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For Honour’s Sake: The War of 1812 and the Brokering of an Uneasy Peace

by Mark Zuehlke

For Honour’s Sake is a rollicking and thoroughly enjoyable survey of the War of 1812. From casus belli to peace treaty, Mark Zuehlke brings his prodigious writing talent to the history of a war that was inconclusive for its U.S. and U.K. belligerents, but enormously important for the future nation-state of Canada.

Despite U.S. claims that conquering the Canadas “will be a mere matter of marching,” the natives (both literal and figurative) did not rise up to join the Americans against the English “oppressor.” Rather, the British garrison and a population that included some very atypical British citizenry (Quebecois, American immigrants, and disaffected frontier Indians) managed after three years to hold the Americans to the prewar border – an enormous achievement, even if it was helped along by the incompetence of the American military leadership.

The book’s lack of a thesis puts it neatly into the realm of “popular” history. Zuehlke hints at some conclusions – parallels to the contemporary international scene, the impact of the war on Canadian nationalism, the fate of indigenous peoples – but does not follow through. Popular history allows the luxury of occasionally trading the weighty burden of historical evidence for colourful narrative: “Clay’s tired mount plodded up the muddy streets….” Although we can very likely find evidence that American Senator Henry Clay rode up a particular street shortly after it had rained, we’re much less likely to be able to prove that his horse was tired, or that it had a tendency to plod.

As a military historian, Zuehlke is best known for his five meticulously detailed books on Canadian battles in the Second World War. This attention to detail is more manifest in the latter part of For Honour’s Sake, which deals with the tortuous four months of peace negotiations. Indeed, the contrast with the earlier, breezier parts of the book is sufficiently jarring to give the impression that there are two books here.

For Honour’s Sake will be enjoyed by anyone interested in a good read on the War of 1812, and particularly by someone looking for an introduction to the war and the fate of a nascent Canada. The book’s title celebrates that fate. After all, up here we still spell “honour” with a “u.”