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Re-enactor Philip Charles Edwards, dressed as a soldier of the pro-American Canadian Volunteers, at the War of 1812 Bicentennial Symposium at the University of Guelph. (iPhone Hipstamatic image) (Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Re-enactor Philip Charles Edwards, dressed as a soldier of the pro-American Canadian Volunteers, at the War of 1812 Bicentennial Symposium at the University of Guelph. (iPhone Hipstamatic image) (Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

The bad guys of 1812 Add to ...

Ambiguities are a necessary part of the War of 1812, where the official definitions of nationhood and citizenship didn’t yet apply. Take a look at Philip Edwards, standing out from the crowd at the Guelph symposium with his dapper American officer’s dark blue tunic. The 1812 soldiers he emulates were fierce fighters against the British in Upper Canada and did a lot of the dirty work of the war by burning down villages and terrorizing the civilian population. But what’s most striking about this hostile military unit, for which Mr. Edwards marches in Canadian re-enactments to a hail of boos from the now staunchly patriotic crowds, is its name: The Canadian Volunteers.

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”We’re rebels,” says Mr. Edwards, blending in proudly with his country’s awkward past, “and traitors to the King. No one wants to play the bad guys, but these soldiers gave up so much and fought for what they believed in.”

In his landmark book, The Civil War of 1812, historian Alan Taylor depicts an uneasy internecine conflict where boundaries and allegiance and patriotic feelings and the sense of victory are much less clearly defined than mythologizers like to pretend.

It wasn’t a war between us and them, at least while it was being fought. The Canadian Volunteers were led by Joseph Willcocks, an Irish-born member of the Ontario legislature who sided with Sir Isaac Brock at Queenston Heights and negotiated with native allies on his behalf but resisted the self-interested policies of the British colonial elite. His followers were equally hard-to-define Upper Canadians, mainly Loyalists who’d migrated from the emerging United States but didn’t necessarily feel loyal to the arbitrariness of the Crown’s representatives or unAmerican enough to keep killing their brethren.

The very mention of Joseph Willcocks’s name (“the worst traitor in Canadian history,” according to military historian Donald Graves) riled up the loyalty-loving element among the symposium audience at Guelph, a crowd that had no trouble sustaining a 200-year-old hate. Wild cheers greeted the suggestion by Mr. Graves that his bones should be stolen from his Buffalo, N.Y., grave and displayed on a gibbet over the main gate at Fort George – which shows some of the raw nationalism that the Harper government can tap into over the next three years.

Willcocks’s soldiers may have been at the extreme end of patriotic vacillation. But the abiding truth of this strange war is that there simply wasn’t a lot of difference between the two warring sides – in fact, the nominal cross-border enemies often got along better with each other than they did with the more demanding political authorities and military leaders on their own side.

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