War of 1812 Bicentennial

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Ontario High School History of Canada: Chapter XIV: The War of 1812

Chapter XIV

The War of 1812

Causes of the War.—The peace of 1783 had been framed by Lord Shelburne, a pupil of Lord Chatham. He loved the Americans and hoped that, after the fires of conflict had died down, Great Britain and the new Republic would unite in a great Anglo-American federation. His dream soon faded. In England he was succeeded by smaller men, who treated the new nation with suspicion and endeavoured to hamper its trade; the United States showed, for everything British, hatred which nobler spirits, like Washington, in vain endeavoured to check. In the persecution of the Loyalists it broke the terms of the Treaty and behaved so badly that, till 1796, Great Britain refused to give up a number of the western posts which controlled the fur trade.

In 1789 revolution broke out in France. King Louis XVI was dethroned and a republican government set up, which in 1793 declared war on Great Britain. As was natural, the sympathy of the American Republic was with the French Republic, and though the new form of government was soon succeeded by the despotism of Napoleon, American sympathy for France continued. Nothing could be more foolish, for had Napoleon once conquered Great Britain he would undoubtedly have tried to build up a great colonial empire and have made the United States his next victim. This war led to increasing difficulties between Great Britain and the United States.

  1. The Orders in Council.—For a time American traders made tremendous profits by selling supplies to both countries at War prices, but in 1806 by a Decree issued at Berlin, Napoleon proclaimed all England to be in a state of blockade and gave orders to French ships to capture any neutrals endeavouring to trade with her. In the next year (1807) Great Britain retaliated by Orders in Council laying the whole coast of Europe under a similar blockade. As the British navy was supreme, these Orders did much more harm to American trade than did the Berlin Decree, and American anger fell chiefly upon Great Britain.
  2. The Right of Search.—Still greater anger was roused in the United States by England's enforcement of the right of search. Many British sailors, tired of fighting and of the severe discipline, deserted to American ships. Great Britain was at bay, and when fighting for life one cannot be squeamish; she insisted on stopping and searching American ship on the high seas and on retaking deserters. The Americans alleged, and with truth, that British captains in want of a crew often seized American sailors who had not papers with them to prove their nationality. Thus, in 1807, the British man-of-war Leopard ordered the American frigate Chesapeake to stop, and when she refused, fired into her, compelled her to surrender, and took off several sailors, some of them Americans. Although the British Government somewhat tardily recalled the Admiral by whose orders this had been done and apologized to the United States, the insult rankled.
  3. Smaller Causes.—When nations are irritated with each other, little griefs bulk large; in 1807 Sir James Craig, the Governor of Canada, sent John Henry, an Irish adventurer, as his confidential agent to the United States to report to him on the state of feeling there. In 1812, Henry was refused an office by the British Government, and in anger sold to President Madison copies of Craig's letters. The angry Americans complained that the Governor had been spying on them.

    On numerous occasions since 1783 the Americans had been fighting with the Indians in the district now divided into the States of Michigan and Indiana. American frontiersmen were driving back the red man from the hunting grounds of his fathers. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, a Shawnee chief, Tecumseh by name, a brave and chivalrous warrior and a far-seeing statesman, succeeded in forming a confederacy to resist the encroachments of the "Long Knives," as he called the Americans. The Indians considered themselves to be the hereditary allies of Great Britain and called on her for aid. Sir James Craig steadily advised them to keep the peace; but many Americans believed that Great Britain was secretly encouraging the Indians against them, and were naturally indignant.

American Declaration of War.—There was much division in the United States. New England, knowing that war would ruin her trade, urged peace. On the other hand, Kentucky and the young Western States were wild for war, and, in order to get their votes in the approaching Presidential election, Madison sacrificed his principles and on June 19th, 1812, declared war on Great Britain, just four days before the Orders in Council were withdrawn. Thus Canada was involved in a quarrel with which she had really nothing to do.

The Campaign of 1812.—The Americans at once invaded Canada. Everything seemed in their favour. In the United States there were at the time about 6,000,000 whites and 1,250,000 negroes, while the population of Lower Canada was about 330,000, of Upper Canada 95,000, of New Brunswick about 60,000, and of Nova Scotia less than 70,000. There were at this time in British North America less than 10,000 British troops, and in Canada only about 4,450 regulars to defend over 1,200 miles of frontier, from Michilimackinac to Montreal; nor could Great Britain at the crisis of her struggle with Napoleon in the Spanish Peninsula send many more to our aid. Luckily for us the United States had even fewer regulars, and its militia proved very unsatisfactory. Several States refused to send their militia to the front, and though during the war over 500,000 troops were raised, most of these had to be kept on the sea-board to prevent descents by the British navy.

[Sir Isaac Brock]
Sir Isaac Brock

Sir Isaac Brock.—The war began with a British success; on July 17th the American post at Michilimackinac was captured, and the victory turned hundreds of the western Indians into our allies. The two main armies of the enemy were directed one against the Niagara frontier, the other further west. Early in July, General Hull invaded Canada near Windsor and issued a windy proclamation calling on the inhabitants to shake off their chains and join the free Republic; but though many of these settlers in the vicinity were newly arrived American emigrants, few joined him. His army was ill-equipped with food, and the ravages of his troops more than spoiled the effect of his proclamation. Meanwhile Sir Isaac Brock, a gallant British general, at the time Administrator of Upper Canada, collected his few regulars and called out the militia. The Loyalists and their sons nobly responded to his call, and though there were undoubtedly some American sympathizers, they were cowed by Brock's vigour. The Legislature, however, refused his request to suspend the Habeas Corpus Act, whereat Brock dissolved it and took matters into his own hands.

The Capture of Detroit.—On Brock's approach, Hull retreated to Detroit, which he garrisoned with thirty-three cannon and 2,500 men. Brock now gathered his forces at Amherstburg, on the Canadian bank of the Detroit River, where he was joined by some 600 Indians under Tecumseh. The Shawnees had in the year before, in the absence of Tecumseh, been defeated at Tippecanoe by the Americans under General Harrison, and were burning for revenge. Even with this reinforcement Brock had with him only about 700 regulars and 600 Indians, but he at once crossed the river and began the siege of Detroit, aided by a plan of the town and fort drawn for him by Tecumseh on a piece of birch-bark. Hull was old and timid, his men were in deadly fear of the Indians, and on August 16th the garrison of Detroit, with vast supplies of military stores, tamely surrendered to a force of half their numbers. The capitulation included the entire territory of Michigan. Hull was in the next year condemned to death for cowardice, but pardoned in consideration of his former good service.

[Map of the Niagara Frontier]
War of 1812-14

Queenston Heights.—Meanwhile Sir George Prevost, the Governor, had made an armistice in the hope that the repeal of the Orders in Council and the influence of Massachusetts might incline the Americans toward peace. The only result was to enable them to bring up stores and men along the Niagara frontier. Here in the early dawn of October 13th they crossed the river below the Falls in flat boats, and after some loss occupied Queenston Heights. Brock came galloping up from Fort George at the mouth of the river, and with reckless gallantry led a charge up the slope, only to fall, shot through the breast. The York volunteers dashed forward to avenge him, but were beaten back, and by ten o'clock the battle seemed over. Had the American militia who lined the opposite shore crossed over to help their friends, the whole Niagara peninsula would have been lost, but as a spectator said: "the name of Indian, or the sight of the wounded, or the devil, or something else petrified them and they would not move." British reinforcements came up under General Roger Sheaffe, and by a long flank march succeeded in taking the invaders in the rear. In the afternoon a new attack was made; with the river behind them and British regulars and whooping Indians in front, the Americans broke and fled; many perished in the waters and nearly a thousand were captured. But Brock had fallen, and the loss could not be measured by regiments. Later in the year, a British ship carrying Brock's sword, papers, and other effects, was captured on Lake Ontario by Chauncey, the American Commodore. With true chivalry the gallant sailor at once sent on the relics of the dead hero to his relatives in England.

The Chesapeake and the Shannon.—On land, where they had expected "a walk to Quebec," the Americans had failed badly; on sea, where Britain had long been supreme, the well-equipped American frigates were victorious in several single-ship actions. There was no lack of bravery in the British sailor; he fought till his ship was a wreck and half the men killed or wounded; but the Americans showed equal seamanship and better gunnery. Great was the wrath and amazement in Great Britain at the defeat of men trained by Nelson, and great was the joy when in the next year (June 1st, 1813), Captain Broke of the Shannon defeated and captured off Boston the American frigate Chesapeake, and towed her into Halifax harbour. Later in the war, the British fleet asserted its superiority and swept American commerce from the seas.

The Campaign of 1813. Capture of York.—The year 1813 began with raids all along the frontier. The American fleet was the first to put out of harbour, and sailing across Lake Ontario, captured and burned the town of York (April 27th). In the fight the magazine exploded, and 250 American soldiers were hurled into the air. By his inefficiency in this action, General Sheaffe tarnished the reputation which he had won at Queenston, and was superseded. To regain control of the lake, Sir George Prevost attacked Sackett's Harbour, realizing, as the Duke of Wellington wrote a little later, that "any offensive operations founded upon Canada must be preceded by the establishment of a naval superiority on the Lakes." But Prevost was weak and irresolute and drew off his men when they were on the point of success.

[a portrait of a few houses illustrating York in the early nineteenth century]
York in Early Nineteenth Century

Stoney Creek and Beaver Dams.—On the Niagara frontier the Americans captured Fort George, and crossing over swept down over Hamilton. At Stoney Creek, however, the British regulars turned to bay, and under Captain (afterwards Sir) John Harvey made a fierce night attack (June 5th). The sleeping sentries were bayoneted "in the quietest manner," and the invaders were driven back with the loss of a hundred prisoners, among whom were both their generals. Soon after about 500 Americans, with two guns, endeavoured to surprise the British post at Beaver Dams (near Thorold), but missed their way in the beech woods, were attacked by Colonel Fitzgibbon, a dare-devil Irishman, with about thirty men and a few Indians, lost their nerve, and surrendered.

Laura Secord—Fitzgibbon had known nothing of the coming of the Americans, and would undoubtedly have been surprised had it not been for the valour of a woman. At Queenston, Sergeant James Secord was lying helpless from his wounds. Both he and his wife, Laura, were children of Loyalists, and hated the Americans for the wrongs done to their parents. When the American troops reached Queenston, Secord and his wife at once suspected that they were on their way to surprise Fitzgibbon, who had been active in harassing the outposts of the American army. Secord lay helpless, but his wife undertook to warn Fitzgibbon. "She was already in her thirty-eighth year, and the mother of five children. The roads in many places were ankle deep in mud, the country was sparsely settled, and the woods were known to be haunted by bands of Indians and white marauders, who hung upon the skirts of the armies, yet she never faltered in her resolution." Leaving the house in the first flush of dawn, she started on her way. The story has often been told of her taking a pail on her arm, and passing the American sentry on the pretence of milking a cow in the field beyond, but it seems probable that the excuse which she really made was her desire to visit her brother, who lay dangerously ill some miles away. Heedless of wolves and rattlesnakes, she travelled by a circuitous route through the woods, and more than once forded a swollen stream. "For a time she seems to have lost her way, but after walking a distance of about nineteen miles, she at last reached a branch of Twelve Mile Creek, and recognized her whereabouts. Finding the creek much swollen by rain and the bridge removed or swept away, she was compelled to cross by crawling on her hands and knees along the trunk of the fallen tree. Toiling up the steep bank beyond she stumbled into the midst of a group of sleeping Indians, who sprang to their feet with piercing yells. It was with great difficulty she made her object understood by their chief, who understood but a few words of English, and some delay ensued before she was intrusted to Fitzgibbon."* The time of her arrival at her destination is uncertain. Some place it in the evening, some just at the dawn of the following day. The modesty of this heroine of Upper Canada led her to make no record of her adventures, and the story only came out more than forty years later. Uncertain and contradictory accounts of some of the details have therefore grown up, but the main facts are undoubted. It is pleasant to think that Laura Secord lived to a vigorous old age, dying in 1868 at the age of ninety-three.

Moraviantown.—On Lake Erie the British Squadron under Captain Barclay was defeated at Put-in-Bay by the Americans under Commodore Perry. So bravely did they fight that at the end of the day both fleets were shattered wrecks, but the victory was Perry's, and the British army under General Procter, which had been holding Michigan, was compelled hurriedly to return to Canada and retire up the Thames River. Previous to this time Procter had shown skill and resolution, and with an inferior force had held the Americans at bay, but he now made a headlong retreat, heedless of Tecumseh, who compared him to "a fat dog with its tail between its legs." Tecumseh's old enemy, Harrison, with a force of Kentucky riflemen who had no fear of the Indians, was soon at his heels, and at Moraviantown, Procter's dispirited troops were swept away in shameful flight. Tecumseh fought hard and died on the field (October 5th).

[map of the St. Lawrence area]
St. Lawrence and Champlain Region
War 1812–14

Chateauguay and Crysler's Farm.—Thus encouraged, the Americans made a double attack on Montreal. One army under General Hampton took the old line of the Richelieu, but at Chateauguay were met by a small force of French Canadian voltigeurs under Colonel De Salaberry (October 26th). De Salaberry had only 300 men in his fighting line, and 600 more in reserve under Colonel Macdonell. These latter had come from Kingston, 170 miles by water and 20 by land, in 60 hours. They had shot the rapids in their clumsy bateaux, without losing a boat or a man. No finer march was made during the whole war. When the battle joined, the French Canadians fought amid the woods with such blithe gallantry and skilful woodcraft, the bugles blew so cheerily from different parts of the field, that with a loss of twenty-five men De Salaberry completely routed an army of 3,000. This was perhaps the most dashing action of the whole war, and showed how loyal the French had become to British institutions. Meanwhile another American army under General Wilkinson had landed below Prescott and come down the St. Lawrence, partly in boats and partly in land; but at Crysler's Farm 800 British under Colonel Morrison defeated the land force of over 2,000, and though Wilkinson pushed on for a day or two, the news of Chateauguay caused him to retreat. Skirmishing still went on along the Niagara frontier; the Americans burned Newark, the former capital, and turned the inhabitants out into the December cold. In return General Gordon Drummond, the new Administrator of Upper Canada, swept the Niagara frontier with fire and sword from Lewiston right up to "the flourishing village of Buffalo."

[block house]
Blockhouse, Kingston
(Built soon after 1812)

Campaign of 1814. Lundy's Lane.—In 1814 the enemy again tried the Richelieu route, but were defeated at Lacolle Mill. On Lake Ontario there was some indecisive fighting, but the hottest of the campaign was on the Niagara frontier. The Americans were no longer the unskilled militia of Queenston, but hardy veterans, and at Chippawa under General Brown they inflicted a bloody defeat on the British under General Riall (July 5th). At Lundy's Lane, near the Falls, the two armies met again (July 25th), the Americans under Brown with the gallant Winfield Scott as second in command, the British under Riall. From six o'clock to nine they fought through the summer evening, the roar of the Falls sounding high over the roar of the musketry. At first the Americans had the advantage, but Drummond came up with reinforcements, and at midnight, with both Brown and Scott wounded, the enemy draw off to Chippawa and on the next day re-crossed the river. The British lost 878 out of 3,000, the Americans 854 out of 4,000. It was a soldier's battle, the bulk of the fighting being done by subordinate officers like Harvey and by the British infantry and the Canadian citizen soldiery, who fought side by side with equal valour.

Plattsburg.—Meanwhile great events had been happening in Europe. In April Napoleon was compelled by the allies to abdicate and was deported to the island of Elba. Sixteen thousand of Wellington's Peninsular veterans were now sent to Canada, and early in September Prevost with 11,000 men attacked Plattsburg, on Lake Champlain; but when the squadron which accompanied him under Captain Downie was defeated and its brave leader killed, Prevost at once retreated. So angry and ashamed were the officers under him, that many broke their swords in his presence. The Duke of Wellington held that the whole attack was a mistake, and that even if Prevost had won, he could not have held the post; but his weakness had made him so much disliked that he was recalled, dying at the age of forty-eight, just in time to avoid a court-martial. He was a kindly man who had won the love of the French, and might in time of peace have done well; confronted by a crisis he failed.

Burning of Washington.—During the summer of this year the British fleet sailed up the Potomac, and landed an army which defeated the Americans at Bladensburg, under the eyes of President Madison. The beautiful public buildings at Washington were burned in just though cruel reprisal for the American burning of York and Newark.

Naval War on Lake Ontario.—During all these years there had been much hard sailing and hard fighting on Lake Ontario. Though no action on this lake equalled in importance Perry's victory on Lake Erie, the American tars under Chauncey and the British under Sir James Yeo saw much service, as they threshed their clumsy brigs and top-heavy schooners to and fro all the way from Kingston to Hamilton, in the endeavour to keep open the lines of communication and to escort the provision ships on which both armies so largely depended. The British ships were on the whole the more reliable, the American the more quickly built. On one occasion Chauncey completed a twenty-four-gun ship in fifty-eight days from the time timber was first felled in the bush. In the year 1814, by the orders of Sir James Yeo, the St. Lawrence was built at Kingston Navy Yard. She carried 102 guns, and was so powerful that, for the autumn months of 1814, she gave the British control of Lake Ontario without firing a gun.

The Treaty of Ghent.—By this time, all parties were weary of war; negotiations began at Ghent in Holland, and peace was eventually signed (December 24th) on the basis of the status quo. Earlier in the year the British had captured Castine near the mouth of the Penobscot River, and advantage might have been taken of this to try to rectify our eastern frontier line; but the defeat at Plattsburg and the desire of Great Britain to devote herself to the great European settlement which was going on, led to the Americans getting better terms than they had expected earlier in the year.

By the terms of the Peace neither of the two main causes of war was settled. The Orders in Council had already been repealed and nothing was said about the right of search, which Great Britain did not give up till the Conference of Paris in 1856. During the war the shipping of the United States was swept from the sea, its exports dropped from over $100,000,000 a year to $7,000,000, and had it not been for the skill of its negotiators at Ghent it might not have escaped without loss of territory. President Madison had indeed paid dearly for his re-election.

New Orleans.—The hardest fighting took place after peace was signed. A splendid army of Peninsular veterans under General Pakenham attacked New Orleans (January, 1815), but Pakenham, with mad bravery, led his men over an open space against ramparts skilfully built of cotton bales by General Andrew Jackson. It was not a fight but a butchery; Pakenham and 2,000 men fell before the deadly fire which was poured in upon them, without ever coming to grips with the invisible foe.

Results of the War.—The help given us by Great Britain had been ungrudging. Gallantly as our militia fought, without the regulars we should have been swallowed up. The name of Brock is still remembered as the hero of Upper Canada, and that of Drummond is only less honourable. But in the following years the Colonial Office showed sad stupidity. Its head for many years was the timid and commonplace Lord Bathurst, whose one desire was peace with the United States at any price. In 1816 he wrote requesting the Canadian Government to leave all the frontier from Lake Champlain to Montreal in a state of nature, grumbled at the settlements in the Eastern Townships, and urged that they be discouraged. In 1817 he ordered all emigration into Canada from the United States to be prohibited, but his orders were not carried out.

To Canada the war gave a heroic tradition. Men of French, Scotch, Irish, English descent had stood side by side with the regulars of Great Britain and had fought as gallantly as they. It was our baptism of blood, and so far in this world that has been the only real baptism of a nation. It is less pleasing to think of the long years of hatred of the United States which date from this war; but to many men patriotism is impossible without a little hatred, and memories of the war did much to steady Canadians in the years of trial which were to come.

[British Officer, 1812]
A British Officer, 1812

The Rush-Bagot Treaty.—Yet even while the embers of strife were still hot, Great Britain and the United States entered into an agreement, the good spirit and common sense of which were full of hope for the future. In 1817 an agreement was made between them, known from the names of its negotiators as the Rush-Bagot Treaty, by which both powers agreed to maintain no war vessels on the lakes save on Lake Ontario one vessel not exceeding one hundred tons burden, and armed with one eighteen-pound cannon; on the Upper Lakes, two similar vessels; on Lake Champlain, one similar vessel; and to dismantle all other vessels of war built or building on the lakes.

This agreement confined the armed force of the two nations on inland waters to small vessels, suitable for putting down smuggling and illegal fishing. It still remains in force, though the United States has been allowed by Great Britain and Canada to break it to the extent of having several larger and more heavily armed vessels on the lakes to use as training ships. That this infringement has been allowed is really a proof of the confidence felt by Canada in the peaceful intentions of her neighbour; and though both countries are justly proud of brave deeds done and chivalry shown during the war, we may now say with confidence:

No more shall the war-cry sever,
Or the winding rivers be red.

* Colonel E. Cruikshank: The Fight in the Beechwoods. (Lundy's Lane Historical Society, 1895.)

[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.