Monday, September 24, 2012

The Invasion of Canada, and Flames Across the Border, by Pierre Berton

The War of 1812 tested the new country, the United States. Britain, engaged in war against Napoleon's France, impressed American sailors to supplement their Navy. American borders were defined partly by warfare with Canada.  The new state governments debated whether and how well to contribute to the war against Canada/Britain.  Militias were assembled and trained (more or less) by both sides.  Native Americans, most under the leadership of Tecumseh, chose sides. Kentucky riflemen took scalps and ravaged their enemies like wild men, with passion and ruthlessness which appalled the other soldiers.
The conditions were particularly dreadful for the Americans because the new War Department begrudged spending money for clothing, food, ammunition or other support.  At times the men marched barefooted through the forests.
The fighting itself seemed oddly random.  A hail of bullets might result in widespread destruction or in nothing worse than holes in coats or capes. A worse threat was disease, which killed an unknown but hugh number on all sides.  Men would sign up for six months, then, their obligation fultilled, could return to their farms. But many -- ambitious or restless or maybe violent by nature or so poor that the low pay kept their family alive -- kept returning. Several later Presidents made their first fame as officers (among them Benjamin Harrison, Andrew Jackson).  Others performed heroic acts, such as Laura Secord, a Canadian woman who walked 19 miles through the forest to bring news of a possible attack to the Canadian soldiers.
The War did not so much end as simply run out.  Peace negotiations ultimately ignored the original issue of impressment.  Borders were changed.  Generally the promises made to Native Americans were broken. The National Anthem was written. "Don't Give Up The Ship" became a well-known slogan.
But by and large the war itself has been overlooked in American history (not so much in Canada, which actually won).
Pierre Berton, a gifted writer and historian, has made this two-volume history read like a novel, telling personal stories in which Canadians and Americans appear and re-appear in vivid scenes. Just his portrait of Tecumseh is worth the price of admission.
I have just finished spending several weeks in the forests and swamps and on the decks of boats, moving across a surprisingly large part of the United States in which, today, no trace is left of the fighting.  Berton is one of my favorite history writers and this is a major effort of his.  I recommend both books most enthusiastically to anybody curious about our early attempts at national identification.


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