Ontario Public School History of Canada: Chapter XV: The War With the United States
The War With the United States
1. Simcoe’s Certainty of War with the United States.—In 1793 news came to Canada of startling events in Europe. France had beheaded her king, had become a republic, and on February 1st had declared war on Britain, war which was to endure until the power of Napoleon, the master of France, was finally shattered, in 1815, at Waterloo. France had an alliance with the United States and was certain to demand aid from her ally. In this case Canada might be invaded, with the design either to hand it back to France, or to do what Washington had so eagerly desired, make it a part of the United States. Relations with the United States were already strained. Across the river from Fort George at Niagara, the British flag still floated over Fort Niagara, though it lay within the United States. At Detroit also it floated, and a member for that district sat in Simcoe’s Legislature. These and other posts Britain held until the United States should fulfil the terms of the treaty signed in 1783. Again and again had Washington demanded the surrender of the forts, but they had not been given up, and the American nation was angry.
The Indians, too, were a menace. To-day they have sunk out of sight as a factor in politics, though in Canada they still claim to be the allies and not the subjects of the British king. But in 1793 they might have made life in Upper Canada as dangerous as, earlier, the Iroquois had made it for the French. By an odd turn of fortune, the Iroquois were now living in Upper Canada. Under their leader, Joseph Brant, they had taken the British side during the American Revolution, and, like the Loyalists, they had been forced into exile. They now had lands on the Grand River, near the present city of Brantford, and here Brant still played an important part in frontier politics. What really held the Indians to the British side was their anger with the American settlers who encroached on the lands north of the Ohio. In 1791 the Indians inflicted a bloody defeat on the American general, St. Clair, and killed half of his force of fourteen hundred men.
The American government was sure that the British were inciting the Indians to action. In 1793 there arrived in the United States, Genet, an agent of the newly-created French republic. He insisted that, as an ally of France, the United States was at war with Britain. He demanded money which the United States owed to France. Under his orders, privateers were fitted out in American ports and sent to sea to prey on British commerce. Captured British ships were taken to American ports. Genet behaved as if the United States was a colony of France. For a time Simcoe believed that war had actually been declared. The Indians were insisting that the United States should abandon to them the whole country north of the Ohio, while at the same time settlers were going by hundreds into that region. Simcoe went in person to the Ohio country, and there, fifty miles south of Detroit, he saw that a fort was put in order to confront an advancing American force. At his act there was a great outcry in the United States. A British force holding a fort well within American territory! The affair was settled in two ways;—first, the American General, Wayne, defeated the Indians at a point near the British post and brought them to terms; secondly, in London the American envoy, John Jay, was making a treaty with the British government. The French agent, Genet, had already been snubbed by the American government for his activities, and Britain, unable to do anything more for the Loyalists, agreed to give up the western posts. The British flag came down at Fort Niagara, Detroit, and elsewhere, and war was averted.
That war would come in time Simcoe never doubted, and he proved right. In the minds of many Americans the conviction was deep that they would never be secure until they held Canada. “On to Canada” for years to come was to be a rallying cry in the republic. As Simcoe rode through the country, his trained eye was always watching for points suited for military defence. He talked openly about the coming war, and was not discreet in his everlasting attacks on republicanism and democracy. Yet when he entertained Americans, he was courteous and conciliatory. Between him and his superior, Dorchester, there was deep antagonism. In the end both men returned to England in 1796. Dorchester went to a well-earned rest and lived to be eighty-five; Simcoe became a Lieutenant-General and was appointed Commander-in-Chief in India, but he died in 1806 before he could take up this great post. The two men had done their work well. Yet neither of them had understood the deepest problems of Canada. The great need, after all, was to mature the influences which should enable the people to govern themselves wisely. Dorchester’s stately scorn of the trading class, Simcoe’s ravings against the mob rule of democracy, were echoes from an older society where aristocracy and privilege were still strong. In a new land, strength and integrity of character were the qualities which should fit men to rule. Democracy might be crude in its manners, but that it had vigour was to be seen in the amazing growth of the United States. In time Canada was to show that democracy could work as effectively under a monarchy as under a republic.
2. The Discontent of the French.—After Dorchester and Simcoe had gone, the problems of Canada were very little in the thought of British statesmen. They were engaged in a deadly struggle with France, and. though the spirit of the age was changing, for the time old abuses flourished. Men who performed none of the duties of an office were allowed to hold it and to draw for life high pay. Pitt, Earl of Chatham, had been offered £5,000 a year as Governor of Canada, though no one dreamed that he would go to Canada to govern. Even Carleton had lived for years in England drawing pay as Governor of Canada. When Canada was nearing war with the United States, another Governor was away for nearly four years continuously. Burton, who had the office of Lieutenant-Governor of Lower Canada, drew his pay as such for fourteen years before he even visited Canada. After a few years in Canada he retired, and he continued to draw his pay as long as he drew breath. Such abuses meant that the affairs of the colony were not really studied, and were left in the hands of officials on the spot, men often with narrow vision and unbending minds. By 1812 Montreal and Quebec had grown into important cities. From Montreal, as in the days of Frontenac, the fur-traders penetrated to the West farther and ever farther. In 1789 Alexander Mackenzie, from Montreal, reached the Arctic Ocean by the great river which bears his name, and from that time Canadian fur-traders have lived in that remote north. At last, in 1793, Mackenzie crossed the Rocky Mountains and stood on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. He is the first known white man to brave the dangers from swift rivers and savage Indians in those terrible mountains. It was a dozen years before the Americans, under Lewis and Clark, performed a similar feat. The words which he painted on a rock, “Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada by land, July 22, 1793,” meant that already Canada was stretching out to the Pacific.
For the French in Canada the right to vote and a real influence in politics were something new. The habitant owned the land which he tilled, and in all the world probably there was no peasantry with a greater sense of independence. From the first the electors of Lower Canada had chosen for the Legislature men of their own French race. Naturally, only a minority in the elected Assembly spoke English. Both French and English were used freely, though the proceedings were usually in French. For some time the tone of the French members had been one of gratitude to Britain for the liberties which she had conceded to them. George III was the best of kings. When war with France began in 1793, the French seemed as hearty as the English in its support. France, which executed its king and persecuted the church, could no longer claim their reverence. They sang Te Deums for British victories. But none the less was their social system French. They read French books. Their traditions were French. They would not be absorbed by a society English in type. Had not their Norman ancestors once conquered England as England had now conquered them? Was not France the leader of the world in the refinements of life? If arrogant English officials seemed to despise them as a conquered people, they, in turn, looked upon these new-comers as alien intruders who had no real stake in the country. It was the French who had first settled Canada, there to remain for ever rooted.
Prolonged war with France did not make easier the governing of the French in Canada. They had, it is true, little sympathy with the extremists in France. But on the banks of the St. Lawrence was growing up a society with the advanced views of the people’s rights which had overturned the monarchy in France. In 1806, the French leaders founded a newspaper—Le Canadien. The few British of an earlier day had made arrogant attacks on the French as spoiled by an indulgent Governor, and now the French attacked the English for the same reason. The Governor, they said, was a stranger from England, he was surrounded by an official clique who hated everything French. The result was that the French put in the forefront of their policy their language, their religion, and their laws, as things to be fought for to the death. No quarrels are fiercer than racial quarrels. The French had the rage and vehemence of a people free to speak but not in control of power The English, more than the French, have a genius for trade, and it thus happened that it was chiefly the French who tilled the soil and the English who carried on the trade of Lower Canada. When the problem of taxation was faced, the trader wished to lay the chief burden on the owners of land, while these in turn wished to put it on the traders in the form of increased import duties. The Assembly was acutely divided on the question, with the French majority on one side, the English minority on the other. The majority had had no experience in politics and thought to repress opposition by coercion. In 1805, when the Montreal Gazette reported a speech at a public dinner in which the proposed duties were condemned as unsound, the Assembly ordered the arrest of the printer and the publisher for “false, scandalous, and malicious libel.”
It was always soldiers whom Britain sent to Canada as Governors-General. Usually the Governor had a long record of service. General Prescott, who succeeded Dorchester, had fought with Wolfe forty years earlier. Sir James Craig, his successor in 1807, had been wounded in the assault on Bunker Hill in the first days of the American Revolution, and, in the following year, had helped to drive the Americans from Canada. He had served in South Africa at the first British occupation, and later in India and in Italy. An officer passing, like Craig, from one scene to another, each of them with its own intricate problems, was forced to rely on the officials about him, with minds often clouded by prejudice and resentment. This happened to Craig in Canada. He was accustomed to military pomp, and he had the peremptory ways of a man with the habit of command; but his mind was keen and his temper generous. When he arrived in 1807, he saw that war was imminent with the United States. And just at this time the new French paper, Le Canadien, was making ferocious attacks on all that he, as Governor, did. Officials about Craig persuaded him that there was danger not only of war with the United States but also of armed rebellion in Canada. The result was that, in 1810, he threw into prison the chief persons concerned with the publication of Le Canadien. Great was the fury aroused by this act. The kindly and humane Craig was called the author of a “Reign of Terror.” All the prisoners but one expressed regret at the tone of Le Canadien and were freed without trial. In the end this one, Pierre Bedard, was told that he was free. When he refused to leave until brought to trial, he was ejected from jail by force. Probably even he saw the humour of the situation. A little later Craig left Canada, a dying man, and in 1811 was succeeded by General Sir George Prevost, who had been Governor of Nova Scotia.
3. The Outbreak of War.—For nearly a score of years Britain had been at war with France. War was in the air; the policy of the time was based upon the needs of war; and men turned to war as a means of settling disputes with a light-heartedness really sickening. By 1812 the United States had a population of eight million—nearly half as many as Great Britain. Its people, having themselves created a new state based on ideal principles of democracy, were certain that the people of Canada longed to break away from Great Britain and that an invading army would be received as deliverers. They thought themselves so happy in ceasing to be British that for Canada not to wish the same thing was to turn from light to darkness. The Stars and Stripes, said American leaders, should float triumphant from Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico. To this, it was said, pointed inevitable destiny. All North America was to become one vast republic. Many Americans were, therefore, ready to make use of any dispute with Great Britain to bring on war, so as to secure Canada.
There were new causes provoking war. While the armies of Napoleon were supreme on land in Europe, the fleets of Britain were everywhere supreme on the sea. At Trafalgar, in 1805, Nelson struck the final blow to French naval power. Yet all was not well in the British fleet. The discipline was cruel; brutal officers ordered needless floggings; bad food was supplied by corrupt contractors; the rate of pay had not been increased during a century and a half. A great evil was the recruiting of the navy by seizing men in the streets of English towns and carrying them off against their wills to the remotest parts of the world. In American ships the same English language was spoken, and the pay was better. The result was that, whenever there was a chance for British sailors impressed against their wills to desert to an American ship, off some of them were sure to go. How could this be stopped? The British said, by using the right of search. Accordingly, British men-of-war stopped American ships on the sea, ordered the mustering of the crew, and carried off what deserters were found. Sometimes mistakes were made, and Americans were taken. To the United States this claim to search its ships seemed like arrogant tyranny. The flag, said the Americans, protected the crew, and the dignity of the young nation must be respected.
This was not the only cause of trouble. Napoleon, engaged in deadly struggle with Britain, thought to ruin her by destroying her trade. She was only, as he said, “a nation of shop-keepers.” Accordingly, in 1806, he issued the Berlin Decree. No British trade was to be allowed with Europe. No British ship should enter any European port. Every British subject there was to be put in prison. “A deadly blow to England,” said Napoleon exultantly. Britain struck back. By Orders-in-Council Britain said that she would not allow even neutral ships to trade to the ports controlled by Napoleon. These should be cut off entirely from trade by sea. The difference between Britain and France was that Britain had a powerful fleet to enforce her policy, while France had not. American ships sailing to Europe found themselves stopped and taken to a British port. They protested their rights as neutrals to trade with Europe. But this Britain, fighting for her life, would not allow.
In 1807, while a British sloop lay at Hampton Roads, in Virginia, five of her men seized a boat and rowed away to enlist on an American man-of-war—the Chesapeake. To the demand that the men should be given up no heed was paid. Some weeks later the Chesapeake was stopped at sea by the British ship Leopard. When her captain would not permit search for the deserters, a fight followed, and twenty-one were killed or wounded on the American ship. The British took off four men and hanged the only one of them who was a deserter; it turned out that the other three were Americans. Clearly Britain had gone beyond her rights, and an angry dispute followed. In 1811 a British fleet cruised off New York, stopped American ships bound for France, and took off British seamen. At once an American ship, the President, put to sea to protect American commerce. She sighted the British corvette. Little Belt, and for many hours the huge American ship pursued the small sloop. When firing began, the Little Belt was reduced to a mere hulk by the President and lost thirty-two men. Such events were certain to lead to war. “On to Canada” was the cry now often repeated in the United States, and war broke out in 1812.
War was really desired only by the Southern States, which would suffer from it the least. Canada did not wish it, for she would be invaded. Britain did not wish it, for she was fully occupied with Napoleon and had no taste for strife with people of her own blood. Before war was declared, she withdrew the Orders-in-Council which injured American trade, but the action came too late. The Northern States knew their trade would be ruined by war and voted against it in Congress. Had the telegraph existed at the time, had there been a strong newspaper press, public opinion would have made war impossible. Madison, the President, was a Southerner, with the old ambition to make the United States continental. When he thought the Canadians eager to break with Britain, he forgot that Upper Canada was peopled by exiled Loyalists, who had made sacrifices to remain British and were ready to renew them. To the Canadians alone was the war vital, and they fought with stern tenacity for their new homes.
4. Brock’s Capture of Detroit.—Sir George Prevost, who in 1811 succeeded Craig as Governor-General of Canada, was an amiable man, who did his best to disarm the suspicions of the French, acute ever since the angry days of Craig’s “Reign of Terror.” The result was that, as war drew near, he had the support of the French. They showed, indeed, that they were as ready as the English element to fight American invaders—a change since the time of Carleton’s troubles. It was Prevost himself who was found wanting. As civil Governor he did well. But in war he proved timid and incapable of decision. After the war he was about to be tried by a court-martial, when he died. Happily for the defence of Canada, he remained chiefly at Quebec, which was not attacked, and it was other officers who did most of the fighting.
Since Simcoe no one of note had been sent as Lieutenant-Governor to Upper Canada. It now contained, perhaps, one hundred thousand people. At Niagara there was a pretty village of some two hundred houses. Kingston was the naval station for the little lake fleet. York was taking on the appearance of a capital, with a good public building in which sat the Legislature, with a church, in time to be called a cathedral, and a public library. This town was protected by a fort. In 1812 Upper Canada was happy in having a strong and vigorous leader. General Isaac Brock, now in his forty-third year, had spent ten years in Canada. It was said of Brock that no one ever heard him make an ill-natured remark. With a frank kindliness, which won the affection of his men, went a surprising vigour in action. Brock was six feet two inches in height and broad and muscular. One night at York, when he found that some deserters had gone across the lake in a boat, he set out at midnight in a small skiff to pursue them, found them on the American side, near Niagara, and brought them back. A little later, when the harshness of a fellow-officer caused a mutiny at Niagara, Brock instantly seized the offenders, and four of them were executed. “I have never felt grief like this,” he told his men; but he was relentless in such a crisis. In 1812 he was not only in command of the troops in Upper Canada, but also acting as Lieutenant-Governor, and this was of good omen.
When the British conquered Canada, they had made their chief attack by way of the sea, knowing that if they took Quebec they could quickly master the rest of the country. But now the Americans had no fleet for such a task. They could strike only by land and at two vital points—Montreal and the frontiers of Upper Canada. The first blow came from Detroit against Upper Canada. William Hull, the American leader, was a well-to-do lawyer in Massachusetts. He had been an officer in the victorious American army which received the surrender at Yorktown, in 1781, of Lord Cornwallis, the British commander in the south. This had been the crowning disaster to the British cause; and every American officer who had shared in the triumph was in popular esteem a hero. Hull was a poor soldier, but he was given command of the north-western army, with headquarters at Detroit. He shared the belief that his raw militia could quickly overrun Canada. At once he crossed the river into Canada. He had come, he said in a proclamation, to emancipate the Canadians from British tyranny and to give them the dignity of freemen. If they failed to respond, they would suffer all the horrors of war. The Indians, so hostile to the British in the days of Pontiac, were now on their side, and Hull threatened that, if Indians were used, the war would be a war of extermination; every white man found fighting by the side of an Indian would be killed at once. He advanced into Canada for some distance, ravaging the country when he met with resistance.
The general who began operations in this manner was afterwards sentenced to death by an American court-martial for cowardice and neglect of duty, though the sentence was not carried out. High-sounding threats do not win battles. Within a month after invading Canada, Hull was hurrying back to Detroit in panic. The Canadians, instead of receiving him with open arms, had proved intensely hostile. Moreover, alarming news had reached him. By a sudden dash the British had taken the important Fort Michilimackinac at the entrance to Lake Michigan. In the American Revolution the Indians had aroused terror, and Hull had visions of swarms of them let loose in his rear. They were in truth a deadly menace, and in this war they sometimes got out of control and committed massacres which embittered American feeling. Reports came filtering in to Hull that a British army had left Niagara and was facing storms on Lake Erie in order to attack Detroit. Brock was coming; a young, experienced general was facing a civilian leader now nearly sixty years old, who for thirty years had seen nothing of war. Brock landed his army near the mouth of the Detroit River and took counsel with the men on the spot.
Chief among these was the Indian, Tecumseh. He was chief of the Shawnees, a western tribe, a great statesman among the western Indians, and a man of really noble character. The American settlers who were crowding into the west and grabbing Indian lands, Tecumseh had opposed in a struggle which ended in a bitter fight at Tippecanoe, in Indiana, in 1811. The Indians defeated by the American general, Harrison, held more eagerly than ever to the British side. Near Detroit Tecumseh and Brock now met for the first time. The Indian was the younger by seven or eight years. Brock, in the uniform of a British general, was the model soldierly leader; Tecumseh, in tanned deer-skin and moccasins, was the last of the Indian warriors to play the part of a dignified ally. Brock asked the Indian chief for counsel. With the point of a scalping-knife, Tecumseh drew on a piece of elm-bark a military map showing how Detroit might be attacked. When he turned to the chiefs about him, he said of Brock: “This is a man;” while Brock wrote of Tecumseh that he had never seen a wiser or more gallant leader. He was no savage. He had often rebuked his followers when bent on massacre. Once, when a British officer had failed to check outrages, Tecumseh had turned on him and said, “You are not fit to command; go and put on petticoats.”
All this time Hull, in Detroit, was growing ever more nervous. From the Canadian side of the river Brock threw shells into the town, sometimes with destructive effect. In the forest about Detroit the Indians were moving, and the cries of night birds, which Hull’s sentries heard in the stillness, were sometimes signals from lurking scouts to each other. Hull did well to dread the Indians. At this very moment they were closing in on Fort Dearborn, where now stands Chicago, and there was a savage massacre when they took the place. On Sunday, August 16th, Hull, looking out, saw a red-coated army in full view before Detroit. He had no idea of their numbers. In the woods all about could be heard echoing war-whoops, and he knew that Tecumseh had a great following. A thousand civilians cowered in Detroit in deadly fear, and Hull lost his nerve. When the British advanced as if to assault the place, he agreed to surrender. Twenty-five hundred prisoners of war, food, stores, and military possession of Michigan were secured by Brock. With some fifteen hundred men he had struck a heavy blow. The boastful Hull was carried to Montreal, which heard the strains of Yankee Doodle as Canadian militia marched through the streets with the column of prisoners.
5. The Death of Brock.—Thus did the war begin. After this it was clear that the Canadians would fight the invaders with their whole strength. The United States was unprepared. Except in frontier strife with the Indians, its small regular army had seen no war since the days of the Revolution. With eight million people against the four hundred thousand of Canada, it seemed as if the Americans could throw crushing forces into Canada, but their untrained militia proved of little use. Armies fight well only for a cause in which they believe. On both sides there was excellent fighting material, but the Northern States did not believe in the war. Militia of New York, ordered to cross the Niagara River into Canada, more than once balked. They would, they said, defend their own homes, but it was no part of their duty to invade the lands of their neighbours. In some measure the war was for the Americans a game in party politics, and inferior leaders were given important commands. They were slow in getting ready. The British were better organized. For years they had faced the astounding military genius of Napoleon, and their generals knew the realities of war. Tied as Britain’s hands still were by this stupendous struggle, she yet sent twenty-five thousand men to Canada. Canada raised fourteen thousand men as good as regulars, and some of her militia also did great service fighting a defensive war. There were with the Canadians about five thousand Indians. During the war the Americans raised at least seventy thousand regulars. The forces were widely scattered. No leader on either side had more than five thousand men in the firing line in any engagement.
Had Brock lived he would probably have made a great reputation as a soldier. But his career was short. From his success at Detroit he hurried back to the Niagara frontier. There an American force was gathering, to cross the swift river into Canada. On the long front of forty miles above and below the mighty cataract, the British had to watch anxiously. They knew not where the great effort might be made. On the morning of October 13th, 1812, Brock was at Fort George at the mouth of the river. Before dawn he heard a heavy cannonade. In the darkness the Americans had crossed at Queenston, some eight miles up the river. Brock mounted and rode furiously to the point of danger. Queenston Heights rise some three hundred and fifty feet above the river, and half-way up the Heights a single British gun was in action against a heavy fire from many American batteries on the opposite shore. Here came Brock, breathless and eager. He climbed the slope and was standing by the gun directing its fire, when he heard a sudden alien cheer. An American force had got to the rear of the gun by a roundabout path, and now dashed upon Brock’s men, who hurriedly escaped down the hill. Across the river on the American side could now be seen many boats ready to carry to Queenston a large force. Brock quickly decided that he must regain the Heights. He rallied his men. Waving his sword at their head, he advanced again up the slope toward the lost gun. His uniform showed him to be a man of importance, and an American soldier only thirty yards away took deliberate aim and killed him instantly. Thus did Brock, like Wolfe, perish in the hour of victory. The Americans could not hold the Heights. Their militia, appalled by the horrors of real war, behaved badly, and many refused to cross the river. Every invader was driven back, and before night came, the British held nearly a thousand prisoners. On Queenston Heights stands to-day a tall pillar in Brock’s memory. In a supreme crisis he had proved himself the man of the hour.
6. The Failure of the Attack on Montreal.—After a year of war, the Americans had organized considerable forces. To take Montreal would mean that they could block aid from England to the interior. At Sackett’s Harbour, near Oswego, they gathered a force to descend the St. Lawrence, as Amherst had descended it on his victorious advance in 1760. In May, 1813, the British attacked the place, and, but for the indecision of Prevost, they might have won a striking success. But they failed utterly, and all summer the Americans went on with their preparations. They were too slow and were not ready until chill winter was near. But, on November 5th, eight thousand men under General Wilkinson embarked in batteaux for the adventurous descent of the great river. In Amherst’s time its shore had been a wilderness. Now, however, there were settlers, and Wilkinson was struck by their intense hostility. At points where the boats had to pass near the shore, they were annoyed by rifle and artillery fire. There was a further danger. The Americans had not been able to keep British gunboats and batteaux from following them down the river. A capable naval officer, Captain Mukaster, pursued the flotilla, which was thus menaced from both the rear and the front. Wilkinson put forces ashore to go forward and clear the banks. This meant that his army was divided. He could move only about a dozen miles a day, and at night he halted his whole force. Those waters were too dangerous to take any risks in the dark.
Out of these conditions came a notable British success at Crysler’s Farm. Here, on the night of November 10th, Wilkinson’s army slept, near the head of the Long Sault Rapids, with the boats drawn up by the shore. Three thousand Americans had marched forward by land, and they reported the north shore clear. Next morning, just as the boats were starting, the British forces attacked the American rear, and Wilkinson ordered General Boyd to turn and face them. Then followed a stiff battle. The British, under Colonel Morrison, had some eight hundred men and were outnumbered by nearly three to one. But they were handled so skilfully that the Americans, after heavy losses, retired. The cavalry and artillery hurried down the river by land, the infantry rushed to the boats and braved the perils of the rapids. Next day the whole American force was reunited near St. Regis. They might still have gone on, but now they had bad news. A second American army, under General Wade Hampton, marching to the St. Lawrence from the head of Lake Champlain, was to meet Wilkinson at St. Regis. Then in overwhelming force, the combined armies were to attack Montreal. The junction was never made. Hampton was advancing in a district peopled by French-Canadians. Their militia, under Colonel de Salaberry, attacked him at Châteauguay. The Americans outnumbered their enemy by four to one, and the fight was a mere skirmish. But Hampton lost his nerve, it is said through drink, and he retreated in panic to Lake Champlain. This was the news which Wilkinson received at St. Regis. At once he abandoned the attack on Montreal, which was not again seriously menaced during the war.
7. The Defence of the Niagara Frontier.—After this the war centred more and more in Upper Canada. The British had driven back the invaders in 1812, but in 1813 they faced a dark outlook. General Procter, aided by Tecumseh, was defending the region about Detroit. He marched into what is now Ohio, but effected little. The British had a few ships of war on Lake Erie, but the Americans built a much larger fleet, and on September 10th there was a striking naval battle. The Americans, under Commodore Perry, had nine ships with trained crews; the British, under Captain Barclay, had six, with only the few seamen whom he could pick up in Canada. After a fight of two hours the British squadron surrendered. Never again during the war was the British flag seen on Lake Erie. General Harrison, with an army of Kentuckians in overwhelming force, advanced into Canada and overtook Procter at Moraviantown, near Chatham. One thousand British and Indians faced three thousand Americans. Harrison’s cavalry broke the British line. Procter was able to ride away, but Tecumseh fell. It is said that the men of Kentucky, enraged at the earlier Indian massacre, made razor strops of his skin.
On Lake Ontario and the Niagara River there was for a time a similar story of British disaster. The Americans had a vigorous naval leader in Commodore Chauncey. In April, 1813, his fleet descended suddenly on York (Toronto) and captured it after a sharp fight. Not only did the Americans destroy the ship-yard and the defences; they burned the Parliament Buildings of the little capital, scattered the books of the public library, and even pillaged the church and carried off the church plate. These barbarities, regretted by Chauncey himself, were afterwards avenged, when the British destroyed the public buildings in Washington. At the end of May the Americans crossed the river in force and captured Fort George, the chief British stronghold on the Niagara. They attempted to occupy the whole shore from Niagara round the end of the lake to Toronto. But the British stood across their path at Burlington Heights, which now became the chief British depot. In the thick forest lurked their Indian allies, of whom the Americans had a great dread. Their painted faces and their wild whoops in the silent forest were indeed, as a British officer said, enough “to frighten the Black Devil himself.” The British post of Beaver Dams was about seventeen miles from Fort George. Laura Secord, the wife of a settler, overheard at Queenston talk of a coming attack. After the Americans had started, she slipped past them through the woods and gave the alarm to Lieutenant FitzGibbon at Beaver Dams. As the American force drew near, they heard on every side war-whoops. The forest seemed alive with the savages, and at last, in fear of massacre, about five hundred Americans surrendered to half their number of Indians and British.
All this summer each side tried to secure command of Lake Ontario. Since ships could not be brought up the river from Montreal, it was necessary to build them on the spot. For this the Americans, with their larger population, had greater resources. But to the end of the war neither side had on Lake Ontario the complete mastery which the Americans secured on Lake Erie. The Americans had the heavier artillery and preferred to fight at long range; the British tried to grapple with and to board their enemy. The rival fleets, under their white sails, manœuvring for position, made a striking spectacle. A British officer at Burlington Heights in August, 1813, says that for two days he watched a British fleet under Sir James Yeo trying to come to close quarters with Chauncey’s squadron. An engagement began in the dark at eleven o’clock, and all that could be seen was the flash of the guns. At daylight, when the fleets separated, Yeo’s squadron, heading for York, had been increased by two captured ships.
As winter drew on in 1813, the Americans decided to evacuate Fort George. Under its protection lay the pretty village, once Simcoe’s capital. On the cold night of December 10th the Americans set fire to the houses and recrossed the river to Fort Niagara. Four hundred women and children were rendered homeless in bitter winter weather. This was another barbarism in a barbarous war, and the British had a quick revenge. They soon crossed the river and took Fort Niagara. Before the year ended, from Buffalo on Lake Erie to Fort Niagara on Lake Ontario, there was black ruin. Fort Niagara itself was spared, and there in American territory the British flag waved proudly until peace came.
By this time both sides were weary of the war. Early in 1814 the Allies crushed the power of Napoleon and sent him in exile to Elba. Britain’s hands were now freer, and she began to send seasoned troops to Canada. Her greatest soldier, Wellington, might, it was thought, be sent. Each side was too proud to yield the claims which had caused the war, and in the end it was found that peace might be made on the basis of saying nothing about them. But for another year the war went on. A capable soldier, Sir Gordon Drummond, was now in command in Upper Canada. Again, in 1814. the Americans crossed the Niagara River into Canada. There was renewed hard fighting, and the fiercest battle was almost the last. On a hot night in July, within a mile of the great cataract of Niagara and with its roar in their ears, the two sides joined battle at Lundy’s Lane. The struggle began at six in the evening and went on in the darkness until midnight. It is one of the strangest battles in history. It ended in sheer exhaustion on both sides, but the Americans withdrew, and the British held the field and could thus claim victory. Nearly two months later the British tried to end renewed menace to Montreal by taking Plattsburg on Lake Champlain. They failed utterly through Prevost’s indecision. He was assuredly their evil genius during the war. In August the British burned Washington, but in December they were utterly defeated at New Orleans. Each side thus saw victory and defeat. Canada had achieved this, at least, that, when the war ended, not an American soldier was to be found in arms within her frontiers. She had repelled the invader, and her future as a British land was secure.
The indecisive conflict was far from fruitless. Each side learned the strength of the other. On the sea the British were surprised to find that American ships were sometimes better built than their own. There was no American fleet which could face the British fleet. But there were single combats between American and British ships in which the Americans gave a good account of themselves. None the less, the British secured command of the sea so completely that they kept up a blockade of American ports, which menaced the North with ruin and made it ever more hostile to the war. Peace was signed at Ghent in December, 1814. From that time no party in the United States has made a serious effort to absorb Canada in the Union. The war of 1812–1814 decided a great issue; henceforth there were to be two English-speaking states in North America. English and French-Canadians had fought side by side to ensure that Canada should remain British. And Canada had shown that she was prepared to fight for her own ideals in face of overwhelming odds.