Military Subjects:  War of 1812


The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 8: February 2008



Some Additions to Donald Hickey's List of "The Top 25 Books on the War of 1812"

By Donald E. Graves

(Note the article Top 25 Books on the War of 1812 appeared in the War of 1812 Magazine, Issue 7, September 2007)

As the editor noted in his preface to Donald Hickey's article which appeared in Issue 7, selecting "the best titles in any subject area is a difficult undertaking, subject to many factors" and readers of the article "will undoubtedly find they agree with some choices and less so with others." Hickey wisely limited his choices to the books on the War of 1812 "that I would recommend to anyone new to the field, the books that I would start with if I were bringing an 1812 library from scratch." I happen to agree with his choices although, naturally, I would put more weight and praise on some books and less on others but, on the whole, Hickey has done a masterful job of summarizing a complex and prodigious literature and the result is an extremely useful guide.

I do think, however, that there are two serious omissions from the list of the top 25 books on the War of 1812, which might well result in it being re-titled the "Top 27 Books on the War of 1812." The two important titles that Hickey did not include — almost certainly because of modesty —happen to be the two books that he wrote: The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict (1989) and Don't Give up the Ship! Myths of the War of 1812 (2006).

I regard The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict as the single most scholarly account of the origins of this confusing conflict yet to see print. Hickey's strengths are in diplomatic and political history and The War of 1812 demonstrates his thorough mastery of the subject matter. Although his conclusions differ somewhat from those of John Stagg in his book, Mr. Madison's War, particularly over the crucial matter of American war aims, the two works do not compete, rather they complement each other, and used in conjunction, provide full coverage of the higher American politics of the war.

Don't Give up the Ship!, Hickey's most recent title is a very different undertaking. It is an examination of the many myths about the war, most dating from the first half century after it was fought, and Hickey relentlessly destroys those which are false and in doing so provides an fascinating study of the entire process of historical myth-making. The book's subject matter ranges from the last words spoken by Major-General Isaac Brock and Captain James Lawrence of the Chesapeake to the debate over who killed Tecumseh and Major-General Robert Ross. Don't Give up the Ship also includes a succinct summary of the diplomatic and political origins of the war as well as a survey of recent scholarly literature on the conflict. It is a book that should be in the library of anyone interested in the war and on the desk of anyone wishing to write about it.

As the countdown begins to the bicentennial in 2012, there will inevitably be a deluge of publications about the war -- hopefully, many will be good but, inevitably, others will be bad. Authors contemplating writing about the War of 1812 would be well advised to immerse themselves in the 27 titles described in Hickey's article and my additions.

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