With this issue we begin a new series commemorating the bicentennial of the War of 1812, which lasted from the American declaration of war on Great Britain in June 1812 to the ratification of the Treaty of Ghent in February 1815.
Each article in our Then & Now Journal consists of two parts. The “Then” portion describes events of the war in the same two-month time frame as 200 years ago. The “Now” portion highlights existing memorials, museums, battlefields, fortifications, and other sites as well as various commemorative events and artifacts. Space does not permit us to list every event, and so we encourage you to investigate what may be happening in your area or any event that may be of interest.
The causes of the War of 1812 revolve on American grievances with Britain over maritime issues. By the time the war started, Britain had been at war for almost 20 years with Napoleon’s Revolutionary France and its allies. To Britain, nothing else mattered besides winning the war. If the British trampled on the feelings or rights of some neutral nations to achieve that aim, it meant little to them.
As the chief neutral nation trading with the French, it was inevitable the United States would find itself running up against the might of British sea power. In November 1807, Britain passed Orders-in-Council, establishing a blockade of Napoleon’s Europe and forbidding any nation to trade with the enemy, a regulation that affected American shipping the most. To man the RN, Britain frequently resorted to forcibly impressing seamen, including citizens of other nations—especially the U.S. This happened not only on the high seas, but also in American territorial waters, much to the outrage of the U.S.
These instrumental causes of war were coupled with the long-standing problems of suspicion and mistrust between the two countries. These centred on Britain’s continuing support for the natives, whose lands the Americans wanted for westward expansion, and the non-settlement by the U.S. of outstanding Loyalist claims from the Revolutionary War.
When President James Madison finally declared war, the Americans believed Canada would be an easy target. Its garrisons, stripped to fight Napoleon in Europe, defended an open border almost 3,000 kilometres long with only 5,200 British regulars, supported by 14,000 Canadian militiamen and 10,000 native allies. The seven and a half million Americans expected the conquest of half a million Canadians to be, in former President Thomas Jefferson’s words, “a mere matter of marching.” The Americans were in for a surprise.
June 1: War moves inexorably closer when President James Madison recommends Congress declare war over the issues of sailors’ rights and British support of the western frontier tribes.
June 4: The U.S. House of Representatives passes the war bill.
June 17: The U.S. Senate passes the war bill.
June 18: Madison signs the declaration of war, the first ever for the U.S. Support for the war varies greatly among Americans. In the south and west it is strong, while it is weakest in New England. There, the federalists are in power and have spoken out repeatedly against the war. In Baltimore, the Federal Republican newspaper publishes anti-war articles, leading to riots and destruction of the newspaper building.
June 23: The first act of war occurs when the 44-gun super frigate USS President sights the British 36-gun frigate HMS Belvidera off the eastern seaboard. In a running fight, the American ship gets within range and sends a few 24-pound rounds crashing into the British ship. Damaged, with dead and wounded seamen aboard—and unaware that war has been declared—Belvidera escapes to Halifax where her captain gives the alarm.
June 29: Canadian volunteers illegally burn the American schooners Sophia and Island Packet near Ogdensburg, N.Y.
May 7: A War of 1812 exhibit opens at the Army Museum in the Halifax Citadel. Halifax, where the frigate Belvidera escaped to in June of 1812, was headquarters for the Royal Navy’s North American Squadron. Several fortifications used during the war still exist, including the Citadel, George’s Island and Prince of Wales Martello Tower, although some are greatly altered.
May 19: Tours of the Battle Ground Hotel Museum, situated in a restored 1850s tavern on the Lundy’s Lane battlefield, commence for the season. Lundy’s Lane is situated north of Chippawa, Ont., just west of Niagara Falls, Ont.
May 19: A War of 1812 exhibit opens at the Willoughby Historical Museum, Niagara Falls, displaying artifacts from the war and the Battle of Chippawa.
June 11: Canada Post issues “Heroes of the War of 1812” stamps honouring British Major-General Isaac Brock and Shawnee warrior Tecumseh.
June 15: The exhibition Four Wars of 1812 opens at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. The exhibit will be one of the largest and most innovative displays it has ever produced.
June 16: The Brock Ball takes place at Fort George, recreating the dinner held the evening General Sir Isaac Brock and the citizens of Newark learned they were at war with their American neighbours. The fort is located off the Niagara Parkway, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
June 18: A cannon salute and dedication of a time capsule at the Stoney Creek battlefield commemorate the declaration of war. Stoney Creek is near Hamilton, Ont.
June 23: A Grande Parade in downtown Fort Erie (south of Niagara Falls) features more than 50 military units, bands and re-enactors honouring the forces of three countries and their First Nation allies.