Last fall, Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore announced the federal government would invest millions of dollars to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. That celebration, he stated, was an opportunity for all Canadians to take pride in their history and participate “in the events and activities that will mark this important anniversary for Canada.” The problem is that, with the gradual disappearance of history from school curriculums in recent decades, many Canadians today—particularly younger ones—have only the haziest of notions about the war, its causes, course and outcome. Therefore, a review of this “forgotten” conflict might be useful for those who would like a primer on the forthcoming commemorations.
The origins of the War of 1812 can be found in the larger conflict that had been waged by revolutionary and imperial France against Britain since 1793. After Nelson’s naval victory at Trafalgar in October 1805 had more or less swept the French navy from the seas, Napoleon Bonaparte, the French emperor, turned to economic warfare and prohibited ships that traded with Britain to trade with France, its allies or its conquered territories. Britain countered with legislation forbidding ships that traded with France to trade with Britain. The United States, which had a large merchant marine, was caught in the middle of this war by decree. American frustration was increased by the Royal Navy which, desperate for manpower, boarded American ships and impressed (conscripted) any British seamen on board them. The result was that many innocent Americans found themselves unwilling sailors of the King.
An additional irritant between Britain and the U.S. was unrest on the republic’s northwest frontier, which was threatened by an aboriginal confederation under the charismatic Shawnee chief, Tecumseh. Many Americans believed that Britain was behind the frontier problems and, by the spring of 1812, the U.S. was preparing for hostilities. Although Britain offered to repeal the maritime decrees that were harming American maritime trade, it was too late. On June 18, with the rallying cry of “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights!”, President James Madison declared war on Great Britain.
American leaders were confident. Former President Thomas Jefferson remarked that the acquisition of Canada up to the vicinity of Montreal “would be a mere matter of marching.” But in its rush to war, Madison’s government had overlooked some major problems. Given the RN’s strength, a war against Britain would have to be a land war and the objective would be the British colonies in North America, commonly called, even at that time, Canada. On paper, it certainly seemed a sure thing, as the U.S. had 10 times the population of British North America. An attack on Canada, however, would require a tremendous logistical effort to supply armies in an area of primitive communications. Worse still, most of the regular American army was deployed in Louisiana and remained there throughout the war. As a result, the U.S. tried to campaign in a distant and difficult theatre of war with untrained and poorly-supplied troops who were commanded by relics of the Revolutionary War.
Ironically, British North America was actually better prepared for war than its neighbour and, more importantly, it was defended by professional soldiers and sailors. If there is one lesson for modern Canadians to draw from the War of 1812, it is that proclaiming sovereignty is not enough; a nation must be prepared to defend it and to do so requires professional armed forces. Fortunately competent British leadership was present and there were almost as many British regular troops in Canada as there were in the U.S. Army. General Sir George Prevost, governor-general and commander-in-chief, planned to give up no territory easily but fiercely defend only Montreal and points east. His subordinate in Upper Canada (the modern province of Ontario), Gen. Isaac Brock, favoured a more aggressive strategy and, with Prevost’s approval, began putting it into effect shortly after war commenced.
In July 1812, American Gen. William Hull commenced a rather timid invasion of Upper Canada across the Detroit River. While he prepared to engage this thrust, Brock struck in the Upper Great Lakes. On his orders, a small British force traversed Lake Huron and forced the surrender of the American post on Mackinac Island, a success that convinced many of the aboriginal nations, who had remained neutral, to join the British side. Shortly afterwards, Hull withdrew to Detroit, but it was not long before Brock, having gathered every regular, militiaman and warrior that he could, arrived and prepared to attack. Brock could do this because, at the outset of the war, only Britain possessed a navy on the Great Lakes, which granted him the advantage of mobility, and Brock made good use of it. Bluffing, he called on Hull to surrender Detroit and to Brock’s amazement, the American general did so on Aug. 16, giving up Detroit and the Michigan Territory to a British and Canadian force half his strength. Brock’s victory at Detroit was the first major success of the war and it did much to encourage the people of Upper Canada, who were uncertain that their province would remain British territory.
These early victories on land were unfortunately balanced by defeats at sea. In the years since Trafalgar the RN had become overconfident, convinced that its ships could defeat any possible opponent. British sailors failed to realize that the U.S. Navy, although very small, possessed excellent warships and seamen. The result was that American sailors won an impressive series of single-ship encounters. In the first six months of the war, the USS Constitution captured the British frigates Guerrière and Java; the American sloop Wasp took her counterpart HMS Frolic; the frigate United States prevailed over the British frigate Macedonian; and the brig USS Hornet captured the British brig Peacock. Britain had not suffered such a series of defeats at sea for more than a century. This did much to restore morale in the U.S., which had been shaken by the defeats on land.
In the autumn of 1812, the enemy made another invasion attempt. On the night of Oct. 12, a small American army of regular troops and militia crossed the Niagara and seized the village of Queenston. Brock, who was at Fort George outside Newark (modern Niagara-on-the-Lake), proceeded to Queenston with all available troops. Realizing that the key to the American position was the high ground behind the village, he led an assault against it, only to be killed. The British and Canadians fell back, waiting for reinforcements to arrive, and in the meantime a detachment of aboriginal warriors from the Grand River nations, led by Mohawk war chief John Norton, also known as “the Snipe,” kept the enemy off balance. Norton remembered that his men “returned the Fire of the Enemy with coolness & Spirit” and although the Americans “certainly made the greatest noise,” the warriors “did the most Execution” and the enemy was forced back. More regular troops arrived and pushed the invaders, now surrounded and with no means of escape, to the edge of the Niagara River. Realizing it was hopeless, the enemy commander surrendered, and more than 900 Americans became prisoners of war.
The victory at Queenston Heights had a dramatic effect on British North America and morale was high when the onset of winter brought an end to active military operations. Two major invasions had been repelled and there was confidence the war would be brought to a victorious end. But Queenston Heights had been a costly victory for, as Norton recorded, the grief “caused by the Loss of Brock threw a gloom over the sensations which this Brilliant Success might have raised.”
Canadian optimism disappeared in the spring. An intensive building program during the winter gave the U.S. naval superiority on Lake Ontario and the enemy was quick to take advantage of this. In late April 1813, American ships landed an army near York (now Toronto), the capital of Upper Canada. Pushing a far weaker British, Canadian and aboriginal force before them, the invaders were approaching the town when the ammunition magazine in the military depot at York was ignited to prevent its contents from being captured. A boy who witnessed the explosion, remembered that he “heard the report, and felt a tremulous motion in the earth resembling the shock of an earthquake; and looking towards the spot I saw an immense cloud ascend into the air” which was “a great confused mass of smoke, timber, men, earth” that resembled “a vast balloon.” After the defenders evacuated York, it was occupied by the enemy for several days during which they accidentally burned the provincial parliament buildings.
This was the beginning of a renewed American offensive against British North America. On May 27, 1813, an invading force crossed the Niagara and captured Fort George. Badly outnumbered, British and Canadian troops withdrew to the area of the modern city of Hamilton, but were pursued by an American force commanded by generals John Chandler and William Winder. In the early morning of June 6, 1813, it was attacked at Stoney Creek by a smaller British force and during a hard fought but confusing night action, the Americans managed to beat off the assault, but both Chandler and Winder were taken prisoner. The invaders retreated and, a few weeks later, another enemy force was sent to capture supplies known to be at John DeCew’s house near modern St. Catharines, Ont. This expedition also came to an inglorious end, however, on June 24 when, forewarned by a housewife named Laura Secord, a force of warriors surrounded the Americans and forced them to surrender in what was later called the battle of Beaver Dams. After this, the invaders did not venture in strength beyond their lines at Fort George and the war in the Niagara became a stalemate.
The same Sunday, June 6, 1813, which witnessed the American defeat at Stoney Creek was also the occasion of a glorious event in Halifax. The evening service at St. Paul’s Church in that city was disrupted when someone delivered the exciting news that a British warship was leading a captured American frigate up the harbour. “The effect was electrical,” an eyewitness remembered and in a few minutes, the congregation had abandoned worship to run down George Street to the docks and watch as the British frigate, HMS Shannon and her prize, the frigate USS Chesapeake, slowly moved toward the naval dockyard. The same eyewitness recalled that every “housetop and every wharf was crowded with groups of excited people” who greeted the arrivals “with vociferous cheers” and Halifax, he believed “was never in such a state of excitement before or since.” The Shannon’s triumph over the Chesapeake in a bloody engagement fought off Boston on June 1 ended the series of American single-ship victories over the RN.
The RN now began to exert its far superior strength by blockading the U.S. seaboard. Privateers who put out from ports in the Maritime provinces assisted the King’s sailors. The most successful of these sea raiders was the schooner Liverpool Packet which took 50 prizes valued at nearly a million 1813 dollars before being herself captured. Other notable maritime privateers such as the brig Sir John Sherbrooke, and the schooner Retaliation took fewer prizes, but helped to depredate the American coastal trade; disrupting communications and, inevitably, causing higher prices on all types of goods.
To the west, the war came to life again in the autumn of 1813, following an American victory at the naval battle of Lake Erie fought on Sept. 10. It resulted in the capture of the entire British squadron on that body of water. British Major-General Henry Procter decided he could no longer maintain his position on the Detroit River and ordered his army to retreat east. Disgusted, his aboriginal ally, Tecumseh, called Procter “a fat animal that carries its tail upon its back; but when affrighted…drops it between its legs and runs off.” The retreat commenced, however, and Tecumseh had no choice but to accompany the British and Canadians with his warriors and their families. Unfortunately, on Oct. 5, a larger American force caught up with the allied army at the Thames River not far from the modern city of London, Ont., and scattered it. Tecumseh was killed while leading his men, but his followers managed to spirit his body away and bury it in a secret location. The disaster on the Thames, however, spelled the end of British ambitions in the American northwest.
At about the same time, U.S. Secretary of War John Armstrong came north to re-invigorate the American war effort. He planned a two-pronged offensive against Montreal with one army to move against that city from Lake Champlain, while another larger force would move down the St. Lawrence in an armada of small boats. These plans went awry when the army from Lake Champlain was defeated at the battle of the Chateauguay, a few miles south of Montreal, on Oct. 26 and then hastily withdrew over the border. This victory was earned by entirely francophone troops under Lieutenant-Colonel Charles de Salaberry.
The waterborne prong of the U.S. offensive was terminated by a British and Canadian force which had been trailing it down the St. Lawrence River. Annoyed by this irritant snapping at its heels, the enemy turned and attacked on Nov. 11, 1813; a grey, wet day. The British and Canadian troops were deployed on good defensive ground near the farm of John Crysler, but the approach of the much larger American force caused some trepidation in the ranks. Lieutenant John Sewell from Quebec City remembered that one of his men exclaimed “there are too many, we shall all be slaughtered.” Sewell coldly told him that it would be better for him to die “doing your duty, than to be shot for mutiny” but, as it happened, after more than two hours of costly fighting, the Americans were beaten and hastily withdrew to their own territory, thus ending the largest and most serious American offensive against British North America.
When the campaign season of 1814 opened, there was reason for optimism in British North America. In April, Britain and her allies managed to topple Bonaparte from his throne and send him into exile. “I am much of the opinion that the rapid decline of their ally, Boney,” one Canadian commented about the Americans, will “make them sing small.” British troop reinforcements began to cross the Atlantic. In all, one cavalry regiment, 10 artillery companies and 33 infantry battalions—roughly 28,000 men—were sent. The first arrived at Quebec in late June and a local journalist recorded “the extraordinary sight of a number of transports with British troops on board” who “made a fine appearance” despite the “worn uniforms which covered them in so much glory” in France. On orders from London, Prevost immediately drew up plans for an offensive across the border.
The first major move of 1814, however, was made by the U.S. On the night of July 3, a force under Gen. Jacob Brown crossed the Niagara River near Fort Erie and forced the surrender of that post to begin the longest and most hard-fought campaign of the war. In contrast to previous years when American soldiers were manifestly not ready for battle, Brown’s army was well-trained and commanded by relatively young officers who were combat veterans. That these men knew how to fight became apparent two days later at the battle of Chippawa, fought on July 5 when Brown defeated a British army in open combat for the first time in the war—as he exalted to Washington, the victory was “gained over the enemy on a plain.” British senior officers agreed the defeat resulted from “the improvement in discipline and the increased experience of the Enemy.”
Gen. Gordon Drummond, British commander in Upper Canada, shifted his headquarters to the Niagara peninsula and reinforced the forces there. Brown, meanwhile, advanced to Lake Ontario, expecting to find the American naval squadron on that body of water ready to support him in attacking Fort George. There were no friendly sails in view, however, as the RN had gained momentary superiority on the lake and, in frustration, Brown withdrew back to Chippawa to resupply. He was followed by Drummond who, having reconnoitred the American camp, took up a good defensive position on a sand hill not far from the falls, close by a tree-shrouded sunken country road called Lundy’s Lane. His troops were cooking their dinner in the early evening of July 25 when they were ordered to stand to their arms because the enemy was approaching. A few minutes later American troops emerged from a chestnut wood to the south and thus began the bloodiest battle of the war.
It went on for more than five hours into the night and was, as one participant remembered, “a struggle obstinate beyond description.” Casualties on both sides were heavy, including five of the six British and American generals present who were wounded and toward the end, some units were commanded by sergeants. At several points, the opposing armies crossed bayonets and cases of mistaken identity, with soldiers firing on their own comrades, were frequent in the darkness and confusion. When the shooting died away, more than 1,600 men lay dead or wounded in an area about the size of two modern football fields and as one American remarked, it was “a Scene I hope may never again be witnessed by human beings—Thank God I have survived it.” At the end of the action, however, Brown’s army had good cause to claim a victory as it was in possession of the hill—the high ground.
That victory was thrown away, however, by the subordinate general to whom Brown, badly wounded, turned over command. He ordered a withdrawal to Fort Erie where he began to construct a fortified camp. A week later, when Drummond arrived before the fort, he found his enemy in a well-entrenched position plentifully supplied with artillery. The British general commenced a siege, but was hampered by supply problems as the British squadron on Lake Ontario had withdrawn into Kingston after the American naval commander had commissioned a new and large warship. Drummond’s supplies now had to come by land and he shortly began to suffer shortages of food and ammunition. He decided to wager everything on a single throw of the dice and launched an assault during the night of Aug. 14-15. It was disastrous—the British and Canadians were repulsed at several places and the only penetration into the enemy position, a bastion of the stone fort, was brought to a swift end by the accidental explosion of a powder magazine under the feet of the attackers. Witnesses remembered that “a terrific explosion and a jet of flame, mingled with fragments of timber, earth, stone and bodies rose a hundred feet in the air.” The assault was a total failure and the cost was more than 900 men killed and wounded.
Elsewhere during that bloody summer, British arms met with more success. In August, Gen. John Coape Sherbrooke, the lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia, launched an expedition against the border ports of Maine, capturing Bangor, Castine and Machias. During their possession of these places British commanders continued to collect the customs and excise duties on cargoes being landed and, after the war, £10,000 of these monies were put to good use to establish Dalhousie University in Halifax. Farther to the south, a major expedition entered Chesapeake Bay in an effort to draw off American troops from the northern theatre. In late August a small British army under Gen. Robert Ross moved on Washington and, at Bladensburg near the American capital, defeated a far superior American force which included President James Madison, Secretary of War John Armstrong and Secretary of State James Monroe. The presence of these politicians on the battlefield may have had something to do with the fact that Ross’s army occupied Washington that night. Over the next few days they burned military and naval establishments, the legislative buildings and the presidential mansion (not called the White House then) which, under the rules of war as they were understood at the time, were legitimate military targets.
Success at Washington was followed by failure at Baltimore on Sept. 12 when Ross was killed while making a reconnaissance of the defences of the city. As Baltimore was too strong to be directly attacked, the British contented themselves with a naval bombardment of nearby Fort McHenry using artillery and rockets. A young American lawyer, Francis Scott Key, was so entranced by the sight of gun flashes and explosion that he hastily scribbled a poem that he later set to the music of an old English drinking song—its first line read, “Oh say can you see, by the dawn’s early light” and, of course, it later became the U.S. national anthem. Despite all the fireworks, however, the British attack was rebuffed.
The major British offensive of the war was made in the north on Lake Champlain. In the first days of September, a British and Canadian army numbering just over 10,000 men and led by Prevost crossed into northern New York and advanced on the American naval base at Plattsburgh. It was a confident army—as the troops marched over a bridge at Champlain, N.Y., almost on the border, the regimental bands played “Yankee Doodle” as an insult. Brushing aside militia rearguards, Prevost reached Plattsburgh on Sept. 6 and settled down to wait for the British Lake Champlain squadron, whose assistance was needed for him to take the enemy base. The RN duly showed up on Sept. 11 and immediately engaged the American squadron guarding the entrance to Plattsburgh harbour. After a furious action that killed or wounded nearly 250 men in both squadrons, the British squadron was completely defeated and captured. Unable to take Plattsburgh without naval assistance, Prevost decided to withdraw to Canada and the finest army Britain ever sent to North America turned on its heels and trudged northward in very low spirits. As the lengthy columns trudged back over the bridge at Champlain, one British officer remembered an American calling out: “I guess as how you are not playing Yankee Doodle now.” Some of the officer’s men “were inclined to have thrown him [the American] in the river but this was not done.”
Meanwhile, along the Niagara, Gen. Gordon Drummond had continued his desultory siege of Fort Erie, however, a shortage of food and ammunition forced him to order a withdrawal. His troops were preparing for this on Sept. 17 when the Americans boiled out of the fort and attacked the British siege batteries. They were ultimately repulsed, with a loss of over a thousand men from both sides, but Drummond withdrew to a good defensive position on the north bank of the Chippawa River. Ironically, at almost the same time, the British squadron on Lake Ontario regained naval superiority after it commissioned the warship St. Lawrence, a ship with over 100 guns and the largest warship to sail on the Great Lakes. Unfortunately, she proved to be an expensive white elephant and only made one voyage before returning to Kingston, where she remained for the rest of her brief career. In early November, the American army in the Niagara withdrew to American soil, ending the campaign. A few minor skirmishes and actions followed, but the war was substantially at an end.
The see-saw nature of the fighting over the summer and autumn of 1814 had been followed closely by the diplomats both nations had sent to the Dutch city of Ghent to negotiate a peace settlement. As autumn turned to winter, they gradually hammered out an agreement based on the prewar status quo. A treaty was signed on Christmas Eve 1814, but news of that had not reached North America in early January 1815 when the final major battle took place at New Orleans during which the British were repulsed with heavy casualties. Two months later, the U.S. Congress ratified the Treaty of Ghent and the war was over.
So, what was the outcome of this “forgotten” conflict? That is an easy question to answer. If Britain had not successfully defended her North American colonies, Canada would not exist today. The war was a defining moment in Canadian history, laying the foundation not only for Confederation but for the modern nation we live in today, independent and free, with a constitutional monarchy, the parliamentary system, and a respect for linguistic and ethnic diversity. That surely is reason enough to not only remember, but commemorate the War of 1812.
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