The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent

  • J. C. A. Stagg
  • The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent
  • 240 pp.
  • June 25, 2012

An outstanding introduction to the historian's craft, and a narrative overview of the significant causes, events and outcomes of the war.

Visit the War of 1812 Exhibit at The National Portrait Gallery

Reviewed by Robert Swan

The War of 1812 lives in the popular imagination as a series of lively anecdotes, most involving Dolly Madison liberating herself and the president from the White House in time to avoid a conflagration ignited by malicious Red Coats. But J. C. A. Stagg argues for the war’s importance in helping create a strong national identity for the United States. Further, Stagg supplies a cogent analysis of the war from a variety of perspectives — social, political and economic — as well as from the point of view of two groups (Canadians and Native Americans) for whom the war represented a watershed.

The perspectival view is the key to why The War of 1812: Conflict of a Continent is worth reading. The book is part of the Cambridge Essential Histories series and has a didactic aim that extends beyond the analysis of the War of 1812 itself. One openly stated goal is to provide a model for the historian’s craft.

To belabor an obvious point — banal but easily and frequently forgotten — there are historical facts, but they do not constitute the academic discipline of history. A historian must deal with serious epistemic questions involving not only how one can make a legitimate claim about what happened historically, but also about the meaning of what happened.

Stagg does an excellent job illustrating the way the perception and study of historical events morphs over time, according to the historian’s priorities and the society from which he or she comes. For example, America’s historians began by viewing the war as a second American Revolution. Conceived in this way, the war became embedded in the popular culture of the United States and was a contributing factor in the development of a unique American identity while the nation was still very young. However, as time passed, the interpretation of the war altered. In a fascinating discussion on Henry Adams' (1838–1918) impact on the assessment of the war, Stagg notes that Adams helped fundamentally alter the idea of the conflict as a hallowed symbol of American greatness. Adams focused on the mistakes, miscues, mismanagement and confusion in the conduct of a war that, according to Adams, the United States essentially started without knowing exactly why, conducted without knowing exactly how, and from which we escaped barely intact, essentially by accident and luck.

In addition to analyzing the historiography of the war from the American, British and Canadian perspectives, Stagg provides a clear, cogent narrative overview chronicling major events of the conflict. Odds were overwhelmingly against the United States from the start. Britain controlled an empire that encompassed not only the vast expanses of what were then known as Upper and Lower Canada, but also India and the Caribbean as well. In 1812 the British navy employed over 900 ships requiring approximately 130,000–140,000 sailors; the U.S. navy had 16 ships. Since the British Isles couldn’t supply the manpower needs of the navy, the impressment of sailors from other navies — including, unfortunately, the neutral United States — was a necessity. In 1812, the British army was over 250,000 men strong; in 1812 the U.S. army had about 5,000 soldiers.

In addition to the disparity in numbers and overall quality of troops, systemic problems and internecine political struggles plagued America’s war effort from the start. Unlike Britain, whose (unwritten) constitutional structures were long established, institutional relationships in the United States taken for granted today were still developing in 1812. Lines of authority were by no means certain, clear or unquestioned. The War of 1812 involved periodic tussles between field commanders over assertions of authority in a given battle; generals of state militia questioning and even disobeying orders of federally appointed commanders; a lack of coordination between the army and the navy in reference to military objectives, and even in some cases a refusal of the navy to support an army commander’s aims; difficulties in raising troops; difficulties keeping troops in the field once their initial enlistments expired; and worst of all, the necessity of President Madison to take into consideration the pressures emanating from Federalist and Republican camps in both houses of Congress. Sectarian accusations of geographical bias in the president’s decision-making were also endemic. One prominent example was the assertion that Madison, a Virginian, determined to sacrifice the interests of New England because of political opposition in the region. Madison also had repeated problems financing the war, as the expedient of massive loans (resulting in massive public debt) engendered a substantial degree of alarm in some quarters. All of this hampered America’s ability to successfully prosecute the war.

Several factors contributed to averting complete disaster for the United States. The disparity in manpower between the United States and Great Britain was to some degree illusory. British Redcoats were stretched thin worldwide, guarding the British Empire against the depredations of Napoleonic France. In fact, Britain had only about 5,600 regulars in Upper and Lower Canada. The British did not entirely trust the 86,000 strong Canadian militia on whom they had to rely for the bulk of their infantry manpower needs during the war. The Royal Navy was likewise overstretched. Though the American army was small, the United States had an overwhelming population superiority over the British citizens in “the two Canadas” (7,500,000 to 300,000, respectively). Additionally, Britain was pressured by the necessity of prosecuting a full-scale war against Napoleon Bonaparte at least until 1815, and by the need to maintain its vast commercial interests all over the world. As it was, with the ruin of Napoleon, the urgency to impress America’s sailors and to embargo American trade evaporated along with many of the commercial issues that led to the war in the first place. The war ended as it did not because America achieved a decisive victory, or because the British did not have the resources and manpower to continue the war beyond 1815, but because it was in the interests of both parties to return to the status quo antebellum, though the British never renounced impressment as a policy.

For Native Americans and Canadians, the War of 1812 had serious and lasting consequences. Stagg claims that the war made possible the formation of a separate Canadian, as opposed to strictly British, identity, “at least for the English-speaking, if not necessarily for the Francophone, population,” and the Canadian Confederation of 1867. For Native Americans in the United States, the war was a disaster. Native American lands were mercilessly cropped in peace settlements after the war. Never again would an effective coalition of tribal forces oppose American expansion. Native Americans could also no longer expect to be used as a military force in conflicts between the United States and Great Britain, which nullified their bargaining power.

This volume is not for people looking for a narrative history of the War of 1812 replete with fascinating historical anecdotes. But this splendid little book is an outstanding introduction to the historian’s craft, the major historiographical issues related to the War of 1812, and a narrative overview, with serious analysis, of the most significant events of the war, its causes, course and conclusion.

Robert Swan teaches history and philosophy in the International Baccalaureate program at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Md.

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