The book begins with a rather biased introduction. This becomes clear in the section on the causes of the war, which could stand as a textbook way to only present one side of an argument. The author’s take on events is ‘Britain had provided the Americans by claiming, in a proclamation known as the ‘Orders in Council’ a right to confiscate any American ship that traded with France. It had also infuriated them by forcibly seizing from American ships as Royal Navy deserters about 6,000 American sailors’. This could just as easily have been written as ‘The Americans provoked the British by continuing to trade with Imperial France, and by sheltering at least 6,000 deserters from the Royal Navy’. A more balanced approach is not hard to find – ‘The British and Americans disagreed over the rights of neutral traders, and on the status at least 6,000 sailors who both sides claimed as their own’. The section on the strategic situation begins by comparing the populations of America and Britain and her colonies, which would appear to be a rather clumsy attempt to make America look like the underdog. In reality the Americans had the overwhelming numerical advantage during this war, outnumbering the Canadians who were their main opponents on the northern front – in the key battle the Americans outnumbered their opponents by two-to-one. For most of the war was rather distracted by the life or death struggle with Napoleon and Imperial France – 1812 was after all the year of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, while the British army was rather busy in Spain. Britain is also described as being ruled by the Prince Regent, who did indeed have a great deal of influence, but the limits of his power were actually demonstrated rather graphically in 1812, after his attempts to appoint a Whig government failed, and he had to accept a Tory government lead by Lord Liverpool.
The lack of balance continues as we get into the section on opposing commanders and forces. The most senior American commanders are given some personality, while their British opponents are just cardboard cut-outs, with titles and a list of roles, but no background. When we get to the armies the American use of Indian allies gets a single line, while the British use of the same policy is implicitly criticized, and includes a story of Indian cannibalism that included without any comments on its probable lack of accuracy. During the campaign itself the Native Americans commit massacres, while the Americans just burn villages.
The conclusion suffers from an unwillingness to admit that the American victory in the north-west came with a devastating cost for its Native American inhabitants. The War of 1812 can easily be portrayed as a blatant imperialist land-grab on the part of the United States, which basically failed, apart from in this area, which was already officially under American jurisdiction. In contrast one key British war aim in the area was to secure an independent state for the Native Americans – a very laudable aim! The author’s desire to find some positive spin for this is so desperate that he claims it was a major victory because the areas conquered from the Native Americans provided large numbers of troops for the Union army in the Civil War, half a century later!
So, after all of that you might wonder if there are any positives! The book does improve once we reach the Campaign and Battle chapter. There is still too much of an emphasis on the American side of events, but that part of the account is interesting, and gives some idea of the difficulties of campaign in what was then a very remote area, with the lack of roads, large swamps, heavy rain and other problems often making life a misery for anyone attempting to move through the area. The campaign section covers just about the entire land campaign on this front of the war, with brief mention of the equally important naval campaigns. The battle itself turns out to be incredibly one sided and very short, with the outnumbered British being deployed very badly and swept away in a single cavalry attack, but the campaign is more interesting, and this is a good account of the American side of that campaign.
Origins of the Campaign
The Campaign and Battle
Author: John F. Winkler