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The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 9: May 2008


Reviews: Books, Film, Collectables and Ephemera


Malcomson, Robert. Capital in Flames: The American Attack on York, 1813. Montreal: Robin Brass Studio, 2008. 489 pages. Illus. ISBN-13#: 9781896941530. Hardcover.  $42.95/£19.50.


Capital in Flames is the latest book from Canadian author Robert Malcomson on the War of 1812. This one is concerned with the attack on York (today the city of Toronto), the capital of the colony of Upper Canada—"The most traumatic day in the history of Toronto".  The book includes an introduction and a list of the principal military and civilian leaders. It is divided into four parts with sixteen chapters, including nine appendices, a glossary, end-notes, bibliography and index, in addition to seventeen maps and aerial photographs and many black and white photos and illustrations. The appendices include orders of battle and known rosters of the soldiers who fought on both sides at York and the end-notes add further clarification/information to the text. The aerial photographs help to visualize the York of 1813 with the Toronto of today.


Before this book, information about the attack on York was sketchy, presented in larger general histories or relegated to short articles such as Charles Humphries' "The Capture of York" in The Defended Border: Upper Canada and the War of 1812 edited by Morris Zaslow 1964 or booklets of less than 100 pages such as Carl Benn's The Battle of York (paperback) 64 pages, Mika Publishing 1984.


Malcomson maintains an even, unbiased look at the British, Canadian and American participants and events and shies away from nothing. He explores what York, its citizens (men, women and children) and garrison and the opposing armies were like on the eve of invasion and discusses the problems of command and strategy affecting both the British and American commanders and their forces before and after the attack. He describes both the personalities and the personal clashes involving the principal commanders of each side and how this affected the attack on York.


The author makes an interesting observation, backed by the facts, that the attack was the first combined operations of the American army and navy. As befits a book on an amphibious landing, he also inserts a description of the naval war on Lake Ontario. He provides details of the further fighting at Niagara during the summer of 1813 including the return of the Americans to York in July.


Malcomson examines the looting of the town and the burning of the public buildings.  He also looks at some of the myths of the attack especially its connection with the burning of the public buildings at Washington D. C. 1814, the explosion of the grand magazine, the naval battle of Lake Erie 1813 and the participation of the Canadian militia (sorry, but no conclusions revealed in this review). Some participants will come across looking exactly as the good soldiers/sailors, civilians and patriots they were; while others will see their reputations suffer. A nice touch is the 'what happened to' covering many of the participants mentioned in the text. 


Malcomson has established a reputation with his earlier works on naval aspects of the Great Lakes,  Warships of the Great Lakes 1754-1834, HMS Detroit: The Battle for Lake Erie  and Lords of the Lakes: The Naval War on Lake Ontario 1812-1814  and he has landed to continue with A Very Brilliant Affair: The Battle of Queenston Heights 1812 and now Capital in Flames. He has also contributed numerous articles to magazines and journals and a chapter to Fighting for Canada Seven Battles 1758-1945 and has recently become involved, as assistant editor, with The Encyclopedia of the War of 1812 due in 2012. He is on the board of both the Journal of the War of 1812 and the sponsored on-line The War of 1812 Magazine.  


In all this is an excellent, well-researched and lucid look at a subject often mentioned in connection with the war, but never truly examined before. If you are expanding or building your library on the War of 1812, this is one for your bookcase.


Reviewed by Ron McGuigan.