The War of 1812: When the U.S. Invaded Canada — and Failed
Two hundred years ago on June 18, the U.S. declared war on Great Britain. What followed is
known as the War of 1812, a conflict whose bicentennial will be marked very differently by
the U.S. and Canada
Tecumseh is killed by William Henry Harrison's forces at the Battle of the Thames in 1813
“The scene witnessed,” begins a newspaper dispatch from the front lines of an American
war, “was horrible beyond description.” Lying scattered across the battlefield were “the
mangled limbs and mutilated bodies of the poor fellows who were exploded into eternity.”
The correspondent for the Connecticut Courant continues, “Those who were alive were
objects of the most wretched commiseration, they passed me in bodies of twenty and
thirty, led to the water’s edge, their eyes burnt out, their faces perfectly raw and black.” The
wounded men, the story concludes, were “living monuments of human misery.”
This did not take place in Normandy or Vietnam or Iraq, but by the shores of Lake Erie. And
the “living monuments of human misery” were American soldiers and militiamen charged
with a task that few of their descendants now remember: to invade and capture a land that
was then British territory, and today Canada.
Two centuries ago on June 18, the U.S. Congress — the assembly of the then fledgling,
insecure Republic — declared war on Great Britain. The plan dreamed up in Washington
was simple: wrest control of Britain’s remaining territories in North America and then
bring a humbled empire to the negotiating table. What followed is now known as the War
of 1812, though the conflict — a largely confused, indecisive affair — dragged on until the
end of 1814.
As its bicentennial is commemorated, the war occupies a small, strange space in America’s
historical imagination, cast in a shadow by the liberating glory of the earlier Revolutionary
War and the trauma and horror of the Civil War, which followed five decades later. Some
historians characterize it as a second chapter in the U.S.’s struggle for independence; others
say it was a footnote to the great Napoleonic wars taking place on the other side of the
Atlantic. And some just find it exasperating. Richard Hofstadter, the eminent 20th century
American political historian, described the War of 1812 as “ludicrous and unnecessary,” the
product of an era “of fumbling and small-minded statecraft” and “terrible parochial
wrangling.” It’s almost an inconvenience, a story that doesn’t fit in the grand procession of
American history.
For the Americans who know something about it, the War of 1812 is a string of myths,
isolated, framed snapshots of heroism. It’s the smoke-shrouded naval bombardment that
gave birth to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It’s when the British sacked Washington and
burned down the President’s house — a humiliation somehow redeemed by First Lady
Dolley Madison’s rescuing a painting of George Washington. And for those who were
particularly attentive in school, it’s the war in which future President Andrew Jackson
thrashed the British at New Orleans (a battle fought, unbeknownst to both sides, after
American and British envoys had settled peace terms across the Atlantic).
Whatever snippets have been committed to memory, though, they don’t quite add up.
“Americans have found a way of both forgetting and remembering various bits and pieces
of the war,” says John Stagg, a professor of history at the University of Virginia and the
author of The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent. “But what they’re left with, in and of
itself, makes no sense.”
Two-State Solution
North of the border, in Canada, there’s no shortage of mythmaking either, but the narrative
there does make more sense. Rather than get swallowed up by the rebellious Republic to
the south, the defiant British colonies that comprised Canada would peaceably emerge as
an independent nation with a political system drawn much more from London than
Washington. “It’s a very defining moment for Canada,” says Mark Zuehlke, a Canadian
military historian. “If those invasions had succeeded, we probably wouldn’t exist.” From the
war, Canadians gained an array of national heroes — not least Laura Secord, a dowdy
housewife turned Paul Revere, who, as one fanciful account goes, crept past enemy lines
with a milk pail in hand and cow in tow to inform the unsuspecting British of an
approaching American force.
Even as it slashes spending and lays off public-sector workers, the conservative
administration of Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper is pumping in funds — more
than $28 million — to commemorate the war’s bicentennial. The Canadian government is
minting special coins, issuing stamps, erecting new monuments, revamping museum
exhibits, paying for dozens of historical reenactments and even launching its own War of
1812 smart-phone app. While historians applaud Harper for his interest in Canada’s
heritage, some see a political agenda. “They wish to have Canadians identify with the
military and conservative values,” says Terry Copp, director of the Laurier Centre for
Military and Strategic Disarmament Studies and a leading Canadian military historian. “By
the time we get through the fall, there’s going to be a lot of ink spilled, a lot of fireworks
exploded.”
In contrast, in the U.S., no national bicentennial commission has been set up to coordinate
or fund a memorial. Maryland — home of Fort McHenry, the redoubt that inspired Francis
Scott Key — is the only American state to take the war seriously. It has issued a
commemorative license plate. The U.S. Navy has planned a number of ceremonies
celebrating some of its surprising victories over the mighty British fleet. But the real arena
of the war was on land, running along what’s now the U.S.-Canada border. And the U.S.
Army remains conspicuously silent as the bicentennial approaches. “It’s very hard to
commemorate blunders and what looked like fairly pointless exercises,” says Copp.
A Just War?
It’s also hard to commemorate a conflict whose origins are still debated and
misunderstood. In a message coaxing Congress to war, U.S. President James Madison
argued that Britain had pursued “a series of acts hostile to the United States.” With the
Napoleonic wars raging across Europe, the British navy had taken to shanghaiing
Americans in foreign ports and at sea to fill out its wartime fleets. Already bristling at laws
intended to thwart American merchants from trading with France, many in the U.S. grew
infuriated by what they saw as blatant disrespect of their young nation’s independence and
neutrality — no small matter for a country whose future was still very much in doubt.
There were other reasons too. Madison’s Democratic-Republican Party drew much of its
support from the landed gentry and rural folk of the South and what was then the
American West — a vast borderland threading the Mississippi basin up to the Great Lakes.
“An incipient kind of manifest destiny,” says Stagg, inflamed many here, and there was a
growing desire to punish the British in Canada, who it was thought were abetting Native
American tribes in the region hostile to American encroachment. A successful campaign
against weak, sparsely populated Canada and its native allies could settle the future of the
frontier.
Closer to home, Madison’s Democratic-Republicans also wanted a cudgel with which to
beat their real enemies — the rival Federalists, whose base lay in the more developed,
urban states of New England where trade and good relations with the British Crown
mattered far more than westward expansion. “The war was brought on as much by internal
tensions as external ones with the British empire,” says Alan Taylor, a Pulitzer Prize–
winning historian and the author of The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British
Subjects, Indian Allies and Irish Rebels.
In the heated buildup to the war (and indeed, while it was waged), the DemocraticRepublicans saw the Federalists as crypto-Brits, Tory traitors who would sell out the
American Republic and trade secrets and supplies with the enemy (some Federalists did
aid the British in Canada while the war was fought). The Federalists, in turn, painted the
Republicans as demagogic quasi-Frenchmen who would sooner ally themselves to the
imperialist warmonger Napoleon — a figure who loomed large in the imagination at the
time — than their real brethren in the U.K. (No one had any idea in 1812 that the ambitious
Corsican would be defeated and imprisoned within three years.)
Not one Federalist in Congress voted for what was called “Mr. Madison’s war.” Had three
votes swung in the other direction in the Senate, the measure would not have passed at all.
As the news of war trickled north, many Federalists reacted with anger and despair. The
Courant in Connecticut, a paper with Federalist loyalties, published the lines,
“Dissatisfaction, disgust and apprehensions of the most alarming nature have seized on
every mind … The evil is here, it is upon us.” Until the Vietnam War, no foreign conflict
would be as unpopular and divisive in the U.S. as the War of 1812.
The Future of a Continent
Those who supported the war did so with a fair amount of hubris. The sparse population of
Upper Canada — now Ontario — was indistinguishable from the country to the south.
“They were essentially Americans who crossed the border because land was plentiful,” says
Copp, and the allegiance of these “late loyalists” was a source of concern for the British.
Thomas Jefferson, a former President, boasted that capturing Upper Canada would be a
“mere matter of marching.” A dispatch in the Palladium, a paper in Frankfort, Ky., invoked
the noble cause of the Revolutionary War: “May the mighty spirit which animates the feeble
frame of the veteran hero, diffuse itself among the military sons of our country, and enable
them to tear from the ramparts of Quebec the last emblem of British power in America.”
But the first American invasion of Upper Canada ended in ignominy. “The U.S. needed a
professional army in the worst way, but they didn’t have it,” says Taylor. “They had to fall
back on calling up state militia, men who were complete amateurs, with virtually no
training or discipline.” Nor did it help that the general in command, William Hull, was
deemed later by one of his subordinates as an “imbesile [sic] or treacherous commander.”
After grandiosely marching into Canada, Hull dithered, retreating back to Detroit, where a
British counteroffensive smaller in size, led by Sir Isaac Brock and the Shawnee war chief
Tecumseh — two other figures now mythologized in Canada — barely had to fire a shot
before Hull opted to surrender himself and his 2,500 troops. Most of the captives were
“paroled,” sent back to their homes after promising to no longer fight. The few hundred,
including Hull, who were kept as prisoners were described by a British officer as “the
poorest looking sett [sic] of men I have seen for a long time.”
This, in a sense, set the tone for the rest of the War of 1812. By the Great Lakes and over the
Niagara and St. Lawrence rivers, American and British forces — a motley combination of
regulars, Canadian militia and indigenous war bands — bumbled and skirmished. Battles
were by and large short-lived and inglorious, characterized more by confusion than
strategy. Poor planning on the American side led to countless deaths as the result of
disease, hunger and the cold — not bullets or bayonets. Militiamen drafted into the war
effort thought it a justifiable occasion to loot and plunder: few Americans remember that
the British raid up the Chesapeake and the burning of Washington in 1814 were, at the
time, considered to be retribution for the 1813 American ransacking of York, now Toronto.
Desertions were commonplace on both sides. Despite the sensationalism of the American
press, there are numerous reports of whites, not just natives, scalping their enemies.
The war’s end was brought about less by the facts on the ground in North America — the
U.S. was on the verge of financial collapse as a result of having to revitalize its military —
than the British desire to focus its energy on combating Napoleon. On Christmas Eve, 1814,
in Ghent (modern-day Belgium), British and American delegations settled for peace. “[The
British] wanted out of the war and offered the U.S. a pretty sweet deal,” says Taylor —
swapping vast sections of territory seized in Michigan and the Great Lakes for the modest
inroads the U.S. had made into Upper Canada.
When the news of peace eventually reached Washington, the Americans were “giddy with
relief,” says Taylor. The truce proved fatal, though, for the refusenik Federalists. Just
months earlier, a bloc of vehemently anti-war Federalists had convened at a conference in
Hartford, where the prospect of New England’s secession from the Union hung over
proceedings. They decided against it, but agreed on a set of tough, non-negotiable demands
to take to the American capital. When they arrived, the war was over and the mood
ebullient. “They are treated with contempt and brushed aside,” says Taylor. The
Federalists, never able to shed the stigma of their opposition to the war, suffered badly in
the next round of elections and by 1820 were more or less dead as a political force.
But the war rang a far more tragic death knell for another set of people. At Ghent, the
British didn’t negotiate any special dispensation for the confederation of Native American
tribes that fought on the British side. “There’s a real sense of betrayal. The [Native
Americans of the Western frontier] saw the War of 1812 as the last chance to actually hang
on to their territory,” says Zuehlke, the Canadian historian. “Imagine how different the
North American landscape would be had the British pushed for some kind of an
independent nation for the [Native Americans].”
Instead, the U.S.’s westward expansion took flight. “There’s a fallacy,” says Stagg of the
University of Virginia, “that some people assume because you have no decisive outcome,
the war had no decisive consequences.” A new generation of American politicians and
generals emerged following the war, trading on their service on the front. The 1813 Battle
of the Thames, where a much larger American force defeated a cornered British and native
contingent, and killed the charismatic Tecumseh, launched the political careers of one
President (William Henry Harrison), a Vice President, four Senators, 20 Congressmen and
three governors.
Rapidly in the years that followed, the Americans displaced and disappeared the
indigenous tribes they once feared. The institution of slavery, which buoyed the then
booming Cotton Belt, stretched across much of the lands whose security was guaranteed by
the Treaty of Ghent. And as a result, the seeds of a new, far bloodier American conflict were
sown.
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The War of 1812: When the U.S. Invaded Canada — and Failed Two