Karen M Edwards
War of 1812 or Another Napoleonic War Campaign
Updated: Jan 25, 2019
I never knew there was a war with the United States in 1812. I certainly don’t remember learning about it in my history classes at school. As far as I knew, we Brits were fighting Napoleon and had been since 1803. In 1812 Napoleon made the disastrous decision to try to conquer Moscow in the winter and I was reminded of that every time I listened to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.
So what does one do when you want to find out more about a subject? You write about it. The war itself is peripheral but serves as a backdrop to my story. One of the themes in my novel was to explore how people living in a backwater can be affected by wars in far places. It’s something that military families deal with today.
It was not my intention to take sides, though as one of my protagonists is a British naval officer, I had to include his point of view. In my opinion, this war should never have happened—and almost didn’t; in Britain there was talk underway to diffuse the situation, especially after the assignation of Prime Minister Percival who had upheld the Orders in Council from 1807. This was unpopular in Britain too. I've actually read the Parliamentary Debates from 1807 (heavy going as the language wasn't just "governmentese" but Regency) in which one side specifically wanted to assure the Americans of good faith and even mentioned avoiding a war, but, of course, the factions in the House of Lords who wanted to protect their corn (grain) interests prevailed. In these papers were some letters from President Madison. But, unfortunately, the landowners prevailed and the orders were not repealed until too late. These orders upheld and enlarged the scope of blockading trade with the enemy, France, in response to France’s embargoes. The Orders in Council were repealed two days before the United States declared war on Britain, but this information did not reach President Madison until 50 days later. By that time the United States had invaded Canada, one of the three objectives for declaring war, the other two being to stop the trade embargoes, and impressment of American sailors.
The war was not accepted wholeheartedly by all in the United States. Those close to the Canadian border and on the eastern seaboard, opposed it, but the southern states pushed for war; they had interests in the West Indies and the slave trade.
In my opinion based on my research, the war ended in a stalemate for both the Americans and British—no gains of territory were made on either side—one was almost bankrupt from the disruption of trade; the other, also felt a financial pinch and was tired of the 12-year wars with Napoleon. The "winner" was Canada whose borders were solidified; they stayed almost the same as before the war. Americans did get one of their wishes at the Treaty of Ghent, no more incursions by the British press gangs which became unnecessary anyway at the end of the Napoleonic wars. And, the American navy became more powerful, although it was the American privateers that harassed British ships that were the most successful. The losers were Native Americans who were abandoned by the British who had originally asked for land to create a Native American state. That was shelved at the Treaty of Ghent when they heard of the American win at the Battle of New Orleans which happened after peace was signed though it had not been ratified. That battle was disastrous for Native Americans in the United States as Andrew Jackson became president and so began the movement of Native Americans to reservations; the same happened in Canada with new immigrants and former soldiers and sailors (in Canada) taking over the good land.
I referenced several sources about the war, even though my focus was not on the war itself. There are many non-fiction books written by Americans, a few by Canadians but hardly any by the British though I did find a recent one written from the British POV. I also read authors who wrote fictional accounts of life at sea during that period as well as a compilation of first hand accounts from sailors from British, American and French navies. Below is an annotated bibliography of a few of the books I referenced as well as a link to a short video about the legacies of the war from a PBS documentary with points of view from scholars from British, American, Canadian and Native American/First Nation.
Graves, Dianne. 2007. In the Midst of Alarms: The Untold Story of Women and the War of 1812. Quebec, Canada: Robin Brass Studio. This was the most interesting to me as I was writing from a woman’s perspective, not about the glories of the battlefield. It included accounts from American, British and Canadian women who had to deal with life in North America during this time.
Kent, Alexander. Cross of St. George. 2001. Ithaca, NY: McBook Press. Another fictional view of the navy during the Napoleonic Wars that follows the hero, Richard Bollito from his early years in the Royal Navy. This one is set in 1813 in Halifax, Canada, at the beginning of the War of 1812 when American privateers were harassing British and Canadian ships.
Latimer, Jon. 2007. 1812: War with America. Belknap Press, Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA and London, England. Well-researched from a British scholar this addresses the political and social side of the war.
Lewis, Jon E. (ed.) 2002. Life Before the Mast: An Anthology of Eye-Witness Accounts from the Age of Fighting Sail. New York: Castle Books. This helped me to discover what life was at sea during this time period (1793-1815), from both officers and common crew of American, British and French ships.
O’Brian, Patrick. 1991. The Fortune of War. New York: W. W. Norton. O’Brian wrote a series of novels featuring Captain Jack Aubrey and his exploits during the Napoleonic Wars. He’s probably better known the movie, Master and Commander. This particular novel in the series is set in 1812.
Parliamentary Debates from 1803-1807. Google Books.
Taylor, Alan. 2011. The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies. New York: Vintage Books. Well researched by an American scholar, especially on the political and social side of the war. Some of the low marks received on Amazon reviews were from those who ony wanted to hear about the battles, especially the American wins rather than a more balanced view of a complicated conflict.
Legacies of the War of 1812 – video with commentary from different sides. Click here to go to the video.