expedition up the Penobscot River to Hampton and Bangor.[1]  The greatest shortcoming is in the coverage of the Maritime Provinces where a hit-or-miss approach appears to have been used.  For example, the waterfalls at Grand Falls are mentioned but the British post, Fort Carleton, is not.  In Fredericton, Collins refers to a plaque to the 104th Regiment of Foot but the historic garrison district surrounding it is not described.  Similarly in St. Andrews, only one of the three blockhouses that were built during the war is mentioned and Fort Tipperary on the high ground dominating the town is overlooked.  Of the many War of 1812 sites in Saint John, only the Carleton Martello Tower, which was completed after the end of the war, is listed.  A quick count indicates that there are at least another twenty-two sites that could be included in New Brunswick.[2]  Similarly, many of the blockhouses that were erected in Nova Scotia are omitted.  This is surprising as Richard J. Young’s Blockhouses in Canada, 1749-1841: A Comparative Report and Catalogue, which lists them, is included as one of the references.  Granted, many of these sites no longer exist or are not marked but the guide provides for the inclusion of unmarked sites and, in order to be truly comprehensive, these should be included. 

These suggestions of areas for improvement are not meant to detract from the overall value of this book.  This is an excellent guidebook and reference for the majority of the sites of the War of 1812.  I only wish that I had had a copy of this guide many years ago when I unsuccessfully searched for the site of the Battle of Chateauguay!  However, there are areas where the coverage is weak.  This means that Mr. Collins should be considering a Third Edition that will expand his extensive coverage of the sites even more.  All in all, this is a “must have” book for anyone who is interested in the War of 1812!

Notes:

[1] Boileau, John. Half-Hearted Enemies: Nova Scotia, New England and the War of 1812. Halifax: Formac Publishing Company, 2005. pp. 151 – 160.

[2] These can be found in Sarty, Roger and Doug Knight Saint John Fortifications, 1630 – 1956. NBMHS No. 1. Fredericton, N.B.: Goose Lane Editions, 2003 and Campbell, Gary. The Road to Canada: The Grand Communication Route from Saint John to Quebec. NBMHS No. 5. Fredericton, N.B.: Goose Lane Editions, 2005. 

 

 



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