War of 1812 Overview

The War of 1812 was a military conflict between the United States and Great Britain. As a colony of Great Britain, Canada was swept up in the War of 1812 and was invaded a number of times by the Americans. The process of naming the War of 1812 for its year of commencement, even though it lasted into 1814, developed slowly through the 19th century.

Rick Mercer visits London, Ontario to re-enact the War of 1812 with the Lincoln Militia. War was never this much fun! (courtesy Rick Mercer Report).

Causes of the War of 1812

The real origins of the War of 1812 were in the conflict that raged in Europe for two decades after Napoleon Bonaparte. These Napoleonic Wars caused Great Britain to adopt measures that greatly aggravated the United States. On 21 Nov 1806 Napoleon ordered a blockade (the Berlin Decree) of shipping aimed at crippling British trade. He ordered all European ports under his control closed to British ships. He further decreed that neutral and French ships would be seized if they visited a British port before entering a continental port (the so-called Continental System).

Great Britain responded to Napoleon with a series of orders-in-council requiring all neutral ships to obtain a licence before they could sail to Europe. Since the victory of Lord Nelson at Trafalgar (21 October 1805), Great Britain had the sea power to enforce its blockade. For some 20 years the Americans grappled with the problems of being a neutral nation in the great European war. Tensions mounted as the British began stopping American ships from trading in Europe. Even more vexing was the British practice of searching American vessels for "contraband" (defined by the British as goods that they declared illegal) and of searching for deserters who had fled the harsh conditions of the Royal Navy. Many of these deserters had taken jobs on American ships and American certificates of citizenship made no impression on the British. The final straw in this perceived British arrogance was the actions of British captains to impress (seize) native-born Americans and put them into service on British ships.

These maritime tensions exploded, literally, in 1807 off the shore of Chesapeake Bay. A British naval squadron was watching the area for French ships when several British sailors managed to desert and promptly to enlist in the American navy. The captain of the American 38-gun frigate Chesapeake knew that he had deserters on board when HMS Leopard tried to board and search his ship. When the Chesapeake refused to heave to, the 50-gun Leopard opened fire, killing three and injuring 18 of the crew. The British boarded and seized four men. This "Chesapeake Affair" outraged even temperate Americans. The actions of the British ship HMS Guerriere on 1 May 1811 in impressing an American sailor from a coastal vessel caused further tension.

This dispute over maritime rights might have been resolved with diplomacy (in fact the new government of Lord Liverpool rescinded the orders-in-council a few days before the US declared war, though the news hadn't yet reached America) but there were other interests at play among the Americans. Not all Americans wanted war with Great Britain, notably the merchants of New England and New York. President James Madison was intrigued by the analysis of Major General Dearborn that in the event of war, Canada would be easy pickings - that in fact an invasion would be welcomed by the Canadians. It was a war that had been loudly demanded by the "War Hawks," a group of congressmen from the south and west, filled with anglophobia and nationalism. These republicans encouraged war as a means to retaliate against Britain for the economic distress caused by the blockade, but also for what they perceived as British machinations in encouraging the resistance of the First Nations to American expansion into the West.

On 1 June 1812, President Madison sent Congress a request for an immediate declaration of war. On 4 June Congress voted 79-49 in favour. On 17 June the Senate followed with approval 19 votes to 13, and on 18 June Madison signed a declaration of war against Great Britain.

Historian John Latimer introduces the major battles of the War of 1812 from the British perspective (courtesy Harvard University Press).

Early Campaigns of the War of 1812

The British and Canadians were badly outnumbered by the Americans. As the Americans made their plans, it became obvious that their easiest objective would be Upper Canada. The Maritime provinces were protected by British sea power and Lower Canada was protected by its remoteness and by the fortress of Québec. But Upper Canada would seem an easy target. The population was predominantly American and the province was lightly defended.

However, the badly outnumbered British were in fact better prepared than the Americans knew. The 41st Regiment of British regulars had been reinforced. The Provincial Marine controlled Lake Ontario. Much of the preparation was thanks to the prescience of Major-General Sir Isaac Brock, administrator of Upper Canada. Brock had a thorough grasp of the challenges of the upcoming conflict and for the 8 months prior to the war he pushed forward defence measures in every possible way. Perhaps most importantly, Brock developed a policy towards making allies of the First Nations.

Like most commanders, Brock was dissatisfied by the number of troops at his disposal, with only some 1600 regulars in the province. But he was not prepared to simply wait passively for the Americans to act. He believed that a bold military stroke would galvanize the population and encourage the First Nations to come to his side. This he accomplished with the quick and bloodless capture of a key US post at Michilimackinac Island in Lake Huron, on 17 July. When he arrived at Amherstburg, Brock found that the American invasion under the bombastic General William Hull had already been withdrawn. With the great Shawnee chief Tecumseh at his side he boldly demanded that Hull surrender Detroit, which the hapless general did on 16 August, in effect giving the British control of Michigan territory and the Upper Mississippi.

At this point Thomas Jefferson's remark that the capture of Canada was "a mere matter of marching" returned to haunt Washington. Having lost one army at Detroit, the Americans lost another at Queenston Heights, 13 October, after their militia stood on its constitutional guarantee and refused to cross into Canada. But Brock was killed - an irreparable loss. A new American army under William Henry Harrison struggled up from Kentucky to try to retake Detroit. One wing was so badly mauled at Frenchtown, 22 Jan 1813, by a force of British, Canadians and First Nations under Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Procter, that further attempts at invasion that winter were abandoned. The only Americans in Canada were prisoners of war.

With the death of Brock, British strategy was to act defensively and allow the invaders to make mistakes. Governor Sir George Prevost husbanded his thin forces carefully, keeping a strong garrison at Québec and sending reinforcements only when he got them. As the campaign of 1813 opened, the invaders determined to seize Kingston to cut the link between Upper and Lower Canada. But a weakness of resolve diverted the attack to the lesser prize of York [Toronto]. The Americans briefly occupied the town, burning the public buildings and seizing valuable naval supplies destined for Lake Erie; but the British, by burning their half-completed warship, frustrated the enemy's plan to appropriate it and change the balance of naval power on Lake Ontario. Neither side totally controlled that lake for the balance of the war.

The Americans abandoned York and on 27 May 1813 their fleet seized Fort George at the mouth of the Niagara River. While this period was the bleakest of the war for the British, the military situation was not irretrievable. The Americans did not press the advantages of their success, particularly in not keeping General John Vincent and his army from Fort George on the run. On the night of 5 June 1813, Vincent's men turned on their pursuers at Stoney Creek. In a fierce battle the Americans were dislodged, had two generals captured and retired dispirited towards Niagara. The Americans suffered another defeat three weeks later at Beaver Dams, where some 600 men were captured by a force of First Nations. Finally, worn down by sickness, desertion, and the departure of short-term soldiers, the American command evacuated Fort George on 10 December and quit Canada. On leaving, the militia burned the town of Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake), an act that drove the British to brutal retaliation at Buffalo. These incendiary reprisals continued until Washington itself was burned by the British the following August.

The significant and often overlooked role of the Six Nations is described in War of 1812 as it explores the events that occurred in the Grand River region of Southern Ontario (produced by the Brantford, County of Brant, Six Nations and New, courtesy War of 1812 Bicentennial Committee).

The Western Campaigns of the War of 1812

The Americans fared better on the western flank. The British tried and failed to take Harrison's stronghold at Fort Meigs on the Maumee River. A struggle for control of Lake Erie (see War on the Lakes) followed. The two rival fleets, both built of green lumber on the spot, met 10 September at Put-In-Bay. The British were hampered by the American seizure of naval supplies at York the previous spring and by the loss, early in the battle, of several senior officers.

American commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, a bold seaman, used unorthodox tactics to turn defeat into victory and become the first man in history to capture an entire British fleet. Erie became an American lake, Detroit was abandoned, and the British army retreated up the Thames River. Procter delayed fatally in his retreat, however, and Harrison caught up with him at Moraviantown (a.k.a. Battle of the Thames). There, the exhausted regulars and First Nations warriors were routed and scattered. Procter fled and Tecumseh was killed. The defeat was not fatal to the province, however, as Harrison could not follow up his victory (his Kentuckians were eager to get back to their farms at harvest time), but it effectively ended the First Nations alliance.

The Campaign in Lower Canada in the War of 1812

The Americans might have struck a mortal blow against Lower Canada, but their invading armies, which outnumbered the enemy 10-1, were led with almost incredible ineptitude by Generals James Wilkinson and Wade Hampton. A miscellaneous force of British regulars, Voltigeurs, militia and First Nations harassed the advancing Americans and turned the invasion back at Châteauguay under Lieutenant-Colonel Charles de Salaberry and at Crysler's Farm (near Morrisburg, Ont) on 11 November, under Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Wanton Morrison.

Last Invasion of Upper Canada, 1814

The following year, 1814, the Americans crossed the Niagara River at Buffalo, easily seized Fort Erie on 3 July, and turned back a rash attack by the British under General Phineas Riall at Chippawa on 5 July. The whole Niagara campaign came to a climax with the bitterest battle of the war, at Lundy's Lane on 25 July. Fought in the pitch dark of a sultry night by exhausted troops who could not tell friend from foe, it ended in stalemate. The American invasion was now effectively spent. They withdrew to Fort Erie. Here they badly trounced the forces of the new British commander, Lieutenant-General Gordon Drummond, when he attempted a night attack (14 - 15 Aug). With both sides exhausted, a 3-month standoff followed. Finally, on 5 November, the Americans again withdrew across the Niagara River, effectively ending the war in Upper Canada.

The 1814 Campaign in the East

On the Atlantic front, Nova Scotia Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Sherbrooke led a force from Halifax into Maine, capturing Castine on 1 September. By mid-month British forces held much of the Maine coast, which was returned to the US only with the signing of the peace treaty. The most formidable effort by the British in 1814 was the invasion of northern New York, which Governor Prevost led to Plattsburgh on Lake Champlain with 11 000 of Wellington's veterans. Prevost's hesitancy to attack - he was no Brock - together with the 11 September defeat of the hastily built British fleet in Plattsburgh Bay by the American commodore, Thomas Macdonough, caused Prevost to withdraw.

That single action by Prevost tipped the scales in favour of the Americans, forcing the British peace negotiators at Ghent to lower their demands and accept the status quo. Had Prevost succeeded, much of upper New York State might be Canadian today. On the other hand, if the Americans had won the battle of Stoney Creek, or had taken Montréal, much of Ontario and Québec - perhaps all - might now be under the Stars and Stripes.

The last battle of the war is often cited as the Battle of New Orleans, but that event was followed by another engagement on 11 Feb 1815 at Fort Bowyer on Mobile Bay, and by a number of naval engagements, including a battle between the US sloop Peacock and East India cruiser Nautilus in the Indian Ocean, four and a half months after the peace treaty was signed. That was the last battle.

Peace Treaty: The Treaty of Ghent

With no progress being made on the military front, President Madison eagerly accepted the offer of mediation from the Russian czar. Commissioners from both sides met at Ghent in August and on Christmas Eve 1814 a treaty was signed. All conquests were to be restored. The disputes over the boundaries were deferred to joint commissions.

Who Won or Lost the War of 1812?

Washington had expected the largely American population of Upper Canada to throw off the "British yoke" as soon as its army crossed the border. This did not happen. Lured northwards by free land and low taxes, the settlers wanted to be left alone. Thus the British and Loyalist elite were able to set Canadians on a different course from that of their former enemy. And the growing belief that they, the civilian soldiers, and not the First Nations and British regulars, had won the war - more mythic than real - helped to germinate the seeds of nationalism in the Canadas. Canada owes its present shape to negotiations that grew out of the peace, while the war itself - or the myths created by the war - gave Canadians their first sense of community and laid the foundation for their future nationhood. To this extent the Canadians were the real winners of the War of 1812.

For the Americans, the outcome was more ambiguous. Since the issues of impressment and maritime rights were not dealt with in the peace, that motivation for war could be considered a failure, despite some spectacular victories at sea, which were indicators of the future potential of American power. Also, the war was a failure for the "War Hawks," who coveted the annexation of Canada. This proved not to be militarily feasible. The conclusions that the war was a "second war of independence" or a war of honour and respect are less easy to judge.

If the winners are qualified, the losers are easier to identify. The death of Tecumseh and the defeat of the First Nations at the Battle of the Thames broke apart Tecumseh's confederacy. Similarly, in the related defeat of the Creek Nation, the hope of halting American expansion into First Nations territory effectively ended. While in Canada the First Nations fared better in preserving their land and culture, in the end the British abandoned their Aboriginal allies in the peace, just as they had several times before.

Authors: Pierre Berton and James Marsh

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