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Jon Latimer (1964–2009)

Author of 1812: War with America

20 Works 610 Members 6 Reviews

About the Author

Jon Latimer served for sixteen years as an officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, as Platoon Commander, Assault Troop Leader and Battalion Intelligence Officer. He has published widely in military journals. (Bowker Author Biography)

Includes the names: Jon Latimer, John Latimer

Works by Jon Latimer


Common Knowledge

Canonical name
Latimer, Jon
Legal name
Latimer, Jonathan David
Date of death
University College Swansea



1812: War with America is a scholarly history of the War of 1812 from a British point of view. Author Jon Latimer spends more than the normal amount of time, for a military history, on economics and logistics, which do not make for gripping reading like battle accounts but are much more important for analyzing the causes and outcome of the war.

The ostensible cause, was, of course, “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights”; the subtler goal was the annexation of Canada. (At the time, “Lower Canada” was Quebec; “Upper Canada” was Ontario, and the Maritimes and Newfoundland were just other parts of British North America). The American side felt taking Canada would be “just a matter of marching” (Thomas Jefferson’s phrase), and on the surface, it probably seemed that way; the US had a population of around 7 million while the non-Indian Canadian population was around 77000; New York City had more people than that. My previous impression was that like the Revolution this was another war between the tiny – population-wise – US and the giant Great Britain; however, while the population of the US had more than doubled since the Revolution, Great Britain had increased by a much smaller amount and had a population of around 10 million. This makes the Canadian and English accomplishment that much more impressive; it wasn’t a matter of a fight between more-or-less equals, but a more of a David and Goliath fight involving the comparatively miniscule Canadian population and whatever dribs and drabs the British Empire could spare from Napoleon with the apparently much larger US. Ironically it turned out completely opposite from what the participants originally expected; the grossly outnumbered Canadians won all the battles on land (with the exception of the Battle of the Thames, the Siege of Fort Erie, and the Battle of New Orleans) while the grossly outnumbered US Navy gave the Royal Navy heebie-jeebies for the entire war.

The economic aspect was, again, the initial excuse for war. US merchants were making money through exports to Europe, but they were also losing ships and sailors to British impressment and seizures. Trade relations with the French were not that great either; at one point the French seized every US ship in Continental Europe under the excuse that they were violating US embargo laws and were therefore all smugglers; in fact, just before news of the war vote reached Paris, Napoleon had issued another order to seize US ships; it was suppressed and not discovered in the archives until years later. Latimer argues that the impressment issue was not as severe as the US made it out to be, noting that proof of US citizenship was often honored by Royal Navy captains. The catch was that either authentic or forged documents proving US citizen ship could be bought cheaply, and in an age before photo ID or fingerprint identification were freely sold and traded back and forth once obtained. The “Free Trade” issue was more complicated; the French were attempting to starve out England while the English were trying to blockade the Continent. The French didn’t really need US imports that much but the English were heavily dependent on US grain to feed the Peninsular Army and US cotton for the mills of Liverpool, Birmingham, and Manchester. Thus, the British waffled somewhat in enforcing economic warfare; they had repealed the objectionable “Orders in Council” just before war was declared (too late for the US to hear of it).

The logistic issue was equally important; Canada was at the end of a trans-Atlantic supply line. What’s more, even after reaching the Canadian coast, supplies had to be sent up the St. Lawrence and transshipped to reach ports on the Lakes. Control of the Great Lakes was thus absolutely vital to Canada. It was also important to the US, but less so; US states adjacent to the Lakes were much more developed than Upper and Lower Canada. The English had limited industrial development in Canada to avoid competition, and had limited European settlement to avoid upsetting Francophone Canadiens and First Nations/Native Americans. Both these decisions nearly came back to haunt them.

This was a war of conquest; Canadians were almost uniformly unenthusiastic about the United States (almost uniformly; two units of Canadian Volunteer Dragoons joined the US Army). It might be expected that the Quebecois would be desirous to get out from under the thumb of the anglophone aristocracy, and thus cooperate with the US or at least remain neutral; however, most francophone Canadiens were royalists and wanted to see Napoleon defeated; they joined militia and fencible units at the same rate as their Anglophone neighbors (although British officers found their discipline and turnout lacking). (On the other side of the continent, however, New Orleans was more republican and a number of Napoleonic veterans turned out to help Jackson, especially in artillery).

Leadership wise, while British officers serving in Canada were mediocre (with the exception of Isaac Brock, who left the scene quickly with a bullet in his chest at the Battle of Queenston) their American counterparts, with the exception of Jackson, were gut-wrenchingly incompetent. To be fair, the Americans didn’t have that much to work with. It was the Jeffersonian ideal that the USA would not have a large standing army, but instead patriotic militia would grab their rifles from over the mantle and rush to arms if the US was attacked again. That didn’t work if the US was on the offensive. Many militia units refused to cross the US border (sometimes even their state border), and most performed poorly even inside the US (the exception, as Latimer acknowledges, was militia fighting from fixed defenses. US units shot attackers to bloody ruin at Fort Erie and New Orleans). Canadian militia, of course, were mostly on the defensive and proved to be just as good riflemen as the Americans. They also didn’t have issues with crossing the border; at one point the future state of Wisconsin (then part of Illinois Territory) was occupied by the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. The Newfies, and most other Canadian “militia”, were “fencible” units, somewhat between the American idea of militia and regulars; when they signed up they agreed to be deployed anywhere in North America.

For most of the war the only way American ground troops could have performed worse would have been if they had been forced to wear clown makeup. Detroit and Mackinac fell quickly, thus allowing Canadian occupation of Michigan and Wisconsin. American attempts to invade Canada along the Niagara frontier were almost contemptuously turned aside. Things changed in 1814; on the American side the Regular Army had been strengthened and began to make progress, but on the British side veterans of the Napoleon wars began to turn up on the other side of the Atlantic; in particular Admiral Cochrane pretty much had his way with the Atlantic seaboard, with numerous descents on the coast from Georgia to Maine (most notably the capture and burning of Washington). Coastal Maine and Nantucket Island essentially seceded from the US, with all male inhabitants swearing allegiance to the British Crown. Cochrane, of course was eventually stopped at New Orleans (it’s often said the Battle of New Orleans was fought “after the war was over”; Latimer clarifies that it was fought after the Treaty of Ghent was signed but before it was ratified by the US Senate. Both sides had agreed the war wouldn’t end until that took place).

Things were different on the water. The US Navy turned out to be just as good as the Royal Navy, rather to both sides’ surprise. Although the single-ship actions on the oceans were dramatic, they really didn’t matter much to the progress of the war. However, the Battle of Put In Bay was probably the single most important naval battle in US history; it gave the US complete control of Lake Erie (and thus, eventually of the upper lakes as well; although the Canadians had the only warships on Lake Huron and Lake Superior they had no way to supply them once Lake Erie fell, nor could Detroit hold out). There was more of a contest on Lake Ontario, with each side busily launching ships; as each new ship slid off the ways the other side would retreat to Sacket’s Harbor or Kingston until they could counter with another vessel of their own. (As an aside it’s often contended the American burning of York (now Toronto) was a mistake, since it simply provoked the Royal Navy to take a harder line with American coastal towns. Latimer points out, however, that there were abundant naval stores, including many cannon, stockpiled in York to be sent down to Barclay on Lake Erie, and if he had received these the battle there might have gone differently; most of Barclay’s ships were armed with carronades which allowed the Americans the range advantage.

The economics were pretty hard on both sides. The US went heavily into debt (Latimer notes, in counterpoint to New England cheerfully supplying Wellington in the Peninsula – to the extent that there was no Royal Navy blockade until 1814 – the US negotiated a loan from a London bank during the war). It wasn’t quite as bad in England, although at one point US privateers brought insurance rates up to 30% of the ship and cargo value. As it was, England didn’t pay off its Napoleonic war debts until 1880.

The US did realize it was in over its head by 1813, and peace feelers went out through the Tsar. The English weren’t having any of it by this point. Eventually both sides met in Ghent (at the same time the rest of Europe was meeting in Vienna). The US was handicapped because its negotiators had the power to make agreements while the English diplomats had to keep sending to London for instructions. Latimer notes that when George Canning was Foreign Minister he was inclined to take a much harder line with American than his successor Viscount Castlereagh. Canning, however, had managed to get himself shot in an embarrassing location during a duel; thus, according to Latimer, the destiny of the United States may have hinged on George Canning’s left buttock. Even with the more accommodating English diplomats the initial position was fairly harsh: return of the Louisiana Purchase and West Florida to Spain, annexation of northern Maine, and no American warships on the Great Lakes. The initial US offer was naively unrealistic – cession of Canada and no impressment of American sailors. Both sides eventually retreated to the status quo ante bellum and that was the basis for the Treaty of Ghent. The only US territorial gain was West Florida; England became much more liberal about settlement policy in Canada.

Latimer doesn’t speculate on alternate histories, although he does point out that the US had a War Plan Crimson as late as 1939 (he doesn’t mention Defence Scheme No. 1). The fact that Latimer won’t speculate won’t stop me, however. There are, of course, all sorts of possibilities:

* The US doesn’t go to war at all. This was probably the most unpopular war in US history; you can say all you want about later wars but no US territories ever signed independent treaties with Vietnam or Iraq. If the Orders in Council had been cancelled slightly earlier, or if the war vote was delayed until the news could reach the US, this might have happened. The effects probably wouldn’t have been that great. The US Navy would have less of a glorious tradition; conversely there might be less patriotism among Canadians. As mentioned, the war liberalized English attitudes toward settlement in Canada; if there had been no war with the US Canadian development would presumably have gone more slowly.

* The US declares war on France instead. It sounds unlikely but this was actually considered at one point, after the initial Napoleonic seizure of US ships in continental ports. The US, after all, did fight an undeclared war against Republican France between 1798-1800. It’s hard to imagine the US actively participating on the European continent; it’s just barely imaginable that here might have been some US action against French West Indian colonies. What the English attitude might have been is unclear but I suppose the US might have come out with a sugar island.

* Decisive US victory. Given the pathetic unpreparedness for war, the only way this would have worked is if the Americans has started building up the regular Army a lot earlier, which would have been difficult to do given peacetime US economics. If there had been much worse luck on the Canadian side and much better luck on the US side it’s remotely possibly that the US might have been able to take Montreal and Quebec City (ironically, the US got a lot closer to doing this in the Revolutionary War than in the War of 1812). Given transatlantic supply difficulties and US control of the Lakes and the St. Lawrence it would have been very difficult for an English counteroffensive to succeed; the Royal Navy proved that it could operate more or less at will against the US coast, but the Revolutionary War had also proved that this didn’t help much in a war in the interior of the continent; thus, the eventual outcome might have been ceding of some or all of British North America to the US. The next question is what would the US do with it? Although US population was growing rapidly, there’s still a lot of Canada to settle. The long-term effect on American politics is wide open for speculation; would the US have been as eager to go to war with Mexico in 1847 if it had Canada already, or would it just have made the Manifest Destiny fans more enthusiastic? Canada is unsuited for slave-based agriculture and the South would have been outnumbered in Congress earlier; or would Southerners have insisted on complete annexation of Mexico and the West Indies to compensate? (That’s one of the things that surprises me about American attitudes toward the war; the South was generally in favor of it while the North was opposed. You would think the South would realize that Canadian annexation would result in a number of new free states that would tip the balance in Congress – but slavery hadn’t become that divisive an issue yet so perhaps that didn’t occur to them). How about the long term geopolitical issues? With no Canada for the English to draw on in 1914 or 1939, how would those wars have ended up?

* The US is decisively defeated. It was a near thing as it was. I expect the original proposals of the English side at Ghent would have been put in effect and resulted in an embittered and hostile US, possibly like France after the Franco-Prussian war. If there was a forced return of the Louisiana Purchase, the US north/south political balance would have been maintained and slavery might have remained much longer. If the absence of Canada from the global scene might have had unpleasant consequences for England in 1914 and 1939, an actively hostile United States – even a “rump” United States - would have been even worse.

Thus, ironically, the more or less neutral outcome of the War of 1812 was probably the best for all the parties involved.

Fluent writing and an easy read. Extensive references from both primary and secondary sources. Good maps of all the major land engagements – they’re done in a sort of faux-contemporary style that hits just the right combination between antique and modern, resulting in an attractive and accurate presentation. There are no plots of naval engagements (with the exception of the Battle of Plattsburg); only a slight drawback because there are plenty of other sources for these. Illustrations are copies of contemporary paintings. There’s just barely a trace of Canadian/English chauvinism, but that may be my imagination. Recommended, especially if all you have read are American accounts of the war (as was the case with me).
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setnahkt | 2 other reviews | Nov 30, 2017 |
Jon Latimer's 1812: War with America (Harvard University Press, 2007), described as "the first complete history of the War ... written from a British perspective," does much to contextualize the conflict within the larger framework of the Napoleonic wars, although I confess I expected a bit more on the internal British government debates over war policy and strategies, and there is very little here on the British "home front" at all. Certainly Latimer relies more on British and Canadian sources than most histories of the War have done, though, and that alone would make the book worth reading.

Most of the book is a traditional military history of the conflict, focusing on the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence region where so much of the back-and-forth occurred and on the Atlantic naval battles; scattered chapters branch off to discuss the war in other regions (Jackson's Creek wars, the raids on Washington and Baltimore, and the Battle of New Orleans). A final chapter covers the peace negotiations at Ghent, and here Latimer really makes clear the ways in which the British government was trying to simply get the somewhat pesky American conflict out of the way so they could deal with the wider European peace.

Filled with sometimes mind-boggling detail of the numbers of guns on each ship in a battle, the particular regiments involved in a campaign, &c., the book is a bit of a slog at times, and Latimer's willingness to take British claims at face value while dismissing American arguments gets to be a bit much after a while. On the other hand, it's also incredibly thorough and engaging, and I'm sure I'll look to it again.

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2 vote
JBD1 | 2 other reviews | Sep 3, 2012 |
An interesting view of the War of 1812 from a British perspective, including a critical look at American claims of victory. No second war for independence here!

A great insight into a time when the British Empire fought both Napoleon's might and the United States' power.
hf22 | 2 other reviews | May 7, 2012 |
kkokal | 1 other review | Mar 22, 2006 |


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½ 3.6

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