Donald R. Hickey. 187 Things You Should Know about the War of 1812: An Easy Question-and-Answer Guide. Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 2012. 160 pp. $15.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-9842135-2-8.
Reviewed by Paul Springer (Air University, Air Command and Staff College)
Published on H-War (June, 2014)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
Two Hundred Years of Questions and Answers
From the author of the best single-volume study of the War of 1812 (The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict ) comes a much shorter and more streamlined work on the same conflict, timed to coincide with the war’s bicentennial. Donald R. Hickey expresses concern in his introduction that the American, British, and Canadian public have little understanding of the war. In America, it is barely remembered, being sandwiched between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. For the British, it is but a footnote, attached to the far greater Napoleonic Wars. In Canada, a certain pride of holding back the American invasion remains, but there are only a few monuments and public demonstrations of remembrance, despite the lack of other wars in the period to overshadow the conflict. Thus, Hickey hopes to supply a straightforward introduction to the conflict, presented in an easily digestible and informal style.
The delivery method Hickey has chosen is unique. Rather than presenting the basic narrative, which is familiar and comfortable to scholars, but often intimidating to lay readers and young students, Hickey has written this work as a series of questions and answers. As such, it has the feel of a curious student interviewing a learned professor, gradually progressing through the major events and actors of the war, from the basic facts to a fairly detailed examination of specific battles. On the one hand, the format works surprisingly well, as it allows him to present a short summary of each chosen topic before moving on to the next, freeing him from the need to weave a complex web of context and connections. On the other hand, context and continuity are eliminated in this work, giving it a somewhat of an encyclopedic feel.
After an introductory chapter presenting the background and overarching themes of the conflict, Hickey then devotes a chapter to events in 1812. It is largely chronological, with most of the questions given as a logical follow-on to the preceding discussion. The result reads like a well-orchestrated interview, with a natural, easy flow and no wasted questions. Naval affairs are largely left out of the discussion until the end of the chapter, where they essentially have a subsection through a series of queries. The 1813 chapter follows the same pattern, methodically walking through the land events, followed by developments at sea. Both chapters have a strategic overview of the state of the war at the beginning, and conclude with the public sentiment at the end of the campaign season on both sides of the Atlantic. A chapter covering 1814 follows the same pattern established by the two previous chapters, but is then oddly followed by another 1814 chapter. The second swipe at the last full year of the war examines the crisis situation in the United States during 1814. It allows Hickey to look at many of the political, economic, and social aspects of the war, but it also breaks the functional pattern set up for the book. Many of the sections of the chapter would work just as well, and possibly better, if shifted into the two surrounding chapters. The conclusion examines the effects and legacy of the war, and allows Hickey to make his final pitch not to let the conflict to once again fall into obscurity.
The book is augmented by a thorough chronology, a short but solid offering of additional sources on the war, and a short references section. The chronology is helpful, and the source suggestions cover all of the standard works on the war, including Hickey’s previous offerings on the subject. The references section is probably unnecessary, as most of the source material will be completely inaccessible for most of the target audience, and most lay readers will simply ignore the section. A brief rewrite of most passages using endnotes would have eliminated almost all of the citation requirements, which include only forty-six notes for the entire book.
Overall, the work is a good introduction to the war, presented in an unintimidating fashion that will likely attract the general reader interested in history. The book is almost tailor made for sale in national battlefield gift shops, or any other location where the War of 1812 will be commemorated during the bicentennial. Scholars of the war might be interested in the creative presentation of the work, but will not learn anything new on its pages if they already have read Hickey’s other books.
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Paul Springer. Review of Hickey, Donald R., 187 Things You Should Know about the War of 1812: An Easy Question-and-Answer Guide.
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