Military Subjects:  War of 1812


The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 12: November 2009



Bob Malcomson at Waterloo, October 2005




It is with great regret that we must announce the passing of Robert G. Malcomson, the distinguished Canadian naval historian of the War of 1812 in July 2009 following a lengthy battle with a brain tumour. A native of St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada, Bob Malcomson was a dedicated public school teacher for more than three decades, retiring in 2002. He is survived by his wife, Janet, their two daughters and several grand-children.

A life-long student of naval warfare in the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly in the War of 1812, Bob Malcomson was, over a thirty-year period, the author or editor of eight major books and dozens of articles. His first major work, HMS Detroit: The Battle for Lake Erie, co-authored with his brother, Thomas, also a naval historian, appeared in 1991. It was notable, not only for providing a more full account of the British side of that engagement, but also for giving complete and accurate biographical details of Captain R.H. Barclay, the Royal Navy commander.

Bob then commenced research for the book that was to bring him international recognition. This was Lords of the Lake: The Naval War on Lake Ontario, 1812-1814 (1999), the first serious examination of naval operations on that body of water since the late 19th century. Lords of the Lake was a deeply-researched, carefully-reasoned, well-written and extremely informative work that deservedly won the John Lyman Award for Canadian Naval and Maritime History. One of the earlier historians to examine the naval war on Lake Ontario was Alfred Thayer Mahan and, as I noted in my foreword to, Lords of the Lake it is fascinating to speculate just how much of Mahan's famous "fleet in being" thesis derived from the actual operational situation on Lake Ontario in 1812-1814. A salient feature of Lords of the Lake -- and, indeed, of all Malcomson's major works -- was its author's even-handedness as he treated the opposing forces equally and fairly and there is no sign of the national bias which has marred much of the historiography of the War of 1812.

Bob edited for publication some of the memoirs and correspondence uncovered in his research, which appeared as Sailors of 1812: Memoirs & Letters of Naval Officers on Lake Ontario (1997). Two years later, he contributed a substantial section on the war on the lakes to The Naval War of 1812 edited by Robert Gardiner and, in 2001 he brought out Warships of the Great Lakes, 1754-1834, which received a Lyman Award.

Bob Malcomson's next major book project was -- for him a change of pace -- as it was a detailed study of a river crossing operation, the battle of Queenston Heights fought in October 1812. Although little known in the United States, Queenston plays a large role in Canadian mythology of the War of 1812 where it is often been portrayed as a modern Thermopylae in which a brave little band of British, Canadian and aboriginal Spartans held off swarms of frantic, chattering, blue-coated Persian republicans bent on conquest. Contributing to the mythology is the fact that the British commander, Major-General Isaac Brock, killed in the battle, was commemorated with a magnificent tomb and monument that towers over the battlefield. Bob Malcomson's examination of Queenston, published in 2003 as A Very Brilliant Affair: The Battle of Queenston Heights, 1812, was based on considerable new research on both sides of the border and took a very objective view of the action. It will, without doubt, remain the definitive source on the battle of Queenston Heights for some time to come. This book also received a Lyman Award.

In 2006, Bob published a Historical Dictionary of the War of 1812, a 741-page mini-encyclopedia of its subject with a 70-page bibliography and it is also destined to be a standard reference source for the foreseeable future. At the same time, he was hard at work on what would be his last book, Capital in Flames: The American Attack on York, 1813. Sadly, by this time Bob had been diagnosed with the brain tumour that would ultimately take his life and it speaks much for his determination that he compiled both the index and bibliography for this book while confined to a hospital bed. Capital in Flames appeared in 2008 and it too received a Lyman Award, making four such awards received by Bob Malcomson in a lengthy and productive career.

Professor Donald Hickey, one of the leading American scholars of the War of 1812 and an historian who knew Robert Malcomson and his work, pays this tribute:

“Bob Malcomson was not only a wonderful person -- witty, engaging, and so full of life —- but also a first-class scholar who showed a rare facility for handling the intricacies of both land and naval warfare. I learned a lot from him, especially on the naval history of the War of 1812, and I'm pretty sure he schooled many other American historians, too. Bob was what we used to call "a historian's historian" -- one who even accomplished historians could learn from. He will be sorely missed by the 1812 community and by all others who knew him.”

One of Bob Malcomson's great regrets, expressed in the final weeks of his life was that he would not survive to see the bi-centennial of the War of 1812 in 2012. Those of us who knew this fine historian and his work -- and who are present in three years' time -- will certainly remember Bob Malcomson.

Donald E. Graves


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