Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
4 March 2013
Review by Hal M. Friedman, Henry Ford Community College
The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent
By J.C.A. Stagg
New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2012. Pp. xvii, 198. ISBN 978–0–521–72686–3.
Descriptors: Volume 2013, 19th Century, War of 1812, Naval Warfare Print Version

J.C.A. Stagg's earlier book, Mr. Madison's War,[1] is one of the best studies not only of the War of 1812 but also of the politics and diplomacy of the Early Republic generally. By comparison, his latest book is disappointing, specifically in its failure to address the larger North American picture, as promised in its subtitle.

Stagg (Univ. of Virginia) starts with a look at the historiography of the war, especially as the United States and Canada have attempted to use it in constructing their national identities. He observes that the conflict was for the British a sideshow of the Napoleonic Wars, while for American Indians it was a last bid for political independence east of the Mississippi River. Stagg sees the war as both transnational and transglobal, since Americans, Britons, Canadians, and Indians moved back and forth across borders and the war's conclusion was linked to that of the European Napoleonic Wars. However, the book's brevity and its overly narrow focus on the Early American Republic unfortunately leaves other actors in North American and beyond largely out of the account.

Stagg also concentrates too much on maritime affairs as causing the war, omitting other possible explanations. In the first chapter, for instance, he outlines the diplomatic relations between the United States and Britain in the 1790s and early 1800s, as well as Franco-American contacts, all in the context of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. Interestingly, though he thinks the Jeffersonians conducted diplomacy competently and were not duped by Napoleon (he does not counter other historians' case for this), he has virtually nothing to say about the War Hawks. In other words, Stagg believes the war originated entirely from conflicts over neutral maritime rights. This thesis may be tied to Madison's war message focusing on those rights (as in his communication with the British in June 1812). Still, the overemphasis on maritime affairs is a major flaw in his argument, given the War Hawks' importance in Congress, the role of armed conflict between American frontier settlers and the Indians in starting the war, the rapid emergence of the Great Lakes as the major theater of operations, and the significance of the end of the war for American westward expansion.

In his account of land and sea campaigns in 1812–13, Stagg gives very short shrift to the naval battles. Granted, they were rare, but they were critical to American morale. He does cogently illustrate all the problems posed for the Madison Administration by internal dissension, poor military administration, insufficient recruiting, lack of provisions, and ineffective strategic planning. While the United States enjoyed its Lake Erie victory, it was losing land battles in the North owing to bad Army leadership, especially at the senior levels. Stagg also explores the impact of European affairs and ongoing diplomatic negotiations, but rarely outside the American context. In short, there is very little here about the other nations and groups mentioned in his introduction, again, belying the subtitle of the book.

Like Donald R. Hickey, another leading scholar of the War of 1812,[2] Stagg sees an increasingly weakened United States in 1814, at least in terms of the federal government's declining ability and credibility. This weakness can be seen especially in the area of finances, even as the Army was becoming more competent. Even more than Hickey, Stagg, taking the international context briefly into account, maintains that the United States was too weak by this time even to contemplate further attempts at invading Canada in order to bring the British to the peace table. A fuller discussion of relevant international affairs earlier in the book, however, would have greatly strengthened his argument.

Stagg finally broadens the scope a bit in his conclusion, coming full circle back to his introduction. He considers here the final battles of 1814–15 and the European diplomacy that brought the war to an end. He cites British plans to hem in the United States by taking Louisiana, extending the Canadian border down to the Ohio River, and expanding the maritime provinces into Maine. Stagg notes that these plans were thwarted by US negotiators' insistence on a peace restoring the status quo ante bellum. He also, however, identifies British impatience to conclude the war as the decisive factor.

Stagg additionally evaluates the war's consequences for Canadian nationalism, Britain's restricted objectives in the Western Hemisphere for the rest of the century, and the growing strength of the United States. In particular, he contends that American institutional problems were corrected after the war and that many of the Early Republic's structural weaknesses were obviated by the changing strategic situation in North America. He does not think the war was inconclusive or that the United States lost. He details the war's stark and disastrous results for the American Indians on both sides. Nonetheless, this is primarily a study of the United States in the war, lacking the continental dimension suggested by the subtitle. Though suitable for the classroom and the general reading public, The War of 1812 does not (as I had hoped it would) either complement or advance Stagg's excellent treatment of the conflict in Mr. Madison's War.

[1] Subtitle: Politics, Diplomacy, and Warfare in the Early American Republic, 1783–1830 (Princeton: Princeton U Pr, 1983).

[2] See, among voluminous other writings, his War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict (Urbana: U Illinois Pr, 1989).

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