By Andrew Hind

In 2014, we mark the bicentennial of the decisive year of the War of 1812, twelve months of brutal combat that literally set Niagara aflame. Here are number of recent books to help make sense of the events of 1814.

The Tide of War and Crucible of Fire
Two years ago, Dundurn Press and author Richard Feltoe set their sights on an ambitious project: a six book series that comprehensively traces the military campaigns in Ontario during the War of 1812, focusing on the most influential battles from 1812 to 1815. The first three books were a glowing success, and now, with the arrival of 2014, the two newest releases in the Upper Canada Preserved (Dundurn Press, $19.99) series arrives on book shelves.

The Tide of War: The 1814 Invasions of Upper Canada documents the first six months of 1814. By the beginning of the campaigning season, both sides were determined to bring the war to an end with a decisive victory. After the American success at Chippawa, which suitably serves as the climax of this book, it looked to one and all as if ultimate victory would go to the United States.

Crucible of Fire: the Battle of Lundy’s Lane, July 25, 1814 picks up at this pivotal moment in Canadian history. The text focuses almost exclusively on the battle which, not only halted to American advance but reversed their fortunes decisively.

Richard Feltoe, a living history re-enactor recreating the life of a Canadian militia officer from the war of 1812, has done a masterful job researching and retelling the direction of the conflict in Ontario. His writing is highly detailed, and yet he finds a way to weave personal stories into the narrative to humanize the war in a very effective way. Feltoe in particular deserves credit for making sense of the confusing night battle at Lundy’s Lane. Dozens of maps and illustrations ably support his text.

These two releases, indeed the entire Upper Canada Preserved series, should find its way onto the shelves of anyone interested in the War of 1812

Forts of the War of 1812

In Niagara, when one thinks of the War of 1812 it’s usually Forts Erie and George which come to mind. They are, after all, the most obvious reminders of this conflict. Readers will therefore be surprised to learn that there were dozens of fortifications in British North America (as Canada was then known) and the United States. Most of the forts in Upper Canada were old and neglected, or only hastily built, but as Forts of the War of 1812 (Osprey Publishing, 2013, $22.95) demonstrates they played important roles in the defense of the province against repeated American invasions.

Author Rene Chartrand is ideally suited to write this volume in Osprey’s long-running Fortress line. Canada’s foremost expert on 18th and 19th century warfare, for three decades he was a senior curator for Canada’s national historic sites. He’s also a talented writer, able to bring his subject matter to life. Chartrand doesn’t merely just look at the architecture of the fortresses, though. He also examines the existence of troops housed within their walls and examinations of battles that tested their strength.

Forts of the War of 1812 is a comprehensive if slender look at the subject, ideal for casual readers and history buffs alike.

The Chesapeake Campaigns 1813-15

Meanwhile, the brutal fighting along the Niagara was having widespread repercussions as far away as the coasts of Maryland and Virginia, as witnessed in The Chesapeake Campaigns 1813-15: Middle Ground of the War of 1812 (Osprey Press, 2014, $22.95). The British, stunned and enraged at the widespread looting and burning committed by American soldiers in Niagara, decided ‘to retaliate upon the Maritime Coast of the United States for the barbarities committed by the Americans in Upper Canada.’ The lengthy campaign that ensued, characterized by numerous raids and skirmishes and a few large battles, is little remembered today even though it was one of the most dramatic of the war and resulted in the burning of the White House and the bombardment of Fort McHenry that inspired the writing of the ‘Star-Spangled Banner.’

Author Scott S. Sheads offers an insightful and comprehensive view of this decisive campaign, its origins and impact, and the men who fought and led it. In typical Osprey style, the text is wonderfully supported by illustrations, maps and dramatic color plates that bring the period to life. The Chesapeake Campaigns1813-15 is a must-have for anyone with an interest in the wider War of 1812.

Ghost Stories of the War of 1812 and Ghosts of Niagara-on-the-Lake

Though the War of 1812 is two-hundred years in the past, the scars of this conflict may not have completely healed as numerous battlefields, cemeteries and historic buildings with ties to the war experience supernatural activity. These tales are explored in a pair of books written my Maria Da Silva and myself. Ghost Stories of the War of 1812 (Ghost House Books, 2012, $18.95) regales readers with more than two-dozen chilling tales from across Ontario and as far away as Washington D.C. where a spectral redcoat is said to replay the burning of the White House. Since so much of the fighting took place on the Niagara frontier, Niagara readers will find mention of a number of locations familiar to them: Fort Erie, Chippewa, Queenston Heights, and others.

For more local haunts, turn to Ghosts of Niagara-on-the-Lake (Dundurn, 2009, $24.95). Of all the places in Ontario where the dead are said to walk, none are as haunted as this community. Niagara-on-the-Lake’s rich history, dating back to the late 18th century and filled with so much anguish from the War of 1812, is ample fodder for gripping ghost stories. Meet the ghostly garrisons at Fort’s George and Mississauga, discover by those interred in Butler’s Burial Ground and St. Mark’s Cemetery do not enjoy peaceful repose, and discover what paranormal activity plagues the home of Canada’s heroine, Laura Secord.

These books will educate as much as chill the spine. Both are great way to learn about the war, even if you’re not a history aficionado.