Military Subjects:  War of 1812


The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 8: February 2008


Reviews: Books, Film, Collectables and Ephemera


Dianne Graves, In the Midst of Alarms: The Untold Story of Women and the War of 1812 Montreal: Robin Brass Studio Inc, 2007.

Reviewed by Jane Errington, Ph.D.

As US forces advanced into the Niagara Peninsula in the spring of 1813, Mrs Henry and her two daughters fled their small cottage in Newark, Upper Canada to hide in a nearby lighthouse. When they were discovered, the lieutenant in charge of the search party was astonished to find that the women were not particularly intimidated. In a subsequent report, he noted that over the next few months, although the family was not happy to be living under American occupation, the women were determined to take what advantage they could of the situation. They earned “a very handsome income,” (p. 274) he wrote, laundering and mending the linens of American officers now resident in their community. A little more than a year later, the good folk of Eastport, Maine, found themselves in a similar situation. After some difficult adjustments, they too came to accept and indeed, perhaps even relish the presence of British officers and men who moved freely about the community, paid cash for the goods they purchased, and regularly entertained the townspeople at their formal balls and dinners. Other civilians caught up in the conflict now known as the War of 1812 were not so fortunate. Although British forces could be even handed and conduct themselves with decorum and humanity, they could also strike terror  - as they shelled American settlements along the Atlantic Coast in 1813 and 1814, or raided and ransacked villages on the American side of the Niagara River. And for a young Amelia Ryerse and her widowed mother, living in the small community of Dover, Upper Canada, the arrival in the spring of 1814 of an American raiding party was terrifying. And their worst fears were confirmed when they and their neighbours were left homeless as American militiamen burned every building in sight.

These are but a few of the many stories that Dianne Graves presents in her lively account of women’s experiences of the War of 1812. In the Midst of Alarms chronicles the stories of dozens of women who, for various reasons found themselves touched by the North American conflict. As Graves illustrates, women’s experiences of the war differed widely, depending on their class or status, their husband’s or father’s role in the conflict, and the particular circumstances they found themselves in at any given time. The celebrated Laura Secord of Upper Canada and Mrs. Gillett of Lewiston New York for example, were in the midst of the actual fighting and had to confront raiding soldiers and First Nation’s warriors; on the other hand, Dolley Madison, wife of the president of the United States and Lady Katherine Sherbrooke, the first lady of Nova Scotia, watched the war from a distance, and although always anxious, they continued with their rounds of formal entertaining. What Dianne Graves skilfully reminds us is that one cannot understand the War of 1812 (or any war for that matter) by looking only at campaigns and battles. A good deal of this conflict was played out in people’s homes, in village streets, and in local fields. And even when there were “classic” engagements, the participants were all fathers, husbands, brothers and lovers. War in North American between 1812 and 1814 had a direct and in many cases long lasting impact on local civilian populations and women and children were integral, if sometimes hidden participants. Moreover, as these Untold Stories of the war make clear, the ravages of the armed conflict was no respecter of nationality. British, British-American, and US women, men and children were all, in various ways touched by the conflict.

In the Midst of Alarms begins with a skilfully drawn prologue that outlines in broad strokes, the coming of war to North American in 1812. In what is really the first part of this lengthy and engaging study, Graves then explores, in three finely developed chapters, women’s worlds of the early part of the 19th century. As she makes clear, women’s responses to and experiences of the subsequent conflict were intimately tied to their roles as daughters, wives and mothers. Certainly, many women on both sides of the border also worked for wages - as maids, washerwomen and seamstresses; but for the most part, such employment was to supplement family incomes. The next three chapters then consider the place of women in the military world.  Here we meet (among others) Lydia Bacon whose husband Josiah was a lieutenant in the 4th US infantry Regiment and Lady Jean Hunter, wife of Lieutenant General Sir Martin Hunter of the British Army. Their lives, as officer’s wives was markedly different from those of women who accompanied soldier husbands and were “on strength” with either the British or US Army. Naval wives and sweethearts - whether of officers or sailors - usually had to stay home and anxiously waiting for news and the return of their spouses. As Graves’ sensitively sets out in a bridging chapter, “Binding Ties” letters were often the only means that couples had of “Keeping in Touch.” Even the shortest missive, that confirmed that a husband or father was still alive helped to maintain the spirits of those left at home; and letters from wives, mothers and daughters provided soldiers, sailors and officers with an essential emotional touch stone that reminded them of who they were and why they were fighting. 

The second half of the In the Midst of Alarms explores the worlds of women caught in the conflict itself and here the differences of women’s experiences are made painfully evident. In Chapter 8 – “High Society” - we enter the world of Washington, Halifax and other urban centres - as seen through the eyes of the wives and daughters of British and American political leaders. For much of the time, the war was far removed from the round of balls, formal dinners and assemblies. This was in sharp contrast to the situation that those living in what was the northern theatre of the war - along the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River - faced between 1812 and 1814. Women living at Fort Dearborn, Detroit, and in towns and villages along the Niagara frontier were under constant threat from enemy raiding parties and scavenging soldiers. Some suddenly found themselves in the middle of actual battles; or watched helplessly as their homes were destroyed. Civilians living along the northern Atlantic coast were spared much of this, although their sisters to the south were frequently bombarded by British war ships and sometimes occupied by forces that were determined to take revenge for earlier depredations by the opposing army. As Graves explains, there were a number of women who for various reasons could claim, “Boldly I did fight ... although I’m a wench” (p. 326). Despite an exhaustive search, Graves found no real evidence of women who cross dressed and accompanied brothers or fathers or husbands into battle; there were a number of women who served as agents for either the British or American forces; a number of them, and other suspected of aiding the enemy became prisoners of war. And, as in all wars, some women were physically assaulted or raped by members of invading armies, their homes destroyed and often, they were forced to join the thousands of other refugees looking for shelter and safety from the conflict.

What is fascinating is how quickly the depredations that accompanied the conflict were apparently forgotten at the end of the war. In a lovely chapter, “The Blessings of Peace” Graves chronicles the various celebrations throughout North America that accompanied the news that the two sides had finally negotiated a peace agreement. Soon after, letters and then visitors began to move back and forth across the border, as friendships and family connections were renewed. In the Midst of Alarms comes full circle in an epilogue that traces the fortunes of many of the women who inhabit this impressive tome after the war.

In the Midst of Alarms is clearly a labour of love. At the centre of this work is the women themselves - their hopes and dreams and their nightmares. The research that has gone into this study is meticulous and exhaustive and Graves weaves her often disparate, scattered and usually fragmentary sources into a vibrant and colourful tapestry. The volume includes numerous illustrations and their often lengthy explanations (something that other authors and publishers would do well to emulate) add immeasurably to the over all presentation. And the detailed insert discussion about fashion, “What to Wear?” that accompanies the opening chapter, together with the four append iced diary excerpts add a lovely sense of immediacy to what is overall an impressive piece of work.

The strengths of In the Midst of Alarms are many. In addition to wonderful detail and texture that carries the reader along, one of the most significant aspects of this study is that Graves appreciates the extent of the War of 1812. Unlike many more traditional histories of the war, that assume it really only affected those living along the Great Lakes basin, this War of 1812 touched and often scarred residents throughout the eastern half of the continent - from New Orleans, north to the British Maritime colonies, and west to the Ohio. The carefully chosen vignettes also highlight the lives of those who are often forgotten or who left very few written records - ordinary women who just struggled to look after their families.

At the same time, those not already familiar with the actual events of the war might periodically find themselves a little confused. A stronger introduction, which clearly set out how and why the book was organized and some explicit discussion of the big themes would have provided a context within which to appreciate the many stories that follow. It might also have been useful to explain, in broad terms, the complex nature of the conflict - with its small raiding parties, period set piece naval and land battles, the crucial role played by First Nations’ warriors, and that often-ambivalent situation of being a civilian in the midst of a battle. In addition, one does wonder about choosing to characterize British Americans as “Canadians.” This was, after all, a world, in which Canada, as we know it was not even part of colonists’ imagination. At the time, Canadians usually referred to those living in Upper Canada, which obscures the identity of so many of the characters from the Maritime colonies who inhabit these pages. As someone who explores the relationships of women and wars, there were also times when I wished that the author had stepped back a little and provided some general discussion of how the stories here illuminate some of the broader themes of her subject. Other scholars have, for example, highlighted the essential role that women played during armed conflict - as nurses, agents, wives at home maintaining family enterprises, etc. There are also a number of studies that explore how participation in war, in various capacities, affected women’s place in a particular social order. Dianne Graves has chosen to let the stories speak for themselves and leave it up to the reader to make the connections. But some explicit discussion of the various issues that are now engaging those who consider the relationship of women, war and society would have added significantly to what is an otherwise wonderful study.         

In the Midst of Alarms is nonetheless a significant and unique contribution to that growing body of literature on the War of 1812 and on women’s experiences of war generally. It also offers scholars an invaluable resource from which to explore, in greater detail, particular aspects of women's lives in the early part of the 19th century. As, if not more important, Dianne Graves has given readers the opportunity to immerse themselves in women’s worlds during a time when the everyday rhythms of their lives were interrupted and sometimes destroyed by armed conflict. In the Midst of Alarms is also a wonderful read - and I highly recommend it.

Jane Errington teaches history at the Royal Military College of Canada and it a member of the Editorial Board for the War of 1812 Magazine.

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