In this deeply researched and clearly written book, the Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Alan Taylor tells the riveting story of a war that redefined North America. During the early nineteenth century, Britons and Americans renewed their struggle over the legacy of the American Revolution. Soldiers, immigrants, settlers, and Indians fought in a northern borderland to determine the fate of a continent. Would revolutionary republicanism sweep the British from Canada? Or would the British empire contain, divide, and ruin the shaky American republic?
In a world of double identities, slippery allegiances, and porous boundaries, the leaders of the republic and of the empire struggled to control their own diverse peoples. The border divided Americans—former Loyalists and Patriots—who fought on both sides in the new war, as did native peoples defending their homelands. Serving in both armies, Irish immigrants battled one another, reaping charges of rebellion and treason. And dissident Americans flirted with secession while aiding the British as smugglers and spies.
During the war, both sides struggled to sustain armies in a northern land of immense forests, vast lakes, and stark seasonal swings in the weather. In that environment, many soldiers panicked as they fought their own vivid imaginations, which cast Indians as bloodthirsty savages. After fighting each other to a standstill, the Americans and the British concluded that they could safely share the continent along a border that favored the United States at the expense of Canadians and Indians. Both sides then celebrated victory by forgetting their losses and by betraying the native peoples.
A vivid narrative of an often brutal (and sometimes comic) war that reveals much about the tangled origins of the United States and Canada.
Born and raised in Maine, Alan Taylor teaches American and Canadian history at the University of California, Davis. His books include The Divided Ground, Writing Early American History, American Colonies, and William Cooper’s Town, which won the Bancroft and Pulitzer prizes for American history. He also serves as a contributing editor to The New Republic.
From our Q&A with the author
Q: Why did you decide to use the phrase “civil war” in the title of your new book? Most people think of the War of 1812 as a fight between the United States and England, not as a civil conflict.
A: I came to see the War of 1812 as a civil war between kindred peoples, recently and incompletely divided by the revolution. To call the War of 1812 a “civil war,” now seems jarring because hindsight distorts our perspective on the past. We underestimate the fluid uncertainty of the post-revolutionary generation, when the new republic was so precarious and so embattled. We imagine that the revolution effected a clean break between Americans and Britons as distinct peoples. In fact, the republic and the empire competed for the allegiance of the peoples in North America: native, settler, and immigrant. On both sides, the people thought of the war as continuing the revolutionary struggle between Loyalists and rebels. And the war divided the British Empire as Irish refugees fought for the United States but faced trial for treason if captured.”
Q: In your opinion, why has the War of 1812 become a relatively forgotten piece of U.S. history (aside from inspiring the “Star Spangled Banner”)?
A: The War of 1812 looms small in American memory: forgotten as insignificant because it apparently ended as a draw that changed no boundary and no policy. At best, Americans barely recall the war as a handful of patriotic symbols: for inspiring the national anthem; for the victories of the warship dubbed “Old Ironsides”; for the British perfidy in burning the White House and the Capitol; and for the pay-back taken by Andrew Jackson’s Tennessee riflemen at the Battle of New Orleans. This highly selective memory recasts the war as a defense of the United States against British attacks—and screens out the many defeats suffered by American invaders in Canada.