The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies



Historians are fond of complicating popular historical narratives, but few do so as enjoyably as Alan Taylor in his 2010 book, The Civil War of 1812. Rather than focusing on the War of 1812 as a national conflict between the U.S. and Britain, Taylor’s work reexamines it as a war fought around fluid and ill-defined borderlands, often to the confusion and protest of the inhabitants who found themselves on both sides of an arbitrary boundary between empire and republic.

Taylor’s argument is echoed in another recent work by author Kathleen Burk, in The Lion and the Eagle: The Interaction of the British and American Empires, 1783-1972. Here she too makes the case that the American Revolution did not produce a clean break from the mother country. Instead the formation of the United States drove an artificial border between many culturally similar peoples, including native Indians, American settlers, and British immigrants. People who had very little to gain from participating in the conflict met the republican and imperial demands for competing loyalties with general frustration, antipathy, and resentment. As Taylor describes: “Among rural people on both sides of the border, personal relationships mattered more than abstract allegiance to nationalism” (Taylor, The Civil War of 1812,p. 292).

Late Loyalists

Canada’s English speaking population probably stood to loose the most from the War of 1812. The first large wave of these immigrants were mostly Loyalist war refugees from the thirteen colonies during the American War for Independence. These were soon followed by a second wave of 30,000 “Late Loyalist” Americans between the years 1792-1812. Ironically these immigrants moved to British-Canada fleeing the higher American taxes, as well as seeking the free farm land promised to new Canadians who took an oath of allegiance to the Crown. As part of their oath of loyalty they were expected to defend Canada against an American invasion, but the British government expressed strong doubts that these opportunistic colonists would actually bear arms against their former countrymen. This became an increasing source of concern as by the start of the War of 1812 these Late Loyalists had become the majority population of Upper Canada.


Meanwhile the United States was experiencing its own migration, the first since becoming a new country, this one from Irish war refugees fleeing the failed Irish Republican uprising of 1798. These new immigrants added to the complex divide between the U.S. and Britain, since Britain insisted on maintaining a double standard for British subjects to a king vs. American citizens under a republic. Britain was perfectly content with accepting the loyalties of former American citizens, while insisting that natural born subjects of the Crown were subjects in perpetuity. “So they insisted on their right to reclaim any subject found on the high seas and to make subjects of foreign-born sailors and of American settlers in Canada. This double policy angered Americans hypersensitive to any erosion of their new independence” (p. 9). Furthermore, once war broke out, Britain declared that all former subjects found bearing arms in the U.S. army or navy would be executed as traitors, regardless of how long ago they had emigrated (p. 356). These harsh measures taken against Irishmen both before and during the war only increased Irish republican hatred for the empire.


But just as Republican Irish were filling the ranks of American armies, they found themselves facing thousands of Irishmen who had also fled war ravaged Ireland by seeking employment in the British army. Both nations worried that Irish regiments from the other side would encourage their own to desert. And many of those captured by Americans, lured by an easy captivity and a life away from the British military, did in fact either refuse to return to the British Army when paroled, or fled from prison in order to stay in America (p. 372).

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