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The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict

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The first comprehensive history of the War of 1812 since Henry Adams's work of a century ago is a myth-shattering study that will inform and entertain students, historians, and general readers. Donald R. Hickey explores the military, diplomatic, and domestic history of our second war with Great Britain. He explains how the conflict promoted American nationalism and manifest destiny, stimulated peacetime defense spending, and enhanced America's reputation abroad. He also recalls that the war sparked bloody conflicts between pro-war Republican and anti-war Federalist neighbors, dealt a crippling blow to the American Indians, and hardened United States hearts against the British.

480 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1989

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About the author

Donald R. Hickey

15 books10 followers
Don Hickey is a professor of history at Wayne State College. He earned his B.A. in 1966, his M.A. in 1968, and his Ph.D. in 1972 from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 59 reviews
Profile Image for Jerome Otte.
1,730 reviews
July 13, 2013
Like all nations, Americans remember the parts of our history that we want to remember, the stuff that makes us look like we’re number one. Because there was very little to want to remember about the War of 1812, we chose to forget most of it.

Hickey covers all aspects of this conflict, at least from the American side. He begins with the disputes which led to the conflict. The divisions within the United States, both geographical and political, receive good treatment.The war created a division between commercial, Federalist New England and the agricultural, Democratic-Republican south and west. The hardships of the war provided a boost for the declining Federalist Party, but with the return of peace, its decline toward oblivion resumed at a rapid pace. The economic interests of the various sections are also given good coverage.

This was, in fact, probably America's most unpopular war, Vietnam notwithstanding. The British impressment of seamen, American lust for Canada and resentment resulting from British incitement of Indians, combined to put together a political majority for war. Some of the maritime issues had led to a series of economic responses over several years prior to the commencement of hostilities. The initial efforts to resolve the issues were a series of shifting and conflicting economic measures, including boycotts and trade restrictions which began before and continued during the war.

The portrait of President Madison as a relatively weak, unsuccessful wartime leader is skillfully painted. As is the case with other some American leaders, Madison appears to be one whose greatest days occurred before he achieved the office for which he is best remembered. Madison's role in the drafting and adoption of the Constitution provided major contributions to his country, while his service as Chief Executive was one of the more lackluster performances in that office.

America's greatest success in the war occurred, not in the field, but at the peace conference. This is the exception to Will Rogers' statement that America has never lost a war or won a conference. Despite representing a government with a smoldering capitol and much of Maine in enemy hands, the negotiators emerged with a return to the prewar borders and a settlement (sort of) of the maritime issues which had led to the war.

After reading this book, one is left with the conclusion that the War of 1812 was probably an unprofitable war for the U.S. At its end the borders were unchanged and the maritime issues which were resolved would probably have been resolved with the advent of peace in Europe without the necessity of American involvement in the war. The reader is left with the feeling that the war left America with no lasting collateral benefits to compensate for the loss of life and treasure occasioned by the struggle. The war was sort of about grabbing land and westward expansion, but not really. Manifest Destiny didn’t cause the war. Canada was not the end, but the means. The end was to force the british to cave on their position on impressment.

One of the myths of the War of 1812 is that the British were mounting a second American revolution, trying to get back what they'd lost in 1776. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the British were largely distracted with a much more pressing conflict against Napoleon's armies on the continent of Europe and America chose this moment to prosecute some fairly minor grievances, in effect yanking their tail while they were in a fierce dog fight with France. The fact that they didn't turn around and rip us to pieces, particularly after the war in Europe ended and they could devote all their attention to us, speaks well of their restraint - as well as their national exhaustion after years of fighting. Also, the British did not assign much priority to the peace conference in Ghent, being at the time concerned with the far more pressing matter of carving up post-Napoleonic Europe.

In all, this is probably the best history of the whole war that you will find. See also Alan Taylor's and Stephen Budiansky's books on the war as well for a good all-around picture.
Profile Image for BAM the enigma.
1,766 reviews353 followers
February 26, 2017
What an extraordinary book! The author did a superior job researching every category of life during the War of 1812-military, social, political, fiscal. Momentous achievement considering this is probably the least documented war, the least popular, the least well-known.
I wanted a book that could teach me what I never learned in school and walked away feeling like I didn't retain half of the information included. I think I may buy this book instead of using the library copy.
8 reviews
September 19, 2013
A great example of someone who has made an industry out of a single book.

This was good for its time, but decades of scholarship have passed and it's well past its prime. The "new" edition released for 2012 is essentially the same thing as are most of the other books written on the War of 1812 by Hickey--lots of dramatic prose and anecdotes, very American-centric, and very elite white male.
4 reviews2 followers
September 23, 2013
Guns, ships, facts, figures and little else. Where are the Canadians in this? Where are the Native Americans? Where are the women? Where are the African slaves? The idea that war is simple about movements on a battlefield is long since past; the homefront, public opinion, the social history of it all matters (well, at least to good historians interested in telling a "complete" history of a conflict).

I'm OK with books just being about battles, so long as they are honest about it--"a naval history of . . .", "a tactical history of . . ." are honestly helpful.

Exception to my review:
1) The description of the Baltimore Riots was interesting--not great prose but an interesting event that broke the pattern of the rest of the book.

Much, much, much better books on the subject out there for those looking for a more complete history of the war.

PS Don't call it a new edition when there is very little new in it. For a historian who has made his career out of the topic, I was expecting something substantive in the new edition.
Profile Image for Steve.
4 reviews
March 31, 2009
There is no story to this book. It is just a list of troop sizes and how many guns per ship. Like reading a high school term paper. The only interesting part was the detailed description of The Battle of New Orleans.
Profile Image for Alex Stephenson.
232 reviews2 followers
August 22, 2022
Not a book with much flowery prose or great writing, and some of the info is surely outdated, but I found it a great basic overview of the conflict, its problems and the consequences it left the US in the long-term. Lots of political careers were kick-started during this turmoil, some notably (Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Henry Clay), and others (such as Daniel Webster's, Zachary Taylor's and Martin van Buren's) that I knew next to nothing about. Intriguing stuff.
Profile Image for Neil.
67 reviews
July 20, 2012
There are certain things which everyone should be able to do in life, and one of them is to be able to explain the causes and effects of the War of 1812. This book will help you accomplish that milestone. Imagine yourself the life of the party, spinning yarns about how Dolly Madison saved the sheet music for America the Beautiful by secreting it in her petticoats while the British burned down the White House. Of course that's not what really happened. However, if you read this book you will know more about the War of 1812 than anyone else at the party and that would be a hell of a lot more. You might actually find one other guest who knows when it ended, but you would have to travel in a very learned crowd.

The most important -and frightening- thing that I learned about the War of 1812 from reading this book is that history has already repeated itself. In 1812 the Republicans started a war without the military or financial means to win it. Three years later it ended in a military draw, but the nation was bankrupt and the Union had come dangerously close to dissolution. Does this sound familiar?

It is a very difficult subject to grasp, but the book explains it as simply as possible. I wish there had been more eyewitness accounts, but it is possible that there just aren't too many available. The maps were very helpful.

1812 was a significant year not only for the United States. I had trouble explaining to a Russian friend that this book was not about Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. It is interesting how Americans know as little about this event as Europeans do. However, the war against Napoleon in Europe was inextricably linked to this war in the U.S. and Canada. It's funny how the highlight of the Fourth of July concert in Boston is the Boston Pops performance of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture -and the crowd thinks it is about the United States battling Great Britain.

Perhaps they should hand out copies of this book for the masses to read while they're camped out all day on the Esplanade waiting for the festivities to begin.

Profile Image for Jay Perkins.
119 reviews11 followers
August 20, 2016
A really good political and military history of the War of 1812. There are a few places that the book kind of drags, but Hickey offers a lot of information on the debates in Congress, issues within the administration, and economic challenges. If you supplement it with books like Alan Taylor's "The Civil War of 1812" and "The Internal Enemy", you will cover a lot of ground and a good understanding of the conflict.
Profile Image for Paul.
41 reviews3 followers
November 7, 2018
The War of 1812 is written about a time period that has largely been forgotten. It was an important time in our nation's history and Donald Hickey does an excellent job in exploring the ins and outs of a period of time that, while largely forgotten, was crucial to the development of our nation. An excellent read.
Profile Image for Hugh.
5 reviews
October 27, 2010
It was a well researched and interesting book full of details that only a true 1812 history buff would appreciate - which excluded me. I did find it educational as a window into American life and thought and as a follow up to "1776."
33 reviews2 followers
August 15, 2011
Fantastic book. The author takes the reader into the conflict to include the political and economic aspects. The major battles are talked about but not concentrated on. Minor battles are also mentioned and discussed. One of the best well rounded books on any conflict I've read.
Profile Image for Philip.
189 reviews
August 15, 2013
This is a prosaic but detailed history of this war. It is in the old tradition of just listing the facts with little analysis in a dry fashion: this is a perfect test book, in other words. I learned a huge amount about this war, but the book was a bit of a chore with no color and little analysis.
5 reviews2 followers
November 5, 2019
Had to read this for class. Outdated compared to the other books assigned. Chapter on the Baltimore riots was kind of interesting, but the writing style is too dull. Felt like I was being lectured at.
Profile Image for Bob Lynch.
21 reviews
February 14, 2018
A forgotten conflict indeed!

The War of 1812 is an early 19th century landmark event. It's useful in understanding the politics, economics & international dynamics of the period. It's amazing how much of this shit-storm correlates to the present. I'm skiing my way through US history one biography and war at time.

This war is like washing your car...then having 37 diarrhea vultures poo bomb it 5 minutes later. Except the war has dead people and violence. Both sides win rounds. Land battles. Sea battles. Negotiations. When the dust settles...neither side has much to show for it.

The war was popular with the Republicans in power, as they saw British antics at sea (seizing US ships, impressment, etc.) as evidence the world didn't take the new country seriously. It was sold as a way to win "final" independence from Britain. The Federalists favored negotiation...which hadn't done much. Public support favored the war initially.

Over the next three years...land battles were fought along the Canadian border and sea battles in the Atlantic. It stayed surprisingly even. Americans won key battles at Baltimore and New Orleans (where Andrew Jackson's legend grew). The British managed to invade Washington DC and the Chesapeake Bay.

Politically, both sides feuded over how to raise money and troops. War costs escalated quickly. They tried offering treasury notes and a variety of taxes. They also attempted embargo's on British goods. This failed incredibly...as black market trading ran rampant. Francis Scott Key showed up on a British ship in Baltimore and wrote the Star Spangled Banner (and Free Bird).

Federalists were overwhelmed in congress. Western and southern states benefited economically. Northeastern states suffered. States had to cover their own militia costs. There was a Hartford convention where Federalists vented their frustration with poor war execution & financial turbulence.

Eventually both sides grew exhausted and worked out a compromise (Treaty of Ghent). Not much changed...though the British did stop annoying US ships.

This book was, honestly, a bit of a slog. Informative? Yes. Repetitive? Also yes. Political tribalism was every bit as bad (if not worse) than today. I think of congressmen physically fighting on the floor of the Senate in the 1800's when I see a whiny platitude on current-state divisiveness. Puts things in perspective.

This book was helpful and I recommend it for those genuinely curious about the era. It did take me a while and most definitely was not a page turner. I give it a 3 for the volume of info delivered.

Profile Image for Bryan.
52 reviews1 follower
March 22, 2021
Let me start off by saying this book is a great depiction of the war of 1812. It goes battle by battle on land, sea and in congress about what happened during and a little prior to the war of 1812. Hickey gives extreme details the amount of cannons per ship and the amount of loss both financially and of lives.

Here is the bad part. The author keeps referring to and never references a shorten name for James Madison's/ Jefferson's party which was the Democratic Republicans and not the actual Republican party that exists today that wouldn't be establish till decades later.

He also shows his clear biases for the federalist during the time period and even ending the book saying that the war of 1812 brought no victories even though this is factually incorrect. The ability of respect being earned by holding off the same soldiers that beat Napoleon was a HUGE victory. Also the fact that to avoid any more interference with Canada, England started to actively partner with the US which helped the trade issues where they were taking advantage of the United States.

One last thing, to better understand this war you need to read about the seven years war till this war. This war marked the end of a really 60 year turbulent relationship. Hickey barley references these points in his attack for the cause of the war but Jefferson was trying desperately to avoid war to negotiate treaties with regard to trade. Never the less England never respected the US as a partner more than likely still hurt by the separation until the end of this war(as you can tell by the current newspaper articles of the time).

For such an unknown war, this war had huge impacts for America's future with regards to traditions, people and sayings that are still relative today.
105 reviews1 follower
July 15, 2022
The strongest points of this book are not the battles but the affect the war had on the US economy and society. There cost of the war nearly bankrupted the country and even led to some Northern States considering nullification of federal laws and possibly even secession from the Union. Republicans favored the war, Federalist did not. The Congressional split frustrated prosecution and financing the war. With the Congress deadlocked (even some Republicans blocked the policies of Republican President Madison. This led to the President using Executive Powers (sound familiar?). In Baltimore there were riots where Republicans assaulted and even killed Federalists and destroyed Federalist property because of their outspoken objection to the war. Many Americans ignored the law and traded with the enemy for profit. That was not limited to Federalists, Republicans got into the illegal trade with the enemy business including some local custom officials. As one British officer stated,"Self the great ruling principle [is] more powerful with Yankees then any people I ever saw" (Hickey, p. 201). The New England states and the South did not prosper as well as the Western States economically. As one Southern stated in 1814, "I believe that if the war should last three years longer, I shall not be worth more than 50 negroes after paying my debts" (Hickey, p. 238). That is also a reminder that slaves were used as collateral for loans and payment of debts.
I have always thought of the War of 1812 as a victory. This book certainly corrected my perception. However in many ways the war was a victory. It stabilized relations with Canada. It stopped the British from fermenting and supporting the Native American Tribes against the Americans. It strengthened American pride and self esteem. This is a very interesting and informative book. I recommend it to all interested in American History.
Profile Image for Mike Connell.
Author 1 book4 followers
September 7, 2021
Hickey notes that the war was not a U.S. victory; that the Treaty of Ghent returned both states to the status quo ante bellum. However, he explains how it did effectively end the Federalist party while ironically vindicating many Federalist policies. Hickey also mentions how the war gave a boost to the careers of Henry Clay and Winfield Scott and catapulted four men to the presidency: Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, James Monroe, and William Henry Harrison. The war was the second and last time that U.S. was an underdog in a war and tried to conquer Canada and the last time Indians played a major role in determining the future of the continent. Hickey describes the considerable amount of mismanagement and lack of funding on the U.S. side but also how the conflict promoted national self-confidence and encouraged expansionism that led it to the heart of American foreign policy for the rest of the century. The work is exceptionally well-researched. Hickey is clearly a preeminent authority on the war. He organizes it into manageable sections for each chapter and clearly explains technical terms. I found it to be an excellent and enjoyable read.
Profile Image for M. Gary Berg.
379 reviews4 followers
January 27, 2020
⭐️⭐️⭐️ Interesting account of a war that history says nobody won. War of 1812 is compared by some to the Vietnam War via it being mostly unpopular but vigorously fought politically. (Note: the Star Spangled Banner national song was born around the battle of Baltimore). The US was forever changed militarily, economically, politically, as well as our relationship with Britain as a result of the War of 1812 😨
Profile Image for Kevin Shaw.
21 reviews
September 27, 2018
Lots of statistics, sometimes overwhelming info on a particular battle. I would have enjoyed more anecdotal material and the cause/effect ramifications of this little-known war. But I am glad I read it. It was the last war where Indians had any leverage, and the war where Canada burned down the White House!
Profile Image for William Sariego.
159 reviews3 followers
May 1, 2020
This is a solid historical work on a mostly obscure conflict. Hickey goes into great detail on both the military campaigns and the political and social aspects of the war. The downside? His writing style is quite dry and academic. When people whine that history is boring, they could point to this as an example.
Profile Image for Mike Y.
34 reviews
July 19, 2021
I did not know a whole lot about the War of 1812, so decided to grab this book. I found this a little different in that, as a war book, it was not quite so much about the battles and war strategy. It was more of a political study on the forces that led up to the war and how politics affected the conduct of the war. I enjoyed this quite a bit.
Profile Image for Captain Steve.
5 reviews
March 19, 2020
A useful start to the subject, but memorable only because it was the only comprehensive history of the subject for so long. It's flaws have been shown now that other historians have applied more rigorous analysis and thought.
Profile Image for Christopher Lutz.
322 reviews
March 13, 2021
Fascinating book on America’s most misunderstood conflict. Both incredibly comprehensive and yet easy to approach thanks to it’s topic by topic structure that keeps the analysis of each subject relatively short. Makes it easy to return to this volume as a reference in the future.
Author 1 book2 followers
August 11, 2021
A classic synthetic survey of the War of 1812, Hickey's volume covers military, social, political, and economic spheres of the conflict with great ease. Brilliantly engrossing and detailed, this is the current definitive one volume work on the conflict.
Profile Image for Trana Mathews.
Author 4 books56 followers
August 18, 2022
This historical novel was thoroughly researched. The author did an outstanding job showing why this war happened and the differing political opinions about it. Numerous quotations made this come alive.
333 reviews2 followers
January 19, 2018
A reasonable discussion of this war, well documented and not too long or detailed.
Profile Image for Michael Brantley.
Author 4 books11 followers
June 25, 2020
This is an excellent overall history of the War of 1812. Gives a good overall picture of action, politics, results, impact. Highly recommend.
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