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Publisher's Summary

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Alan Taylor tells the riveting story of a war that redefined North America. In a world of double identities, slippery allegiances, and porous borders, the leaders of the American Republic and the British Empire struggled to control their own diverse peoples. Taylor’s vivid narrative of an often brutal—sometimes farcical—war reveals much about the tangled origins of the United States and Canada.
©2010 Alan Taylor (P)2010 Recorded Books, LLC
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful
5 out of 5 stars
By margot on 04-22-12

A proper history of an obscure epoch

The only things missing in this book are an in-depth treatment of the burning of Washington DC, the "rockets' red glare" in Baltimore harbor, the shelling of Stonington, CT, and the Battle of New Orleans. But most of these things were minor sideshows to the real war, and of course New Orleans happened after the war had officially ended.

Otherwise I can't praise this enough as a compelling and informative history. Its thesis is that the American Revolution did not really end in 1781 or 1783; that certain British interests saw the USA as a temporary aberration, and sought to exploit its disorganization and economic slump during the 1780s-90s.

The real origins of the War of 1812 were not the usual background causes we are told about--impressment of seamen, trade with France--but rather the British government's basic failure to comply with its undertakings in the Treaty of Paris (they did not actually give up the western and Great Lakes forts they were supposed to evacuate) and their persistent harassment of American settlers on the western frontier. Added to this was the British attempt to siphon off thousands of Americans into Upper Canada by offering 200 free acres to anyone who wanted it.

This is where most of the early 19th century Ontario settlers came from, by the way: they were Americans from New England and Upstate New York who took the free-land offer. They were not Brits and they were not exiled Tories. (Very few Revolutionary War Tories went to Canada in any event; Tories had mainly gone to the Acadian provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, which were not part of Canada.)

Most of the War of 1812 was about the Americans' attempt to take over Upper Canada, or Ontario, which then as now thrust itself like an arm into the north-central USA. The Americans had a very good case. Most of the inhabitants were actually Americans, the British had no clear claim on the land, and in fact the only real interest the British had in the region was to use it as a staging area for taking America back.

So what happened? Why was Ontario not taken? The answer is that the American forces were poorly prepared and slightly provisioned, no match for the seasoned Redcoats at Detroit and York and Niagara. That's really all it was. But this loss paid off big dividends in the development of the American forces. The new academy at West Point was quickly transformed into a serious institution of military training after 1812, as a direct result of the woeful experiences during the war.

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11 of 12 people found this review helpful

4 out of 5 stars
By Red Jem on 04-27-12


What did you love best about Civil War of 1812?

Well, written and more balanced than usual.

What three words best describe Andrew Garman’s voice?

Measured, well-enunciated, but with occasional mispronunciations,

Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?


Any additional comments?

Given that the author is an American historian, he is reasonably even-handed and does not portray the War of 1812 in the usual starry-eyed, "it was a glorious victory really" style of most American history. He does, however, occasionally fall into that habit Americans have of portraying the British as a mere foil against which Americans tested their fitness for greatness. He also makes some annoying mistakes which a serious historian should not make, even when talking about a foreign power - he keeps referring to the "imperial lords" (I think he means the British Government) and on one occasion refers to "Lord Wellington". Who? The real strength of the book is to point out the complexities of American motives for the war. He places front and centre the objective of breaking British power in North America, the destruction of Indian resistance (both closely interconnected) and the possible windfall outcome of those objectives, the absorption of Upper Canada. He does not sugar-coat the fiasco that was the American Army's performance on the Canadian frontier. For those looking for a general history of the war, they will be disappointed that he does not cover the naval war or British amphibious operations against American shores in any depth (for this, from a British perspective, see Latimer, "The Challenge"). Similarly, although he is excellent on the internal politics of Canada and the US, he does little to explore the economic effects of the war on the US, probably the key issue of the time.He is also very good on the conclusion to the war, and in particular the British Government's sudden switch from holding out tough terms from the Americans to essentially giving the US everything it wanted. Interestingly, he suggests this switch came after Wellington advised to give the US whatever it wanted, and concentrate on the real issues in Europe. Perhaps Mr. Taylor should have subtitled his book "How the Duke of Wellington Saved the Republic"!

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9 of 10 people found this review helpful

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