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The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, Indian Allies Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 12, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Taylor (William Cooper' s Town) presents the War of 1812 not as the conventionally understood second war for independence, but as a civil war waged in the context of a U.S.-Canadian boundary barely separating kindred peoples, recently and incompletely divided by the revolution. , Upper Canada (Ontario) was the scene of bitter conflict between two sets of immigrants: Loyalist refugees from the Revolutionary War and more recent American arrivals hoping to bring the region into the U.S. In New England, antiwar sentiment was strong enough to bring the region close to secession. Irish immigrants, many of them republican in sympathy, found Canada, with its developing monarchical ethos, less than welcoming. The Indians of the Northwest found themselves sandwiched between two alien and expansionist cultures unconcerned for Native Americans' welfare. The result was a drawn-out, indecisive war, but in the long run the four-way conflict that Taylor so convincingly describes was decisive in transforming a permeable frontier into a boundary separating the king' s subject and the republic' s citizen. 80 illus.; 2 maps.
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Geographically situated along Lakes Erie and Ontario, Taylor’s thoroughly researched history of the War of 1812 examines the political predicaments of the region’s settlers and Indians. The ambiguity of allegiance that prevailed before the war evaporated; British officials insisted that if born a subject, one was forever a subject owing loyalty. Illustrating such wartime pressure on individuals, Taylor perceptively portrays how people coped with or capitalized on the unsettled times. The question of allegiance to empire or republic animates many of Taylor’s mininarratives, such as the treatment meted outto each side’s prisoners of war and spies. American-born Canadians, Irish immigrants, and Indian tribes: each group, Taylor explains, experienced a sort of civil war, not in organized battles, but in being polarized by the overt military war waged along the Great Lakes and the Niagara River. In discussing dissenters, recruitment for armies, and despoliation of farms and villages, Taylor illuminates an arena generally omitted from military histories of the war. Battles and campaigns do connect his account, however, which will stand history collections in good stead for a very long while. --Gilbert Taylor
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At first I didn’t realize what Taylor was doing, but it makes sense. Often a historical narrative focuses on a much broader topic and in the process dilutes the impact of an event in a given area. Taylor’s work narrows the area down which allows him to direct the focus of his research with a greater intensity. The result is a deep history which is often missing in historical fields. Taylor would follow up this work with his 2014 Pulitzer Prize winning narrative, The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832. The deeper research is challenging some long held historical assumptions about the War of 1812.
I highly recommend this work to scholars of the period and to scholars who explore US history from the Revolution to the Civil War. I tell my students that the present is obviously shaped by the past, but in ways that few understand. When they understand why things today are the way they are, they have a greater understanding of the historical process and can use that understanding to help them make decisions about the future. Taylor’s microhistory is a great example of how historians can help people learn about the past beyond a cursory glimpse.
The focus on Western New York and Upper Canada reveal the similarities and differences between the people who lived in that region during the war. His focus on how the war began and what took place afterward explain a great deal about why things occurred like they did. His claim that it was a civil war is validated throughout the book by the events that took place. The burning of homes and villages, the plundering and outright theft of possessions, and the switching of sides revealed the divisions created by the conflict. While other histories focus on the ineptitude of the American government during the conflict, Taylor’s work shows how that ineptitude created the inability of the Americans to sustain occupation of Canadian territory. This goes a long way to explain why the Americans failed to conquer Canada when by all rights they should have due to superior numbers between Americans and Canadians.
Again, I highly recommend this book. I don’t think I can really say enough about it. I would have liked to have seen a bit more exploration on the naval events that took place on the Great Lakes, specifically Lake Erie, but the microhistory was not directed to those events. I feel this was something that in my opinion hurt the overall narrative. Other than that, the focus on Upper Canada and Western New York really brought out the personal nature of the war for the people in the region.
In his latest work, Taylor argues that the War of 1812, one which is often overlooked in survey courses of US history, had much more importance than it is often credited with having. Furthermore, he argues this war “pivoted on the contentious boundary between the king’s subject and the republic’s citizen.” (loc. 85) Furthermore, Taylor argues that this war was not fought between rivals of two distinct nations (France against Spain as an example) but was a civil war, fought between brothers and people who, in the recent past might have been neighbors. Indeed, the war, according to Taylor, was fought in a borderland of mixed peoples that lay in between British Canada, Republican American and Native North America. (loc.138)
Indeed, Taylor uses a borderlands history as his conceptual framework to shape his argument, noting “borderlands history examines the peoples on both sides of a new and artificial border, as they often defied the control of their rival governments.” (loc. 207) Thus, he is not only arguing against decades of historians who either ignored the war entirely or treated it as being of minimal importance, he is doing so with techniques developed in what is a burgeoning field in history.
In creating his argument, Taylor uses some of the big names one would expect to see in a study of this time period (as well as a study in borderlands history) including Joyce Applebee, Colin Calloway, David Hackett Fischer, Reginald Horsman, Richard White, and Gordon S. Wood. As for primary sources, Taylor consulted a number of archives in Canada and the United States. Furthermore, his primary sources are a good mixture of diary/journal entries, government documents and newspaper and journal reports.
The weaknesses of this work are few and far between. If anything, I think he could have discussed in greater detail just what the United States was in the aftermath of the US Constitution. The author seems to ignore the idea of the compact theory of the union and quickly brushes over this important period, one which he spends some time discussing. Having said that, the strengths outnumber the weaknesses, and the strengths of Taylor’s work lay not only in his meticulous attention to detail, but in his use of a borderlands framework (one not often used by historians of this time period to be sure) and his exceptional narrative skill. The author is adept at synthesizing large quantities of primary and secondary sources into a story which is a joy to read and, at the same time, adds to our understanding of what is, at the end of the day, a much overlooked period in US history. Published on the eve of the 200th anniversary of the war, this book is a timely and substantial addition to the literature from one of our most talented historians.
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Exemplary in both scholarship and readability!
Exemplary in both scholarship and readability!