The nineteenth-century author, William Kirby, famous as the author of The Golden Dog
and other novels, recalled a day in his youth when he sat fishing on the shore at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Beside him sat a veteran of the War of 1812. As the two men fished, the veteran told him of how he had taken part in the successful night attack on Fort Niagara, which they could see on the other side of the river. A much older Kirby wrote a detailed account of the capture of Fort Niagara based on the conversation he had had that day. A battle fought in 1813, recalled in a conversation in the 1850's, and written down in the 1890's, can still entertain us when both the eyewitness and the author have long slept in their graves. One can still go to the waterfront at Niagara-on-the-Lake and gaze at Fort Niagara across the river.
And now we can read The Encyclopedia of the War of 1812, a whopping 636-page book that has just emerged from the wilds of California. It is a welcome one-volume reference to a war which was mildly motivated and executed and which, today, has become so folklorique that both sides can recall it with nostalgia. As the Canadian historian, C. P. Stacey, wrote, "The War of 1812 is one of those episodes in history that make everybody happy, because everybody interprets it in his own way.
"The Americans think of it as primarily a naval war in which the pride of the Mistress of the Seas was humbled by what an imprudent Englishman had called `a few fir-built frigates, manned by a handful of bastards and outlaws'. Canadians think of it equally pridefully as a war of defence in which their brave fathers, side by side, turned back the massed might of the United States and saved the country from conquest. And the English are the happiest of all, because they don't even know it happened."
Indeed, today we see it through a fine emotional haze, with the Americans remembering the "rocket's red glare" and Jackson at New Orleans, while Canadians recall Laura Secord's walk and Brock at Queenston Heights. We prefer to forget what happens when bayonets are drawn, what an Indian massacre entails, and why villages were torched on winter nights so that the cold would finish what the fire began.
This book fulfills the expectations of an encyclopedia: it covers the personalities and events of the war, major and minor. It also includes worthwhile reference materials, such as maps of the theatres of action and copies of all the diplomatic documents involved, like the prewar French Berlin Decree, the British Orders-in-Council that restricted American trade with the warring powers of Europe, and the Treaty of Ghent, which concluded the war. While many of the contributors are Canadian, the book has a decidedly American emphasis: the introduction discusses the war's significance in the history of the United States and the entry on popular songs covers only the American ones. One will search in vain for "The Ballad of the Shannon & the Chesapeake":
But brave Broke he waved his sword,
Crying, "Now, my lads, aboard
And we'll stop them singing
Yankee Doodle Dandy-O"
or the York Volunteers' song on the Detroit expedition:
At length our brave commander,
Sir Isaac Brock by name,
Took shipping at Niagara
And unto York he came.
Says he, ye valiant heroes,
Will you go along with me
To fight those proud Yankees
In the west of Canada?
Nevertheless, the British and Canadian figures of the war receive full treatment: Brock, Broke, Drummond, Prevost, Proctor, Salaberry, Sheaffe, Rottenburg, Barclay, Downie, and Yeo are all dealt with at length. Still, one can see where prejudice and obsolete research have caused errors. We read in the account of the battle of Beaver Dams:
"Fitzgibbon cheerfully agreed, and Boerstler surrendered 484 officers and men to less than half that number. He discovered the ruse shortly after his men had surrendered their weapons. By that time, many Indians had returned and set about murdering wounded Americans."
Boerstler, in fact, surrendered 530 men. He did not discover the ruse, because Fitzgibbon prevented him from seeing how small the British force was, and Fitzgibbon was, fortunately, joined by another British company a few minutes after the surrender. And no American wounded were murdered: the Indians were kept in hand at Beaver Dams, even if they were not elsewhere.
Similarly, the companion article on Laura Secord (who forewarned Fitzgibbon of the attack on Beaver Dams) tells us:
"A great deal of debate still exists as to whether or not Laura Secord's warning resulted in the ambush that brought about the U.S. defeat at Beaver Dams on 24 June 1813. Some reports have Fitzgibbon learning of the impending attack from other scouts before Secord arrived."
This was certainly true in 1932, when Dr. W. S. Wallace published his The Story of Laura Secord: A Study in Historical Evidence. At that time, Laura Secord's claim that she had forewarned Fitzgibbon came from two petitions she made for a pension and from her own account published in the Anglo-American Magazine in 1853. The only confirmation came from Fitzgibbon's 1837 account, in which he verified that she had come to his headquarters. Wallace suggested that twenty-four years later, when the real facts no longer mattered, Fitzgibbon was being gallant to a lady. He believed that Fitzgibbon's Indian scouts had already warned him he was about to be attacked and that Laura Secord's walk made no difference to the outcome of the battle.
In the 1960's, however, John S. Moir discovered two accounts written by Fitzgibbon in 1820 and 1827, in which he stated that Secord reached his headquarters on the evening of the 22nd, that he deployed his Indians on the 23rd, and that thus he was ready to meet the Americans on the 24th. There is no doubt today that Laura Secord was the heroine of Beaver Dams.
Such errors are inevitable when generalists have to write specialist articles, but it means that this book should be used only as a first reference, and that one should consult more detailed works later.
The book also contains worthwhile background articles on the roles of privateering, the militia, the artillery, and smuggling, and on how the American government financed the war. Its bibliography is particularly good, and includes the most recent literature.
I was disappointed, though, to see one omission in the bibliography. That was Benson Lossing's Pictorial Field Book of the War of 1812, which was published back in the 1860's. Lossing's book is a charming (and massive) combination of travelogue and history. He visited all the battlefields and points of interest in the war, sketched them, and spoke with the local inhabitants about them. Since he did so at a time when many of the participants were still alive, his book contains many eyewitness accounts that would otherwise have perished. (We have the only portrait from the life of Laura Secord from the hand of this American historian.) One could not ask for a more leisurely and pleasant account of the war than Lossing's.
Indeed, if one has any objection to The Encyclopedia of the War of 1812, it is perhaps that it was compiled a century too late. It would have benefited from the prose style of Parkman or Lossing or William Kirby. It gains little from our modern glibness and computer-generated prose. Perhaps I'm speaking from personal laziness, but the best way to appreciate this book is to read it, fishing rod in hand, on the docks of Niagara-on-the-Lake, just across the river from Fort Niagara.
Kenneth Stickney is a writer who lives in Dartmouth, N.S.