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Scalping Sparked Frenzied Butchery in 1812 War: Lewis Lapham

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Oct. 16 (Bloomberg) -- Early in the War of 1812 between the U.S. and Britain, Canadians enlisted North American Indians to fight on their side.

The warriors knew how to intimidate their enemies. One party was found “most shockingly butchered, their heads skinned, their hearts taken out and put in their mouths, their privates cut off and put in the places of their hearts,” wrote a midshipman.

These tactics often spooked U.S. combatants. In one instance, white-flagged boats filled with 115 well-armed soldiers rowed out to a British ship on Lake Ontario in order to surrender. Naval officer James Richardson was startled to discover they’d just had a brief skirmish with 36 warriors.

In fact, there was brutality on both sides, and it was a U.S. soldier who took the first scalp of the war when Captain William McCulloch killed and mutilated a Menominee warrior on July 25, 1812. Until then, the tribe had honored a British request to refrain from scalping.

Enraged, they ambushed McCulloch 10 days later, when he lost his own scalp.

I spoke with Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Alan Taylor, author of “The Civil War of 1812,” on the following topics:

1. U.S. Invades Canada

2. Subject vs. Citizen

3. War Disasters

4. Scary “Savages”

5. U.S. Declares War a Success

To listen to the podcast, click here. To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)

To contact the writer on the story: Lewis Lapham in New York at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at