Strange Indeed: The War of 1812

 

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Alan Taylor is back with a revealing book, thanks in part to his Colby advisor

By Douglas Rooks '76
 

Taylor book
The Civil War of 1812
Alan Taylor ’77
Knopf (2010)

The late 1970s were “a bleak period to be entering graduate school,” said historian Alan Taylor ’77. Colleges weren’t hiring faculty, especially in the humanities, and undergraduates like Taylor worried that a Ph.D. in history might lead to little more than student loans.

Enter Professor Harold Raymond, then chair of Colby’s History Department. Raymond read Taylor’s senior thesis on Maine’s role in the War of 1812. The professor “saw something in me,” Taylor said. “He was enormously encouraging and convinced me to take a shot at it.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

Now a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and a professor at the University of California-Davis, Taylor has added to the considerable scope of his work in his new book,The Civil War of 1812, returning to that largely forgotten war, fought between British and American forces from 1812 to 1815. His thesis is so original that it prompts the reader to reexamine what it means to be an American and how we mentally divide a continent that until then was politically undefined.

In a review, Gordon Wood, perhaps the dean of historical writing on early America, called Taylor “one of America’s most distinguished historians,” and praised the book as “remarkable and deeply researched” while “masterfully captur[ing] the strangeness of this war.”

It was strange indeed, and next year’s bicentennial of the War of 1812 may pass without much notice. Taylor puts the conflict into a new focus, however, by depicting it as a civil war for control of North America.

The 13 former British colonies had been independent only 29 years when Congress declared war on Britain, which, through its wars with Napoleon, was becoming the world’s most powerful empire. The immediate issue was impressment of American seamen by the British Navy, which, as Taylor shows, struck at the heart of American nationhood. This nation of immigrants was vying with a world power that did not recognize the right of its former subjects to become naturalized citizens.

But the Madison administration that began the war surely had greater aims, including conquering Canada. Yet, despite America’s enormous advantage in population, several U.S. expeditions into Upper Canada were no more successful than Benedict Arnold’s doomed invasion of Quebec during the Revolution.

Having cut spending and disbanded the army, the Democrat-Republicans were in no position to coordinate attacks. Taylor shows that American volunteers were far better at looting and pillaging than confronting British regulars. And because the wealthy landowners who financed the war owned large tracts in the St. Lawrence Valley, the Americans campaigned mostly in theNiagara-Detroit region rather than pursue the obvious objective, Montreal.

Taylor shows how Americans remember this war and, when they do, that they recall it selectively. The burning of the White House still excites outrage, yet American troops earlier torched the provincial capital at York (now Toronto). The only major military victory, Andrew Jackson’s destruction of a British army at New Orleans, came after the peace treaty had been signed, though before ratification. Still, the war was no defeat for the Americans, who got favorable terms in part because of British preoccupation with Europe. “A wider and deeper perspective reveals an ultimate American victory that secured continental predominance,” Taylor concludes.

Without stinting on generals or military innovation–including a description of the only American naval conflict fought on fresh water, the Great Lakes–Taylor penetrates deeply into the lives of ordinary soldiers and farmers on both sides.

Taylor is unusual in being able to satisfy scholars with fresh discoveries and interpretations while also appealing to general readers. He employs vivid turns of phrase. An Irish-Canadian politician is described as “an ambitious and passionate lawyer who drank heavily and quarreled frequently.” Taylor quotes a letter about another militarily deficient American, Robert Leroy Livingston: “Well known by the name of ‘Crazy Bob,’ and if throwing Decanters and Glasses were to be the weapons used, he would make a most excellent Lieut. Colonel.”

Taylor became a scholar to watch in 1996 when his William Cooper’s Town won both the Bancroft and Pulitzer prizes, among the profession’s most prestigious honors.
In American Colonies (2001), he used secondary sources to create an original interpretation of the country’s founding, one that puts not just slavery but the struggles and contributions of ordinary settlers at the forefront. But it’s as a researcher into primary documents—many previously untapped—that Taylor has excelled, beginning with his first book, about the Maine frontier following the Revolution, Liberty Men and Great Proprietors (1990).

Taylor shifted his focus west from Cooperstown, N.Y., to chronicle the border between New York and Upper Canada, as Ontario was then known. The Divided Ground (2006) shows how Indian tribes that had regrouped under French and British rule were dispossessed by American settlers whose farms killed off the game animals the Indians needed to survive.

Still dividing time between teaching and writing, Taylor is already planning his next book, which takes a different path concerning the War of 1812. It began while he was guest teaching at the University of Richmond. He dug into archival documents about 4,000 slaves who fled the Virginia coast seeking refuge on British warships. Taylor found the materials largely untouched, and he already has a working title for his next book: The Slave War of 1812.

Clearly, the late Professor Raymond made the right call.

 
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