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British America: Chapter 14: The American War of 1812


The American War Of 1812

General Hull with 2,500 men led off the attack on Canada from Detroit, which confronts its narrow river connecting Lakes Erie and Huron, and divides the State of Michigan from western Upper Canada. He issued one of those portentous, pseudo-Napoleonic proclamations then in vogue with Americans to the Canadian people, offering them freedom from British tyranny, the invaluable blessings of political, civil and religious liberty and the dignity of freemen. He had a force, he declared, that would bear down all opposition and threatened them, if such were shown, with all the horrors of war, to which, if the loyal Indians rose in defence of their homes, should be added a war of extermination without quarter. These are but flowers culled from this remarkable peroration, which was followed at once by raids on Canadian border-farms.

Within a month, this bombastic veteran of the old war, together with all his force, armaments and stores, had surren­dered unconditionally to Brock as prisoners of war. For the latter, detained for the moment, had hurried on Colonel Procter with a small advanced force, who drove the Americans back over the river to Detroit. Brock soon followed in person with more men and a few guns. At the head of 700 regulars and militia and 600 Indians under Tecumseh, he skilfully manœuvred Hull into the fort at Detroit, which, after some delay, he surrendered, together with his whole force, on August 16. This humiliating incident aroused a storm of rage through all the bellicose States, while the New Englanders hardly veiled their sneers.

In Canada its effect was electrical and lent fresh vigour to her defenders. Procter went on with 500 troops and as many Indians to a freezing winter campaign in the American territory of Michigan, with the intention of checking the fresh troops coming up against Canada from Kentucky and elsewhere. Many sharp and successful little battles were fought in the snow, till, overcome by fresh hordes of men under General Harrison, Procter had to fall back in the spring on the frontier, where a little British fleet, hurriedly built on Lake Erie, made the enemy's immediate advance into Canada too hazardous. In the meantime Brock, whose activities in action and organisa­tion had been ceaseless, hurried back to the Niagara River, where the American "Army of the Centre," 6,000 strong, was on tip-toe to leap into Canada, and regarded the issue as a foregone conclusion. Brock had at his disposal only 1,200 men, regulars and militia; the former in a high state of discip­line, the latter ready to die to a man for the cause they were defending, and all commanded by a General whom they adored. Still the odds seemed hopeless enough, not merely in a military sense, but in view of the overwhelming resources of a nation with an already larger population than the whole Dominion of Canada has to-day.

Queenstown, on the Canadian side of the river, between Niagara Falls and Lake Ontario, was the objective point of the Americans, and a large camp for the further conquest of Upper Canada was to be there formed. The river is here some 300 yards wide, swift though navigable, with high ground on both sides; while at various points along its thirty-mile length from Lake Erie to Ontario were opposing forts, British and American. The Americans, under General Van Rensselaer, were distributed along their own shore, but in a position to concentrate swiftly at any point below the Falls for a crossing into Canada. This made necessary a division of Brock's small defending force, as none could tell where the blow would fall, nor could any definite spot be heavily fortified even had the means to do so been available.

It was before daybreak on October 13 that Van Rensselaer delivered his attack in a flotilla of boats from the shore oppo­site Queenstown. Brock himself was at Fort George, seven miles below at the mouth of the river, where the attack had seemed most likely. When the sound of firing proclaimed its development, he rode at full speed for Queenstown, leaving his men to follow at best pace. Some 300 regulars and militia in the meantime, with one small battery, were doing their best to ward off the attacking boats, of which they sunk some and did much execution among others. But though a landing was in the end effected by the enemy's regulars, the sight of the killed, and of the wounded returning to the American shore, so upset their raw militia that their enthusiasm for a profitable promenade through Canada went out like a damp squib, and they refused to move. Nor did they, but remained spectators of the eventual defeat and capture of their more enterprising comrades.

But this was not to happen quite yet, for after much desul­tory fighting the Americans gained the summit of a steep hill known as Queenstown heights and occupied it securely with about 1,200 men. In the sharp and scattered skirmishes preceding this, and while charging uphill against an American battery, Brock had fallen dead, shot in the breast. His loss seemed for the moment irreparable, yet it served to fire the ardour of his soldiers in avenging their beloved chief. It was now past noon. There had been a long lull in which Van Rensselaer, his foot now securely planted in Upper Canada, had been vainly endeavouring to persuade his 3,000 militia to cross the river.

Colonel Sheave, now in command of the British, had in the meantime been heavily engaged at Fort George in an artillery duel with the American Fort Niagara across the river. To storm the hill with the weak force available seemed a doubtful enough business; but it was a last chance, and Sheaffe deter­mined to try it. Deducting the small companies required for watching the river-banks, he mustered in all about 380 regulars, 500 militia and 150 Indians. By a circuitous march of some miles he reached the back or landward side of the hill, where, charging up it with the utmost determination, his men delivered one volley and then fell on with the bayonet. The Americans were rather crowded for space on the summit, while in their rear was a woody steep over the river, in parts precipitous. The impetuosity of the charge carried all before it. Numbers of the enemy were hurled over the cliff or drowned in the river; ninety were slain, some escaped. But eventually General Wadsworth in command surrendered with 900 men. Such was the battle of Queenstown Heights, next to the Plains of Abraham the most cherished spot of bygone strife in Canada, though many are more deeply bloodstained or the scene of fiercer struggles between larger forces. Brock was buried in a bastion of Fort George. His influence and his memory nerved many an arm in the coming struggle, but as a leader he had no comparable successor, though many worthy ones. A stately column to his memory now surmounts the lofty hill on whose breast he fell.

The chagrin of the Americans at this second disaster wag intense, while the Canadians took further heart. Another attempt at the Lake Erie end of the river failed, and nothing else but desultory skirmishing occurred during that season in the western field of action.

An attack on Montreal threatened by General Dearborn with 8,000 men never developed. That General lay for the whole autumn at the foot of Lake Champlain within forty miles of his objective point, opposed by a brigade of regulars, French and British militia numbering about 2,000 men, with whom he interfered but little till winter drove him home. The incompetency of the American Generals was largely due to the political exigencies of a democracy which made lawyers generals and professional soldiers only colonels. Further reasons of American failure were the peculiar ignorance of war of the party in power, the aloofness of the best of New England, and finally the persistent refusal of a raw but boastful militia to keep their faces to the foe.

The French, despite the bitter racial friction hitherto exist­ing, behaved on this occasion excellently. They supplied the garrisons for the towns and several hundred men to the active forces on the frontier. But Lower Canada, though constantly threatened, was seldom seriously engaged. She bordered the quasi-neutral New England States, with whom there remained a sort of understanding and a regular flow of trade. She had, moreover, a much larger population and a stronger force of regulars, besides access to the sea. It was on the isolated, ill-equipped Upper Province that the Americans concentrated their main attack. That once occupied, the rest would be simple. The season of 1813 was to inaugurate fresh efforts. The New Englanders in Congress denounced the invasion of Canada as "a cruel, wanton, senseless and wicked attack upon an unoffending people, bound to us by ties of blood and good neighbourhood." The Southerners replied grandiloquently that "The St. Lawrence must be crossed by a well-appointed army of 30,000 men, another corps of 10,000 must threaten Halifax by way of Maine, the honour of our nation requires that the British power on our borders should be annihilated." And then came the news of Napoleon's failure in Russia. The "War-hawks" were sorely disconcerted; the New Englanders, who hated Napoleon, acre proportionately gratified, and the hard-pressed Canadians rejoiced.

The American army was now increased to 55,000 men, besides innumerable militia. The Canadas had in this year, 1813, barely 7,000 regular troops, including five colonial corps, together with such British militia as could be armed and fed and some practically untrained French militia. Upper Canada was short of everything, arms, clothes, stores, medicines and money. Sheaffe was now in command, while Prevost was proving a most inefficient war-Governor, the situation being only saved by the admirable spirit of those under him. Prevost was timid, wavering, and lacked foresight, though touchy and jealous of his position. He was over-anxious about his own immediate Province, while inclined to neglect and despair of the open gate through Upper Canada, the holding of which alone could save him.

Partly owing to Prevost's folly, and partly to their greater means and facilities, the Americans had launched a strong fleet on Lake Ontario. Ogdensburg, on the river below it, heavily fortified and one of their most dangerous bases, had been gallantly attacked on the ice, stormed and destroyed by Colonel McDonnell, an immigrant Highland officer, with 500 men, and one eye closed to Prevost's remonstrances. Dearborn, now in command of the Americans, next moved on Kingston with 5,000 regulars and 3,000 militia; but, changing his mind, he sailed up the lake with nearly half his regulars and captured the little capital of Toronto, though the latter was gallantly defended for most of a day by Sheaffe and 600 men, who got safely away. After the surrender, which granted immunity to all property, the Government buildings, with records, the library and church, were all destroyed. In the following year the Capitol at Washington was burned by the British in retaliation. Green and other English writers, echoing American historians, raise loud outcries at what they describe as an act of barbarism. The former show complete ignorance of the cause of it, though it was officially proclaimed: American historians, though perfectly aware of this, suppress it.

The Toronto-York affair was otherwise unimportant, as the Americans recrossed the lake, and Dearborn went westward to the Niagara River. Here he launched 4,000 men across it against Fort George under the guns of his fleet on Lake Ontario. The garrison of 1,300 men made a spirited defence, but, raked by the fire both of Fort Niagara and the American fleet, the gunners were all killed and the fort was rendered untenable. So, after spiking his guns, Brigadier-General Vincent, in command on this frontier, withdrew the garrison and his scattered units into the interior, abandoning the river-line to the Americans.

Things were now going badly. Vincent had retired to the ridge where Hamilton now stands, the Americans in force pushing after him. But his resourceful subordinate, Major Harvey, who won great distinction in this war and subse­quently became a notable Lieutenant-Governor in the Maritime Provinces, performed a great and valuable achievement. Leading 700 bayonets by a long night-march through the woods, he fell on the camp of the foremost American army, 3,000 strong, carelessly guarded and asleep, with cold steel, and scattered them to the winds, capturing 1,000 prisoners. This led to Vincent fighting his way back with such success that the Niagara front from lake to lake was once more in possession of the British, who had now a fleet on Lake Ontario under Captain Yeo able to cope with that of the enemy.

Procter, having swept through Michigan, had now retired to Sandwich at the west corner of Lake Erie, in order to release his militia for farming operations, vital to the Province. The American General Harrison was crowding up against him with 5,000 men, including 2,000 mounted Kentucky riflemen. Small though was Procter's force of 700 overtaxed regulars and Tecumseh's Indians, Harrison could not push on into Canada while the Detroit River was controlled by a little British fleet under Captain Barclay. But the Americans had now a fleet of nine ships on Lake Erie, so Barclay, reduced to a day's rations, had no choice but to come out and fight it with his six vessels. The Americans were far heavier too in weight and guns and carried 500, mostly sailors and marines, as opposed to Barclay's force of 150 sailors and 250 of the much-enduring soldiers of Procter's Welsh regiment, hastily embarked.

For many contributory reasons, the fate of Upper Canada now seemed to hang on the issue of this little sea-fight. It lasted for some hours and was contested with great fury, most of the ships being fought to the water-line. Victory remained with the two or three American ships which could still be navigated among a dozen sheltered hulks. Barclay, himself badly wounded, lost a third of his men. Lake Erie remained to the Americans, and "Perry's victory" has rung down their history, possibly as the only complete one in the whole Canadian war. For the subsequent overwhelming of poor Procter with his handful of fever-stricken veterans and small body of Indians by Harrison's hordes as he tried to get back to Niagara could hardly be accounted a battle, though the brave Tecumseh was killed and scalped or worse. Procter, who escaped, was court-martialled for undue delay in retreat, and thus a fine year's personal record was sullied. Harrison, with 3,500 men, raided up and down the Thames Valley and then retired across the border, dismissed his militia, and repaired with his regulars to Niagara.

Severe fighting on the Niagara frontier, with raids and counter-raids across it, continued throughout this autumn. After the capture of Fort George and Vincent's retreat, Prevost in a panic had sent orders that Western Canada should be evacuated. A Council of War, however, decided that the order should be ignored. An American militia Colonel, on being forced to evacuate the flourishing little Canadian town of Newark, the former capital, wantonly burned it to the ground, driving its 500 inhabitants out into the below-zero temperature of a December night. As a reprisal, the whole American frontier from Fort Niagara to Buffalo was wasted and laid in ashes.

With the new year of 1814 not an American soldier remained on Canadian soil, while the British had captured and still held the American fort of Niagara. Throughout the season the disloyal and pro-American element in Upper Canada had given e good deal of secret assistance to the enemy, but the bulk of the people had stood firm, while all the militia that could be armed and fed had fought valiantly.

In the meantime a great campaign against Montreal had been organised by the Americans. Two armies were collected: the one of nearly 9,000 men under Wilkinson, an old Revolu­tionary soldier, the other of nearly 6,000 under Wade Hampton, an amateur from South Carolina. Wilkinson's base was Sackett's Harbour at the nearer end of Lake Ontario, whence he was to descend the St. Lawrence on Montreal (150 miles). Hampton lay near the foot of Lake Champlain and was to march down the Châteauguay River (30 miles) and join Wilkin­son just above the city.

Montreal was ill-fortified. It was garrisoned by the French sedentary militia, whose disposition was now beyond doubt, but its efficiency, happily not tested, was more than doubtful. The only trained troops available outside for checking Wilkinson were two regular battalions, some companies of Fencibles and Voltigeurs and a few artillery, in all not over a thousand men. Rather more, of fair quality and discipline, watched the country between Hampton and Montreal. The whole were under the command of Prevost, but led by brilliant subordinates. To the readers of these facts and figures the case of Montreal must appear as absolutely hopeless. Even to the historian ho has followed every movement and knows the ground and a thousand circumstances impossible to touch on here, the whole business is well-nigh inexplicable. Granted that both American Generals were inefficient, and even that they both drank, as their countrymen say, while as we know they were jealous of each other, still both had many competent officers and many regiments of brave and fairly disciplined men under them, and ample equipment. It will almost seem, when the facts are briefly summarised, as if Providence had miraculously intervened on behalf of a small struggling people who so stoutly helped themselves.

Wilkinson did not get off till October and was very slow. Colonel Morrison, commanding the watching force, after frequent skirmishes with the enemy's rear-guard forced it to face about with two and a half brigades on November 11, and at the head of 800 men cleverly handled won the pitched battle of Chrysler's farm, which incidentally saved Montreal. For the depression which it wrought on the American General was intensified by the news received next day, that Hampton had failed him. It is enough here that Wilkinson faced about with his 8,000 men, the precise number with which Wolfe had captured the embattled heights of Quebec held by a skilful General and 16,000 troops, and marched home again.

The still stranger story of Hampton's escapade must be briefly told. He started from his camp in late October, timing the movement to Wilkinson's expected arrival—for of Intelligence Service there was none—at the agreed-upon rendezvous near Montreal. He had with him 4,000 regulars and 1,500 militia besides some cavalry and artillery. In front of him was the French-Canadian officer, Major de Salaberry, commanding 400 Voltigeurs and Fencibles and 200 Indians. Supporting these were Colonel McDonnell with 600 French militia whom he had partially trained. Nearer Montreal were some companies of a colonial British regiment. The cream of the active Canadian force, as before stated, were engaged far up the St. Lawrence with Wilkinson. There was practically nothing more to save Montreal against both these American armies save some well-disposed but untrained French militia in the city.

De Salaberry, however, was not a man to forgo a chance of distinction and service. With some audacity, he lightly entrenched himself in some foods across Hampton's line of march, with his Voltigeurs further protected by a stream on his left flank, which McDonnell guarded with his militia. Hampton now behaved as if a formidable army confronted him. He sent one-half of his own at de Salaberry's barricaded front, and the other half a circuitous march through the forests to fall on his stream-defended flank. This last division straggled in the woods, never reached their goal in any strength, fired on one another by mistake, and finally got lost in the dark.

The frontal attacking force, in the meanwhile, soon carried the first outwork, but were held up for the moment by a second. During this check the resourceful de Salaberry had caused bugles to be blown all over the woods in his rear, as if reinforcements were coming up, and his Indians to distribute their warwhoops in like fashion. In any case the attack was not seriously pressed, and the Canadians remained on the ground.

But the amazing part was to come; for on the following day, to the disgust of his own men, the astonishment and relief of the little forces ahead of him, which he could have brushed away in his stride, Hampton decided to return to Lake Champlain, and did so permanently, giving lack of provisions as an excuse. Such was the battle of Châteauguay, notable in Canadian story as the only one fought by the French alone during the war, of which they were justly proud: a mere skirmish, to be sure, for the combined casualties were under a hundred. But it stopped Hampton and so gave Wil­kinson a rather poor excuse for retreating—which he seized upon. Their joint conduct aroused a tempest of indignation, but neither was court-martialled!

The Legislatures of both Canadas met this winter. That at Quebec, fairly removed from war's alarms, voted the money credits for carrying it on, but reverted to their old foolish wrangling with the Government for not granting them what the politically-trained people of neither Upper Canada nor the Maritime Provinces had got or expected yet to get—the full privileges of the British House of Commons. Sir Gordon Drummond, now Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, also met his Council and Assembly at the ruins of York, less such few members as had been killed, imprisoned or had fled to the Americans as traitors. Measures adapted to the urgency of the moment were quickly passed, for there was no call for abstract eloquence just then on the shores of Lake Ontario.

The first move of the opening season was the reappearance of Wilkinson on the Montreal frontier with 4,000 men, bent on retrieving his disgrace. Moving from Hampton's old quarters on Lake Champlain across the border, he met with a severe repulse at Lacole from a far inferior British force, chiefly of the 13th Regiment. Upon this he returned to his base and thence to retirement and a singularly indulgent court-martial. It is worth noting that a point in his defence was the "des­perate bravery" of his enemy.

There was more of both sea and land fighting about Kingston this year, but most of the serious work was along the old bloodstained course of the Niagara frontier. Though hardly yet realised in Canada, the crisis was in fact over. Peace had come in Europe, and America's ally Napoleon was at Elba. The hands of the British army were free, and 16,000 of Welling­ton's Peninsular veterans were under orders for Canada, a few of whom came in during the early summer.

If Canada had been left to fight on unaided another year, the issue must have been more than doubtful. For the American regular troops, when properly led, were developing by experience the soldierly qualities one would naturally expect. The amateur political generals were disappearing before the outcry of the public and the capacity shown by many subor­dinate officers. Their incapable War Office blundered on, but the resources latent in such comparatively large forces of men constantly in the field must ultimately have told in so one-sided a struggle. The situation hitherto was not unlike that of French Canada under Montcalm. Fortunately Great Britain, by her very triumphs in Europe, was freed at the critical moment to achieve what France in her defeats could not attempt.

General Riall, giving way occasionally to his superior Drum­mond, commanded this summer on the Niagara frontier with still only 2,500 men, slightly increased later, against 8,000 of the enemy. There was little rest from small but bloody engagements, attacks on forts, and raids and counter-raids. On July 25 the battle of Lendy's Lane above the Falls and the most hotly contested of the war, was fought by 3,000 British, including militia, against 4,000 Americans. The battle raged for five hours and far into the night with no definite result but the loss of 1,000 men to either side, till sheer exhaustion put an end to it. Two Peninsular regiments came west soon after­wards, and with more sharp frontier-fighting the country was quite clear of the enemy when winter sealed it up and Peace was in sight.

Wellington's regiments had by this time arrived in Lower Canada and put the issue of the war beyond doubt. Prevost, however, whose half-hearted, timid, vacillating, yet obstinate conduct had throughout been the despair of his officers, pro­vided a deplorable finish to these two glorious years. Though Canada might be safe, it was intimated to him from home that a large contingent of what at that moment were probably the best troops in the world were not sent out to sit in quarters. He was unfortunately in command and set out in fine autumn weather with 11,000 of these veterans to invade New York State by way of Hampton's and Wilkinson's old quarters on lake Champlain. It was now no longer the wilderness of the old wars, but more or less a country of farms and roads.

Fifteen hundred American regulars and a mob of militia, which last, writes their General Macombe, ran at the sight of the British, retired skirmishing before Prevost. But the latter, though no other force was ahead of him, was so slow and deliberate that Macombe, an excellent officer, had time to entrench himself at Plattsburg, on the Lake shore 25 miles south of the frontier. He had little idea of serious resistance to such a force but merely intended to cause a brief delay, and he notes with admiration the sublime indifference of these old soldiers to the balls his guns threw among them. Unfortunately a small British flotilla, which Prevost regarded as vital to his further progress and which he had brought south into the Lake and undertaken to protect, was destroyed under his eyes by American ships without any attempt at protection. Prevost, now in front of the hastily-raised American entrenchments, which the experienced officers around him undertook to carry in twenty minutes, decided, to their rage and mortification and the amazement of his enemy, to face about and return home. Nothing would ever move this wrong-headed man. His business was to smash up the little force in front of him and capture its matériel at least, and then decide whether or no it were desirable to pursue the road south while five American sloops sailed the Lake.

As it was, after actually exchanging shots with Macombe's redoubt, he destroyed his stores, turned tail and marched back to Montreal with his eleven thousand exasperated veterans, who had chased the French from victory to victory over the Pyrenees. He was subsequently summoned home to give an account of the business, but, though not yet fifty, he died under the suspense of a deferred court-martial. There is some parallel here with Hampton's conduct, save that Montreal was a vital object to the Americans, and New York State of none whatever to the British save as a war move. But Prevost besmirched the honour of his service and his country. For uncritical American historians to this day relate how a handful of their soldiers repulsed an army of Wellington's veterans. British historians might perhaps retaliate, with more justice, on the subject of the French-Canadian action at Châteauguay!

[Public Domain mark] Copyright/Licence: This work was published in 1922 or earlier. It has therefore entered the public domain in the United States.
[Public Domain mark] Copyright/Licence: The author or authors of this work died in 1964 or earlier, and this work was first published no later than 1964. Therefore, this work is in the public domain in Canada per sections 6 and 7 of the Copyright Act.