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The Story of the Canadian People: Chapter VI: 1812–1814: The War of 1812–1814

Chapter VI


The War of 1812–1814

167. The Causes of the War.—What had happened so often during the French period reoccurred in 1812; a European war gave rise to hostilities in America. In Canada each province was intent upon its political strife, but at the rumour of war each was quick to take up arms in Britain's quarrel. It mattered not that Canadians had no part in bringing about the war.

Almost all Europe was at the feet of Napoleon. Britain alone was a stumbling-block in the way of the proud conqueror. The Berlin Decrees and the Orders-in-Council To the removal of this obstacle the emperor devoted all the re­sources of the French Empire. Hoping to ruin British commerce, he issued the "Berlin Decrees," closing European ports to British ships and declaring the ports of the British Isles under blockade. Britain replied by Orders-in-Council requiring the vessels of neutral powers to touch at British ports and to pay duty before trading with European countries. These restrictions bore heavily upon the United States, whose ships were engaged in an extensive carrying trade. Almost immediately the American government re­taliated by passing the Non-Intercourse Act, stopping all trade with either France or Great Britain until the restrictions were removed. The "right of search" The bitter feeling of the The United States towards Great Britain was increased by the action of the latter power in seizing and searching American ships for deserting seamen. Finally, Great Britain withdrew the Orders-in-Council and made amends for any injustice done in enforcing the "right of search." It was not too late to avert war, and all differences between the two nations would have been removed had it not been for the Democratic party in American politics. The Demo­crats were in sympathy with Napoleon, and eager to snatch Canada from Great Britain while the latter was fully occupied with the European struggle. The United States government declared war on June 18, 1812, al­though the reasons for so doing were much weaker than they had been four years earlier.

168. Canada's Danger.—Whatever the spirit of her people, Canada's position was seemingly desperate. A country of four hundred thousand inhabitants pitted in war against the armies and resources of a nation of eight millions! Upper Canada, which was to bear the brunt of the war, contained only eighty thousand people. In all Canada there were only forty-five hundred regular troops, and of these no more than one-third were stationed above Montreal when war broke out. Arms and other articles of military equipment were scarce. An open frontier, a thousand miles long, was almost without defence. Nor could the entire Canadian population, small as it was, be counted upon to fight in Britain's cause. Here and there were to be found men who were in sympathy with the invaders. It is not surprising, therefore, that the enemy were confident of success. "On to Canada" was their cry. "We can take Canada without soldiers," announced the secretary of war. "The expulsion of the English is a mere matter of marching," remarked another statesman.

[Sir Isaac Brock]
Sir Isaac Brock.

One thing the enemy overlooked, and that was the character of the Canadians. Fighting in a just cause, and in defence of their homes, the latter were animated by a spirit which in war always offsets an en­emy's advantage in numbers and wealth. The commander of the forces in Upper Canada, Brock Major-Gen­eral Isaac Brock, was a man in whom such a spirit breathed in this hour of dan­ger. He had already served in the country for ten years, and, unlike many British officers, he knew and valued the local militia as well as the regular troops. Brave, kind, and judicious, he won the confidence and love of his men. Under the inspiration of Brock's leadership the prospects grew brighter. Loyalist volunteers, remem­bering how they and their fathers had been treated by the government of the United States, pressed forward on all sides, more than could be supplied with arms. In Lower Canada the French Can­adians, hav­ing fresh in mind the memory of their gener­ous treat­ment at the hands of the British government, were prompt to vote money and men to repel the invaders.

[Map of the Detroit River district]

169. The Campaign of 1812.—The plan of campaign adopted by the Americans was threefold. The enemy's plans General Dearborn, commanding the "Army of the North," was stationed at Albany, ready to move against Montreal. The "Army of the Centre," under the command of General van Rensselaer, threat­ened the Niagara frontier. At Detroit lay the "Army of the West," under General Hull, whose appointed task was the conquest of western Canada. That the far eastern frontier remained unmolested was due to the fact that the New England States were opposed to the war, as it interrupted their commerce.

The campaign opened with a victory for Canadian arms. Michilimackinac fell into the hands of a small force of regulars and Canadian voyageurs. Michilimac­kinac taken, July 17 This slight success had an important influence upon the western Indians, winning them over to the side of Canada. Their chief, Tecumseh, became a staunch and able ally of the Cana­dians. Meanwhile, General Hull was advancing into Canada from Detroit, and proudly proclaiming "peace, liberty, and security" to all who accepted American rule, but destruction to all who opposed his march to victory. It required only General Brock's calm assur­ance that Great Britain would pro­tect her subjects, to allay any unrest caused by Hull's proclamation. Checked by a small force under Colonel Proctor, Hull retreated to Detroit. General Brock, quick to take advantage of the enemy's con­fusion, hurried up from York and laid siege to Detroit. Much to his surprise, the enemy surrendered Detroit almost without a struggle. Detroit surrendered by Hull, Aug. 16 Twenty-five hun­dred prisoners, thirty-three cannon, a great quantity of military supplies, and the control of the State of Michigan, were the fruits of this victory. For this exploit the honour of knighthood was conferred upon the victorious general.

[A British Sergeant.]
A British Sergeant.

No sooner had Detroit fallen than Brock hurried back to defend the Niagara frontier. To meet the attack of an enemy six thousand strong, there were twelve hun­dred Canadians stationed at Fort George, and three hundred at Queenston. General van Rensselaer's aim was to gain possession of Queenston that he might use it as a base of operations. His effort to attain this ob­ject led to a battle which will never be forgotten by Canadians. Queenston Heights, Oct. 13 Under cover of darkness about thirteen hundred of the enemy succeeded in landing on the Canadian shore. A small detachment quickly gained the crest of the heights, and opened fire upon the rear of the Canadian battery. More troops followed, and soon the heights were held by the enemy. At this juncture Brock, having sent back to Fort George for reinforcements, assumed com­mand of a small force and dashed up the steep in the face of a scathing fire, at the same time shouting the command to "push on the York Volunteers." Death of Brock The words had scarcely fallen from his lips when the gallant leader fell, shot through the breast. By his side fell also Colonel Macdonell, who had come up with two companies of the York Volunteers. Although they held the top of the hill, the invaders were in a desperate position. Behind them roared the Niagara at the base of a cliff two hundred feet high; in front lay a band of Cana­dians burning to avenge their fallen chief. About noon General Sheaffe, upon whom the command had fallen, came up with further reinforcements. What Brock had well begun, Sheaffe ably carried through. A most galling fire failed to check the charge of the Canadian militia. The enemy were swept back to the brow of the precipice, where they surrendered to the number of a thousand. This deed of arms accomplished by raw militia is held in proud remem­brance, nor is any name dearer to the memory of Canadians than that of Isaac Brock.

[A British Officer] A British Officer.

With the battle of Queenston Heights the campaign of 1812 practically closed. Everywhere the in­vaders had been thrust back over the border. Naval battles Success had put new heart into the militia and prepared them for the sterner struggle of the following year. On sea the British flag had been humbled in defeat. In all of five naval encounters the enemy had won the day, but in every case the British ship was out­classed in guns, tonnage, and crew. Later an Ameri­can and a British ship, more evenly matched, were to meet, and of that meeting a different story is told.

170. The Campaign of 1813.—By the opening of spring the American forces were greatly increased, and everywhere outnumbered those of the defenders. The opposing forces The opposing an d everywhere outnumbered those of the At Plattsburg lay an army of thirteen thousand men under General Dearborn, while Sir George Prevost, the commander-in-chief of the Brit­ish forces in North America, had only three thousand for the defence of Montreal. To oppose twenty-two hundred men at Sackett's Harbour, backed by five thou­sand on Lake Champlain, only fifteen hundred Cana­dians could be mustered. On the Niagara frontier five thousand Americans faced a force of twenty-three hundred Canadians. At Detroit alone did the Cana­dians outnumber the enemy.

[Hauling Cannon during the War of 1812]
Hauling Cannon during the War of 1812.
From "Upper Canada Sketches," by permission of the author, Thomas Conant, Esq.

The hard­ships of the war In danger and hardship the coming cam­paign was to try to the utmost the courage and endurance of the Canadian peo­ple. Great Britain was fully occupied in Europe, and could send little aid to her strug­gling colony. The situation was made all the more trying by the scarcity of supplies and suitable means of trans­portation. Salt pork and biscuits were imported from England, while some beef and cattle were brought in from Vermont. These supplies, however, had to be hauled up the St. Lawrence—in winter on sleds, dur­ing the summer in flatboats. These crude methods of transportation were very slow, and entailed great labour. The urgent call to arms had drawn the settlers from their homes, with the result that the farms were in danger of being neglected. In this crisis the Canadian women came forward nobly, and took up the work of brothers and husbands, while the latter fought and bled at the front.

The early engagements of 1813 were widely scat­tered. Frenchtown, January 22 In the west General Proctor, making a sudden movement from Detroit, fell upon Brigadier Winchester at Frenchtown, and won a stub­bornly fought battle, capturing the American general and four hundred and ninety-five of his men. Upon the St. Lawrence, before the break of spring, Colonel Mac­donell and his Glengarry Highlanders made a clever raid upon the enemy. Ogdensburg, February 22 It was the custom of the Canadian militia to drill upon the ice oppo­site Ogdensburg. One morning, while going through their usual movements, they gradually shifted their po­sition nearer and nearer to the American side, and, finally, making a dash for the town, they overcame the garrison before it could rally to the defence. From Sackett's Harbour the American fleet under Commo­dore Chauncey controlled Lake Ontario. Embarking twenty-five hundred men, Chauncey made a sudden de­scent upon the little town of York. York, April 27 Impor­tant only as the seat of government, York was almost defenceless. General Sheaffe, who happened to be passing through at the time, offered some resistance, but, in the end, thinking the place not worth saving, withdrew to Kingston. The enemy burned the public buildings, and ransacked the library. Meanwhile, taking advantage of Chauncey's absence, Sir George Prevost made an attack upon Sackett's Harbour. Although there was every prospect of taking this naval station, the siege was soon aban­doned.

After these scattered en­gagements, the war cen­tred for a time in the Niagara pen­insula. From York the American fleet sailed for the mouth of the Niagara River, to co-operate with the land force in an attack upon Fort George. Unable to withstand the combined pressure of army and fleet, Colonel Vincent, who was in com­mand, decided to give up the fort. Calling in the garrisons of Chippewa and Fort Erie, he concen­trated his force, numbering sixteen hundred, at Beaver Dam. Stony Creek, June 5 The close pursuit of twenty-five hundred Amer­icans made it necessary to fall back to Burlington Heights. At Stony Creek the advance of the pursuers was suddenly checked. Colonel Harvey, sent back by Vincent to watch the movements of the enemy, found the latter off guard in a night encampment. A sudden at­tack in the dark threw .the camp into confusion, and forced the invaders to beat a hasty retreat towards Fort George. One hundred pris­oners, including two generals, rewarded Harvey's victory. Vincent was now able to re-occupy Beaver Dam, which he left in charge of Lieutenant James Fitzgibbon, command­ing thirty regulars and a small band of Mohawk In­dians.

[The Laura Secord Monument.]The Laura Secord Monument.

The enemy next planned to surprise Fitzgibbon at Beaver Dam. The news of their in­tention reached the ears of James Secord, a wounded militiaman living at Queen­ston. As he was himself un­able to warn Fitzgibbon, his wife, Laura Secord, under­took the dangerous mission. Laura Secord Driving a cow before her, that the enemy might not suspect her real aim, this brave woman set out upon her lonely journey of twenty miles through the dense woods. Added to the difficulty of making a way where there were few paths, was the constant danger of meeting lurking Indians or Ameri­cans. At the close of a long day's tramp she delivered her message to the defenders of Beaver Dam. Beaver Dam, June 24 When the American force of five hundred men approached, all was in readiness. The Indians, hidden in the woods on both flanks, by firing and yell­ing gave the impression of being a strong force. Mean­while Fitzgibbon, having his little band of regulars drawn up, advanced with a flag of truce and demanded the enemy's surrender. The plan succeeded, and the five hundred Americans gave up their arms to thirty British. Fortunately reinforcements arrived in time to assist in handling so many prisoners.

Both Lake Ontario and Lake Erie witnessed naval encounters during the campaign of 1813. Naval battles The Canadian fleet at Kingston, strengthened by the arrival of Sir James Yeo with about five hundred British seamen, sailed for the Niagara River in search of the enemy. Although commanding only six ships, Sir James challenged Commodore Chauncey to come forth with his fleet of fourteen sail. The challenge was accepted. The contest was more even than might have been expected, the Canadian ships, although outnum­bered, being larger and more heavily armed than those of the enemy. The American ships were the faster, and so able to elude their heavier opponents. Seeing two of his ships captured and two disabled, Chauncey withdrew under shelter of the Fort Niagara battery. A month later a more stubborn fight took place on Lake Erie, which resulted in a decided victory for the enemy. Commodore Perry defeated Captain Barclay at Put-in Bay, having an advantage over his adversary in number of ships, cannon, and men.


Barclay's defeat made it impossible to hold Detroit. Moravian Town, Oct. 5 Proctor, therefore, with his thirteen hundred men, in­cluding five hundred Indians under Tecum­seh, began a retreat up the Thames, closely followed by General Harrison at the head of thirty-five hundred Americans. At Moravian Town Proctor turned to await the enemy. On the left was the river, on the right a cedar swamp, in which Te­cumseh's warriors lay hidden, leaving a front of only three hundred yards, which might have been made impregnable. Neg­lecting all precautions to strengthen his po­sition, Proctor was forced to fall back before the first attack of the enemy. The gallant Tecumseh refused to retire, and fell fighting upon the field which his commander had disgraced by his flight. The next day Harrison burned Moravian Town, and then marched back to Detroit.

It was late in the season when the Americans began to carry out a plan of attack upon Montreal. Châteauguay, Oct. 26 The movement was to be twofold, one army de­scending the St. Lawrence, the other the Châteauguay, the two to unite at the mouth of the latter river. General Hampton crossed over from Lake Champlain to the Châteauguay River, having at his command a force of about thirty-five hundred. At a favourable point upon the river his advance was checked by Colonel de Salaberry with a force of French Cana­dian Voltigeurs, assisted by a few Glengarry Fencibles under Colonel Macdonell. Resorting to strategy, the Canadian leaders ordered their buglers to scatter through the woods, blowing continually. The sound of many bugles, together with the shouting of the soldiers and their Indian allies, gave the enemy the impression that the whole Canadian army was facing them. Fearing to risk a general engagement, General Hampton withdrew. Equally ill-starred was the advance of the second army from Sackett's Harbour. As the main body, under Gen­eral Wilkinson, descended the St. Lawrence, a force of twenty-five hundred men protected the rear. "Chrystler's Farm," November 11 Following closely upon this rear­guard and continually annoying it, came a band of eight hundred Canadians from Kingston, un­der the command of Colonel Morrison. At "Chrystler's Farm" the enemy turned about "to brush away the an­noyance," but were themselves defeated by a force which they outnumbered three to one. Wil­kinson, learning of Hampton's defeat on the Châteauguay, gave up the idea of taking Mon­treal and withdrew across the border.

[Colonel de Salaberry]
Colonel de Salaberry.

Save for the burning of Newark by the enemy, and of the American towns from Fort Niagara to Buf­falo by the Canadians, the land campaign of 1813 was at an end. The only Canadian territory held by the enemy was Amherstburg, while the British flag "floated over Fort Niagara, and the whole American side of the river was a ruined country." On the ocean British sea­men wiped out the disgrace which the reverses of the previous year had brought upon their flag. The Shannon and the Chesapeake Captain Broke of the British frigate Shannon, lying off Boston harbour, sent in a message to Captain Law­rence of the Chesapeake, asking for "the honour of a meeting to try the fortunes of our flags." The polite invitation was as politely accepted. The Chesapeake was followed out to sea by a fleet of sailing-boats filled with Boston citizens, "eager to see the battle, and to take part in the expected triumph." "Don't cheer," said Broke to his men, as the Chesapeake drew near, " but go quietly to your quarters." Fifteen minutes after the first broadsides were exchanged, the Chesapeake was in the hands of the British seamen, and above the Stars and Stripes floated the Union Jack. Upon the deck of the captured vessel lay seventy dead, and by them mortally wounded the gallant Lawrence, whose last words to his men were, "Don't give up the ship."

[The Shannon bringing the Chesapeake into Halifax Harbour]
The Shannon bringing the Chesapeake into Halifax Harbour.

171. The Campaign of 1814.—The campaign of 1814 opened with General Wilkinson's advance into Canada with an army five thousand strong. La Colle mill, March 30 The progress of this force was effectually checked at La Colle mill, a large, two-storied stone structure manned by a garrison of five hundred Canadians. Such was the mettle of the defenders that they even dared to make a sortie against an enemy ten times their number, and forced the latter to retire across the border. Further good fortune rested with the Canadian cause in the capture of Oswego, by Sir Gordon Drummond.

In the Niagara peninsula, however, took place the most decisive struggle of the campaign. Chippewa, July 5 Forced back from Chippewa, where they suffered heavy loss in a rash attack on a strongly defended position, the Canadian forces, raised by reinforcements under General Drummond to a strength of twenty-eight hundred, faced an army of four thousand Americans. Lundy's Lane, July 25 A road lying within hearing distance of Ni­agara Falls, now famous as Lundy's Lane, became the scene of the last great battle of the war. From five o'clock until midnight the fight continued. Amid the darkness the combatants fought for the most part hand to hand, so that the loss on both sides was heavy. The fortune of battle swayed from side to side, but victory at last rested with the Canadians. The enemy, leaving their dead and wounded on the field, fled through the darkness to Chippewa. On the follow­ing day, throwing their heavy baggage into the river, and destroying the Chippewa bridge, they continued their flight to Fort Erie. The American loss at Lundy's Lane was twelve hundred; that of the Canadians nine hundred.

[The Monument at Lundy's Lane]
The Monument at Lundy's Lane.

The closing event of the war brought humiliation to Can­ada. With Napoleon banished to Elba, Great Britain was free to send strong reinforcements to America. Thus it was that Sir George Pre­vost was enabled to advance against Plattsburg with an army of thirteen thousand men, many of them veterans of the Peninsular War. Plattsburg, September 11 Discouraged by the destruc­tion of the fleet which accompanied him, Sir George turned back from a task which he might easily have accomplished without the aid of ships.

The Atlantic seaboard was now blockaded by the British fleets. Backed by one of these, a land force took Washington, and burned its public buildings. Although said to be in retaliation for the burning of York, this destructive act was little to the credit of the British. Both sides were now ready for peace. On the. day before Christmas the treaty of Ghent was signed. Both sides were to give up all territory acquired during the war. The treaty of Ghent, December 24 This meant the restoration of the seaboard of Maine and Michilimackinac by Great Britain, and of Amherstburg by the United States. American fishermen lost certain fish­ing privileges on the shores of British North America which they had hitherto enjoyed.

Before the tidings of peace reached America a fiercely-contested battle had been fought at New Orleans. General Pakenham, with a strong force of British regulars, attacked the city. New Orleans, January 8, 1815 The defenders, although outnumbered and consisting for the most part of militia, had strengthened their position by the construction of a breastwork of cotton bales and bags of sand, and were thus enabled to repel the assaults of the British force. The result of the engagement was the defeat of the British, with a loss of two thousand men, and the death of General Pakenham.

172. Effects of the War. The Americans had little reason to feel proud of their part in the struggle just ended. Upon the United States They had forced on a war which might have been averted, and had attacked an unoffending people. They had gained absolutely nothing, in wealth, in territory, least of all in national honour. Their export trade had dwindled in one year from over one hundred million dollars to less than seven million, their imports from one hundred and forty mil­lion to fifteen million. Their commerce was ruined, no less than three thousand of their merchant vessels hav­ing fallen into the hands of British seamen.

Canada, too, had suffered greatly. Upon Canada Although en­riched by the special expenditure of British wealth during the war, her people had yet to bear the burden of suffering caused by the inter­ruption to industries and by the destruction of valuable property. Canadians, however, unlike their late enemy, had the satisfaction of feeling that they had come out of a war, which was not of their own seeking, with no little honour. They had entered into the struggle with slight hope of victory; they came out of it conscious of their ability to defend themselves. In the hour of danger Canadians of all nationalities, English, Scotch, Irish, French, and German, had united to repel a com­mon enemy. When the war was over, a new spirit prevailed from Halifax to Michilimackinac. Upon the battle-fields of the late war the Canadian nation had its birth. This unity, born of a common danger, was to find its political fulfilment a half-century later in confederation.

[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.