The War Of 1812 (America Goes To War), by Anne Todd
It is interesting to see what a historian includes about the War of 1812 when seeking to write to young audiences, presumably American ones, with very tight space constraints. It is obvious that the loss of space will often mean a loss of nuance, in the same way that it is hard to have nuanced twitter conversations because there is only so much nuance that can fit in 288 characters. When writing about an inconclusive war but one that was decisive in inspiring nationalist feeling in the United States and Canada that lasted for more than two years and involved naval combat all around the world as well as numerous different fronts from New Orleans to the Chesapeake to the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Valley, there is a lot of material that can be included and it is revealing what an author chooses to focus on and chooses to omit. As is often the case, I did not find very much included in this book to be objectionable or troublesome (although more on that below), but I did find some of the omissions to be especially troublesome in that they failed to provide the sort of balance that would have made this a more valuable entry-level book into the history of the War of 1812.
This short book of about 50 pages is divided into 5 chapters with various sidebars to provide more information about some topics. After some fast facts about the conflict, the author begins with the context of the War of 1812, looking at the unfinished business of frontier settlements and naval impressment as what drove the United States towards war (1). After that the author discusses the call to arms in the United States and Great Britain and in the army as well as the navy, pointing out American unpreparedness (2). The third chapter discusses major battles but leaves a great many of them out (3), including all of the battles along the Niagara front. After that the author discusses life in camp (4) including the threat of disease. The final chapter includes the final battles, including the unsuccessful attack on Baltimore by a British combined army-navy task force and the successful American defense of New Orleans as well as the peace treaty at Ghent which ended the war in a status quo antebellum (5). Throughout the book there are maps, timelines, words to know, suggestions for further reading, websites, and an index.
How could this book have been better? In terms of what the book included, only the author’s desire to blacken the reputation of the United States with regards to land treaties with tribes could be faulted, and that is a matter of historical fact, as unpleasant a fact as it is. Far more troubling are the book’s omissions. The author, for example, discusses the burning of Washington DC (albeit briefly) but does not comment at all about the previous burning of York (now Toronto) that preceded it and provided the justification for the British outrage. Likewise, the author discusses American nationalism as a major cause of the War of 1812, but does not discuss at all the Canadian nationalism that helped the population of the Canadian provinces to resist incorporation into the United States and has continued to this day to provide at least a negative sort of national identity. It is not likely that adding a few more pages would have provided the author with the insight to have written about these matters, because it seems likely that it is a failure of imagination and perspective rather than a shortage of space that led such matters to be omitted in the first place.