Pulitzer Prize author visits Plattsburgh State
Published: Thursday, September 6, 2012
Updated: Thursday, September 6, 2012 20:09
The 1996 American history Pulitzer Prize winner and Colby College Ph.D. graduate Alan Taylor theorizes that the War of 1812 can also be considered a civil war.
New York State Archives Partnership Trust President Robert Bullock invited him in honor of Plattsburgh’s Battle of Plattsburgh Commemoration celebrations. On Wednesday, Taylor visited Plattsburgh State to talk about his most recent book, “The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels & Indian Allies,” published in October 2010.
“Mainly, all of us want more people to know about the Battle of Plattsburgh because the history books don’t talk much about that, but it was the most important battle because this is where the British were defeated and decided they weren’t going to be able to do what they wanted to do,” said Christopher Booth, co-chairman of the Battle of Plattsburgh Commemoration Committee.
Taylor said the Battle of Plattsburgh and the Battle of Baltimore, together, made all the difference in the outcome of the war. When Americans were losing hope feeling more negative about the war, these battles helped boost Americans’ confidence. Yet the Battle of Plattsburgh is not as well-remembered as the Battle of Baltimore.
Although it was the one-sidedness of the naval victory, if the British had captured Plattsburgh, it would have been a crushing blow. However, Taylor focused on the Canadian involvement in the war, too.
“What I’m trying to do is, what I call, a borderlands history,” he said.
Taylor was not aiming for an American or Canadian patriotic story. Rather, he wanted a story about people, whose only contrasts were the location of their homes, who didn’t want to go to war in the first place. Taylor said many Canadians were actually Americans who had moved to Canada because the land and taxes were cheaper.
But the Canadians and Americans were not the only resembling groups. Taylor brought something new to the table by being the first to declare the War of 1812 a civil war.
“The idea of it being a civil war was new to me,” said Carol Beauvais, a member of the audience.
Although Taylor said he did want to add a provocative title, it was also because that is what the war’s true nature was.
Just as the Canadians and Americans were generally the same people, so were the British and the Americans. The British and Americans had similar last names and even read the same books. They were fighting each other.
“The culture of people and language in the United States was not too different from the British in England,” Taylor said.
Taylor focused on John Le Couteur, a British officer who kept a journal and marveled at how similar U.S. soldiers’ names were. He wrote, “How uncomfortably like a civil war.”
The British and American forces also were comprised of Irish, Scottish and Welsh. So these people were fighting amongst each other. However, Taylor said many Irish joined the British army because it was their only exit ticket from extreme poverty. Some even enlisted to desert and enter the United States.
“It’s also payback time for them to even some scores in Canada,” Taylor said.
Susan Kennedy, a member of the audience, said she found the Irish facts most interesting. The story about 23 American-Irish men who were captured and set to face execution (by hanging) by the British for refusing to fight under the British army fancied her specifically.
The then-President James Madison decided to hold 23 British soldiers – who were, ironically, from Irish descent – hostage in hopes of sparing the American-Irish soldiers lives. However, this led to the British rallying up 23 more soldiers, which caused Americans to do the same.
This continued until each prisoner was held hostage. Eventually, the British gave in, and there was an exchange of hostages.
Though Taylor’s book focuses on the entire Civil War of 1812, he briefly spoke on the Battle of Plattsburgh to make the local folks understand why their region was important in the outcome of the war.
“His (Taylor’s) ability to relate from that macro perspective to a local, regional perspective… was very important and I knew it was going to be just as enlightening for the people in Plattsburgh,” Bullock said.
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