Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Literally the Best Reviews: New York's War of 1812

 New York’s War of 1812 - Richard V Barbuto

University of Oklahoma Press

364 Pages

In the broad scheme of American history, the War of 1812 is widely overlooked. That seemed especially so during my own school years when that war is given a cursory footnote between the American Revolution and the Civil War, which is less than the oft overlooked World War I. Considering the War of 1812 had such an impact on the Niagara Frontier, it sure seems like a major oversight in the history curriculum here in Niagara County.

Fortunately, there has been a recent resurgence in interest in the War of 1812 after the bicentennial events that took place in Maryland and Canada. New York played a major role in the conflict, but played a far too minor role in the bicentennial celebrations. Most of what I learned in school about the War of 1812 is that we lost (wrong), the Star Spangled Banner was written about the British attack on Fort McHenry, Dolly Madison saved George Washington’s portrait, and Andrew Jackson won New Orleans.

Enter Richard Barbuto with his newest publication, New York’s War of 1812: Politics, Society, and Combat. Barbuto is a Professor Emeritus of Military History at the US Army Command & General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He previously wrote Niagara 1814: America Invades Canada which also dealt with the War of 1812. Full disclosure, I have not read that book yet. Regardless, Barbuto can be considered an expert on the War of 1812.

Lost in the scattered history of the War of 1812 was the importance of New York State during the war. While other parts of the war seem more glamorous and are immortalized in song and poems, New York has been consigned to the nearly forgotten moments. Despite this, New York was on the front lines of the major aspects of the war. Luckily Barbuto focuses his latest effort on this state’s immeasurable role in the hostilities.

New York’s border with the British Empire meant that there was a lot of focus along the Niagara River, Lake Ontario, and the St Lawrence River. Britain, looking upon the independence of the United States 30 years later with disdain, felt superior to the colonial upstarts. They felt the might of the empire would force a swift end to the disturbance with great prizes for themselves. They even wanted to move their southern border as far south as the Ohio River, which put New York square in the sights of English guns and cannon. 

The United States was still a fresh-faced country trying to define themselves when the War of 1812 first threatened its existence. There were many hurdles that needed to be overcome by the United States in order to take on a war footing. Not all were clear. However, New York State governor Daniel D. Tompkins stepped into a leadership position that helped to define the American response. Tompkins was able to balance the wants of the nation with fierce anti-war factions that threatened to derail efforts to hold off the British. Through this raucous political division, he was able to garner and maintain support for the effort to defend New York State.

Niagara County, where I live, saw the destructive side of the War of 1812. From Fort Niagara, south through Niagara Falls, Black Rock, and Buffalo (all of which were part of Niagara County in 1813), residents were ousted from their homes, and the destructive tongues of flames set by the British burned them out into the frigid winter of the frontier. The same happened just across the border in Niagara-on-the-Lake. This war had a direct impact on New York State.

Barbuto utilizes the records of the state government, both financial and legislative records, including Tompkins’ correspondence to piece together the impact of warfare on New York State. Taken together, New York’s story during the War of 1812 is finally emerging from the shadows that have been cast across it. 

Barbuto writes this history with an eye towards both the historian and the casual reader. His flow and delivery of that facts are engaging and will not overwhelm the reader. At the same time, he is succinct in his writing. This gives the reader a full understanding of the events that occurred leading to, during, and after the war. As a casual reader you will not be lost in the scholarly works. This makes New York’s War of 1812 a book that should be required reading -- especially in New York State and the Niagara Frontier. 

This book opened my eyes to much of what I did not understand with my limited knowledge of the War of 1812. It also opened my inquiring mind to more events surrounding this mostly forgotten confrontation. I was going to make this book a part of my related reading list for my presidential biographies project when I got to President Madison. Since the author was doing a lecture on this book, I read it ahead of my schedule in order to be familiar with the book for that occasion. Because of that, I have found more books related to this war that will be added to the related reading once I get to Madison. Always being prompted to learn more is the staple of a great history book. And that is what this book is.

Craig Bacon has a long reading list that keeps getting longer. It’s never too late or too early to keep learning.