Dr. Alan Taylor signing books after his discussion on the War of 1812 at Plattsburgh State.
PLATTSBURGH — The War of 1812 was a “civil” war between competing visions of North America, said Alan Taylor.
The historian and author of books about colonial America, the American Revolution, and the Early American Republic spoke recently at Plattsburgh State, sharing concepts outlined in his book, “The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies,” published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2010.
Taylor was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for earlier work.
Taylor started by noting the United States was on the verge of losing the war when the Battle of Plattsburgh helped turned the tide.
“The Battle of Plattsburgh was very important but not well remembered.”
He further pointed out that during the first two years of the war, the U.S. was invading Canada and suffering great defeats, a part of history Canadians remember but Americans have forgotten.
He stressed that his book is a borderlands history that attempts to avoid the Canadian and American patriotic stories. Instead, it focuses on the remarkably similar people on the borders who did not want to go to war.
Taylor told of a British officer conducting a prisoner exchange who found it strange to find names among the American ranks that matched those of his own officers.
“They read the same books and went to the same plays.”
Saying it was Americans fighting the British simplifies a war in which brother sometimes fought brother; the two sides at times were seemingly interchangeable.
The British insisted anyone born in Scotland was a subject for life, whether they lived in Canada or Ireland. The United States was in the business of welcoming immigrants and making them Americans, actions the British said were fine as long as America understood if such a subject was found on a merchant ship the individual could be confiscated for the crown’s needs.
“A whole lot of people were being taken who were born in the United States,” Taylor said. “The Irish were not happy about this.”
The British had suppressed a rebellion in Ireland with great bloodshed, and the Irish in America would end up being about the strongest supporters of the war against the British. Irish Americans accounted for 9 percent of the American population, yet they made up 13 percent of the enlisted population, and those numbers were likely higher as they hid their identities because the British considered them traitors.
In Canada, the Red Coats’ ranks were filled with men recruited in Ireland, thousands of people desperate for a paycheck and food.
“When American forces invade Canada and many get captured, the British made it a practice to listen to their voices,” Taylor said.
Those suspected of treason could face a trial that could kill them or join the British forces.
“Desertion is flowing back and forth between armies,” Taylor said.
Many Native Americans fought as British allies in hopes of rolling back U.S. settlements in the west. At times, tribes slaughtered each other during the war.
“People may argue over who won the War of 1812, but there is no argument over who lost it: the native peoples,” Taylor said.