There Can Only Be One
By Alan Taylor
For most nations, the designation ‘Civil War’ is singular, an epochal hinge in the country’s history. Russia: 1917-21; Spain: 1936-39; Vietnam 1955-75. One conflict, or perhaps a related series of discontinuous conflicts, defines a story of countrymen against themselves, ultimately forging a “unified” national identity by raising one competing vision over the rest. Under any social microscope, wartime contentions become a myriad of political, religious, racial, and moral divisions, and it is no secret that war splits regions, civilian populations, even families.
The War of 1812 easily fits this description. Fought between the nascent United States and the British Empire, the war is often considered an afterthought or extension of the Revolutionary War. Republican and imperial ideologies were pitted against each other, largely as part of the greater global conflict surrounding the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars that began shortly after the end of fighting in the American colonies. But with only half a generation between the wars in America, the wounds were still closing, and the boundaries between peoples were ill-defined. The same language, a shared history, and unmatched levels of trade and commerce between the two nations made the distinctions that much more difficult. After all, Americans were the progeny of British imperialism, and none of the changes that separate the two nations today was to occur overnight.
In The Civil War of 1812, Alan Taylor determines that the War of 1812 took place on three separate battlegrounds: the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, the high seas, and the borderlands between Canada and the United States, stretching from Montreal to Detroit. Taylor’s book focuses on this third stage, returning us to his insightful analysis of the New York frontier that established his accolades as a Bancroft and Pulitzer-Prize winning historian in his 1996 book William Cooper’s Town. Most of the ground fights occurred in that region where “the republic and the empire competed for the allegiance of the peoples in North America—native, settler, and immigrant,” and nowhere else were the demographic lines more blurred than along that frontier. American migrants, first loyalists displaced by the Revolution, then “Late Loyalists” enticed by postwar British land grants, crossed the border to Upper Canada (now Ontario), and the Native Americans chose to cast their allegiances with whomever promised to better defend the interests of their nominally independent nations or reservations, depending on which side of the artificially, newly carved borders of formerly united British North America they resided.While Taylor admits that to call the War of 1812 a “civil war” is “jarring” for our 21st-century thinking, he insists that it was “a civil war between competing visions of America: one still loyal to the empire and the other defined by its republican revolution against that empire.” To illustrate his point, he looks at the four groups in his subtitle—Americans, Britons, Irish, and Native Americans—each to be found on either side of the conflict at any given moment during the war from 1812 to 1815.
The racial and ethnic divisions are the most interesting part of Taylor’s study. In fact, the establishment and subsequent treatment of identity is one of the main differences between republican and imperial state-building. Early in the days of the republic, there was a strong, nationalist need to strictly define who was in and who was out, and much of today’s criticism of the early political system stems from its failure to incorporate all identities under a democratic embrace of difference. By contrast, Taylor points out that “[m]anaging ethnic divisions was the essence of empire,” and the British used sympathies of habitants, Frenchmen leftover in British North America from the Seven Years War, and Native allegiances, especially, to manipulate anti-American sentiment and control those Britons who might feel that the grass was greener on the republican side.
None of this is to suggest an idealist sense of British identity politics. The most cited cause of the war was British impressment of sailors into their Navy, under the justification that, as Taylor puts it:
Britain’s rulers insisted that no one born a subject could renounce that identity and its duties. Allegiance began at birth and ended only in death. No emigration, not even a legal process of naturalization, could alienate a subject. Throughout life, the ‘natural-born subject’ remained obligated to serve the king in time of war. And the subject became a traitor if he fought against the sovereign of the kingdom of his birth.
Expatriates from either side were to be found crossing the border, and with the aforementioned similarities in language and origin, during a time that preceded the passport, who was going to stop them? The British resisted American naturalization of immigrants from Canada, Ireland, and Great Britain itself, claiming that it was within their rights to recapture natural-born subjects. The practice intensified with the start of the war with France in the 1790s, as a vast navy was needed to maintain British trade and defense across its empire; demand greatly exceeded supply. And yes, an American citizen could rightly go back to Britain, but not the other way around. Often it was the Irish who were caught in this crossfire, and the Irish were everywhere across the Canadian-American border. British consul Thomas Barclay, himself an American-born loyalist, “dreaded that every Irish emigrant reinforced American republicanism and deprived the British empire of valuable labor and a potential soldier or sailor.” And furthermore, “in 1803 Parliament limited the number of persons that any vessel could carry away from Great Britain, reducing the Irish migration to America.”
This treatment against the Irish, whom the British felt to be sowing additional seeds of anarchy in a lawless republic, gave them more of a home amongst Americans who despised the influence of empire. Finding sympathy with the rising Republican party, who maintained control of the presidency, Congress, and most state governments after 1801, Irishmen were defended from impressment under the auspices of America as a free land for free men. Taylor underlines the racial paradox especially well by noting:
During the summer of 1807 some runaway slaves rowed out to the British warships off Norfolk. The fugitives volunteered to serve in the Royal Navy in return for their freedom. While Irish sailors escaped from the British warships, regarded as floating prisons, American slaves fled to those vessels as portals to freedom. A “land of liberty” for white men, the American republic sustained slavery for African-Americans.
The weight given to race by the Americans was perplexing to the British, who derided the class of the Irish. Because “Republicans defended liberty for white men by restraining national power, while Britons nurtured imperial power by constraining liberty particularly for sailors,” the two sides clashed over the ways in which they viewed the white man’s body and the value of their respective citizens and subjects.
Meanwhile, once the fighting began in earnest, the British called upon the loyalties of the Native Americans, Shawnee and Haudenosaunee (Iroquois/Six Nations) to help them against the invading Americans in Upper Canada. This tactic was especially useful against Americans who were utterly terrified of the warriors. “Conditioned by childhood stories, soldiers expected the worst whenever they heard, saw, or imagined Indians,” and several battles and skirmishes were easily bungled by American terror. Once again, the British and American governments positioned themselves on opposite ideological sides: the British partnership with the Natives led to American accusations of British “savagery;” and the scalp-for-scalp Kentuckians, known as “Big Knives” to the Natives, were militiamen, objects of British contempt that proved the Americans were not innocent of committing atrocious acts. Eventually, Americans enlisted the help of other Haudenosaunee nations while hypocritically maintaining their racism against the Natives and their British, race-traitor associates on the other side.
When the war ended, it did not so much declare absolute victory for either side as it did more clearly define the national differences between the Americans and the Britons in Canada. Americans had seen their Canadian counterparts as needing liberation from the constraints of empire, and the majority of people in Anglo-dominant Upper Canada were American-born farmers that had defected during the waves of loyalist migration. Content with simplicity, they were largely indifferent to the conflict between republican and imperial ideologies at the onset of war, favoring the tides of battle rather than propaganda. But with neither side making significant and lasting advances into the other’s territory, the Canadians first threw in their support with the British, and over time, grew more resentful of the American forces plundering their lands for wartime survival. The special attention to the micro-level interactions between soldiers and citizens is what sets Taylor’s book apart from previous studies. He is heavy on examples that ultimately slow the reading pace, but in order to convey his point, the full history of well-known facts and obscure detail combine to show how the once artificial boundary between the U.S. and Canada hardened from disparities in the civilian populations. Ultimately, the two sides came to acknowledge themselves as similar but decidedly living on separate grounds:
In memory, the war became a great transforming divide in Upper Canadians’ sense of themselves….Geography as well as time became more divided. Formerly negligible in local minds, the border became a power divide separating recent enemies committed to rival governments.
In our historical memory, Taylor criticizes the narratives that cast “the Americans fighting the British as distinct nations … the patriotic historians obscured the civil war waged for the future of the empire and of the continent, a civil war that had divided Americans, Indians, and the Irish during a lingering age of revolution.” From the exhaustively researched evidence he presents, Taylor’s argument is most convincing; however, it is exactly the lingering revolutionary age and the racial politics of the later nineteenth century that prevent our understanding of multiple civil wars in American history.
Now as we approach the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, on which, along with President Lincoln, more books are written than any other subject in our history, the civil war of 1812 will once again quickly fade into obscurity. The Civil War pitted the entire nation, against itself, modernizing transportation and warfare, and, at last, confronting head-on the racial identities that turned its path from republican exclusivity towards national inclusivity. Already dropped on the way from 1812 were the Natives:
All too soon, the British forgot that the Indians had helped to save Canada from the American invasions in 1812 and 1813. By intimidating American troops, the warriors had done more to foil the invaders than had the Canadian militia, but a postwar myth glorified the militia and degraded the Indians….Embarrassed by American propaganda, the British officers sought to distance themselves from allies increasingly disdained as savages.
Here, we see the prelude to the tragic fates of Native tribes during the Jacksonian era, underscored by Andrew Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans at the book’s end. But even as one race was removed from the picture, America’s racial divisions were still contentious in its foundling state. Leading up to the Civil War, the territorial, and technological advances of the first half of the nineteenth century transformed America, but its enfranchisement—politically, socially, and economically—far more closely resembled that of its colonial days. If anything, Anglo domination was reinforced by the Native alienation. The war of 1812 was a step, but it did not build the framework that we now draw upon as a foundational and central event of our nation’s history. The Civil War is a war too important to marginalize or categorize by comparison with any other. That is, the Civil War tells the story of our bloodiest conflict, a one-sided triumph that birthed the new, modern America of the Reconstruction era. When we think of the battle between republic and empire, we think of the American Revolution. When we think of the battle over race, it’s the Civil War. 1812 quietly falls somewhere between.
Ivan Lett works for Yale University Press and is a freelance writer living in New York.