The War of 1812 in the Age of Napoleon

John Grodzinski considers a rare British look at an epic clash between the US and a nascent Canada

June 10, 2010

To most Britons, the War of 1812 is an obscure conflict, paling into insignificance against the more famous triumphs of British arms against Napoleon in the Iberian Peninsula and at Waterloo. The "American War", as it is sometimes called, began in June 1812 and ended in February 1815. Fighting occurred in several theatres: in Atlantic waters; along the frontier of the Canadas (modern Ontario and Quebec) and the United States; and on the Great Lakes. As the war in Europe was the principal effort, British strategy was largely defensive through 1812 and 1813 and sought to avoid the annexation of Canada by the Americans, while several large offensives were conducted in 1814. In the end, neither side achieved a knockout blow against the other, while none of the issues causing the war itself was resolved. Nonetheless, almost 50,000 British troops were sent to North America, while some 60 warships blockaded the American coast and a sizeable naval presence existed on the Great Lakes.

Most scholarly studies of this conflict are the work of Canadians and Americans; Jeremy Black, a British academic with more than 70 books to his credit, is one of the few non-North American scholars to have written about the conflict in depth. Black seeks to place the conflict within the wider context of European events and the domestic American political situation. However, while The War of 1812 in the Age of Napoleon has much to offer on these two subjects, it says little about the war itself.

The author offers an overview of American power in the early 19th century, when it relied on superior morals rather than martial capabilities. Several interesting comparisons between the War of 1812 and the American War of Independence are offered, such as the morale boost the rebels received from their victories in 1775, while in 1812, American plans to conquer Canada lay in ruins.

Black is comfortable discussing British strategic concerns, European diplomacy and American politics, but his appreciation of the details of the War of 1812 is weak. Several well-established myths are repeated and important areas ignored. The strategy employed by Britain to defend Canada is hardly explored, and the author calls upon the usual heroes (such as Major General Sir Isaac Brock, who died during the Battle of Queenston Heights in October 1812) to tell his tale, rather than exploring the precarious defences of British North America and the defensive strategy conducted by Sir George Prevost, the Captain General and Governor of British North America.

Despite their hawkish rhetoric, the Americans were unprepared for war and their dismal performance on land during 1812 was partially recovered by their establishing naval superiority on Lake Ontario in November; without control of the waterways, land campaigns suffered. During 1813, the Americans exploited that naval superiority to make repeated strikes into Upper Canada, although all of these were repulsed.

With Napoleon's abdication in 1814, Britain sent reinforcements to North America, not to "focus on the conquest of American territory", as Black claims, but to ensure the security of Canada in anticipation of the coming peace talks. The emphasis of this new strategy was not on the American littoral, but Canada, where the majority of the army reinforcements went. Operations against coastal America were to provide a diversion in aid of the forces in Canada, who received a series of ambitious goals: destroy the American naval base on Lake Ontario, regain control of Lake Erie, gain supremacy on the Upper Lakes and secure the frontier of Lower Canada from attack. Given the lateness of the season, it was possible to attempt only one of these tasks, which led to the Plattsburgh expedition.

The Plattsburgh expedition is treated superficially and the author blames Prevost for its failure. There is no exploration of the serious problems within British naval affairs, with Commodore Sir James Lucas Yeo proving less of a naval commander-in-chief and more of a resource-hoarding prima donna who undermined the British naval power on Lake Erie and Lake Champlain for his own interest in Lake Ontario. After the British naval force on Lake Champlain was defeated, Prevost's flank was open and he withdrew to Canada with an intact land force that continued to protect the frontier. Prevost was later recalled to face charges laid by the Royal Navy, and it is unfortunate that he died before there was an opportunity for him to respond to them.

The War of 1812 in the Age of Napoleon offers several interesting insights from the perspective of British and American strategy, but ignores many elements of the war itself. The result is a flawed examination of the British side of the war that does no service to the general or expert reader.

The War of 1812 in the Age of Napoleon

By Jeremy Black

Continuum, 256pp, £25.00

ISBN 9780826436122

Published 14 January 2010

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