Military Subjects:  War of 1812

 

The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 11: June 2009

 

Reviews: Books, Film, Collectables and Ephemera

Latimer, Jon. Niagara 1814: The Final Invasion. Osprey Campaign No 209. Osprey Publishing, 2009. 96 pages.  ISBN 978-1-84603-439-8. $ 22.95 Cdn

Reviewed by Lt Col K W Kiddie, MA, British Army

 

The Osprey Campaign histories are an attractive series, well known to serious military history buffs and casual interest readers alike. These Campaign Series titles are relatively small books, both being 96 pages. However they are well illustrated, with supporting maps, prints, photos, artists’ impressions, many being full colour illustrations. Of particular use, are the inclusion of “bird’s- eye” view tactical maps, which show various unit’s actions in relation to the ground against an outlined chronology. The end result is normally an easy read, supported by high quality illustrations. There is a “comfort zone” effect, in that the regular reader knows what to expect and knows that they will be broadly satisfied with the final product.

This book was written by Jon Latimer, who was born in Wales and who had an academic and military background. He was well regarded as an up and coming young historian, who had written numerous articles and books including several Osprey titles, mostly dealing with World War 2 topics. He recently began to delve into the war of 1812 and his previous book, 1812: War with America (Harvard University Press, 2007) was shortlisted for the George Washington Book Prize and won a Distinguished Book Award from the Society for Military History. Tragically, Jon Latimer passed away suddenly in January 2009, cutting short what appeared to be a potentially excellent military academic career. The volume is illustrated by Graham Turner who is well known to Osprey readers. The illustrations and maps are of the usual high quality, and some of the selected prints are perhaps little known in Europe.

Not surprisingly, this book is structured along the usual Osprey Campaign format with sections on the origins of the campaign, the rival plans, the commanders, and the opposing armies. The majority of the text is devoted to the detailed descriptions of the battles/siege. The book is concluded with sections on the “Aftermath”, the battlefield today, chronology and the final section being a short bibliography and suggestions for further reading. As stated earlier, these are small books, which really do not have the capacity to go into much depth in the peripheral areas, concentrating as they do on the main campaign story. This does mean that the introductory sections on the background to the campaign will appear a little thin, and whilst detailing the strategic importance of the Niagara Frontier and the Northern Theatre respectively, there is very little room for discussion of the wider war. Whilst this book is designed to stand alone, if it is read in conjunction with other titles from the Osprey Essential Histories,[1] the broader perspective will be obtained.

Again the section on the opposing commanders is somewhat limited, with each significant persona having a short description and picture where available. Whilst this approach is understandable, given the overall size and structure of the volumes, the effects of the leadership (or lack of it) by the commanders in these campaigns is significant.  Short sections on the careers of the American Winfield Scott and the British commander Sir George Prevost, only give the barest details, which is a pity as both of these commanders were rather more complex and under constraints that a couple of sentences cannot explore.

The section that describes the opposing armies gives a reasonable over view of the types of forces at the commander’s disposal. What becomes immediately apparent is the differing make up of the two forces. The British army was based on a solid core of regular British troops, hardy and well trained. They were ably supported by the Canadian militia/fencible units along with significant help from their first nation native allies. The American forces were also based upon a regular core, but at this stage the rapidly expanded US regular force was still largely untested and their associated militia had a slightly less than illustrious reputation, often being officered by political appointees, with limited practical military experience. One aspect which is briefly touched on, is the combined operational nature of the conflict where the opposing naval forces would play a significant role in supporting (or not) their land components. In this section there are some very useful Orders of Battle which tabulate the opposing forces at the battles of Chippewa, Lundy’s Lane, and the Siege of Fort Erie.

The bulk of the volume then sets out the main campaign on the Niagara frontier, with a good description of the action at Chippewa, where the US forces could be described as “coming of age” in that the US regulars performed very well indeed. This action produced the oft quoted line by the British commander, Riall, “Why, these are regulars by God!” and not the expected disorganised rabble. Another very readable description of the Battle of Lundy’s Lane then follows, which describes the intensity of the fighting in that action, especially around the British Artillery in the churchyard. Whilst these battles were really very small by European Napoleonic battle standards, it is clear from the narrative that the intensity was of equal magnitude. Despite the Americans performing well in both actions and generating a changed respect from the British, it is very clear that the US invaders had effectively lost the strategic initiative on the Niagara, which then set the stage for the British siege of Fort Erie.

The siege of Fort Erie is dealt with in two parts, with a section on the Battle of Plattsburg placed interspersed between the two. Whilst I accept that the Battle of Plattsburg did occur at during the described time frame, it is perhaps somewhat stretching geography a bit to include this in the Niagara section. Again whilst I do accept that all actions in war are interrelated, the inclusion of the Plattsburg battle does not fit well with the overall thrust of the book which is the last US invasion of the Niagara frontier. Having said that the descriptions of both the actions at Fort Erie and Plattsburg are very readable and the associated maps are very clear.        

The final part of the book deals with the aftermath of these actions. Whilst the US army had made up for its earlier failures in 1812 and 1813, and undoubtedly had earned the respect of the British troops, they had very little to show for it and in reality the campaign on the Niagara was a strategic success for the British.

Overall, this is a well written volume, which would be a useful addition to any collection on that period, providing the reader with a large breadth of information in a very digestible format. The colour maps and illustrations are very clear and enhance the text. If I have one minor criticism, it was in the inclusion of the battle of Plattsburg, which while I accept occurred at the same chronological point it does not sit well geographically. I wonder if it would have been more logical to have written the volume to encompass the whole Niagara history, starting with the Battle of Queenston Heights in 1812 and excluding the section on Plattsburg?  That minor criticism apart, this is another well produced Osprey work and will be an essential part of the library of any student of the War of 1812. It is such a tragedy that Jon is no longer with us to produce any future companion volumes.   

Notes:

[1] Carl Benn, The War of 1812, Osprey Essential History 041, ISBN 978 1 84176 466 5



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