Heroism, exhibited in the pursuit of glory and fame through warfare, so central to Homer’s The Illiad, is making a
Heroism, exhibited in the pursuit of glory and fame through warfare, so central to Homer’s The Illiad, is making dramatic comeback, most clearly exemplified in the War of 1812 bicentennial commemoration and its associated celebratory festivities.
Two fallen heroes, Shawnee warrior Tecumseh and Maj.-Gen. Isaac Brock, are experiencing quite an Upper Canadian historical resurrection, feeding the popular appetite for tales of the time when British North America fended off the United States and preserved “Canada” as a nation apart.
James Laxer’s new War of 1812 book not only capitalizes on the bicentennial year festivities, but frames the whole story around the Upper Canadian friendship alliance of Tecumseh and Brock, depicted as “two towering figures” who “secured what would become the nation of Canada.”
Laxer’s splendidly written, well-crafted book is a compelling narrative bound to excite and arouse Canadians looking for a great story. Scholars and War of 1812 history buffs, on the other hand, will wonder what happened to the Maritime war and look in vain for any hint of the “half-hearted” response the “incredible war” elicited in Nova Scotia and New England.
Tecumseh and Brock are central to Laxer’s drama, but there is far more to the book. The War of 1812, as interpreted by Laxer, was really “two bloody conflicts” that historians have tended to roll into one. The first was the American campaign to drive the native Americans from their lands in the Ohio Valley and along the entire western frontier, termed the “Endless War.”
The second conflict, properly termed the War of 1812, was one waged by the United States against Great Britain, in the British-American borderlands and at sea.
The betrayal and dispossession of native Americans provides the real connective tissue in Laxer’s Tecumseh & Brock. That alone sets the book apart from competing 1812 commemorative books like Jonathon Riley’s A Matter of Honour: The Life, Campaigns and Generalship of Isaac Brock and Wesley B. Turner’s The Astonishing General: The Life and Legacy of Sir Isaac Brock.
Laxer, a prolific author, TV host, and political scientist at York University, manages to do a reliable job reconstructing War of 1812 land battles. Even though there is precious little original research, he does bring a few episodes back to life in very lively and entertaining fashion.
Tecumseh’s warrior code, strategic acumen, and grand vision are well explained, building upon John Sugden’s fine 1997 biography of the Shawnee chieftain.
Laxer’s portrait of Brock is surprisingly sympathetic, emphasizing his gallantry, strategic intelligence, and openness to native alliances. The stodgy and diplomatic commander-in-chief George Prevost provides, once again, a convenient foil. Brock’s British patrician manner, distaste for democracy, and impulsive nature are all acknowledged, but mostly excused because Upper Canada was under threat of foreign conquest by force of arms.
A much fuller portrait of Brock was presented in Brian McKenna’s 1998 NFB film series, War of 1812. That Sir Isaac Brock was a proud major-general with a big head and a British career soldier, fond of the classics, who saw the world through Homeric eyes. On the eve of battle, he saw himself like a Greek hero facing incredible odds but prepared “to meet thy doom” and be remembered for his “feat of arms” by “generations yet unborn.”
Two months after his famous diplomatic meeting with Tecumseh at Amherstburg, Brock is cut down leading his troops in an October 1812 charge at Queenston Heights. Leading from the front was classic Brock, but it was also a sign of his audacious, impetuous manner. Anne Prevost, daughter of Brock’s immediate superior, put it most delicately. “A general,” she wrote in her journal, “ought sometimes to recollect how valuable his life is to his army.”
Brock’s loss was what the Quebec Gazette aptly described as a “public calamity.” With Brock gone, the British struggled on mightily to hold Upper and Lower Canada. Shawnee Tecumseh, Laxer’s noble and brave native warrior, succeeded in rallying the native confederacy for one last stand along the borderlands frontier. “Tecumseh,” he concedes, “never found another British commander willing to take on the fight to the enemy with such elan.”
The War of 1812 remains encrusted with mythology and Laxer, to his credit, has produced a nuanced version of the role played by two unlikely allies in the early stages of that pivotal continental conflict. If the war produced “a sense of identity,” he tends to forget, at times, that it was then largely confined to Upper Canada, since it would be another half-century before the Dominion was actually founded.
Laxer’s War of 1812 book pays fitting tribute to Brock and Tecumseh, recognizing that both men shared many traits as well as a certain mutual admiration. A year after Brock fell, Tecumseh also lost his life at Moraviantown, fighting in the thick of the battle. “With the towering leader gone,” Laxer states rather baldly, “the confederacy disintegrated.”
Brock and Tecumseh both disappeared early in the conflict. The fallen general’s commitments to cede vast territories to the native confederacy were also pushed aside in the Treaty of Ghent peace negotiations. Rather than ending with the death of Tecumseh, Laxer feels compelled to complete the story, taking about 100 more pages to cover the final British campaign, including the Battle of Washington, Frances Scott Key’s writing of the Star Spangled Banner, and the anti-climactic Battle of New Orleans.
While Halifax played a critical strategic role in the British defence of the continent, it does not figure prominently in this rendition of the war.
Like the federal government’s 1812 website, www.1812.gc.ca, this book leaves Halifax mostly out of the picture and conveys the distinct impression that our “sense of identity” radiated somehow out of Upper Canada.
Paul W. Bennett is founder of Schoolhouse Consulting, Halifax, and adjunct professor of education at Saint Mary’s University. His history textbook, Canada: A North American Nation (1995) examined the War of 1812.