In 1812, with questionable justification and inadequate preparation, the newly united States of America declare war on Great Britain, the most powerful nation on earth. In Backlash, five young Americans wage a war that drastically changes their life—and the history of the world.
Award-winning author Mike Klaassen began writing fiction when his sons were teenagers. His first two books were young-adult action-adventure novels influenced by his experience as a Kansas farm boy and as a Scoutmaster. A visit to the site of the Battle for New Orleans led Mike to write Backlash: A War of 1812 Novel, featuring five young Americans in the fight of their life. Ongoing research encouraged Mike to write books about the craft of writing fiction. The use of folktales as examples in his nonfiction books inspired him to begin Klaassen's Classic Folktales, a collection of ancient stories retold as novellas.
One of my goals in writing Backlash was to show the War of 1812 from the view of a wide variety of participants. For the British perspective, I created a young Canadian-born officer in the British army, Lieutenant George Sherbourne.
NOVEMBER 1811, YORK, UPPER CANADA
Lieutenant George Sherbourne sat at the foot of the table and squirmed in his chair. He glanced at the other officers and hoped his uniform was as spotlessly clean and crisply scarlet as theirs.
Around the table sat three of the most senior officers governing Upper Canada. With York as its capital, the province included vast territory stretching west along the Great Lakes and beyond.
George reached for the glass of red wine in front of him, took a sip, then eased the crystal back to the white linen. He glanced at Major Morrison, then felt his face grow warm. Just last week Major Morrison had refused George permission to marry Anne, the major’s daughter. She came from a distinguished family with aristocratic blood, the major had explained. It would be unthinkable for her to marry the son of a shopkeeper.
The major might just as well have slapped George across the face, the words had stung so deeply. He still seethed and imagined himself running a sword through the major’s gut.
Not wishing to betray his inner rage to senior officers, George tried to think of something else. A dreary, midday shower tapped at the windows of the eloquently furnished dining room of Government House, and George pitied the men and officers with duty outside.
“The damned Yanks have made a bloody mess of everything,” said Colonel Sheaffe, a portly, bulbous-nosed gentlemen.
“Quite right. Quite right,” mumbled the gaunt, pock-faced Major Morrison seated across from the colonel.
At the head of the table sat General Isaac Brock. Without a word, the tall, dark-haired officer sipped his wine. Behind him, high on a stone hearth, hung an immense rack of moose antlers.
George figured that the other officers were at least twice his age, and unlike him, they had been born and raised in the British Isles. George’s father, a prosperous fur trader and member of the provincial parliament, had pulled bureaucratic strings to wrangle a commission for George in the British army.
After growing weary of his initial assignment to recruit and train local militia units, George had requested a transfer to England. Knowing that he must distinguish himself in battle to gain rapid advancement, he hoped to be assigned to General Arthur Wellesley, who was fighting Napoleon Bonaparte in Portugal and Spain.
One of the servants whisked away the remains of the meal while another offered cigars to each of the men. George waited for the senior officers before lighting his own.
After the wine glasses had been refilled, Brock cleared his throat. “Gentlemen,” he said, raising his glass, “let us congratulate Lieutenant Sherbourne on his good fortune and wish him Godspeed.”
George’s insides tightened as the men around the table acknowledged him and tasted their wine. George nodded back and took a sip.
“Lieutenant,” said Colonel Sheaffe, “I daresay any one of us would gladly trade places with you.” He glanced toward the vaulted ceiling. “Ah, to be heading back to England at a time when men-at-arms are in such great need. Alas, the rest of us must be content to serve His Majesty in distant colonies.”
George noticed the disparagement in the colonel’s voice when he mentioned the colonies. The other officers resented being stationed in the semi-wilderness of the Canadas while the British army continued its seemingly endless war against Bonaparte.
“Well,” said Major Morrison, with a hint of disgust in his voice, “someone has to keep an eye on those damnable Yankees.”
Brock puffed his cigar.
Sheaffe clenched his jaw and nodded. “You are correct, of course, my dear fellow. The American fantasy of casting aside royal oversight is inevitably doomed. Their experiment with self-government will degenerate into rule by mob. It is surely only a matter of time.”
Morrison snorted. “Unfortunately their cockeyed notions have already spread to France.” He smirked. “Come to think of it, I’m not sure who I loathe more—the Americans or the French.”
The officers spoke as if they imparted news. George knew that just a few years after the rebellion of the American colonies, the French masses revolted and put their king to the guillotine. Then they systematically executed just about everybody with privilege and rank. But the French Revolution quickly deteriorated into such chaos that the people cheered Bonaparte when he seized control and restored order.
“Surely,” said the major, “Ole Boney’s reign as emperor signals the beginning of the end of such notions.”
“Nonsense.” Sheaffe sneered as he spoke. “Bonaparte claims the title of emperor for himself, but wherever he goes he casts out the nobility and establishes republican institutions. Now the contagion threatens established order throughout Europe.”
“I fear you are correct,” said the major. “We must crush Bonaparte and reinstate the royal family of France. Our own necks are at risk. What if Nelson hadn’t stopped the French and Spanish at Trafalgar? Bonaparte might have captured England. I shudder to think what the world would be like without the divine guidance of King George.”
The officers nodded with solemn expressions as if they hadn’t already discussed these thoughts dozens of times. George realized that the conversation was directed toward him. This was their last chance to share their wisdom with a junior officer headed back to England.
“But let’s not forget,” said Sheaffe, stabbing his cigar toward George, “we must also curtail the epidemic here in North America. The expansion of the rebellious colonies must be thwarted.”
“Hear! Hear!” blurted the pock-faced major.
“Our forces contain them from the north,” continued the colonel, “and Spanish sovereignty over Florida blocks them from the south. But the Americans’ westward encroachment needs to be checked. They must not be allowed to consolidate their hold on the Mississippi Valley and farther west.”
“With a little encouragement and assistance,” added Morrison, “our aboriginal allies may help us confine the Americans to the Atlantic coast and the Appalachians.”
Colonel Sheaffe scoffed. “You put much too much faith in the nitchies, I fear. Remember, they’re savages. Totally undependable. But maybe we shouldn’t worry so about the Americans. Since they formed their government, it has blundered from one folly to another.”
“I was reading one of their newspapers recently,” said the major, “and it appears that some of the northeastern states are so disenchanted with their new government that they might eagerly return to His Majesty’s rule.”
“I’m not so sure,” said General Brock, who had been listening quietly. “I, too, read their papers. There seems to be growing animosity toward the Crown, especially in the southern and western-most states. Many of those elected to their lower house of Congress last year openly call for war against Great Britain.”
George was startled. He hadn’t heard this before. But with its professional army and its formidable navy, Great Britain was many times more powerful than the American forces. “Surely, sir, they would not dare.”
Colonel Sheaffe chuckled. “The Crown would crush them like bugs.”
“That would at least break the monotony around here,” said Morrison.
“Gentlemen, let us be careful what we wish for,” said Brock as he ground his cigar butt into an ashtray. “On paper, at least, the American militia totals over seven hundred thousand. If reasonably trained and adequately led, they would be difficult to stop.”