Military Subjects:  War of 1812


The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 7: September 2007


The Top 25 Books on the War of 1812

By Donald R. Hickey


Editor’s Note: Selecting the best titles in any subject area is a difficult undertaking, subject to many factors, including on the one hand, personal bias (no matter how hard we fight that), and all the good things that academic training provide on the other. Through consultation with a many historians and writers from around the world and from his own analysis of the merits of each work, American historian Donald R. Hickey has compiled the following list of the top 25 studies of the War of 1812. Readers of this magazine will undoubtedly find they agree with some choices and less so with others. They may also ask why other titles were not included.

With that in mind, we ask that readers having comments or suggestions on this list to please forward them to the Editor, who will include them in future issues of the War of 1812 Magazine. Thank-you.


The War of 1812 may be a forgotten conflict, but the literature on it is prodigious.  John Fredriksen’s book-length bibliography, Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights: A Bibliography of the War of 1812 (1985), lists over 5,000 titles.  Fredriksen missed some sources, and many more have appeared since his work was published more than twenty years ago.  Moreover, with the bicentennial on the horizon, we can expect a flood of new books.  Most will be by popular writers or by scholars poaching outside their field of expertise, and thus any influence they have will probably be ephemeral.  But serious students of the war will also be busy, re-examining old issues and investigating new, so that our understanding of the conflict will be deeper and our appreciation of it enriched.       Anyone trying to prepare for the bicentennial by reading all the books and articles currently available would find it difficult, if not impossible, to absorb the wealth of information in existing titles while keeping pace with new releases.  For most of us, it is simply not feasible to master the entire body of this literature.

Although we may not be able to read everything, we can certainly read some of the best works, and I would like to identify those studies here.  These are the books that I would recommend to anyone new to the field, the books that I would start with if I were building an 1812 library from scratch. My selections are necessarily arbitrary.  To get the list down to a reasonable size and achieve a measure of balance in their scope and coverage, I had to exclude many good books.  Doubtless other students of the war would compile a different list, and mine would probably change over time.  I have selected five books on the causes of the war and twenty-one on the war itself.  Since one work is listed in both categories, I have twenty-five titles in all.  These works are all readily available, either as originally printed or in later editions, and thus each can be purchased from a bookstore or an Internet book dealer, borrowed from a library, or secured through interlibrary loan. 

The Top Books on the Causes of the War

1.  Henry Adams, History of the United States [during the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison] (9 vols., 1889-91).  Henry Adams’s magisterial study of the Age of Jefferson (1801-17) is a good place to start on the causes of the war.  The grandson of one president and the great grandson of another, Adams (1838-1918) picked this period because his ancestors were in the background.  This, however, did not prevent him from writing a defense of the family.  Those people who Adams thought agreed with his forebears were treated favorably; most others were not.  Moreover, Adams’s criticism of those he wrote about could be harsh and unfair, mainly because he was ensnared by presentism, that is, a tendency to judge the past by the present.  He could not detach himself from the America he lived in (which was much more powerful than the America he wrote about), and hence he could not understand why the young republic did not respond more forcefully to violations of its neutral rights.  Despite these liabilities, Adams’s work stands above all others in the nineteenth century.  He was arguably America’s first modern historian, the first to use sources from a variety of archives at home and abroad to reconstruct the past.  The four volumes (vols. 3-6) devoted to the causes of the war provide exceptional detail and considerable insight into how the interplay of diplomacy and politics produced the conflict. 

2.  A.L. Burt, The United States, Great Britain, and British North America from the Revolution to the Establishment of Peace after the War of 1812 (1940).  A Canadian who spent most of his career at the University of Minnesota, Alfred L. Burt (1888-1971) wrote extensively about British North America, but his most important and most widely used work is probably his study of the relationship between the U.S., Great Britain, and Canada between 1783 and 1818.  Burt set out to write a history of Canadian-American relations, but since Canada was then British, his work turned into an account of Anglo-American relations as well.  The study details how the two English-speaking nations struggled to define their relationship after the American Revolution, resolved many of their differences in the Jay Treaty of 1794, then drifted into war during the Napoleonic Wars, and finally patched up their differences afterward.  Of special interest are three clear and compelling chapters (11-13) that examine the maritime issues that led to the War of 1812.  Burt’s study is far from the definitive study of Anglo-American relations, nor was it intended as such.  Because of his interest in Canada, Burt ignored certain developments in Anglo-American relations, such as the close cooperation during the Quasi-War (1798-1801) and the evolution of the Orders-in-Council over time.  Even so, his work presents a lucid overview of the issues that led to war, and his conclusions are sensible and fair-minded. 

3.  Reginald Horsman, The Causes of the War of 1812 (1962).  A prolific scholar who has written on race, medical history, the West, and the War of 1812, British transplant Reginald Horsman (1931–  ) taught for many years at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.  His study of the causes of the war is the only monograph devoted exclusively to the subject.  Based on archival work in three countries, Horsman deals with events on both sides of the Atlantic and places Anglo-American problems in their larger transatlantic context.  While properly emphasizing the importance of maritime issues, he gives due consideration to western war aims as well.  No one has improved on Horsman’s concise narrative, and his volume is probably the best single volume on the coming of the war.

4.  Bradford Perkins, Prologue to War: England and the United States, 1805-1812 (1961).  This is the middle volume in a magnificent trilogy on Anglo-American relations between 1795 and 1823 by Bradford Perkins (1925–  ), for many years the U.S. diplomatic historian at the University of Michigan.  Each volume is a significant contribution to scholarship, each is designed to stand on its own, and together they represent one of the great achievements in the writing of American diplomatic history.  The volume on the prewar years is a richly textured analysis based on extensive research on both sides of the Atlantic and presents a particularly good picture of the often-neglected British side of the story.  Perkins has the details on some of the maritime issues wrong, and his analysis of these issues is not as crystal clear as Burt’s, nor is his narrative as tightly woven as Horsman’s.  Nevertheless, he does a fine job of capturing the personalities of the participants and of illuminating the political attitudes, ideological concerns, and economic forces that shaped their decisions.  He is particularly good at penetrating the nuances of the diplomatic exchanges that led to hostilities.  The result is an extraordinary achievement: a close and compelling analysis of the changing relationship between the two English-speaking nations in the run-up to the war. 

5.  Scott Thomas Jackson, “Impressment and Anglo-American Discord, 1787-1818” (Ph.D. dissertation, 1976).  Trained as a diplomatic historian, Scott Jackson (1944– ) earned his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan and then taught briefly at Boston College before returning to his native California to join the business world.  He never returned to academia, nor did he follow up on a contract to publish his dissertation, although bound copies are available through Xerox University Microfilms.  Despite never getting into print, this work is too important to ignore.  Based on a thorough review of British and American sources, Jackson’s study is still the most careful and complete examination of a complex issue that bedeviled Anglo-American relations for a generation and played a central role in bringing on the War of 1812.  No student of the causes of the war can consider his education complete until he reads Jackson’s work.

Not Recommended

Julius W. Pratt, Expansionists of 1812 (1925).  In the early twentieth century several works were published that attributed the War of 1812 to the U.S. desire to annex Canada, either to acquire more farmland for the growing American population or to put an end to British encouragement of defiant Indians in the Old Northwest.  Julius Pratt (1888–1983), a U.S. diplomatic historian at the University of Buffalo, embraced the Indian menace thesis and produced the most ambitious of these works. To his credit, Pratt conceded that there would have been no war without the maritime issues and that his treatment of western war aims dealt with “one set of causes only” (p. 14).  Pratt also provided useful information on territorial expansion and was one of the first scholars to recognize that Manifest Destiny dated back at least to the early national era. 

Despite its virtues, Pratt’s work cannot be recommended as a book on the causes of the war for two reasons.  First, Pratt overstated the American desire to expel the British from North America, claiming that this was  “a factor of primary importance in bringing on the war” (p. 12).  Secondly, Pratt suggested that northerners and southerners in the U.S. had struck a bargain to seize Canada from Great Britain and the Floridas from Spain.  “Thus,” he concluded, “the war began with a double-barrelled scheme of territorial aggrandizement” (p. 13).  Pratt rested his case mainly on two contemporary remarks:  one by congressional War Hawk Felix Grundy of Tennessee in 1811 proposing such a deal and another by anti-war Federalist Senator William Hunter of Rhode Island in 1813 claiming that such a deal had been agreed to (pp. 140, 149).  Pratt’s evidence for this grand bargain is thus very thin indeed.  Although it is certainly true that the desire for Canada played an important role in promoting war sentiment in the West, this region was too sparsely settled to drive the war movement.  In the more populous East, which produced most of the votes for war, contemporary sources show that maritime issues dominated.

The Top Books on the War

1.  Henry Adams, History of the United States [during the administrations of Jefferson and Madison] (9 vols., 1889-91).   Adams’s work is a good source of information not only on the causes of the war but also on the war itself.  Although his military chapters have been printed separately in a single volume, military history was not Adams’s strong suit. Those interested in the war are advised to read vols. 6-9 of the original work in order to get Adams’s domestic and diplomatic history as well.  Adams wrote about the battles and campaigns as if contemporaries were privy to the same information that he was.  This, in turn, prompted him to engage in much second-guessing of soldiers and civilians alike, and some of his assessments are both mean-spirited and unfair.  At New Orleans, he was particularly hard on Andrew Jackson, the man who–not coincidentally–defeated his grandfather for reelection to the presidency in 1828.  Although Adams’s treatment of the war years is far from even-handed or unbiased, he nonetheless crafted a wonderfully coherent and comprehensive narrative of the conflict that is still useful today.

2.  Benson J. Lossing, Jr., The Pictorial Field-Book of the War of 1812 (1868).  A prolific and successful popularizer of American history in the nineteenth century, Benson J. Lossing (1813-1891) produced illustrated travelogues on the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Civil War.  His field book on the War of 1812 is by far his best.  To prepare this work, Lossing did some preliminary research in the 1850s.  He then traveled 10,000 miles to examine archival material, view battlefields and other sites, and talk to veterans and other eyewitnesses of the war. The result of his labors is a unique account of the war illustrated with hundreds of his sketches.  Despite its patriotic tone, Lossing sought to be fair to both sides and was not afraid to censure American leaders.  In the main, however, he accepted what he heard uncritically, and he sought to include in his work just about everything he saw or heard. The work therefore has an antiquarian flavor and presents information in overwhelming detail.  It is, nevertheless, a valuable resource that can still be mined today for useful information found nowhere else. 

3.  John K. Mahon, The War of 1812 (1972).  There are many one-volume studies of the War of 1812 that present the American side of the story, but the one written by John Mahon (1912-2003), a professor of history at the University of Florida, is still probably the most useful.  Mahon’s study is not without errors and some of the author’s judgments may be questioned, but his work outshines others because of the detail it provides on the war’s military history and because it includes some domestic and diplomatic history as well.  Mahon also puts British and Canadian sources to good use to give some idea of the other side of the story.  He therefore offers a reasonably full and balanced account of the war that will satisfy most readers interested in the American perspective. 

4.  J. Mackay Hitsman, The Incredible War of 1812:  A Military History (updated by Donald E. Graves, 1999).  The best Canadian history of the war, first published in 1965, was written by John Mackay Hitsman, (1917-1970), a longtime employee of the Army Historical Section in Canada’s Department of National Defence. “Mac” Hitsman did not examine the war at sea, and his treatment of the war on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts was cursory, but he made up for these shortcomings by providing rich detail on war that was waged on the Canadian-American border.  The original publisher did not want to include Hitsman’s documentation in the printed work, and, regrettably, those notes have been lost to history.  But in 1999 a team of Canadian scholars headed by Donald E. Graves has updated Hitsman’s work.  Graves made some corrections in the text and added a host of new maps and illustrations as well as a detailed bibliography.  His team also provided many explanatory and source notes and developed eight appendices with still more information.  The revised edition therefore offers a great deal of added value over the original and is a must for anyone interested in understanding the war from the British/Canadian perspective. 

5.  J.C.A. Stagg, Mr. Madison’s War: Politics, Diplomacy, and Warfare in the Early American Republic, 1783-1830 (1983).  A transplanted New Zealander who serves as editor of the James Madison Papers at the University of Virginia, John Stagg (1945– ) has written a detailed account of the inner history of the War of 1812 in the U.S.  Discussing both the coming of the war and the war itself, Stagg focuses on the role of the president and his cabinet and analyzes their management of the war effort.  Stagg’s study shows that the war pitted prowar Republicans against not only antiwar Federalists but also other prowar and antiwar Republicans.  The squabbles that Stagg details within the Republican party had a significant–and usually negative–impact on the management of the war effort.  One may quarrel with some of Stagg’s conclusions.  His claim, for example, that Madison coveted Canada to enhance the effectiveness of the restrictive system rests on pretty thin evidence.  Nonetheless, this is a perceptive and penetrating study that is essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the U.S. prosecution of the war.

6.  Robert S. Quimby, The U.S. Army in the War of 1812: An Operational and Command Study (2 vols., 1997).  A professor of history at Michigan State University, Robert Quimby (1916-1998) wrote this two-volume labor of love over twenty-five years and only published it near the end of his life.  Focusing on the U.S. Army during the war, Quimby touches on naval matters only when they affected land operations, such as on the inland lakes or in the Chesapeake Bay.  This is the most detailed history of the land war available, and the author’s judgments on the battles and leaders are generally sound, although he is probably too easy on Brigadier General William Hull at Detroit and too hard on Major General John Keane at New Orleans.  This is not an easy book to read from beginning to end.  It is almost 1,000 pages, Quimby’s writing style is uninspired, and his meaning is occasionally unclear.  This study probably works best as a reference work.  It is a good place to get an overview of the major battles and campaigns, it provides handy thumbnail sketches of the military leaders, and it includes information on minor engagements not found in shorter works.

7.  Allan S. Everest, The War of 1812 in the Champlain Valley (1981).  A professor of history at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, Allan Everest (1913-1997) was a student of the history of Clinton County and northern New York.  His most important work is his underappreciated history of the War of 1812 in the critical Lake Champlain-Richelieu River theater.  This waterway had been a traditional invasion route for the British and French and their Indian allies during the North American Colonial Wars (1689-1763), and it continued to serve this purpose during the American Revolution and the War of 1812.  Everest discusses the major War of 1812 campaigns in this theater–the Wilkinson-Hampton invasion of Lower Canada in 1813 and Sir George Prevost’s invasion of New York the following year–as well as many small operations that are treated nowhere else.  He also presents useful material on spies and Indian relations, disease and army medicine, trade and smuggling, and prisoners of war.  This is in many ways a model regional study that pays handsome dividends to those who read it.

8.  Walter Lord, The Dawn’s Early Light (1972).  A popular writer who produced best sellers on the sinking of the Titanic, the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the Battle of Midway, Walter Lord (1917-2002) also wrote this study on Great Britain’s Chesapeake campaign in 1814.  Although designed for a general audience and not fully documented, Lord’s work was based on considerable research and has stood up well over time.  Focusing on the burning of Washington (the low point for the U.S. during the war) and the defense of Baltimore and the writing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” (one of the high points), Lord had an eye for detail and amassed considerable anecdotal evidence and numerous contemporary quotations to bring his characters and their story to life.  Not everyone will agree with his judgments, but Lord’s lively study is the best-selling and most-widely read book ever written on the War of 1812, and anyone who reads it will understand why. 

9.  Robin Reilly, The British at the Gates: The New Orleans Campaign in the War of 1812 (rev. ed., 2002).  The best study of the most famous battle of the War of 1812 is by British author Robin Reilly (1928– ).  After serving as an officer in the Royal Artillery, Reilly joined the famous pottery company, Josiah Wedgwood and Sons, and ultimately assumed one of its top management positions.  Reilly has produced numerous books on Wedgwood pottery as well as biographies of Major General James Wolfe and Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger.  When first published in 1974, his book on New Orleans sold 200,000 copies and probably rates just behind Lord’s book on the list of 1812 best sellers.  The work was reissued in 2002 with corrections, new maps, and additional illustrations.  Although there are many good books on the Battle of New Orleans, three things set Reilly’s study apart: (1) a first-class analysis of the larger strategic picture; (2) the debunking of so many myths associated with the campaign; and (3) an accurate presentation of both the British and American perspectives.  This study is not without flaws.  Reilly devotes far too much space to how the war originated and the early battles and campaigns, and not everything he says here is reliable. In addition, his documentation is thin, and he relies too heavily on a fake journal attributed to Jean Laffite.  On most other matters related to the campaign, however, his judgment is sound, and his account is the most informative and reliable available. 

10.  Donald E. Graves, Field of Glory: The Battle of Crysler’s Farm, 1813 (1999).  The master of the battlefield narrative, Donald E. Graves is one of Canada’s most accomplished military historians.  Although Graves once wrote military history for the Department of National Defence and still does some government work on contract, since 1996 he has made his living as an independent scholar and heritage consultant.  The author or editor of numerous books, articles, reports, and documents, Graves has done more to illuminate the military history of the War of 1812 than anyone else, and just about anything with his name on it can be read with profit.  This volume, the first (chronologically) of three planned on the war on the Canadian-American frontier, focuses on the battles of Chateauguay and Crysler’s Farm, which grew out of an American campaign against Montreal in 1813 that ended in disaster for the invading forces.  This is a first-class study that presents ample background material; excellent sketches of the leading personalities in the campaign and their fate afterwards; useful information on tactics and weapons as well as geography and terrain; illuminating maps and illustrations; informative tables showing British and American military organization; and unusual information on contemporary slang, popular songs, and military medicine, subjects that are usually ignored in battlefield studies.  Above all, this work presents a clear and compelling account of how the two battles in the campaign unfolded and thus shows Graves at his best.

11.  Donald E. Graves, Where Right and Glory Lead!  The Battle of Lundy’s Lane, 1814 (rev. ed., 1997).    This volume, the second in Graves’s battlefield trilogy, focuses on Lundy’s Lane, the bloody battle fought in 1814 on the Canadian side of the border within earshot of Niagara Falls.  Readers will find many of the same virtues in this work that are found in Field of Glory.  Graves presents an unparalleled analysis of how this confusing and complicated night battle unfolded, and in the process deftly cuts through conflicting contemporary reports, especially on how the British regained their captured artillery at the end of the battle.  The study has biographies of many of the participants, including their fate after the battle.  In addition, by doing some innovative detective work, Graves casts light on the difficult problem of securing accurate casualty figures, although he does not actually present definitive numbers for this battle and seems to be of two minds over whether it was the bloodiest or second bloodiest battle of the war.  Some readers might be confused by Graves’s decision to label the American state troops raised for this campaign as “Volunteers.”  These soldiers were actually volunteer militia who agreed to serve for three to six months and should not be confused with the U.S. Volunteers recruited in 1812 for 12 months of service.  Nevertheless, this study, like Field of Glory, shows that no one is better than Graves at penetrating the fog and friction of war, and both of these volumes are must reading for anyone who wants to understand the military history of the War of 1812. 

12.  William James, A Full and Correct Account of the Chief Naval Occurrences of the Late War between Great Britain and the United States of America (1817).  A pioneering British naval historian, William James (1780?-1827) was arguably the father of modern naval history.  A maritime lawyer in the West Indies, he found himself in the United States when the War of 1812 began.  Miffed by the patriotic puffery of American accounts of the battles at sea, James decided to respond.  After previewing some of his views in the British Naval Chronicle and in a pamphlet printed in 1816, he published a full account of the naval war, on the lakes as well as on the high seas, in 1817.  James showed a good grasp of naval lore and was way ahead of contemporaries in going beyond official sources.  Far more analytical than any other contemporary work on either side of the Atlantic, his study includes data (often presented in tables) that gives his scholarship a modern flavor that is unique among the early naval histories.  In assessing naval battles, James was particularly interested in determining the size of warships (some of which he actually measured) as well as the weight of their broadsides and the number of crewmembers they carried.  This enabled him to better assess the merits of conflicting claims on the relative power of the opposing ships in a naval engagement.  Although James effectively demolished the popular American accounts of his day, his determination to make the Royal Navy look good weakened his work.  “I was the champion of the [British] navy on every occasion,” he conceded.1 He had a tendency to overstate the condition, readiness, and power of U.S. warships while understating that of Royal ships.  He dismissed some American naval victories with laughably weak arguments, and he made some egregious errors in the process.  He claimed, for example, that the U.S. Navy had picked crews that were largely British and that the heavy U.S. frigates were begun as ships-of-the-line and then passed off as conventional frigates to deceive potential enemies.  Despite these weaknesses, James’s seminal work deserves a special place among naval histories.  It is still the best British treatment of the subject, and it remains an invaluable source of information, especially on the British navy.  For James’s more mature opinions, students should also consult volume 6 of his monumental work, The Naval History of Great Britain, from the Declaration of War by France in 1793 to the Accession of George IV [1820] (rev. ed., 6 vols., 1826).2

13.  Theodore Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812 (3rd ed., 1883).  The American counterpart to James’s work is Theodore Roosevelt’s history of the naval war.  Although he led a rich and varied life, Roosevelt (1858-1919) found time to write some 35 books and hundreds of articles.  A landlubber, he mastered the arcane language and ways of the sea so that he could present his own version of how the War of 1812 was waged on the oceans and the lakes.  To a large extent, Roosevelt’s book is a rejoinder to James, although instead of using James’s Naval Occurrences, he chose to respond mainly to the briefer treatment of the war in James’s Naval History.  Roosevelt conceded that James’s Naval History was “by far the most valuable authority on the war” and “ought to be consulted by every student of naval affairs” (p. 41).  Nevertheless, he felt bound to counter what he considered James’s pro-British bias and misrepresentations.  Although only twenty-three, Roosevelt published the first edition of his study in 1882, and by 1883 he had already put out a third edition.  Roosevelt generally showed good judgment in reaching his conclusions, and in the main his work is more reliable and objective than James’s.  But unlike James, he did not have access to unpublished British naval records, and he relied heavily on published official reports.  Moreover, even though he sought to avoid the lure of patriotism, his conclusions were nonetheless skewed by a tendency to understate the size and power of the heavy American frigates and by a lack of information on British warships.  In addition, Roosevelt clearly ran out of gas before finishing his work.  The later chapters lack the precision and detail of the earlier ones.  Despite these weaknesses, Roosevelt’s work remains a valuable, even indispensable, source.  No one since has made the same heroic effort to retell the entire story of the naval war, and thus even though 125 years old, his work remains the standard American treatment of the subject.

14.  Alfred Thayer Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812 (2 vols., 1905).  A career American naval officer and founder of the Naval War College, a historian and evangelist of sea power, Alfred Mahan (1840-1914) believed that navies played a significant, if not decisive, role in history, and for a generation his works influenced strategic thinking in virtually every nation with any interest in naval power.  Mahan disliked being at sea, especially in a modern warship, and he was probably a better historian and propagandist than naval officer.  Although best known for his works on European naval history, he also wrote a two-volume work on the War of 1812.  This study has enjoyed a much smaller audience than a similar work by Mahan’s young friend and fellow navalist, Theodore Roosevelt, but it is every bit as good.  Mahan did considerable research for the project, and the result is an informed treatment of the subject.  Like Roosevelt, Mahan wrote about naval battles and operations, but his real interest was the big picture:  the strategic impact of naval power. Although he included a fine analysis of the “Antecedents of the War” (which covers 282 pages) and a well-crafted concluding chapter on the peace negotiations, the heart of the work is his analysis of how naval power affected the course of the war.  Although Mahan had an agenda–to demonstrate the need for military preparedness generally and particularly for a navy that could compete on the high seas and control the northern lakes–he nonetheless did a good job of telling his story and thinking through the larger strategic issues.  He is one of the best armchair strategists who has commented on the War of 1812, and his insights and observations–on the uses of a navy and its relationship to land operations and on the impact of naval blockades and the role of privateers–are always thoughtful and often persuasive.  Students of the War of 1812 would do well to dust off this classic and learn from one of the masters of strategic thought. 

15.  Robert Malcomson, Lords of the Lake: The Naval War on Lake Ontario, 1812-1814  (1998).  If Donald E. Graves is the leading student of the military history of the war, fellow Canadian Robert Malcomson (1949– ) is the leading student of the war’s naval history, particularly the history of the conflict on the Great Lakes.  Although Malcomson only recently retired as an elementary school teacher, he has been writing serious naval history since 1975, and he has lately branched out, with equal success, into land warfare.  Malcomson shows a good grasp of just about every dimension of naval warfare, and any of his many books or articles on the subject is worth reading.  His best book deals with the inconclusive but important history of the War of 1812 on Lake Ontario.  Based on extensive research on both sides of the Atlantic, this work presents a fine narrative of the construction and operations of warships on the lake and complements this with short but lucid descriptions of land campaigns that the warships supported on the shores of the lake and along the St. Lawrence River.  Malcomson also keeps the larger picture in mind.  On both the British and the American sides, he is careful to trace decisions down the chain of command from London and Quebec to Kingston and from Washington to Sackets Harbor.  And although Malcomson is clearly adept at handling the technical side of naval warfare, he never lets this information interfere with his narrative.  His book is therefore not only informative but also readable.  The work concludes with a series of valuable tables showing the specifications and strength of the opposing squadrons on Lake Ontario at each stage of the war.  Understanding the contest on Lake Ontario is central to understanding the war on the northern frontier, and Malcomson does a superb job of telling this story. 

16.  Jerome R. Garitee, The Republic’s Private Navy: The American Privateering Business as Practiced by Baltimore during the War of 1812 (1977).  Most accounts of privateering are written by popular historians and focus on the romantic side of the business: battles and captures, chases and escapes, and the wealth and reputation acquired by those who were successful.  Such studies often rely heavily on personal memoirs and newspaper accounts, which are likely to be filled with exaggeration if not outright fabrication.  Although the result might be a good story, it is not always good history.  The work of Jerome Garitee is an exception.  A onetime professor of history at Essex Community College in Baltimore County, Maryland, Garitee (1929– ) refashioned his American University dissertation into this study of privateering in Baltimore during the War of 1812.  More privateers sailed from Baltimore than from any other U.S. port during the war, and yet Garitee has only one or two chapters on cruising. The rest are devoted to the in-port side of the business: identifying the investors (including some artisans and craftsmen); studying the ships and their guns as well as the men recruited to serve on the vessels; examining the adjudication of prizes and the distribution of prize money; and assessing the impact of the business on Baltimore’s economy.  Garitee includes a fair amount of useful statistical information in his text, and his appendices provide additional data.  The result is an illuminating study that sheds considerable light on an important dimension of the war at sea. As a bonus, Garitee traces the history of privateering from its origins in the Middle Ages to its formal demise at the Second Hague Conference in 1907.  If Garitee’s work has a weakness, it is that he appears to claim too much for privateering in shaping the outcome of the war.  In addition, he overstates the population of Baltimore during the war (it was just over 40,000, not 50,000) and thus understates the proportion of people in the city who had a financial interest in privateering (which was closer to 25 percent than 20 percent).  Nevertheless, for any student of the War of 1812 interested in the subject, Garitee’s study is the best place to start.  It is also a fine model for anyone interested in exploring the history of privateering in other cities or in other wars.

17.  Faye Margaret Kert, Prize and Prejudice: Privateering and Naval Prize in Atlantic Canada in the War of 1812 (1997).   Complementing Garitee’s study is Faye Kert’s informative work on Canadian privateering.  A retired Canadian senior civil servant who is both a historian and underwater archeologist, Kert (1948– ) now serves as editor of the Northern Mariner.  Although Kert has some extraneous material in her study on the causes and course of the war, her focus is on privateering.  Drawing on the records of the vice admiralty court in Halifax, she provides an excellent analysis of private armed vessels sailing from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.  She offers an illuminating description of the evolution of British admiralty courts and prize law and shows that Canadian investors in privateering generally preferred small schooners, such as the successful Liverpool Packet, that cruised close to home in New England’s waters.  Kert concludes that the maritime population of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, like that of Baltimore, found privateering to be a useful alternative to risky trade during the war.  Unlike Baltimore, however, which had to contend with the British blockade as well as heavy losses to its privateering fleet, the two maritime provinces in Canada enjoyed “unprecedented prosperity” during the war (p. 157). Like Garitee, Kert includes a great deal of data in her appendices, including lists of every privateer commissioned in the two British provinces and every prize case heard in the Halifax vice admiralty court.  She also provides information on prizes taken by the Royal Navy.

18.  Carl Benn, The Iroquois in the War of 1812 (1998).  Although the role of southern and western Indians in the War of 1812 has received considerable attention, scholars have largely ignored the Iroquois in the East. Canadian Carl Benn (1953– ), who serves as Chief Curator of the City of Toronto’s Museums and Heritage Services and also teaches at the University of Toronto, has remedied this omission with this important study. Benn’s treatment of the Iroquois is both sensitive and sympathetic, and he does a masterful job of fathoming their culture. He first traces the prewar history of the Iroquois, showing how the American Revolution had a devastating impact on the tribes, leaving them with reduced numbers and scattered across New York and Canada. Benn next describes the contributions that the Iroquois made in the War of 1812, especially on the British side, where they were treated as allies rather than as subjects or junior partners.  Benn gives proper attention to the under-appreciated Mohawk leader John Norton and his feud with the corrupt British Indian Agent William Claus.  Of special importance is his chapter on “The Iroquois Way of War,” which illuminates the tactics, weapons, and war culture of the native people.  Benn closes with a fine account of the war’s aftermath, which left the tribes on both sides of the border with little bargaining power in the face of renewed threats to their way of life.  Capping this fine study is an appendix that presents useful data on Iroquois population and combat strength during the war.

19.  Fred L. Engelman, The Peace of Christmas Eve (1962).  Of the half dozen works that treat the diplomatic history of the war, Fred Engelman’s is perhaps the best.  A onetime school teacher who had a long and successful career in marketing and media research, Engelman (1926-2004) found time along the way to write some history and, though not an academic, he even won a coveted Guggenheim grant.  Under the tutelage of the great Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison, Engelman produced this study of the diplomatic history of the war.  Although largely undocumented and designed for a general rather than a scholarly audience, Engelman’s work is reliable as well as readable.  His opening chapter on the background of the war is a little flippant and marred by some errors.  Thereafter, however, he found his stride and presents a good account of the road to Ghent and of the peace negotiations that took place there.  Engelman does a particularly good job of capturing the personalities of the participants as well as their petty quarrels and shifting alliances.  The result is a good story as well as good history. 

20.  David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, eds., Encyclopedia of the War of 1812 (1997).  This encyclopedia by David Heidler (1955– ), who teaches at Colorado State University at Pueblo, and Jeanne Heidler (1956– ), a professor of history at the U.S. Air Force Academy, should be on every 1812 bookshelf.  The work features brief essays, arranged alphabetically, on the principal people, places, and events of the war.  There are twenty pages of maps compiled from other secondary sources at the beginning of the work and a fairly comprehensive bibliography at the end.  The appendices provide a complete roster of the U.S. War Congress and a breakdown of the war vote; a list of all officers who served in the American war cabinet; and excerpts from prewar documents as well as the complete text of the president’s war message and the Treaty of Ghent.  Although this work contains a wealth of information on many aspects of the war, it shows an American bias in the choice of topics since many important British and Canadian subjects are ignored.  In addition, perhaps out of necessity, the Heidlers wrote a disproportionate number of the entries themselves; and when they did call on others, they did not always secure the acknowledged expert on the subject.  Even so, students of the War of 1812 will find this an indispensable reference work, especially for the American side of the story. 

21.  Robert Malcomson, Historical Dictionary of the War of 1812 (2006). Nicely complementing the Heidlers’ encyclopedia is this volume by Canadian Robert Malcomson.  Although single-author encyclopedias are usually ill-advised, Malcomson does about as well as any one scholar can do.  Malcomson’s work has more entries than the Heidlers’, but his treatments are much shorter.  Hence he covers more ground but in less depth.  His treatment of the American side of the story is not as strong as the Heidlers’, but he covers many pertinent British and Canadian topics–people, places, military units, and warships–that the Heidlers ignored.  His work is thus a good place to start for a brief sketch of any aspect of the British or Canadian side of the story.  Malcomson’s greatest strength is naval history, and the entries that deal with this aspect of the war are especially informative and reliable.  Particularly helpful is the information that he provides on each warship: not only its classification and dimensions but also its armaments and crew size at a particular point in the war.  At the end of his study is a brief bibliographical essay followed by a detailed and well-organized bibliography. 

Not Recommended

John R. Elting, Amateurs, To Arms!  A Military History of the War of 1812 (1991).  After a distinguished career in the U.S. Army, John Elting (1911-2000), produced a large number of books on military history, the best of which were on the Napoleonic Wars and American military life.  Late in life Elting turned his attention to the War of 1812.  As a professional military man, Elting showed a fine grasp of military policy and practice, and this is the strength of his book.  But since he relied mainly on secondary sources, he garbled parts of the narrative and showed little grasp of the domestic history of the war.  His book is thus filled with errors and should be used with caution.


What are we to make of this list?  First of all, it is worth noting the publication dates of the books selected.  The presence of older works should suggest that newer is not necessarily better.  Some classics published in the nineteenth century have stood the test of time and are still among the best on the subject.  It is also worth noting that even though we have many good recent books on the war itself, those on the causes of the war are all at least thirty years old.  This reflects the decrepit state of diplomatic history for the period and, conversely, strong interest in the war itself, or at least in its military history.  

Secondly, it is instructive to look at the nationality of the authors.  There are two books by British authors: James and Reilly; eight by Canadian citizens: Burt (although he lived and worked in the U.S.), Hitsman, Graves (two books), Malcomson (two books), Benn, and Kert; and fifteen by native-born or naturalized Americans: Adams, Horsman (who immigrated from England), Perkins, Jackson, Lossing, Mahon, Stagg (who immigrated from New Zealand), Quimby, Everest, Lord, Roosevelt, Mahan, Garitee, Engelman, and the Heidlers. 

These figures should suggest two things.  First, the British quickly forgot this war and have not paid much attention to it since.  And secondly, while a well-heeled academic establishment in the U.S. has produced the largest number of good books, Canadians, with a much smaller population, have outperformed Americans by producing a disproportionate share of the total.  Moreover, in two critically important and often complex  subfields–military and naval history–Canadians are arguably doing the best work.  This may be because the War of 1812 looms much larger in Canadian than in American history.  In any case, it clearly indicates that anyone who wants to understand this conflict must look at books emanating from both sides of the border.

The author would like to thank Connie D. Clark and Kathryn Roberts Morrow for their comments on an earlier draft of the this article.

Don Hickey is a Professor of History at Wayne State College in Nebraska and a member of the Editorial Board of The War of 1812 Magazine.  His own contributions to the literature on the war include The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict (1989) and Don’t Give Up the Ship!  Myths of the War of 1812 (2006).


1. James to Viscount Melville, January 4, 1819, in Holden Furber, ed., “How William James Came to Be a Naval Historian,” American Historical Review 38 (October 1932), 79.

2.  According to Andrew Lambert, the leading authority on James, the 1826 edition was the last version of the Naval History that was pure James, untainted by editors.  Unfortunately, this edition is very rare, and most scholars today have little choice but to use one of the later editions.  See Lambert’s introductory essay, which is spread over all six volumes, in James’s Naval History (1837 ed.; reprint, 2002).

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