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Book Reviews

Don’t Give Up the Ship! The Myths of the War of 1812 

by Donald R. Hickey Foreword by Donald E. Graves 

Toronto: Robin Brass, 2006
430 pages, US$34.95
ISBN 978-0-252-03179-3

Reviewed by Terry Loveridge

by author

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Book CoverDonald Hickey is a professor of American history with a distinguished pedigree that includes professorships at the United States Army Command and General Staff College and at the Naval War College. His 1989 The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict has been billed as “the standard American treatment of the subject.” Yet, it is a Canadian publisher that offers his new book, and so takes an interesting risk. Americans, once again wrestling with a controversial war, might not take kindly to reading about an earlier awkwardness, and Canadians will definitely not like having their national myths damaged (or worse, ignored) by an American. Americans can afford to overlook this War of 1812 – after all, they have Gettysburg and Iwo Jima – but Canadians need it. It is the only war upon which the respective combatants can agree. All the others produce some picking at scars left by disagreement over founding nations, Louis Riel, conscription, internment, limited liability, imperialism, or the Combined Bomber Offensive. More than a third of the recently unveiled statues and busts of the Canadian national “Valiants” in Ottawa receive recognition for actions conducted against the United States. It has been little more than a year since Ontario parents petitioned for the War of 1812 to be taught as a decisive Canadian victory, and only a few months since a publicity blurb for a new book offered, incredibly, the story of how “Canadian troops burned down the White House.” So, can an American even begin to address Canada’s favourite war?

Lest Doctor Hickey’s American credentials worry the reader, our own Donald Graves, a “proud descendant of Loyalists,” provides an important Foreword. Graves reminds us that we are approaching the bicentennial of the War and that there undoubtedly will appear entire shelves of books attempting to capitalize on this “most confusing and misunderstood event in the history of both Canada and the United States.” The implication is that many of these works will be cashing in on accepted and acceptable mythologies. For Graves, this book offers the reader a solid inoculation against the substitution of heritage for history.

Professor Hickey knows his market, so his book is sufficiently documented, both to satisfy the intelligent reader, and to appease the picky academic. He includes a good selection of maps and a truly excellent chronology of the war that will send more enthusiastic readers to look up obscure, but apparently important, events, such as the Erskine Agreement. Despite this apparent detail, Hickey never loses sight of the fact that this has to be a popular history. It remains clever, clear, and entertaining throughout, and it is chock full of surprises for any American or Canadian with the slightest background knowledge of the war.

Those with no background may feel somewhat disoriented, since the narrative is not entirely chronological. Hickey does begin with the coming of the war, and he ends with its legacy, but since he is dealing with the “myths,” he has to take many detours along the way. Detail for the Battle of Châteauguay, for example, appears, not in the section on campaigns and battles, but is spread over later sections dealing with leadership and soldiers. Similarly, the examination of the coming of war takes an immediate detour into the reputation of Thomas Jefferson, revered by Americans for “articulating the finest aspirations of the American people,” and loved by Canadians for providing the quotable quote that taking Canada was “merely a matter of marching.” Should Canadian readers at this point sense that this is an ‘American-centric’ view of the war, they need to read on, for the author has to unveil the remarkably convoluted American and British geo-political context before Laura Secord can strut her stuff. Moreover, in so doing, he exposes the greatest Canadian myth of all – that the War of 1812 was a war between the British Empire and the United States. ‘Canada’ does not even appear until page 36, and does not become actively involved until page 48.

 Chapters follow on “Major Land Campaigns,” “Maritime War,” “Soldiers, Sailors and Civilians,” and “Mechanics of Waging War.” Each provides an overview and a set of questions that pertain to commonly held assumptions, legends, or myths. Since these questions are listed in the Table of Contents, this allows the sort of casual reading that adds to the charm of the book. It can (and should) be consumed as a six-course meal in which each course builds upon the previous, but its layout also allows it to be treated as a buffet from which the reader can select tasty bits. The tasty bits include questions of interest strategic, (British occupation of Maine), operational, (How decisive was the Battle of X?), and tactical, (Why did Hull surrender Detroit?) as well as questions personal, (Did Brock have a fiancée?), mythical, (Did the British dine at the White House?), and classical, (Who won the Battle of Lundy’s Lane?). The classic or expected questions, like those with respect to the Shannon and the Chesapeake, or the Great Lakes naval arms race, are balanced by the deeper and less expected considerations, such as the huge role played by Nova Scotia privateers and the critical importance of the Royal Navy’s blockade. Chapters on Soldiers, Sailors, and Civilians and Mechanics are the most engrossing because they deal with the issues most distorted by assumption. Hickey illuminates the leaders (the best and the worst), and the various combatants, (Canadian regulars, militia, marines, natives, black servicemen, and women – here, finally, is American-born Laura Secord). He also addresses the unsung heroes, (such as Lieutenants John Gamble and Miller Worsley), and the most hated people of the war (Admiral Cockburn in the United States, and Joseph Willcocks in Canada). Here are the not often discussed influences of tactics, artillery and rockets, rifles and muskets, logistics, forts, deserters, intelligence, and martial law. It is almost sad to discover, for example, that, mythology and romanticism aside, Tecumseh’s fate was likely sealed, not so much by desperate battle, as by the fragility of military supply to an undeveloped wilderness.

For Canadians, the narrative of the war usually ends shortly after Lundy’s Lane, but, for Americans, it drags on another year until the Battle of New Orleans, erroneously believed to have taken place after the war was over. And so, the book ends as it begins, with Anglo-American politics. The drawn-out treaty process allows Hickey to anoint winners and losers of “the war” and “the peace”– a categorization that telegraphs his conclusion. His lengthy wrap-up includes a discussion of casualties on all (British-Canadian, American and Indian) sides (10,000, 15,000, and 10,000 respectively) and a thought-provoking essay on the legacies of the war. Canada seemed to do well – she guaranteed an independent future for British North America – but she also felt ‘the twist of the monkey’s paw’ as this result produced a cocktail of exaggerated loyalty, anti-immigrant fervour, fear of democracy, and, quite soon, open rebellion.

So, does the publisher’s risk pay off? Can an American address a central pillar of Canadian mythology? Will this book provoke readers into reaching for others? Yes. Yes. And you bet.

By the way, it was the American captain of the Chesapeake who uttered the immortal words: “Don’t give up the ship” – just before she was captured and hauled off to Halifax.

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Lieutenant-Colonel Loveridge, an infantry officer, teaches history at the Royal Military College and is currently Senior Staff Officer Learning Management at the Canadian Defence Academy.