For various reasons, the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain to lay claim over Canada is sometimes referred to as a forgotten war. There was no well known American president involved such as George Washington, nor was there a popular general involved such as Ulysses S. Grant to capture the imaginations of the American people. Many Canadians feel military accomplishments have never been a focal point in our national conscience, but the War of 1812 was the bloodiest conflict fought on Canadian soil and was an essential event in forming the foundation of the Canadian identity.
The war between Great Britain and France was more vital, especially on a global scale, mainly because Canada was just a small British colony with a few hundred thousand inhabitants. But for those living here, the War of 1812 was a pivotal moment in history. The War of 1812 provided Canadians with a woman who became a national icon, and whose name would become synonymous with chocolate – Laura Secord; the war would also produce Canada’s first war hero, General Isaac Brock, whose victories and death inspired a nation.
Amateur historian and Ottawa native Gilbert Collins visited many of the sites of the War of 1812 without the intention of writing a book but, as he says in the preface, there was no adequate guides for those like him with an interest in the War of 1812, so Collins took it upon himself to rectify the situation.
In detailing these attractions, Collins has included more than 380 historic sites and markers, 28 maps and dozens of illustrations. The book also includes a chronology of the war, and is a handy tool for both the traveller and the historian. This guide is a welcome addition to the collections of both the serious scholar of the war and the amateur historian.
The many sites are listed according to region, and to Collins’ credit, the book ventures beyond Canada’s involvement in the war. More depth is given to sites in Canada, but American sites are also well covered. In order to locate sites in their present locations, a map and symbols are given for each region, which indicate what a visitor might expect to find from a small plaque commemorating a battle, a large statue honouring a person or the remains of a long gone fort. Collins also uses photographs to show the locations as they are today and, for an added touch, even includes sketches by another amateur historian Benson Lossing, who, like Collins, visited the War of 1812 sites back in 1860 without the benefit of a guidebook.
A brief summary of events and participants is included for each site. Some entries are longer than others but are always informative. The real detail is in the lesser known events and people because Collins assumes his readers will know the major players, and in places, he skims them a bit in favour of the smaller things such as the Hoople’s Creek skirmish in Ontario. The current status and modifications to many of the sites are also indicated and show how the places are being preserved when possible but also that many are lost forever with nothing but a small marker to indicate the significance. Another bonus in the updates is the inclusion of modern day finds such as the accidental discovery of the ship General Hunter. The General Hunter was captured by the Americans at the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813 and its wreck ended up buried on a beach in Southampton, Ontario until it was discovered in 2001.
Brock’s service in the Battle of Queenston Heights gave Canadians their first true war hero. When Brock was alive, he was a hero to the Canadian people and his soldiers, and when he was killed defending Canada, he became a legend. There are countless streets and parks named after him and he is even the namesake of a city: Brockville, Ontario. There is ample coverage of both Brock and The Battle of Queenston Heights along with information on what a visitor will find at the site today including a walking tour of the battleground with markers containing relevant facts. Also placed high atop Queenston Heights is Brock’s grave and monument.
Brock’s monument is visible from kilometres away, including the American side of the river. The plume of Brock’s hat is 185 feet above the ground, making it taller than any of the columns raised to honour Horatio Nelson or Napoleon.
This book is definitely for the historian out for a road trip or someone looking for some general information on the battles, people and places of the War of 1812. It is not detailed enough to be used as an academic resource but it was never intended to be. If you’re a Pierre Burton wannabe and have any interest in a War of 1812 driving tour of Eastern Canada or the United States, this comprehensive book is a must.