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Book Review Essay

Death of Brock at Queenston Heights

Government of Ontario Art Collection, Archives of Ontario, 619871

The Death of Brock at Queenston Heights by Charles William Jefferys.

A Bevy of Books on the War of 1812…

by Major John R. Grodzinski, CD, MA

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Strange Fatality: The Battle of Stoney Creek, 1813
by James Elliot
Montreal: Robin Brass Studio, 2009.
ISBN 1-896491-58-3. $24.95.

A Ruinous and Unhappy War: New England and the War of 1812
by James H. Ellis 
New York: Algora Publishing, 2009
ISBN 0-87586-691-8. $23.95

The United States Army in the War of 1812: Concise Biographies of Commanders and Operational Histories of Regiments with Bibliographies of Published and Primary Sources
by John C. Fredriksen
Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2009
ISBN 0-7864-4143-3. $US45.00

In the Midst of Alarms: The Untold Story of Women in the War of 1812
by Dianne Graves
Montreal: Robin Brass Studio, 2007
ISBN 1-896941-52-3. $39.93

September Eleventh 1814: The Battles at Plattsburgh.
by Keith A. Herkalo
2007. Copies available via <www.battleofplattsburgh.org.>

Niagara 1814: The Final Invasion. Osprey Campaign Series 209
by Jon Latimer
London: Osprey Publishing Limited, 2009
ISBN 1-84603-439-8. $22.95

Capital in Flames: The American Attack on York, 1813
by Robert Malcomson
Montreal: Robin Brass Studio, 2008
ISBN 1-896941-53-2. $39.95.

 

            It is such a pleasure to see so many new titles join the growing collection of literature on the War of 1812. As the bicentennial of the war approaches, historians and writers are busy exploring new topics or providing fresh reassessments of more proven ground. The selection under consideration in this review essay reflects this trend through works by authors from America, Britain, and Canada, exploring a variety of subjects.
           
The year 1813 witnessed many land and naval actions over a wide geographic area, from the Michigan Territory to the frontier of Lower Canada. Various factors left the initiative with the Americans for most of the year, and 1813 may have been the only year of the war where the Americans might have dealt a serious blow to the British. That spring, the Americans commenced a series of amphibious operations around Lake Ontario, aimed at crippling British land and naval power. The first of these was aimed at York, the capital of Upper Canada, followed by an effort to capture British forces in the Niagara Peninsula. In April, York was occupied for several days, and many public buildings were destroyed. A month later, the Americans landed in the Niagara Peninsula, took the major installation of Fort George, but failed to capture the British and Canadian forces stationed there, who withdrew westward to Burlington Bay. The Americans then set off in pursuit, halting at Stoney Creek, near the British position. Their camp was then raided in the early hours of 6 June 1813. This action, combined with a British raid upon the American naval base at Sackets Harbour, produced two effects: the Americans surrendered control of Lake Ontario to the British, and the forces at Stoney Creek were forced to withdraw back to Fort George. The American attack on York, and the British raid at Stoney Creek are now the subject of two new books.

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Robert Malcomson is an accomplished War of 1812 naval historian, and, as of late, he has ventured into writing about land actions. His A Very Brilliant Affair: The Battle of Queenston Heights, 1812 (Toronto: Robin Brass Studio, 2003), was the result of his lifelong study of that battle, while his recent Capital in Flames is the first book-length account of the American attack on York.

Despite a poor showing during the first campaign season of the war, the Americans exploited their control of Lake Ontario to launch the opening offensive moves of 1813: an amphibious attack upon the capital of Upper Canada. It says much of American resolve and ingenuity that they were able to construct a naval squadron, and prepare an assault force in short order for such a complex operation. The land component was led by one of the more able American generals of the period, Zebulon Pike, who, sadly for the Americans, was killed just as he neared Fort York. Malcomson moves between both camps, describing the plans and problems of both sides in equal detail, such as the difficulties in the British camp where the ineffective leadership of Major General Roger Sheaffe, the victor of Queenston Heights and successor to Brock as commander of Upper Canada, left the defences of both York and Kingston in a shambles, and also served to undermine the confidence of his subordinate commanders.

At almost 500 pages including 58 pages of notes, this is a detailed – perhaps too much so – and well-documented campaign study. It does provide considerable context to the situation in Upper Canada during the early months of 1813, and the background to the American attack. The battle itself is covered in some 40 pages. The nine appendices are gems, and they offer detailed orders of battle, casualty lists, and other information, while several specially commissioned maps help the reader follow the narrative. 
           
After leaving York to rest and refit at their base in Sacket’s Harbour, the Americans continued their success with another landing in the Niagara Peninsula, but that high tide of victory ended abruptly on the 6th of June, 1813, with the Battle of Stoney Creek. The battle has since achieved near-mythical status, and while it has been of great interest to historians and enthusiasts alike, no book-length account of it has appeared, at least not until now. James Elliott is an Ontario-based journalist whose interest – some might call it a passion – with respect to this particular battle resulted in his taking leave from work to write the book. Elliott has crafted a fine overview of the situation in the spring of 1813, where the British almost evacuated the Niagara Peninsula and Burlington Bay, to the daring night time raid by some 766 British, Canadian, and Native troops against the 3000-strong American army in its camp at Stoney Creek, just a few miles from the British base atop Burlington Heights.

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The author concludes this was the turning point of the 1813 campaign – which it was, if one includes the British raid at Sackets Harbour for convincing the American naval commander, Commodore Isaac Chauncey, to cease cooperation with the American army near Burlington Bay and return to his base for two months. Chauncey’s departure, combined with the loss of both American brigade commanders at Stoney Creek, convinced the Americans to withdraw from Stoney Creek. Their retreat was further hastened when Commodore Yeo’s British naval squadron appeared offshore and bombarded the American troops. The text runs to 204 pages, and is organized in 41 short chapters, making this an easy, albeit sometimes choppy, read. Supported by several excellent maps and diagrams, a series of appendices that explore a number of themes, including the legend of Billy Green (created as a Canadian hero to stand alongside Laura Secord), the preservation of the battlefield, orders of battle, and lists of casualties, Strange Fatality is a long-needed addition to the literature of the war.

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Readers may be familiar with the late Jon Latimer’s 1812: War with America (London: Belknap Press, 2007), which was a rare British contribution to the literature. Unfortunately, Latimer, who has written on a variety of military subjects, passed away early in 2009, just before the release of his latest title dealing with the 1814 Niagara Campaign. This addition to the popular Osprey Campaign series uses the formula of that series well: good maps and imagery, with a well-written text that provides an overview of the longest and most intense campaign of the northern theatre. The text is based upon the extant secondary literature, with a good synopsis of the strategies, key commanders, and the course of events as it unfolded through the summer of 1814 and its relationship to other campaigns. The end of the war in Europe allowed the British to abandon their defensive strategy and to undertake a number of offensive operations against the Americans, notably at Washington, Castine, Maine, Baltimore, and in the Gulf of Mexico. Readers wishing more detailed study should refer to the battle and campaign studies by Donald E. Graves (Red Coats and Grey Jackets: The Battle of Chippawa, July 1814; Where Right and Glory Lead: The Battle of Lundy’s Lane), Joe Whitehorne’s While Washington Slept: The Battle of Fort Erie,and Richard Barbuto’s Niagara 1814: America Invades Canada).

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As the fighting raged in the Niagara Peninsula during the summer of 1814, a major British offensive was underway against Plattsburgh, New York, culminating in the naval and land battles of 11 September 1814. The defeat of the British naval squadron on Lake Champlain caused the British commander to call off the land attack on Plattsburgh, which had not yet fully developed. Since the attacks of 11 September 2001, these events of 11 September 1814 have taken on a new life in America.  Keith Herkalo’s September Eleventh 1814: The Battles at Plattsburgh,is a significant improvement upon David G. Fitz-Enz’s poorly-researched and misguided The Final Invasion: Plattsburgh the War of 1812’s Most Decisive Battle (New York: Cooper Square Press, 2001). Yet, the focus of the book is with the American side of the campaign, thus offering too little of the British perspective – particularly the important story of the construction of the British naval squadron, and the competition for resources between Lake Ontario and Lake Champlain. Context is everything. Herkalo lives in the Plattsburgh area, and he has studied the campaign for much of his life, uncovering several key aspects of the American defences from 1814.

To the author’s credit, several post-action reports by various commanders are quoted at length and a serious effort was made to undo many of the errors that had crept into the literature, including the myth that the British soldiers were all veterans from Wellington’s Peninsular Army. Herkalo also offers the full text of Lord Bathurst’s important June 1814 instructions to Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost, the governor and commander-in-chief of British North America, that signal the changing British strategy for that year – namely, to secure the frontier of Canada and to eliminate potential mounting bases from where attacks into Canada could be staged. The goal was not, as is popularly believed, to cut up and occupy territory within the United States. The War of 1812 was not a second war of independence.

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John C. Fredriksen is a noted author of several titles on the War of 1812. The United States Army in the War of 1812 is his first book-length study on the subject; previously published works have focused more upon matters of dress and equipment, including Canadian René Chartrand’s excellent and difficult to find Uniforms and Equipment of the United States Forces in the War of 1812 (Niagara Falls, NY: Old Fort Niagara Association, 1992), as well as two titles in the Osprey Men-at-Arms Series. Fredriksen is known for his expertise with archival sources, and, in this book, he provides a useful and important reference on the US Army of the period. Between November 1811 and July 1814, the US Army expanded from an authorized strength of 9921 all ranks, to over 62,000 men. One can imagine the difficulties this brought, especially during wartime; the US Army faced numerous internal challenges in finding suitable unit and formation commanders, selecting a common doctrine, developing strategy, and supporting its armies in the field. Fredriksen examines all these elements, from the office of the commander- in-chief, through various senior appointments and the combat arms (artillery, cavalry, engineers, infantry, and rifles), followed by an overview of archival and manuscript depositories. For example, there are entries for all 48 regiments of infantry raised during the war, showing where they were raised and recruited, a synopsis of their service and battle honours, and lists showing primary and secondary sources for each unit, making this an extremely useful reference work.

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The War of 1812 was also noteworthy for the social/cultural/political division it created in the United States. Few, if any, wars have been completely popular in America and this particular conflict witnessed political and regional divisions, especially with the four states that, at the time, comprised New England. James Ellis’s A Ruinous and Unhappy War is certainly not the first book on this topic, but, as the author notes in his introduction: “New England’s contradictory and controversial roles in this peculiar war form a fascinating account worth reviewing” (p. 2). Federalist-dominated New England continually badgered the Democratic/Republican-dominated federal government and challenged its conduct of the war, while refusing its militias permission to serve under federal authority. Dissension grew as the economic cost of the war was felt in the region, and as the British blockade significantly diminished New England trade. Following a career with the federal government, Ellis turned his attention to regional history. This is a well-researched, balanced, and scholarly study of yet another fascinating element of the war.

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The final entry is a new work by Dianne Graves, author of a well-received study of John McCrae (Crown of Life: The World of John McCrae, St Catherines, ON: Vanwell Publishing, 1997). In the Midst of Alarms is a well-researched and written examination of American, British, and Aboriginal women and their experiences during the war. Beginning with an overview of a woman’s lot in the Georgian world, she then examines the themes of courtship and marriage, domestic life, childbirth, employment, then social interaction in garrison, onboard ship, in the field and at home, using excerpts from the diaries, letters, and memoirs of army wives, naval wives, mothers, sisters, and other women. Thus we learn of junior officers in Kingston or Montreal, with “…nothing but a Guinea,” courting, often unsuccessfully, women of “haughty beauty” (p. 70, 71); of women who ventured below decks of naval vessels as “…the object of sailors affections, with beer cans in hand,” who were known to “…wave their petticoats to the flagship” (p. 194). There are poignant stories, such as that of Mrs. Moorsom, whose son Henry, a lieutenant with the 104th Foot, was lost at Lundy’s Lane on 25 July 1814. He was the fifth of five sons, all officers, lost by Mrs Moorsom that left her “…and her daughters with the kind of grief that few are called upon to bear.” (p. 354)

This is a rich and varied history that not only tells the story of these women,  wives, sisters, lovers, and mothers, offering considerable insight into the officers, soldiers, and sailors, who, while on campaign or in garrison, shared as many concerns about their loved ones as they do today. As such, this is a pioneering work and one that anyone interested in the War of 1812 should read

I must conclude by noting the significant contribution of Robin Brass Studio to the literature of the War of 1812. This small, one-man publishing house excels at the little-understood world of book design, combining superb editing (another dying skill) a stable of fine authors, cartographers, and artists that has produced some 13 excellent books on the war, many of which had received international praise. Three of the titles in this review are products of the Robin Brass Studio, along with other titles on the Seven Years’ War, the two world wars, general campaign studies, and branch or arm specific histories. Well done!

ADDENDUM:  It is with regret that we acknowledge the recent death of Robert Malcomson, who passed away on 21 July 2009 in St. Catharines, Ontario. Just before his death, Bob was awarded the John Lyman Book Award for Canadian Naval and Military History.

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John Grodzinski teaches history at the Royal Military College, where he is also a doctoral candidate. He also leads battlefield tours focusing upon the War of 1812.

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