Friendly Fire

Bernard Porter

  • Fusiliers: Eight Years with the Redcoats in America by Mark Urban
    Faber, 384 pp, £20.00, September 2007, ISBN 978 0 571 22486 9
  • 1812: War with America by Jon Latimer
    Harvard, 637 pp, £22.95, October 2007, ISBN 978 0 674 02584 4

Britain has fought the Americans twice. The first occasion we know about: it was the war that secured the colonists’ independence (1775-83). Mark Urban’s book is about the experiences of one British regiment – the Royal Welch Fusiliers – in that campaign. (Most of them weren’t Welsh, incidentally.) The second war scarcely anyone in Britain has heard of, and even Americans seem to be hazy about it. It ran from 1812 to 1815; the peace that formally settled it was signed on Christmas Eve 1814, but because news took so long to travel not everyone knew this until April the following year. It was during this war that British troops burned down the presidential mansion in Washington – the one thing most Americans are aware of – and it ended with the restoration of the status quo ante, which makes it look pretty pointless. In some American history books it is known as the Second War of Independence, which is nonsense. Britain wasn’t threatening that independence in any serious way: only US trade, temporarily, and insofar as it was seen to be aiding Britain’s major enemy at the time – Napoleon’s France.

If it was a war for anyone’s independence, it was for Canada’s: it started with an American invasion of that country – to ‘liberate’ it, naturally. (‘We will “conquer but to save”.’) So from the point of view of the Canadians, who didn’t want to be saved, it was far from pointless. That’s why Jon Latimer regards it on balance as a British victory. It’s probably also the reason Americans don’t make all that much of it, though some things mattered: the sacking of Washington DC, of course; the occasional instances of heroism (some of them mythical); Andrew Jackson’s defeat of the British at New Orleans, fought after the peace treaty and so definitely pointless; and the fact that it gave rise to what later became the American national anthem (the words, not the tune, which was an old English drinking song). Originally called ‘The Defence of Fort McHenry’ (near Baltimore, 14-15 September 1814), it is now better known as ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’:

Oh, say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, thro’ the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watch’d, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air
Gave proof thro’ the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say, does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Well, yes, it did. But there was never any question about that.

On the British side, neither war was popular. (Urban dedicates his book to ‘those who serve honourably in unpopular wars’ – a clear glance at today.) In the first case this was because so many Britons – even some of the officers who were supposed to be putting them down – sympathised with the rebels. In the second it was because the war was felt to be diverting resources from the much more important struggle Britain saw itself engaged in just then on behalf of the whole world (including the US) against Napoleon’s imperialism. It was a bit as if – though the analogy should not be pressed – the US had decided to take advantage of Britain’s involvement in the war against Hitler to attack Canada. (There was a plan for that, secretly drawn up in the 1930s.) This, together with the occasional American ‘atrocity’, will have accounted for much of the bad feeling on the British side, though the atrocities were often exaggerated, and don’t begin to measure up to many of today’s.

Soldiering was relatively gentlemanly then: houses were emptied of people, for example, before they were destroyed. But there were some (small) ‘massacres’, quite a lot of looting and raping (see below), and one or two of the military and naval tactics used by the Americans weren’t considered quite cricket. One was ‘torpedos’: hulks filled with hidden explosives designed to ‘dispose of us by a wholesale six hundred at a time’, as one indignant naval officer complained. First-hand acquaintance with the United States also made many British sceptical of the ‘freedom’ thing. ‘American liberty,’ one Royal Navy officer wrote in 1814, ‘consists in oppressing the blacks beyond what other nations do . . . and working them worse than donkeys. “But you call this a free country, when I can’t shoot my nigger when I like – eh?”’ ‘Holy hypocrites’ was how another British officer characterised the former colonists. But disliking a people doesn’t mean you want to fight them.

The Americans also were split. Latimer points out that the Congressional bill authorising the 1812 War gained the smallest majority of votes in both Houses of any war bill in American history. Once the war started, however, many Americans were (like the British) fired up by lurid stories of enemy atrocities, some of them true; and by Britain’s deployment of Native American (here called ‘Indian’) warriors, very largely because of the terror they were known to stimulate among the whites: scalping, and all that. Often the latter would flee, or surrender, simply at the sight or rumour of them. From the American point of view, the use of ‘savages’ was the worst atrocity of all. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be inappropriate to see the Indians as using the British to help defend their lands from the far more predatory and equally bloodthirsty colonists. They fought as allies, with Britain promising them their own nation, north of the Ohio River, if it won – a useful buffer state, from its point of view. (Because of the war’s stalemate ending that came to nothing.) For similar reasons, thousands of African-Americans supported the British in both wars, which Southern slaveowners resented. In other words: most of the hatreds that accompanied the wars were the result of the wars, and the way they were fought (or perceived to be fought). Americans and Britons were cousins, after all.

Cousinship, however, brought other problems. It undermined commitment on both sides. America was never a favourite posting for British troops. ‘Though I must confess I should like to try what stuff I am made of,’ an officer wrote home in 1774, ‘yet I would rather the trial be with others than these poor fellows of kindred blood.’ Ordinary soldiers and sailors were easily seduced over to the republican side: by money, the promise of better conditions than obtained in the pretty brutal British army and navy (though both authors think this has been exaggerated), or on democratic principle. But this could work the other way, too. The Thirteen Colonies were full of ‘loyalists’ in the 1770s, and still had some left – quite apart from the Indians and blacks – in 1812. Several turned coat, or acted as informers and spies. Even Americans who were generally happy with their independence might not feel comfortable about fighting Britain again. It is quite clear (from other accounts as well as these) that national feeling was fairly weak in the early days of the republic, with most Americans emphasising their state rather than their federal loyalties. This was reflected in the reluctance of militias to serve outside their state boundaries (and so chase the British into Canada); in the number of desertions from the American regular army (three times as many as from the British, though of course it was easier for them to melt away); and in the generally cool feeling that prevailed in the north-eastern states in 1812 towards the hawkish Madison’s war policy. New Englanders insisted on retaining commercial links with their Nova Scotian, New Brunswickian and Québecois neighbours throughout, and would almost certainly have signed a separate peace with Britain in 1814 if their national leaders hadn’t done so. Many Americans were happy to sell supplies to the British invaders (on one occasion sleds, when the British advance was held up by snow). ‘They do say it is wrong to supply an innimy and I think so too,’ one militia officer confessed; ‘but I don’t call that man my innimy who buys what I have to sell, and gives such a genteel price for it. We have worse innimies than you Britishers.’ That’s one of the drawbacks of being a predominantly commercial people. (The main American slogan in the conflict of 1812, hardly an inspiring one, was ‘Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights’.)

So these were messy wars, to put it mildly. Friend and foe were not always clearly demarcated. This indeed was one of the American motives (or pretexts) for the 1812 War: the impressment of Americans into the Royal Navy (hence ‘Sailors’ Rights’), about which Madison issued a dodgy dossier in January 1812 (many names of alleged impressees were duplicated, for example). But nationality was an imprecise thing at the time, and there was a flourishing trade in forged American papers for hapless British sailors. These difficulties continued into the war. As one officer observed, ‘the ridiculous mistakes which could only occur fighting an army speaking the same language were laughable though serious – Who goes there? – A friend – To whom?’ There were incidents of ‘friendly fire’. And there was incompetence on both sides, as well as quite a lot of cowardice, desertion and sheer treachery, to set against the occasional examples of tactical brilliance and bravery.

The authors of these two books are enthusiasts, with army or TA backgrounds, and so mostly concentrate on the battles, described in loving detail, illustrated with little battlefield maps (all rectangles and broad arrows), and in a wealth of jargon which non-enthusiasts (like me) may struggle with. (I was inoculated against all things military by compulsory service in my school’s ludicrous CCF.) It all reads persuasively, however, even to a non-enthusiast; partly because – as is becoming customary (see the books on Britain’s later colonial wars by Saul David) – neither author romanticises his subject to any great degree. Both are good on the daily lives of 18th and early 19th-century soldiers, and on the boring periods between battles. They mention (and Latimer has quite a bit about) the many women involved, mostly as wives, seamstresses, cooks, nurses and prostitutes, but a few in trouser roles. (Five women are supposed to have illicitly joined the British and American forces in 1812-15 as combatants.) Latimer also gives Britain’s Native American allies prominent billing.

Neither pulls punches. ‘A few yards behind sat a black man,’ a contemporary memoir of the battle of New Orleans reported, ‘with all the lower part of his face shot away; his eyes were gone and the bones of his brow all jagged and dripping blood. Near him, in a ditch, lay one of the 43rd, trying to hold in his bowels.’ There is much more in this vein. ‘O that the King and President were both here this moment to see the misery their quarrels lead to,’ one American wife cried as she nursed her wounded husband; ‘they surely would not go to war without cause that they could give as a reason to God at the last day, for thus destroying the creatures that He hath made in his own image.’ Her husband died. Another woman’s fiancé survived the battle of Lake Erie, but in a mutilated state. He wrote to her offering to release her from their engagement. She replied that ‘if there was enough of him left to contain his soul, she would marry him.’ There was, and she did.

Many of the soldiers seem scarcely to have deserved such devotion. Urban describes several of the British officers in the early stages of the Revolutionary War as ‘gamesters and boozers’, and high-ranking idiots, cowards and rogues feature frequently in these narratives, on both sides, although not – as the authors are at pains to point out – typically. The ordinary squaddies come out of most contemporary accounts even worse, though this may be because the main witnesses are their upper-class officers. ‘Figure to yourself the dirtiest and most slovenly-looking blackguards you have ever seen, and there you have our army,’ an American captain wrote before one battle. ‘They remind me very much of the water street Hogs of Norfolk, well fed and lazy and muddy as the devil.’ The reputation of the British soldier was no better. One Hessian ally in the Revolutionary War thought he was paying his British comrades a compliment when he wrote that they had ‘only the vices of cussing, swearing, drinking, whoring and stealing, and these more so than almost all other people’. Some did not stop at whoring (which provided great business opportunities for the towns where they were billeted): rape seems to have been fairly common too – strictly outlawed by army regulations, and even punishable by death, but perhaps for that reason under-reported, and not always taken seriously. One British officer thought part of the problem was that American girls were ‘so little accustomed to these methods that they don’t bear them with the proper resignation’.

Even in battle British soldiers could be undisciplined, as could the American militiamen. In the case of the militiamen this was supposed to be compensated for by their superior patriotism, but that could also run a little thin, especially at harvest time. ‘It will never answer to invade a country with militia,’ one Virginian wrote, ‘some will not cross the line – others will not submit to any kind of subordination and, in fact, would rather be at home than courting fame on the embattled field.’ So the interesting question – much debated at the time – of the comparative virtues of professional regular units (British) as against volunteer militias (American) is not settled in these books. The professionals weren’t professional enough (the most professional were serving in Europe), and the volunteers were unreliable. These, then, are notably unheroic accounts. Both are written ‘from a British perspective’ (Latimer’s American publisher makes a big deal of this), but they certainly don’t flatter the British side.

The outcome of the earlier of these two campaigns is obvious. The American victory freed the new republic from British imperial control, such as that was, and enabled it to carve out an imperial future for itself: westwards at the expense of the Indians, southwards at the expense of the Spanish, French and Mexicans, and northwards – potentially – at the expense of the loyal Canadians. The repercussions of the 1812 War are harder to assess. It put a stop to the last of these thrusts. The best way of looking at it, therefore, may be as a temporary blip in one of the main trends, if not the main one, in US history over the past 200 years: American territorial, economic and cultural expansion – or ‘imperialism’, if you like. (It depends on your definition.) That looks like a setback. But it wasn’t the way the war was universally regarded within America.

The way it became transformed into that Second War of Independence is intriguing. The sack of Washington clearly contributed to it. If you didn’t know the context, it could seem like an instance of unprovoked aggression. (The British saw it as an act of retribution – the Americans had fired the Ontario parliament building just 16 months previously – and of deterrence.) Washington was surrendered without a fight – this really was shaming – but aside from that, and in the rest of the war, there were enough bright American victories, and examples of individual American bravery, to fuel a heroic view if you wanted one; and heroism always looks better in defence of one’s own country than in pursuit of empire. (At any rate, to democrats.) The disposition of the two sides encouraged this. How could America be the aggressor of the British Empire, when America was so small (in population)? And an American victory, if you could spin one out of all this, was so much more terrific against one of the world’s ‘great powers’; though you had to overlook the fact that this particular great power had other, much bigger things on its hands just then. So it was worth the effort. And the effort was needed. The US was neither a strong nor a united nation during the first few years of its existence, as the War of 1812 had painfully revealed. It badly needed a new national trope to pull it together. So one was constructed: brave free Americans were fighting under a single flag to defend their land against the ‘foul footstep’s pollution’ of their old tormentors (‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ again). Never mind the history; feel the myth.

That myth still carries resonance, which must be why ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ remains popular. The idea that American liberties are constantly assailed by ‘pollution’ from abroad, and require therefore to be defended by military resolve, is no less potent today than it was in 1812. The flag – the banner itself – is just as much of an icon; probably even more so now than it was then. American anglophobia may have waned recently, thanks to Thatcher and Blair, but it was pretty persistent before them, largely because of the 1812 War, Latimer claims (the wounds left by that humiliation in Washington in 1814 never quite healed), and could surface again. All this is to be found in Francis Scott Key’s poem; inspired by a minor engagement in the war, but possibly the most significant thing to come out of that whole unnecessary, confused and undistinguished event. The British have forgotten it. The Americans have the anthem to remember it by, however distortedly. Only the Canadians seem to have got the right angle on it. It was their war for colonial freedom, but fought against American imperialists, and mainly by British redcoats and bluejackets.