When the United States invaded Canada in the summer of 1812, the war that resulted was a strange business. Referred to by one Canadian historian as “the incredible war,” the War of 1812 is the story of a tiny group of colonies caught between two empires, successfully resisting an enemy more than ten times their size, defying all the odds. Incredible also because, of the many wars that Canada has been involved in, it is perhaps this war that has the most significance for Canada as a nation.
Fought mostly on Canadian soil, but also on battlefields across North America, on the Great Lakes and the high seas, the War of 1812 set in motion events that would change the way our two countries saw themselves and each other. Having passed the bicentennial anniversary of the war, in 2012, it seems like a good time to take a serious look at this clash of empires, to better understand what happened in that time, and how its outcome still affects Canada today.
The Path to War
In 1812, while Napoleon was marching across Europe, and European armies were busy fighting a long, bloody war of their own, Canada was just a far frontier of Great Britain’s empire. With a small population of roughly 500,000 people, scattered across a vast territory, it seemed an unlikely place for a war to break out. However, the United States was a much larger nation which had trade relations with countries around the world. These trade relations frequently lead to disagreements with Great Britain, especially concerning Napoleon Bonaparte, with whom Britain had been fighting a brutal, and expensive, war for more than a decade.
In retaliation against the United States for trading with their enemy, the British adopted a policy to stop American ships on the high seas for searches and to seize sailors, claiming they were British deserters. The British also wanted to force American ships to report to British ports to monitor and control American trade with Europe; trade which would profit their enemy Napoleon and lengthen the war with Britain. The Americans were also angry that the First Nations were blocking Americans from going west and accused the British of encouraging these First Nations to attack American settlers. Understandably, these measures infuriated the Americans, and angry exchanges between Britain and the United States had proven useless in solving these problems.
“A mere matter of marching!”
For this reason, on July 24, 1812, American President Madison and the US congress declared war against the British Empire and made immediate plans to invade Canada. They were so confident that a country as mighty as the United States, with more than ten times the population of British North America, would easily overwhelm the paltry British defenses, that former American president Thomas Jefferson declared conquering Canada would be simply a “mere matter of marching.” Fortunately for Canada, it didn’t turn out that way.
Sir George Prevost, the British governor of Canada at the time, had wanted to fight a defensive war, in order not to provoke the more powerful Americans into action. However, the commander of the forces in Upper Canada, and a brilliant strategist, Major-General Sir Isaac Brock, saw opportunities for several quick victories and decided to strike first. His swift seizure of Fort Michilimackinac, near Sault Ste. Marie, so impressed the First Nations and their leaders that they decided to commit themselves thereafter solidly with the British. Afterwards, with help from these First Nations under the equally brilliant and invaluable leadership of the Shawnee chief, Tecumseh, Brock next moved against Fort Detroit. Through clever intimidation, he forced its commander, General William Hull, to surrender his larger and better armed force to Brock’s numerically inferior coalition of British regulars, Canadian militia and First Nation warriors without firing a shot. Brock then returned to the Niagara Peninsula to strengthen that region’s shaky defences.
After these humiliating setbacks, it did not take long for the Americans to become more serious, and they soon started their own attacks. The first American invasion occurred at Queenston Heights in the Niagara Peninsula in October, 1812. Despite the boldness of the plan, it was still another defeat at the hands of General Brock. However, although the battle of Queenston Heights was a great British victory, it cost Canada dearly: Sir Isaac Brock was killed in the battle. Shot from his horse during an infantry charge, Brock entered history as one of Canada’s first national heroes. Other British generals carried on the fight, against great odds, but none had the military skills or the audacity of Sir Isaac Brock.
From this point on, it was the Americans who consistently used their larger army to maintain the initiative, but despite the confidence of the Americans and the British loss of Sir Isaac Brock, their easy victory was never given to them. Their strategy was to invade southwest Upper Canada at Windsor and the Niagara Peninsula, and then march through Canada all the way to the fortress at Quebec City. This strategy failed, and as the war continued, fighting spread all over the continent, with battles being fought in Upper Canada (Ontario), Lower Canada (Quebec), upper New York state, Washington D.C. and Baltimore, throughout the American mid-West, and as far away as Alabama and New Orleans.
The Battle of Lundy’s Lane in the summer of 1814 in Niagara was the bloodiest of the war, but finally forced the Americans to retreat for the last time, allowing the final stage of the war to take place.
Due to the constant failure of the American strategy, the War of 1812 was, for the most part, a battle for Upper Canada. Continuous fighting laid waste to the prosperous communities in the southern regions of the colony, and scarred the countryside and its developing economy for many years after the war was over. Even the small town of York (Toronto) was raided and occupied briefly in the summer of 1813. Before leaving, the Americans looted much of the town, and burned warehouses and other public buildings, including the stately seat of the provincial legislature.
There were many colonists in Upper Canada who were sympathetic to the American invasion, and there were many cases of treason. One such case was Joseph Wilcox and his band of “Canadian Volunteers” who guided the American invaders, looting and terrorizing their neighbours until the war ended. However, as the Americans proved themselves incapable of dominating the tide of events, the many colonists who had been neutral, sympathetic or even actively supporting the American army began to change their allegiance, and for the first time began to see themselves as distinct from their southern neighbours. They also began to point fingers at those who still sided with the invaders. There were several very public trials for treason held in Upper Canada during the course of the war, the largest of which was in Ancaster, in 1814, where 15 people were convicted of treason, of whom eight were hanged.
The American invasions caused great hardship in Upper Canada, and the suffering of the population created much sympathy in England. To help them, the “Loyal and Patriotic Society of Upper Canada” was founded in the colony, mostly with financial donations from wealthy families in England. This money was used to assist those citizens who had lost homes, farms, food and other possessions that were caught in the paths of the opposing armies.
However, not all of the Canadian colonies had it as difficult as Upper Canada. Lower Canada saw little fighting, with a few important exceptions. The Maritime Provinces were too far away from the conflict to suffer any damages; Nova Scotia and Halifax even made large profits due to their role as a shipping centre for supplies and soldiers from Britain.
The Last Days
In the United States, there was still another dynamic at play. Many Americans had protested the war from the outset and resented the very severe limitations it had placed on their business relations with the British colonies and other foreign partners. With few military victories, the American population was becoming increasingly agitated. The British navy’s blockade of American ports was strangling the economy, and according to US government figures of the time, exports had dropped to a staggering seven million dollars in 1814 compared with 130 million dollars in 1807. The American government was approaching bankruptcy, with little to show for it, and the anger of the American people was growing.
Even more ominous, in the spring of 1814, word came from Europe that Napoleon had finally been defeated. This victory freed the British military from their obligations in Europe, and they were able to send more warships and thousands more soldiers to North America, allowing the British to abandon their defensive stance and take the initiative. Four simultaneous British invasions in the summer of 1814 sent shockwaves through the American republic as the British began to savour the possibility of a final victory. However, the Americans were still able to hold off the invaders until the last battle of the war, fought on American soil, at New Orleans. It was a bloody defeat for the British, and a significant victory for the Americans. However, it was too late to matter.
In February of 1815 in Belgium, two weeks before that battle in faraway New Orleans, the British and Americans had signed the Treaty of Ghent, and the War of 1812 was over.
Two Nations, Two Friends
For Canada, the war had been difficult, but it had changed the perspective of the people who lived there. For the first time, the people of Canada had had to fight for the country they were living in. They no longer had to question the nature of their relationship to the United States because they had claimed their independence as Canadians and proven their loyalty to British institutions. This new loyalty and sense of a distinct identity laid the groundwork for the evolution of the Canada we know today. Furthermore, a new relationship with the United States was also established.
With the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, both Americans and British were forced, reluctantly, to recognize each other officially for the first time since the end of the American war of independence. Perhaps because neither side had been forced to cede any territory or profits to the other, there was no sense of hatred or resentment, which could have been carried over into peacetime, and this opened the door to a future of friendship between the two peoples. The Treaty of Ghent established a recognized border for the first time, and in 1817, with the signing of the Rush-Bagot treaty, each country agreed to have no more than a single warship on the Great Lakes, making it impossible to build a navy for military purposes. This treaty is still in effect, and respected, today: a token of the peace and mutual respect that has blessed the relationship of these two nations ever since.
David Hyatt is a freelance writer/editor and translator. David studied French literature at Laval University in Quebec City and specializes in Canadian and world history and culture. David is based in Toronto, Canada, and can be reached at livelybeaver.com.
Published in The Art of Polemics, Issue 2, on Sept 9th, 2014.