Military Subjects:  War of 1812

 

The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 16: September 2011

 

Reviews: Books, Film, Collectables and Ephemera

 

Truly, a bevy of books …

In many ways, the bicentennial of the War of 1812 has begun as evidenced by the number of titles recently received.

John R. Grodzinski, with contributions by individuals choosing anonymity.

 

General and Campaign Histories

John Boileau. Half Hearted Enemies: Nova Scotia, New England and the War of 1812. Halifax: Formac Publishing Company, 2005. ISBN 0-88780-657-0. 176 pages. $19.95 CA.

Details of this book were presented in an earlier issue of this magazine and it is included again to remind readers that there were theatres other than the Niagara or Detroit frontiers during the War of 1812. In this study, soldier cum historian John Boileau examines the civilian, economic and military aspects of the war in the Atlantic region. His sweeping narrative also explores, wartime prisoners, the respective privateers that waged an economic struggle on the Atlantic and the fate of refugees. A highly readable and interesting study.

Ronald J. Dale. The Invasion of Canada: Battles of the War of 1812. Toronto: J. Lorimer & Company Ltd., 2011. ISBN 978-1-55277-748-8. 96 pages. $19.95. CA.

Ron Dale is a figure well known for his work as historian and superintendent of the Parks Canada sites at Fort George and the Brock Memorial. This well-illustrated volume offers a popular overview of the War of 1812 from a Canadian perspective. Included are excerpts from a several historical documents and a partial list of historic sites, including their hours of operation, admission fees and website URLs. While the presentation of British strategy is incomplete and some errors occur, such as the war ending with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent in December 1814 (which actually continued until February 1815 when the treaty was ratified), THE INVASION OF CANADA is an admirable introduction to the conflict’s major events and an excellent starting point for anyone interested in this conflict.

Anthony J. Yanik. The Fall and Recapture of Detroit in the War of 1812. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-8143-3598-7. viii + 220 pages.

Brigadier-General William Hull, the commander of the North West Army against Upper Canada during the summer of 1812, emerged from the War of 1812 with a damaged reputation. His surrender at Fort Detroit, supposedly without a fight, shocked the American nation, led to widespread anger and resulted in charges against him, followed by a trial. Anthony Yanik was inspired by the repeated references to Hull’s poor leadership in the secondary literature to explore this topic further and to determine whether Hull’s surrender was justified.

According to Yanik, Hull faced difficulties of such scope that his surrender was inevitable and should have been foreseen. The factors conspiring against Hull included British control of the waterways that hampered the supply of food, arms and medical stores, the mixed quality of his command, danger from local natives who allied with the British, requiring Hull to also protect the local civilian population; the poor position of Fort Detroit, which was bordered on one side by the town of Detroit and complications in the command structure that fuelled by bickering between several militia colonels over seniority. Worst of all was the popular notion that victory against the British would come easily.

The author contends that Hull’s conduct, in light of these many difficulties, was admirable as it saved his army from probably disaster. The outcome would have differed had Hull received the same resources given to William Henry Harrison later that year. While this may be true, the essential problem facing the United States was that its armed forces were poorly prepared for war and did not reflect the aggressive rhetoric of the State Department in the closing months of peace. New vigour and resources were provided in the wake of the disaster and the results achieved in the Detroit region were spectacular, albeit peripheral to British strategic interests.

Ongoing military operations delayed Hull’s court martial, as it did that of British Major-General Henry Procter who served in the same theatre, until 1814. The story of both men is so similar it would have been useful to compare the two trials and the composition of the respective boards. Hull’s trial board was hardly made up of professional officers and the sentence of death was excessive. Fortunately for Hull, the sentence was never carried out and he was dishonourably discharged from the army.

Yanik offers an interesting thesis and one worth considering in the light of the coming bicentennial of the War of 1812.

Reprints

Allan S. Everest. The War of 1812 in the Champlain Valley. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-81563-258-0. 239 pages.

For readers interested in the effects of the war on the ground and on the inland sea in the Champlain Valley, there remains just one foundational text, now available for the first time since it was first issued in 1981. Allan S. Everest’s The War of 1812 in the Champlain Valley is among the better works examining wartime events in this theater, including the Plattsburgh Expedition, a campaign that has received poor and often careless treatment in the literature of the War of 1812. Everest provides a refined narrative of these events, but is not convincing in his argument that the Champlain Valley was a major theatre of the war. 

This volume discusses the events leading to the War of 1812, British strategy in the region, external influences that influenced operations in the Champlain Valley, and the curious set of events that led to American victory in the Battle of Plattsburgh. Everest attributes American success in that action to the efforts of Brigadier-General Alexander Macomb rather than to Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough, who was never a commodore as the author explains, and who is usually given credit for this victory.

Allan S. Everest, who passed away in 1997, was the author of Moses Hazen and the Canadian Refugees in the American Revolution, Our North Country Heritage, and Rum Across the Border.

Period Literature

Richard Beasley. From Bloody Beginnings: Richard Beasley’s Upper Canada. Simcoe: Davis Publishing, 2008. ISBN 978-0-915317-24-0. 389 pages. $15.95 CA and US.

In this book, Richard Beasley recounts his experiences from a young boy during the American War of Independence, where his father and uncle served with the Loyalist forces, to his relocation in Upper Canada, where he became involved in the fur trade and in land speculation. During the War of 1812, Beasley served as Colonel of the 2nd York Regiment and participated in many actions in the Niagara Peninsula. He also had dealings with Joseph Willcocks, John Norton, Brigadier-General John Vincent and many other well-known personalities of the conflict. Following the war, Beasley participated in the Upper Canadian Rebellions of 1837 and 1838. Beasley died in 1842.

Major John Richardson. Westbrook: The Outlaw; or The Avenging Wolf. Simcoe: Davis Publishing, 2004. ISBN 0-915317-15-X. xi + 83 pages. $7.95 US, $9.95 CA.

The exploits of Canadian Andrew Westbrook, traitor to some, a hero to others is well known. Westbrook comes to life in this fictionalized account and final novel by John Richardson. Completed in 1852, this novel was lost for over a century until it was discovered in1973 by David Beasley. This is a stirring, vivid recreation of an exciting historical period by an author whose literary talent is well known.

Major John Richardson. A Canadian Campaign: Operations of the Right Division of the Army of Upper Canada During the American War of 1812. Simcoe: Davis Publishing, 2011. ISBN 978-0-915317-36-3. $15.00 CA and US.

This volume is a compilation of three of the author’s works that were originally serialized in newspapers and periodicals. This book begins with an essay by David Beasley that introduces Major John Richardson and explains how these three accounts came to be written. The first essay recounts the author’s experience, as an officer in the 41st Foot, with the Right Division of the Army of Upper Canada. The second part comprises the Recollections of the West Indies which is an account of service there as a junior officer that Richardson wrote following service in that region between 1816 and 1818. The final work In Search of Richardson’s Spain retraces the march of the British Legion over the Cantabrica Mountains in 1835.

Guides to War of 1812 Sites

Patrick Richard Carstens and Timothy L. Sanford. Searching for the Forgotten War-1812: Volume I: Canada. Xlibris Corporation, 2011. ISBN (paper) 978-1-4535-8890-1. Also available in e-book format. 571 pages.

Patrick Richard Carstens and Timothy L. Sanford. Searching for the Forgotten War-1812: Volume II: United States of America. Xlibris Corporation, 2011. ISBN (paper) 978-1-4568-6853-9. Also available in e-book format. 765 pages.

Readers of this magazine are undoubtedly familiar with Gilbert Collins’ Guide to the Historic Site of the War of 1812 (Toronto: Dundurn, 1998 and 2006) and Ralph E. Eshelman’s A Travel Guide to the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake (Baltimore: The John Hopkin’s University Press, 2011). These two large volumes take both works a step further and provide an excellent guide to the historic sites of the War of 1812 in Canada and the United States.This 1,300 page guidebook is an excellent resource for those interested in historic sites related to the War of 1812. It is certainly the most comprehensive guide published to date.

Each entry offers a wealth of information that will not only provide a good introduction to a site in question that will also guide users to specific sites and markers with relative ease. My own personal experience in trying to locate a marker in the small village of Thessalon in northern Ontario, using another guide was marred by the imprecise description of its location, which even confounded the clerks in the village office.

The entries in these volumes includes a brief description of events related to the site, details regarding the hours of operation, entrance fees and scope of historic sites; complete texts of historic plaques and markers and maps and images.

Each volume also includes appendices dealing with key documents, a chronology of events, terminology, a bibliography and index.

Readers preferring to use an e-reader as opposed to a book-stuffed knapsack will also be pleased to learn that both volumes are available in e-book format.

Searching for the Forgotten War of 1812 is a valuable compilation that should be consulted before, during and after any War of 1812 exploratory voyage.

 

More on Brock …

Jonathan Riley. A Matter of Honour: The Life, Campaigns and Generalship of Isaac Brock. Montreal: Robin Brass Studio, 2011. ISBN  978-1-896941-65-3. xiv + 336 pages.$24.95 CA, $27.95 US, £19.99.

Wesley Turner. The Astonishing General: The Life and Legacy of Sir Isaac Brock. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2011. ISBN 978-1-55488-777-4. 369 pages. $35.00 CA, £20.00.

Despite a plethora of books on this British commander, interest in his life and short service during the War of 1812 still draws attention.

These are two very different books on Brock, one by a distinguished British lieutenant-general, who offers unique insights into military leadership and the other by a respected Canadian academic. A full length review of both titles will appear in the next issue of the War of 1812 Magazine.

Youth Titles

Zig Misiak. Illustrations by Scott Paterson. War of 1812: Western Hooves of Thunder: McArthur’s Raid against the Six Nations along the Grand River Territory, November 1814. Real People’s History, 2009. ISBN 978-0-9811880-3-4. 40 pages.

This story tells the tale of two youths and their families who moved to British North America following the invasion of the Six Nations territory by rebel American forces in 1779. They soon found themselves in the middle of another struggle and in November 1814, were confronted by the raid led by American Brigadier-General Duncan McArthur into south-western Upper Canada. Through the course of this struggle, a young Mohawk boy takes on the role as a warrior and attempts to locate a missing friend.

This is a delightful book in which the author offers a sympathetic portrayal of the Six Nations, while the images by illustrator Scott Paterson are beautifully rendered. This examination of local history in the War of 1812 can be enjoyed by adults and youth alike.

 

Fiction

Tom Taylor. Brock’s Agent: One Country’s Hero is Another’s Scoundrel. Markham: Hancock and Dean, 2011. ISBN 978-0-9868961-0-1. 346 pages. $19.98 CA.

There are few fictional works of the War of 1812. Naval stories on the high seas abound with several volumes of the Aubrey-Maturin adventures by the late Patrick O’Brien devoted to War of 1812 events in Boston, Halifax and on the high seas, while several of Alexander Kent’s stories of naval officer Richard Bolitho. David Niven’s 1812, which continues the mythology of the war being a type of second war of independence appeared in 1997. Other works include the novels of Major John Richardson and David Fitz-Enz’s forgettable alternative history-fictional Redcoats’ Revenge: An Alternate History of the War of 1812.

Brock’s Agent is by Canadian businessman and author Tom Taylor. A student of history and former member of the militia, Taylor places his story against the backdrop of the final months of peace and opening actions of the War of 1812. The protagonist is the fictional adventurer Jonathan Westlake, who on the eve of the War of 1812 and in the face of significant personal difficulties, receives instructions from Major-General Isaac Brock, the civil and military head of Upper Canada, to undertake a secret mission, posing as a fur trader. Thus begins a tale of adventure that ends somewhat abruptly, with our hero being present at the American surrender of Fort Detroit. This is the first title of a series.

Like other authors of this genre, Taylor has succeeded in taking a kernel of history and retelling the story by adding a host of interesting characters, fictional and real, danger, romance and war. The author has a heroic view of history and Isaac Brock towers above all others as the the savior of Canada. This populist perspective of the war misinterprets American intentions (or better yet strategy) and dismisses the fact that the war continued for over two years following Brock’s death; nonetheless, this is a work of fiction and as such, it is a fine read. Historical fiction brings life to historical figures that non-fiction cannot; it provides a sense of the setting, the hardships and dangers and the thoughts and feeling that individuals, both real and imagined may have had.

Unfortunately, Taylor does not share the understanding of soldiering that other authors such as Bernard Cornwell have, but he does weave a good tale. Our heroes’ adventures are exciting, but we don’t get the same insights into soldiering, leadership and smoothbore warfare that are presented in several wonderful scenes in Cornwell’s The Fort, such as the Highland counterattack or Brigadier-General Francis Maclean’s lesson in leadership to the young Lieutenant John Moore while under artillery fire, or in the historical novels of C.C. Humphreys.

Brock’s Agent is a gripping story that will appeal to anyone interested in the War of 1812 era or who enjoys historical fiction.  

 



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