Gilbert Collins, Guidebook to the Historic Sites of the War of 1812, second edition, revised and updated (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2006), 336pp. Paper. £12.99. ISBN 978-1-55002- 626-9.
Barry Gough, Through Water, Ice and Fire: Schooner Nancy and the War of 1812 (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2006), 213pp. Paper. £12.99. ISBN 978-1-55002-569-9.
Gilbert Collins's Guidebook to the Historic Sites of the War of 1812 is the most comprehensive guide to have been published on the War of 1812. Its 29 chapters cover every geographical location on the North American continent from Nova Scotia to Louisiana. Connected sites as far afield as Fort Astoria, Oregon and Ghent, Belgium, where the peace treaty was signed in December 1814, are also covered. The guide is accompanied by a respectable bibliography, and provides a good mix of general textbooks and specific scholarship dealing with various engagements, much of it surveyed by Parks Canada. The most important aspect of the book, however, is the author's personal knowledge of the sites, having toured them for over thirty-five years. Everything from major battlefields to the unmarked sites of encampments is reviewed, and it is the detail that gives this guide its utility.
There are, however, several problems. The most glaring is the lack of quality maps. The beginning of each chapter features a simple map of the general area, with the locations of the markers and points of interest, but these are of poor quality and provide only an approximate overview. In the case of the chapter on the Tidewater area, the accompanying map stretches from New Jersey to southern Virginia. No other map accompanies the text, making obscure sites difficult to find, and local maps absolutely essential.
Furthermore, while the arrangement of the book into geographical sections is entirely sensible, there is little or no sense of narrative to the events, requiring the reader to already have a good grasp of the events of the war to understand what they might be seeing. In this respect, the book reflects the weakness of many of the historical markers it describes, giving brief facts but failing to provide a sense of context. There is no discussion of the accuracy, origin or historiography of the later commemorations, an important issue in its own right. To appreciate the sites in their entirety, it would be necessary to carry Collins's guidebook in one hand and a good narrative history in the other (J. Mackay Hitsman's classic The Incredible War of 1812 (1965, updated by Donald E. Graves in 2000) or Jon Latimer's recent and excellent 1812: War with America (2007)). These minor quibbles aside, the book is the most complete guide to the war available, and remains the only guide to cover the entire geographical spread of the conflict, and should be much commended for its extensive and invaluable detail. …