200 Years On: How the British, Irish, Canadians and Americans Went At It

In the news this week: British embassy forced to apologise after BBQ 'celebrates' the 200t.... The story, and our post below, recall the fascinating triangulation during this 'second war of American Independence,' when something akin to a free for all erupted. ...

Excerpts From 'The Civil War of 1812'

Review By Séamas Ó Sionnaigh

The War of 1812 between the nascent United States of America and the British Empire is a conflict unfamiliar to the majority of people outside of North America, yet in the histories of the United States and Canada this contest of wills for control of the continent played a crucial role in the emergence of the nation states that we know today.

And so this ignoble conflict, with Britain's military bedeviled by vast supply lines and sparse supporting population, and America by a divided and inept war effort, is worthy fodder for University of California at Davis professor Alan Taylor's landmark history "The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish ... (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, October 2010, 640 pp.)

Click on image to the right to buy the book.

In the years after the American Revolution (1774-1783) an uneasy peace existed between the fractious new Republic and its sullen former colonial masters who continued to hold sway over the great mass of territory to the north of the United States. Politically, the nation was divided between those who favored a strong system of federal governance and those who preferred a looser system of confederation enshrined in the supposed 'sovereignty' of the founding states of the Union. This ideological rivalry, formulized in the respective political factions of Federalists and Republicans, was to have long-term effects on the development of the nation. It was, in fact, one of the factors leading to the 'real' American Civil War of 1861-1865. Arguably, it has never gone away as many in the United States' Republican Party posit the merits of low taxation and decentralized authority.

The people of Canada, on the other hand, were largely wedded to the idea of Empire, despite the presence of dissenting minorities in the form of the French and Native American

communities, who at different times worked with or against the British. This generally pro-British population was bolstered by the influx of tens of thousands of displaced 'Loyalists,' former inhabitants of the southern neighbor who had remained loyal to the British Empire, unable to reconcile themselves to the new regime.

Massachusetts native Laura Secord warning British Lt. James FitzGibbon of an impending American attack, June 1813, painted by Lorne Kidd Smith (1920). Secord's father fought with the Patriots during the American Revolution before emigrating to Canada a decade later, about the time in Ireland that FitzGibbon enlisted in the British army. FitzGibbon commanded the "Irish Greens," a company of rangers in Canada. Click on the picture for a larger version.

Some Loyalists had actively opposed independence, forming a 'counter-revolutionary' movement of their own, and as a consequence the American Revolution had in many regions been reduced to internecine warfare as American fought American, for and against the British Empire. In Canada, these irreconcilables found a warm welcome, as the British lavished special favors and grants on them, bolstering what remained of their still vast North American colony with a population they believed would be irredeemably hostile to all ideas of republicanism and 'Americanism.'

The British themselves looked on at the United States of America with contempt or condescension: Most believed it was inevitable that the rebellious colonies returned to the Empire as their upstart new republic failed. While some were content to wait out the new nation's implosion, others were not so patient and intrigued with any potential allies they could find, not least among the Federalist factions.

Along the disputed border between empire and republic existed a tangled pattern of communities of all loyalties and none, with strong social and economic links that defied any strict lines of demarcation, and where patriotism and self-interest were to be found in equal measure. Here nationalities, ethnicities, languages and religions met, clashed and melded, creating a theater of war and politics with a dynamism of its own. Americans and Canadian of all sides and none vied for power and opportunity, but they were not alone, for two other influnces in the struggle were to soon come into play.

Tecumseh, the best known Native American ally of the British, by Benson John Lossing (1868)

The first was the Native American tribes. Largely despised and feared by the United States, they had been courted and manipulated by the British Empire for decades, and the War of 1812 represented the apogee of their influence on the continent. Struggling to maintain their independence in the face of the ever-increasing expansionism of white American and European settlers, the conflict along the border saw them weave an adroit campaign of diplomacy and alliance-making that allowed them to pursue their own interests until, betrayed from within and without, they were subjugated by all sides.

The second was the flow of Irish immigrants into the United States, in the nation's first decade become a flood by the late 1700s and early 1800s, particularly after the British had suppressed a series of insurrections across Ireland by Nationalist and Republican movements (principally the Society of the United Irishmen). These conflicts had created a population of Irish refugees around the world frequently imbued with a deep antipathy toward Britain, perhaps more so than at any other time since the 'Wild Geese' émigrés of the 16th and 17th centuries, and the Irish as a whole became closely identified with anti-British agitation whereever they went.

With over half of all migrants to the United States from 1783 to 1820 coming from Ireland, this population soon became the focus of the competing factions of American politics. While Irish immigrants frequently faced hostility from the Federalist class, they were often wooed by their Republican rivals. Federalists feared the mainly Irish Gaelic-speaking and Roman Catholic immigrants for their perceived alienness and sometimes destitute status, and as potentially disruptive to the balance of power in the Republic. Republicans, on the other hand, saw the Irish as footsoldiers to be exploited in the ongoing contest of wills, not just with their political rivals but with the British, too. As the United States and Britain moved toward armed conflict, the Irish and American Indian populations were to have outsized influences in the war's outcome.

The Battle of New Orleans, the final battle of the War of 1812, depicted by Edward Percy Moran (1910). Click on picture for a larger version.

Despite the complexity of the subject, Alan Taylor's 'The Civil War of 1812' is a highly readable account of the conflict, with a clear sense of authorial voice and direction. If any criticism could be made, it may be that Taylor's informative narrative is more accessible to an American or Canadian audience than an international one, with points made and presumed understood. However, it would be churlish not to recognize the mass of detail in this history and the eloquence of the writing, so often missing from the works of other academics, as well as the many questions it offers for consideration.

The United States and Canada as we know them now were by no means inevitable. The two colonial nations of the North American continent could have easily, very easily, turned out quite differently. As the United States goes through some turbulent times with the divisions between left and right seeming to grow, and as the demands from some quarters for a return to the perceived or claimed ideals of the 'Founding Fathers' bring the early 19th century political divisions of the United States into an early 21st century setting, those demagogues who hide behind patriotic soundbites would do well to read histories, real histories, like 'The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, and Indian Allies.' In this hefty, sometimes amusing, always thought-provoking volume, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Taylor ("William Cooper's Town") has done his nation an admirable service. WGT

The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish R...
by Alan Taylor
Hardcover Price: $21.94
640 pages
Knopf, October 2010

Related Resources:

Further Reading:

Writing on Ireland's language, history and politics from an Irish Republican point of view, Séamas Ó Sionnaigh also contributes to Prog464.com, the Irish Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror website. He can often be found sitting on an ancient burial mound somewhere in Ireland, reading a tattered copy of the Táin Bó Cuaille while cursing the lack of decent mobile broadband signal for his laptop.

This feature was edited by Gerry Regan and produced by Joe Gannon.

Copyright © 2011 by Séamas Ó Sionnaigh and GAR Media LLC. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed without prior permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to permissions@garmedia.com.

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Tags: 1812, Books, Britain, Canada, History, Immigration, Military, Publishing, Reviews, States, More…United


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