Review by David Beechey
The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent by J. C. A. Stagg, Cambridge University Press: New York, 2012, ISBN 978-0-521-72686-3, 216 pp. (Hardcover edition), $85.00 (Hardcover), $22.51 (paper), $9.99 (Kindle).
Professor Stagg writes in the very first page of text “it remains to be seen whether the British will decide to remember or to forget yet again the events of 1812 -1814.” This is an implication that the British are somehow embarrassed by the War of 1812. I can assure Professor Stagg that hardly anyone in the UK has heard of it. When Johnny Horton’s hit single of the 1960’s came out in the UK the word “British” was changed to “Rebels” because there was apparent concern that offence would be caused. A very popular British singer called Lonnie Donegan made a cover version which started with an amusing, short, monologue about the battle and, partly because of the self deprecatory humour for which we are famous, it was a huge hit. If you are interested you can hear/see it on YouTube. After being asked to review this book a few weeks ago I have been asking just about everyone that I have met in the UK what they knew about the War of 1812. Most people immediately assumed that I was referring to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Only one person out of well over a hundred I asked had heard of it, and that was only because of the song!
There are the makings of a great book here, and, had it lived up to the expectations in the Introduction it might have been but it is far too short to achieve that. The introduction is ambitious in its description of what is to follow but the narrative fails to live up to it.
Stagg is an experienced and respected historian so I can only conclude that the publisher decided that if this was to be a “popular” book then it was necessary to edit with a heavy hand. An easy way to partly achieve that would be to remove descriptions of behaviour by Americans that might be deemed to be excessive whereas any excesses by the British and Canadians are recorded in some detail.
Stagg is an acknowledged expert on the papers of James Madison and has published seventeen volumes. As so often happens in these cases, he has, in my opinion, become too closely identified with his subject. President Madison’s errors of judgement leap off the pages but Professor Stagg always finds excuses for him; except that towards the end of the War, in 1814, he admits that the “administration finally discarded...its justification for the war” without any criticism and excuses the fact that America had gained nothing from the War by stating that the cabinet believed “that the nation had upheld its honor by resisting impressment” whereas earlier he makes the astonishing argument that “many of the Republican leaders who called for war” hoped to stop the “consequences of rapid and destabilising economic change.....unfettered ambition....increase in factionalism... and a general loss of social cohesion.” I find that, as an argument, very hard to swallow and if he is correct in his interpretation then one can only conclude that the leaders failed dismally. He then goes on to argue that “the Republicans waged war against Great Britain.... driven by fears that the Federalists might prevail.” He produces little evidence to substantiate this although there is an interesting section on the Hartford Convention of 1814 when secession from the United States was openly discussed, and New Hampshire nearly did secede. Interestingly, the South prior to the Civil War used the arguments developed at that Convention for their own attempt at secession.
Stagg does not mention Jefferson’s statement that taking Canada by force was merely “a matter of marching” which, in itself, must have echoed the feelings of his fellow citizens. There is little mention of the constant pressure to move westwards and the urge to displace the Indians and seize their land nor is there any mention of the British commitment to the Indians to stop American expansion beyond the Ohio Valley, which was a contributory factor to the American Revolution. The Indians generally sided with the British because they felt that they would be treated more fairly. The secondary war against the Creeks fought by Andrew Jackson is described in some detail but Jackson’s ruthless extermination of Indians is not mentioned at all, and the massacres that he perpetrated are simply listed as Indians killed.
Further on in the book Stagg disagrees with his earlier statements that Madison, in response to rising domestic criticism, “that meant preparations for war with Great Britain and more particularly for a war to seize Canada.” He does not make any comment about Madison’s role in this decision or his views about it. Surely Professor Stagg must have been privy to those views when he edited the seventeen volumes. This is in direct contrast to the first chapter, when Professor Stagg uncritically analyses Madison’s letter to Congress in which he suggests commencing hostilities with Great Britain. Madison lists the grievances about the impressments of sailors, the old canard that Britain was instigating hostilities by the Indians, and British restrictions on trade. Professor Stagg does, rather grudgingly, agree that the British did not instigate raids on the American frontier by the Indians but does not mention that it was constant depredations by Americans against the Indians that caused the raids. Stagg writes at some length about the impressment of sailors and the restrictions on trade but does not examine in any detail the situation that Britain was in at the time. A reader with no knowledge of the Napoleonic Wars would think that Britain’s struggles were of no major significance. There is no mention of the size and scope of Britain’s difficult situation and the coalition ranged against her not only of France but also many Italian States, Poland, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, and even a little known war going on at the same time with Russia. The situation Britain found herself in was, in effect, worse than in 1940. The impression that Professor Stagg gives is of an America almost equal in size to Great Britain and although he goes on at great length about the requirements of the Royal Navy for timber he shows no understanding of the desperate plight that the British were in with vastly superior armies ranged against them and their almost total reliance on the Royal Navy. It is quite apparent even when reading Professor Stagg’s biased view that he has no sympathy for or real understanding of the British plight. Although he mentions the British need for sailors, he does not have any sympathy with the British need to control exports to France.
When the narrative reaches the commencement of the fighting it is lacking in accurate descriptions of the American atrocities. Harrison’s raid against the Indian town of Prophetstown is described as “a short battle” and although the result was that the town was destroyed he does not mention that it was burnt to the ground and many Indians irrespective of age or sex were killed. This resulted in Indian retaliations that are described in some detail. The attack on York (Toronto) is described as a two-day battle but does not go into the detail that it was pillaged and burnt over those two days by American forces. This was the direct stimulus for the British raid and burning of Washington later in the War. He does state that the American sea successes, although much lauded in the United States, were “inconsequential” and “occasional.” There is much interesting material on the fact that many of the American generals were so concerned about land that they owned or had an interest in that it influenced their strategy.
Stagg has an easy writing style and describes complex political events well, although I had the feeling that his bias towards President Madison marred the reliability of the narrative. Whatever bias the author may or may not have does not detract from his descriptions of the astonishing American unpreparedness for war. I find it staggering that Madison and Congress declared war while intending, shortly before, to continue Jefferson’s intent to eliminate the National Debt by 1817, Not only was there no fiscal policy in place necessary for the prosecution of war but there was no fully trained army to speak of, and a tiny navy.
There was undoubtedly huge popular support for the war and no doubt many people thought that taking Canada would be easy because it was felt that the British had too much on their hands as it was and that the recent and substantial American immigration into Canada would help ensure American victory. It did not turn out like that, however. Generally, the American immigrants either stayed neutral or actively sided with the British. Stagg does not investigate in any detail as to why the Scotch-Irish in Upper Canada did not rally to the American invasion as expected. It is thought that it was mainly because American soldiers burnt crops and farms wherever they went north of the border. Another factor was that there was relatively little Indian trouble in Canada unlike within the United States. Interestingly this continued throughout the 19th Century and while the United States experienced a “Wild West”, Canada did not.
Professor Stagg gives a good description of the diplomatic manoeuvrings before the Treaty of Ghent was finalised and has provided very interesting and little known details about Jackson in New Orleans and the actions following the Battle of New Orleans. He does mention the interesting fact that it was suggested by the British diplomats that the Duke of Wellington and much of his seasoned army were now available for service in North America and, although that must have greatly concerned the American diplomats, he makes no comment.
All in all it is a good, although flawed, read. It was not detailed enough to satisfy me and there are too many questions raised that are not satisfactorily explained. When I finished the book I felt a little sad that two peoples so alike could embark on a War that was pointless and achieved nothing except maintaining the status quo ante bellum and the only modern justification being that it made Americans feel a more mature nation.