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Book Reviews

Historical Dictionary Of The War Of 1812

by Robert Malcomson

Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2006
741 pages, US$141.71(hardcover, maps, images, bibliography)
ISBN 0-8108-5499-6

Review by Major John R. Grodzinski, CD

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Book CoverThe year 2007 marks the bicentennial of the incident that sparked the fire that would eventually burst into the War of 1812. On 22 June 1807, the Royal Navy vessel HMS Leopard intercepted and fired upon USS Chesapeake, claiming the American vessel carried deserters. During the 10 minutes Chesapeake was fired upon, three of her crewmen were killed and another 15 were wounded. The British then boarded Chesapeake and seized four suspected deserters, one of whom was later hanged at Halifax. As the nationality of the other three could not be determined, they were imprisoned. One of them died in custody, while the other two returned to the United States in 1812. Not surprisingly, the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair brought a new low to Anglo-American relations. American ports were closed subsequently to British warships, and a trade embargo commenced in December 1807.

It is understandable that the approaching bicentennial of the War of 1812 brings a number of books on that conflict to the shelves. The Historical Dictionary of the War of 1812 is a welcome addition to this new literature, and it offers a handy and useful reference guide to the war. It is the 31st dictionary published by Scarecrow Press’ series Historical Dictionaries of War, Revolution and Civil Unrest, and, in many ways, it is a much better effort than David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler’s Encyclopaedia of the War of 1812, (ABC-CLIO, 1997), as it offers a more balanced view of events and incorporates more British and Canadian sources.

Robert Malcomson is a retired elementary school teacher who has had a life-long passion for the history of the age of fighting sail and the War of 1812. He is the author of many articles, monographs, and books, and among his War of 1812 titles are A Very Brilliant Affair: The Battle of Queenston Heights, (Robin Brass Studio, 2003) and Lords of the Lake: The Naval War on Lake Ontario, 1812 – 1814, (Robin Brass Studio, 1998), which the Canadian Historical Review called “a first class piece of work.” In retirement, Malcomson devotes most of his time to research, writing and speaking on naval matters and the War of 1812.

Each entry within the Historical Dictionary of the War of 1812 includes a description of varied length, and most of them offer multiple cross-references to other entries. For example, the entry for the Skirmish at Cook’s Mills, Upper Canada – one of the last engagements between American and British forces in the Niagara Peninsula during 1814, and a little-studied battle – runs almost two pages and has 33 cross-references to other entries, including biographical information, unit histories, military terminology, and weaponry. Several subjects also have more than one entry, such as the British schooner Nancy, which includes a general entry on her history, and another dealing with her destruction on the Nottawasaga River in Georgian Bay in 1814.

The book commences with a chronology of events beginning in 1803, when Britain and France were again at war upon termination of the Treaty of Amiens, and continues until September 1815. Although the treaty ending the War of 1812 was signed on Christmas Eve 1814, it took some time to ratify it and to get the word out to all to cease hostilities. This was, after all, an age when information moved at the speed of a horse or a sailing vessel. While not every event can be included, the chronology is very useful. An introduction provides an overview of the War of 1812, including its causes and major actions, and Malcomson uses this section to highlight some of the ongoing debates about the war and the shortfalls in the extant literature.

The bibliography is a particularly useful aid for further research. This 74-page section commences with a brief examination of the literature available on the War of 1812, and it is organized into 10 subject areas, one of which notes the growing utility of the World Wide Web as a research tool and the number of web-based resources that offer quality information. There is also a brief section on software reference material. Published documentary collections are included, but not document collections. For that, researchers will still have to refer to the revised edition of J. Mackay Hitsman’s Incredible War of 1812, (Robin Brass, 2000).

The only real shortfalls to the Historical Dictionary of the War of 1812 are the maps and illustrations. Three maps are displayed at the beginning of the book, and others appear throughout the text. The first map, John Melish’s “The Seat of War in North America,” is almost impossible to read. This map is accompanied by one of the Chesapeake Bay theatre, and two maps depicting the New Orleans campaign. Why were they placed at the beginning of the book and not with the appropriate entries? Other maps, mainly from Benson J. Lossing’s Pictorial Field Book of the War of 1812, published in 1868, appear with entries about specific battles, and they are of better quality. The publisher could have taken the opportunity to commission a series of new maps, or used those from newer sources, reflecting the fruits of recent research that would have better complemented the entries.

The illustrations depict events (such as the signing of the Treaty of Ghent in December 1814), naval actions (including the capture of the US sloops Eagle and Growler, and the British attack on Oswego), battles (such as Fort Meigs, the Châteauguay, and New Orleans) and individuals, such Major-General Andrew Jackson as the American commander at New Orleans, and Major-General Jacob Brown, commander of the American division that invaded the Niagara Peninsula in 1814. Major-General Sir Isaac Brock is found in one illustration, although his image accompanies the entry for the Capture of Detroit and not that for Brock. One would have hoped for at least one portrait of the Captain-General and Governor-in-Chief of British North America, Lieutenant-General Sir George Prevost, but alas, there is none. However, this is not an illustrated history, so these criticisms should be considered as minor, and they do not detract from the text. The strength of this dictionary lies with the hundreds of entries that are well crafted, making it a highly useful research and reference tool.

Overall, this book is well researched, finely presented and extremely useful. The format and size make it easy to use, or to bring along on a battlefield study or research trip. Most general readers would find the price prohibitive, but for those interested generally in this period, or in the War of 1812 specifically, the Historical Dictionary of the War of 1812 is a necessary addition to their library.

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Major John R. Grodzinski, an armoured officer, teaches history at the Royal Military College of Canada, and is working toward a doctorate dealing with the War of 1812.