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The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 3: June 2006

Reviews: Books, Film, Collectables and Ephemera

Boileau, John. Half-Hearted Enemies: Nova Scotia, New England and the War of 1812. Halifax: Formac Publishing Company, 2005. 176 pages, illustrated, bibliography, index. ISBN# 0887806570. Softcover. C$19.95 (Canadian).

The War of 1812 is a fascinating conflict. Fought between June 1812 and the spring of 1815, it was the last war between the United States and Great Britain. The 1814 Treaty of Ghent resolved none of its causes, leading many to believe that the "Second American War" (the first being the American War of Independence) would be followed by a third and a massive fortifications project was undertaken in Canada in anticipation of that event. The War of 1812 was not limited to a series of skirmishes along the frontier of the interior, but included operations from the area of modern Sault Ste. Marie to the eastern seaboard of the United States from Maine to the Gulf of Mexico. Naval engagements occurred on the Great Lakes, the Upper St. Lawrence River, Lake Champlain, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the Caribbean Sea. It was a significant and complex war that is often lost in the shadow of the struggle against Napoleon, but it is witnessing increased popular and academic interest.

Half-Hearted Enemies focuses on an important, albeit secondary theatre of war, promising to examine Nova Scotia and its "ambiguous wartime" relationship with the New England states. It promises, at least according to the jacket notes, a "new perspective on a key period." Unfortunately, it never really gets there and treads into waters that have limited relation to the overall topic. The book is in effect, a series of essays rather than an overview of a region during wartime.

John Boileau retired as a colonel, having served throughout Canada, the United States, West Germany (as it was then called), Cyprus and Great Britain. He commanded Lord Strathcona's Horse (Royal Canadians in the late 1980s, and this reviewer's first commanding officer) and later served with the Canadian Defence Liaison Staff (London). An avid history buff, Boileau has, since retirement taken to writing, producing a history of Canadian hydrofoils, several articles and served as consulting editor for A Century of Service: Canada's Armed Forces from the Boer War to East Timor, by Jim Lotz. This is his first book on the War of 1812.

In 1812, Nova Scotia was a separate colony within British North America that with Cape Breton, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, formed Atlantic Command, under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir John Coape Sherbrooke. Halifax was home of the North American Squadron of the Royal Navy. Considered largely a backwater before the war, the North American squadron rapidly grew in strength and prominence and established the blockade of the American coast in 1812. The British Castine Expedition, which culminated in the occupation of a portion of Maine, was launched from Halifax, while the remains of Major-General Robert Ross, who led British troops into Washington and who was killed in September 1814, rest there. Nova Scotia was also base for a large privateer fleet that on the one hand, which seriously damaged the American economy, while continuing trade and smuggling with the United States. Indeed, despite the state of war, the frontier, like that on the Upper St. Lawrence, remained open to social and economic "intercourse" (using the terminology of the time) that was only interrupted when a local commander actively sought to end it. Lieutenant John Coteur, later of the 104th Foot, observed this first hand noting, "how uncomfortably like civil war it seemed."[1] One might indeed think the local populations did not fully support the war, hence the title.

The chapters examine five single-ship engagements fought in the Atlantic, the privateer war, American prisoners held on Prison Island near Halifax, the burning of Washington and the fate of Black refugees. These military, economic and social themes could have supported the thesis but lose focus in their presentation. For example, an entire chapter is devoted to British operations in the Chesapeake, the occupation and burning of Washington and the battle of Baltimore. Why cover this in such detail? Simply to highlight that the remains of the British land force commander, General Ross, rest in Halifax? He and his brigade came from Europe, while the naval vessels were from the Inshore Squadron, based in Bermuda. Its' commander, Rear Admiral George Cockburn suggested Ross make a dash for Washington and then enthusiastically pushed for the city to be torched, but what is the relevance of this to the relations between Nova Scotia and New England? Certainly, Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, commanding at Halifax, had his hand in the devastating raids conducted along the American coast, but this becomes lost by focusing on movements and tactics? Why not discuss the raids Cochrane ordered on New England that were supported by the provinces' governor, Lieutenant-General Sherbrooke? Nothing is said of Cochrane's cancellation of the licences that had made possible a lucrative coastal trade between New England, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

This problem continues with the discussion of the high seas war. Following an overview of naval events from 1793 to 1812, the focus remains on the action, noting American naval strength lay in "the three 44 gun super-frigates as strong as British ships of the line and faster than any British 38 gun vessel, that seriously challenged the Royal Navy" (p. 30). American frigates proved more heavily gunned than their nominal rating would suggest, but the lesson of the naval war on the high seas, and the effect on the region in particular, is missed. The Americans achieved several spectacular single-ship victories, but the British later gave as good as they got. Although the Royal Navy and the United States Navy had some 26 encounters on the high seas, they proved a draw. The spectacular events surrounding these duels are overshadowed the fact that the frigate war had little strategic importance. The real American success, at least according to Mahan, lay in the Americans forcing the Halifax squadron to concentrate, thus delaying the implementation of the blockade of the American coast in the early months of the war. The weakness of the blockade continued through 1812 and into 1813, with, one might assume implications on Nova Scotia - New England relations. But this is not discussed.

While these criticisms may not be appropriate for what is purportedly a popular history, they demonstrate the difficulties and dangers of this genre. Historians are often criticized for dry, academic prose and for repeating one another. While certain historians have a knack for turning a phrase that is so good that it must be quoted, over time their work can become less reliable or even dated. This is not their fault, just the reality that historical knowledge advances and as more sources are studied or reexamined in an effort to confirm earlier conclusions. Secondary sources are therefore a reflection of the state of the literature at a particular time and relying on them, without a solid understanding of the literature can be dangerous. Furthermore, while popular authors may be able to craft a readable, even exciting tale, they often achieve this by ensuring the facts do not get in the way of a good story. Having said that, there are popular authors who are capable of writing superb pieces of work.

While it is evident that Boileau made a careful read of his sources, Half-Hearted Enemies does not present the story of Nova Scotia and New England during the War of 1812. Rather it presents a series of vignettes dealing with various aspect of the war. The merit of the book lays with the examination of the prison on Melville Island and the fate of Black refugees that arrived in Nova Scotia. There is little said about New England or the manifestation of opposition to the war, while the Hartford Convention, which threatened secession of the New England states, is not even mentioned. The result is six chapters that give glimpses of the War of 1812 from the perspective of Nova Scotia and does not, as the publisher states on the jacket notes, of offer "a new perspective on a key period in Canadian British and U.S. history."


Reviewed by Major John R. Grodzinski, CD


[1] Graves, Donald E., ed. Merry Hearts Make Light Days: The War of 1812 Memoir of Lieutenant John le Coteur, 104th Foot, Carleton University Press, 1993, p. 136.