Thursday, December 16, 2010

Reads for Fun: Jon Latimer's "1812"

Continuing with my thick books on American history kick, I picked up this one on a war that modern Americans generally know little about (other than maybe that it was against Britain, and that a battle in it inspired Francis Scott Key to write The Star Spangled Banner).

Latimer writes from a British perspective, and some may argue he’s too biased for his side (something I'm not going to look into, since this reading IS for fun), but even the objective material he presents tells the story of the War of 1812 as one that would have been preferred to have been forgotten by both sides.

One of the keys Latimer thinks has not been stressed enough is that at this time, Britain was at war with Napoleon on the continent. On the one hand, this meant that their best and brightest could not attend the war in America. (Think what might have happened had the Duke of Wellington been able to take part over here.) On the other hand, there wasn’t a whole lot of enthusiasm for the war in America among those that did come over, or among our own people. Both sides made plenty of bungles, and it is perhaps thematic that the last great battle at New Orleans (a decisive American victory, led by Andrew Jackson) was only fought because slow communications didn’t bring news of a peace treaty that had already been signed over in Europe. On the American side, unity wasn’t the theme either: New England was essentially a holdout from the war in many ways.

Key events in the 1812 war such as the sacking of Washington and the defense of Baltimore’s Fort McHenry (where Key was inspired) tend to obscure the fact that much of the fighting was done in the Great Lakes region on the border with Canada. It’s hard to think of places like Lake Champlain or Lake Erie as the scene of great naval battles, or to think that what was then Detroit was captured and held by the British for a time, or that the Niagara Falls region was the scene of fighting - and that soldiers were close enough to the falls to hear them. I have to wonder what some of these people would think of the fact that places like these (or Gettysburg, for a later example) have become places of leisure. On the one hand they might celebrate what their efforts have wrought for us, but I think they’d be more likely to wonder at the frivolous nature of our present lives.

Latimer’s book is rich with detail which the military buff would especially find intriguing. I found his style a little plodding but it’s definitely a good source for learning more about what some call (in Latimer’s arguments, wrongly) a second American Revolution.

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