Books: War of 1812 titles follow well-worn paths

    • Bill Bean
    • Fri May 25 2012

    With so many writers arguing that Canada’s national identity was forged by repelling American invasions during the War of 1812, it is perhaps surprising that no author has attempted to write an alternative history for this year’s bicentennial of the conflict.

    What if the Americans had succeeded? Would the sudden acquisition of the northern lands have slowed U.S. westward expansion, allowing Spain to consolidate its western holdings? Would the addition of anti-slavery territories have tipped the balance against the slave states so that the American Civil War might not have happened?

    Instead, and it’s possibly an acknowledgement of what may be limited reader interest in the period, publishers are generally marking the 200th anniversary of the war with books that follow the well-worn paths taken by the doomed hero General Isaac Brock, the Niagara heroine Laura Secord and other prominent characters in the war.

    Doubleday Canada has, for example, re-issued Pierre Berton’s 1980 double volume The Invasion of Canada and Flames Across the Border as a single compendium titled War of 1812 (911 pages, $29.95, softcover). Berton’s history might be called into question (his name prompted snorts of derision during a War of 1812 Bicentennial Symposium held in Guelph earlier this year), but he did tell a great story.

    And Montreal’s Robin Brass Studio, a longtime publisher of War of 1812 histories, is offering a new edition (with more maps and photos) of the 1993 book, Merry Hearts Make Light Days: The War of 1812 Journal of Lieutenant John Le Couteur, 104th Foot (304 pages, $24.95 softcover), edited by the eminent Canadian military historian Donald Graves.

    The hands-down champ at producing bicentennial offerings is Toronto’s Dundurn Press. Its catalogue lists more than 40 works of biography, history, fiction and youth fiction having an 1812 theme. Dundurn publisher Kirk Howard won this year’s President’s Award from the Ontario Historical Society in recognition of Dundurn’s contributions to heritage conservation in Ontario.

    The Dunburn books include The Astonishing General: The Life and Times of Sir Isaac Brock(248 pages, $35, hardcover), by Wesley B. Turner (which has won the Ontario Heritage Society’s Donald Grant Creighton Award for best biography relating to Ontario history); Laura Secord: Heroine of the War of 1812 (224 pages, $19.99, softcover) by Peggy Dymond Leavey (part of Dundurn’s Quest Biography series of famous Canadians); and Captain Fitz: Fitzgibbon, Green Tiger of the War of 1812, (176 pages, $19.99, softcover), by Enid Mallory (part of Dundurn’s Canadians at War series for young people).

    Of particular interest to Canadianists, family history buffs and 1812 fans is Dundurn’s Redcoated Ploughboys; The Volunteer Battalion of Incorporated Militia of Upper Canada, 1813-1815 (432 pages, $35, softcover), by Richard Feltoe. Feltoe, curator of the Redpath Sugar Museum in Toronto and a War of 1812 re-enactor, has ploughed through correspondence, order papers and record books to produce a large-format story about the reservists, farm boys and townsmen who signed up to face hails of musket balls. It’s a detailed collection of battles, raids, military politics and human relations.

    Rene Chartrand, a former curator for Canada’s National Historic Sites and now a freelance history consultant, has two new books this year. Forts of the War of 1812 (64 pages, $19.95, softcover) is an Osprey Publishing edition filled with contemporary drawings and modern recreations of such familiar facilities as Fort George, Fort Erie, Fort McHenry and Detroit, plus lesser known structures such as the Lacolle blockhouse and Castle Williams.

    A Scarlet Coat: Uniforms, Flags and Equipment of the British in the War of 1812 (227 pages, $69.95, hardcover), published by Service Publications of Ottawa, is a coffee-table book containing hundreds of drawings, sketches and photographs of military equipment, individuals and events, drawn from public archives and private collections. Particularly unsettling is the contemporary drawing showing an execution by firing squad.

    And there are small books. Among them is 1812 The War for Canada: A War with a Year Named After It (Despub, 176 pages, $16.95, softcover) by Geoffrey Corfield. He tries to do what many authors have not — find some laughs in the War of 1812. That the humour in his book rarely rises above groan-worthy (jokes about Laura Secord chocolates and an illustration about signs pointing to the Crysler’s Farm Battlefield and the Chrysler’s Farm Auto Sales are typical) hardly matters.

    And finally, there are small, specific books that are sweet finds. One of them is Battle for the Bay: The Naval War of 1812 (Goose Lane Editions, 128 pages, $16.95, softcover) by Joshua M. Smith, published as part of the New Brunswick Military Heritage Project. Limited to the naval actions around the Bay of Fundy and the Gulf of Maine, it is packed with detail about the privateers and regular naval crews, rickety boats and conniving captains (one naval officer was paid by a smuggler to tow his ship). It’s a wonderfully fun short book about a side of the War of 1812 that is otherwise seldom seen.

With so many writers arguing that Canada’s national identity was forged by repelling American invasions during the War of 1812, it is perhaps surprising that no author has attempted to write an alternative history for this year’s bicentennial of the conflict.

What if the Americans had succeeded? Would the sudden acquisition of the northern lands have slowed U.S. westward expansion, allowing Spain to consolidate its western holdings? Would the addition of anti-slavery territories have tipped the balance against the slave states so that the American Civil War might not have happened?

Instead, and it’s possibly an acknowledgement of what may be limited reader interest in the period, publishers are generally marking the 200th anniversary of the war with books that follow the well-worn paths taken by the doomed hero General Isaac Brock, the Niagara heroine Laura Secord and other prominent characters in the war.

Doubleday Canada has, for example, re-issued Pierre Berton’s 1980 double volume The Invasion of Canada and Flames Across the Border as a single compendium titled War of 1812 (911 pages, $29.95, softcover). Berton’s history might be called into question (his name prompted snorts of derision during a War of 1812 Bicentennial Symposium held in Guelph earlier this year), but he did tell a great story.

And Montreal’s Robin Brass Studio, a longtime publisher of War of 1812 histories, is offering a new edition (with more maps and photos) of the 1993 book, Merry Hearts Make Light Days: The War of 1812 Journal of Lieutenant John Le Couteur, 104th Foot (304 pages, $24.95 softcover), edited by the eminent Canadian military historian Donald Graves.

The hands-down champ at producing bicentennial offerings is Toronto’s Dundurn Press. Its catalogue lists more than 40 works of biography, history, fiction and youth fiction having an 1812 theme. Dundurn publisher Kirk Howard won this year’s President’s Award from the Ontario Historical Society in recognition of Dundurn’s contributions to heritage conservation in Ontario.

The Dunburn books include The Astonishing General: The Life and Times of Sir Isaac Brock(248 pages, $35, hardcover), by Wesley B. Turner (which has won the Ontario Heritage Society’s Donald Grant Creighton Award for best biography relating to Ontario history); Laura Secord: Heroine of the War of 1812 (224 pages, $19.99, softcover) by Peggy Dymond Leavey (part of Dundurn’s Quest Biography series of famous Canadians); and Captain Fitz: Fitzgibbon, Green Tiger of the War of 1812, (176 pages, $19.99, softcover), by Enid Mallory (part of Dundurn’s Canadians at War series for young people).

Of particular interest to Canadianists, family history buffs and 1812 fans is Dundurn’s Redcoated Ploughboys; The Volunteer Battalion of Incorporated Militia of Upper Canada, 1813-1815 (432 pages, $35, softcover), by Richard Feltoe. Feltoe, curator of the Redpath Sugar Museum in Toronto and a War of 1812 re-enactor, has ploughed through correspondence, order papers and record books to produce a large-format story about the reservists, farm boys and townsmen who signed up to face hails of musket balls. It’s a detailed collection of battles, raids, military politics and human relations.

Rene Chartrand, a former curator for Canada’s National Historic Sites and now a freelance history consultant, has two new books this year. Forts of the War of 1812 (64 pages, $19.95, softcover) is an Osprey Publishing edition filled with contemporary drawings and modern recreations of such familiar facilities as Fort George, Fort Erie, Fort McHenry and Detroit, plus lesser known structures such as the Lacolle blockhouse and Castle Williams.

A Scarlet Coat: Uniforms, Flags and Equipment of the British in the War of 1812 (227 pages, $69.95, hardcover), published by Service Publications of Ottawa, is a coffee-table book containing hundreds of drawings, sketches and photographs of military equipment, individuals and events, drawn from public archives and private collections. Particularly unsettling is the contemporary drawing showing an execution by firing squad.

And there are small books. Among them is 1812 The War for Canada: A War with a Year Named After It (Despub, 176 pages, $16.95, softcover) by Geoffrey Corfield. He tries to do what many authors have not — find some laughs in the War of 1812. That the humour in his book rarely rises above groan-worthy (jokes about Laura Secord chocolates and an illustration about signs pointing to the Crysler’s Farm Battlefield and the Chrysler’s Farm Auto Sales are typical) hardly matters.

And finally, there are small, specific books that are sweet finds. One of them is Battle for the Bay: The Naval War of 1812 (Goose Lane Editions, 128 pages, $16.95, softcover) by Joshua M. Smith, published as part of the New Brunswick Military Heritage Project. Limited to the naval actions around the Bay of Fundy and the Gulf of Maine, it is packed with detail about the privateers and regular naval crews, rickety boats and conniving captains (one naval officer was paid by a smuggler to tow his ship). It’s a wonderfully fun short book about a side of the War of 1812 that is otherwise seldom seen.

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