Causes of the War of 1812
The real origins of the War of 1812 were in the conflict that raged in Europe for two decades after Napoleon Bonaparte. These NAPOLEONIC WARS caused Great Britain to adopt measures that greatly aggravated the United States. On 21 Nov 1806 Napoleon ordered a blockade (the Berlin Decree) of shipping aimed at crippling British trade. He ordered all European ports under his control closed to British ships. He further decreed that neutral and French ships would be seized if they visited a British port before entering a continental port (the so-called Continental System).
Great Britain responded to Napoleon with a series of orders-in-council requiring all neutral ships to obtain a licence before they could sail to Europe. Since the victory of Lord Nelson at Trafalgar (21 Oct 1805), Great Britain had the sea power to enforce its blockade. For some 20 years the Americans grappled with the problems of being a neutral nation in the great European war. Tensions mounted as the British began stopping American ships from trading in Europe. Even more vexing was the British practice of searching American vessels for "contraband" (defined by the British as goods that they declared illegal) and of searching for deserters who had fled the harsh conditions of the Royal Navy. Many of these deserters had taken jobs on American ships and American certificates of citizenship made no impression on the British. The final straw in this perceived British arrogance was the actions of British captains to impress (seize) native-born Americans and put them into service on British ships.
These maritime tensions exploded, literally, in 1807 off the shore of Chesapeake Bay. A British naval squadron was watching the area for French ships when several British sailors managed to desert and promptly to enlist in the American navy. The captain of the American 38-gun frigate Chesapeake knew that he had deserters on board when HMS Leopard tried to board and search his ship. When the Chesapeake refused to heave to, the 50-gun Leopard opened fire, killing three and injuring 18 of the crew. The British boarded and seized four men. This "Chesapeake Affair" outraged even temperate Americans. The actions of the British ship HMS Guerriere on 1 May 1811 in impressing an American sailor from a coastal vessel caused further tension.
This dispute over maritime rights might have been resolved with diplomacy (in fact the new government of Lord Liverpool rescinded the orders-in-council a few days before the US declared war, though the news hadn't yet reached America) but there were other interests at play among the Americans. Not all Americans wanted war with Great Britain, notably the merchants of New England and New York. President James Madison was intrigued by the analysis of Major General Dearborn that in the event of war, Canada would be easy pickings - that in fact an invasion would be welcomed by the Canadians. It was a war that had been loudly demanded by the "War Hawks," a group of Congressmen from the south and west, filled with Anglophobia and nationalism. These Republicans encouraged war as a means to retaliate against Britain for the economic distress caused by the blockade, but also for what they perceived as British machinations in encouraging the resistance of the First Nations to American expansion into the West.
On 1 June 1812, President Madison sent Congress a request for an immediate declaration of war. On 4 June Congress voted 79-49 in favour. On 17 June the Senate followed with approval 19 votes to 13, and on 18 June Madison signed a declaration of war against Great Britain.
Early Campaigns of the War of 1812
The British and Canadians were badly outnumbered by the Americans. As the Americans made their plans, it became obvious that their easiest objective would be UPPER CANADA. The Maritime provinces were protected by British sea power and Lower Canada was protected by its remoteness and by the fortress of Québec. But Upper Canada would seem an easy target. The population was predominantly American and the province was lightly defended.
However, the badly outnumbered British were in fact better prepared than the Americans knew. The 41st Regiment of British regulars had been reinforced. The Provincial Marine controlled Lake Ontario. Much of the preparation was thanks to the prescience of Major-General Sir Isaac BROCK, administrator of Upper Canada. Brock had a thorough grasp of the challenges of the upcoming conflict and for the 8 months prior to the war he pushed forward defence measures in every possible way. Perhaps most importantly, Brock developed a policy towards making allies of the First Nations.
Like most commanders, Brock was dissatisfied by the number of troops at his disposal, with only some 1600 regulars in the province. But he was not prepared to simply wait passively for the Americans to act. He believed that a bold military stroke would galvanize the population and encourage the First Nations to come to his side. This he accomplished with the quick and bloodless capture of a key US post at MICHILIMACKINAC Island in Lake Huron, on 17 July. When he arrived at Amherstburg, Brock found that the American invasion under the bombastic General William Hull had already been withdrawn. With the great Shawnee chief TECUMSEH at his side he boldly demanded that Hull surrender Detroit, which the hapless general did on 16 August, in effect giving the British control of Michigan territory and the Upper Mississippi.
At this point Thomas Jefferson's remark that the capture of Canada was "a mere matter of marching" returned to haunt Washington. Having lost one army at Detroit, the Americans lost another at QUEENSTON HEIGHTS, 13 October, after their militia stood on its constitutional guarantee and refused to cross into Canada. But Brock was killed - an irreparable loss. A new American army under William Henry Harrison struggled up from Kentucky to try to retake Detroit. One wing was so badly mauled at Frenchtown, 22 Jan 1813, by a force of British, Canadians and First Nations under Lieutenant-Colonel Henry PROCTER, that further attempts at invasion that winter were abandoned. The only Americans in Canada were prisoners of war.
With the death of Brock, British strategy was to act defensively and allow the invaders to make mistakes. Governor Sir George PREVOST husbanded his thin forces carefully, keeping a strong garrison at Québec and sending reinforcements only when he got them. As the campaign of 1813 opened, the invaders determined to seize Kingston to cut the link between Upper and Lower Canada. But a weakness of resolve diverted the attack to the lesser prize of YORK [Toronto]. The Americans briefly occupied the town, burning the public buildings and seizing valuable naval supplies destined for Lake Erie; but the British, by burning their half-completed warship, frustrated the enemy's plan to appropriate it and change the balance of naval power on Lake Ontario. Neither side totally controlled that lake for the balance of the war.
The Americans abandoned York and on 27 May 1813 their fleet seized FORT GEORGE at the mouth of the Niagara River. While this period was the bleakest of the war for the British, the military situation was not irretrievable. The Americans did not press the advantages of their success, particularly in not keeping General John Vincent and his army from Fort George on the run. On the night of 5 June 1813, Vincent's men turned on their pursuers at STONEY CREEK. In a fierce battle the Americans were dislodged, had two generals captured and retired dispirited towards Niagara. The Americans suffered another defeat three weeks later at BEAVER DAMS, where some 600 men were captured by a force of First Nations. Finally, worn down by sickness, desertion, and the departure of short-term soldiers, the American command evacuated Fort George on 10 December and quit Canada. On leaving, the militia burned the town of Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake), an act that drove the British to brutal retaliation at Buffalo. These incendiary reprisals continued until Washington itself was burned by the British the following August.
The Western Campaigns of the War of 1812
The Americans fared better on the western flank. The British tried and failed to take Harrison's stronghold at Fort Meigs on the Maumee River. A struggle for control of Lake Erie (see WAR ON THE LAKES) followed. The two rival fleets, both built of green lumber on the spot, met 10 September 1813 at PUT-IN-BAY. The British were hampered by the American seizure of naval supplies at York the previous spring and by the loss, early in the battle, of several senior officers. American commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, a bold seaman, used unorthodox tactics to turn defeat into victory and become the first man in history to capture an entire British fleet.
The Americans gained dominance over the upper Great Lakes and Lake Erie became an American lake. Detroit was abandoned, and the British army retreated up the Thames River. Procter delayed fatally in his retreat, however, and Harrison caught up with him at MORAVIANTOWN (aka Battle of the Thames). There, the exhausted regulars and First Nations warriors were routed and scattered. Procter fled and Tecumseh was killed. The defeat was not fatal to the province, however, as Harrison could not follow up his victory (his Kentuckians were eager to get back to their farms at harvest time), but it effectively ended the First Nations alliance. On Lake Huron, units of the American fleet searched for British supply vessels, which led to the sinking of the NANCY, razed SAULT STE MARIE on 21 July 1814 and attempted to recapture Fort Michilimackinac (see BATTLE OF MACKINAC ISLAND). The British regained a presence on the lake in early September with the capture of the Tigress and Scorpion.VOLTIGEURS, militia and First Nations harassed the advancing Americans and turned the invasion back at CHÂTEAUGUAY under Lieutenant-Colonel Charles de SALABERRY and at CRYSLER'S FARM (near Morrisburg, Ont) on 11 November, under Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Wanton Morrison.
Last Invasion of Upper Canada, 1814
The following year, 1814, the Americans crossed the Niagara River at Buffalo, easily seized Fort Erie on 3 July, and turned back a rash attack by the British under General Phineas RIALL at Chippawa on 5 July. The whole Niagara campaign came to a climax with the bitterest battle of the war, at LUNDY'S LANE on 25 July. Fought in the pitch dark of a sultry night by exhausted troops who could not tell friend from foe, it ended in stalemate. The American invasion was now effectively spent. They withdrew to Fort Erie. Here they badly trounced the forces of the new British commander, Lieutenant-General Gordon DRUMMOND, when he attempted a night attack (14 - 15 Aug). With both sides exhausted, a 3-month standoff followed. Finally, on 5 November, the Americans again withdrew across the Niagara River, effectively ending the war in Upper Canada.
The 1814 Campaign in the East
On the Atlantic front, Nova Scotia Lieutenant-Governor Sir John SHERBROOKE led a force from Halifax into Maine, capturing Castine on 1 September. By mid-month British forces held much of the Maine coast, which was returned to the US only with the signing of the peace treaty. The most formidable effort by the British in 1814 was the invasion of northern New York, which Governor Prevost led to PLATTSBURGH on Lake Champlain with 11 000 of Wellington's veterans. Prevost's hesitancy to attack - he was no Brock - together with the 11 September defeat of the hastily built British fleet in Plattsburgh Bay by the American commodore, Thomas Macdonough, caused Prevost to withdraw.
That single action by Prevost tipped the scales in favour of the Americans, forcing the British peace negotiators at Ghent to lower their demands and accept the status quo. Had Prevost succeeded, much of upper New York State might be Canadian today. On the other hand, if the Americans had won the battle of Stoney Creek, or had taken Montréal, much of Ontario and Québec - perhaps all - might now be under the Stars and Stripes.
The last battle of the war is often cited as the BATTLE OF NEW ORLEANS, but that event was followed by another engagement on 11 Feb 1815 at Fort Bowyer on Mobile Bay, and by a number of naval engagements, including a battle between the US sloop Peacock and East India cruiser Nautilus in the Indian Ocean, four and a half months after the peace treaty was signed. That was the last battle.
Peace Treaty: The Treaty of Ghent
With no progress being made on the military front, President Madison eagerly accepted the offer of mediation from the Russian czar. Commissioners from both sides met at GHENT in August and on Christmas Eve 1814 a treaty was signed. All conquests were to be restored. The disputes over the boundaries were deferred to joint commissions.
Who Won or Lost the War of 1812?
Washington had expected the largely American population of Upper Canada to throw off the "British yoke" as soon as its army crossed the border. This did not happen. Lured northwards by free land and low taxes, the settlers wanted to be left alone. Thus the British and Loyalist elite were able to set Canadians on a different course from that of their former enemy. And the growing belief that they, the civilian soldiers, and not the First Nations and British regulars, had won the war - more mythic than real - helped to germinate the seeds of nationalism in the Canadas. Canada owes its present shape to negotiations that grew out of the peace, while the war itself - or the myths created by the war - gave Canadians their first sense of community and laid the foundation for their future nationhood. To this extent the Canadians were the real winners of the War of 1812.
For the Americans, the outcome was more ambiguous. Since the issues of impressment and maritime rights were not dealt with in the peace, that motivation for war could be considered a failure, despite some spectacular victories at sea, which were indicators of the future potential of American power. Also, the war was a failure for the "War Hawks," who coveted the annexation of Canada. This proved not to be militarily feasible. The conclusions that the war was a "second war of independence" or a war of honour and respect are less easy to judge.
If the winners are qualified, the losers are easier to identify. The death of Tecumseh and the defeat of the First Nations at the Battle of the Thames broke apart Tecumseh's confederacy. Similarly, in the related defeat of the Creek Nation, the hope of halting American expansion into First Nations territory effectively ended. While in Canada the First Nations fared better in preserving their land and culture, in the end the British abandoned their Aboriginal allies in the peace, just as they had several times before.
Author PIERRE BERTON and JAMES MARSH
Pierre Berton, The Invasion of Canada (1980) and Flames Across the Border (1981); G.F.G. Stanley, The War of 1812: Land Operations (1983); J. MacKay Hitsman, The Incredible War of 1812: A Military History (1965, revised and updated by Donald E. Graves, 1999); Carl Benn, The Iroquois in the War of 1812 (1998); Barry M. Gough, Fighting Sail on Lake Huron and Georgian Bay: The War of 1812 and Its Aftermath (2002); Donald R. Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict (1989) and Don't Give Up the Ship! Myths of the War of 1812 (2006); Robert Malcomson, A Very Brilliant Affair: The Battle of Queenston Heights, 1812 (2003), and Lords of the Lake: The Naval War on Lake Ontario, 1812-1814 (2001); John Sugden, Tecumseh's Last Stand (1990); W.B. Turner, The War of 1812: The War that Both Sides Won (2000) and British Generals in the War of 1812: High Command in the Canadas (1999); George F.G. Stanley, La guerre de 1812 : les opérations terrestres (1984); Benjamin Sulte, Histoire de la milice canadienne-française, 1760-1897 (1897); Pierre Berton, L'invasion du Canada : à l'assaut du Québec, tome 2, 1813-1814 (traduit de l'anglais par Michèle Venet et Jean Lévesque, c 1981); M. Guitard, La vie sociale des miliciens de la Bataille-de-la-Châteauguay (1983); Jacques Lacoursière, Histoire populaire du Québec (1985).
Links to Other Sites
The website for the Historica-Dominion Institute, parent organization of The Canadian Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. Check out their extensive online feature about the War of 1812, the "Heritage Minutes" video collection, and many other interactive resources concerning Canadian history, culture, and heritage.
The War of 1812: An Introduction
An overview of the complex international issues that eventually led to the onset of hostilities between Great Britain and the United States. Also, click on “Chronology of Events” on the left side menu to view a timeline of interrelated political and military events in North America and Europe. From the "War of 1812 Website."
The War of 1812 in The Western Corridor
Highlights from a documentary that chronicles major military events in the "Western Corridor" during the War of 1812. Hosted by historian Bill Darfler. "Click on "11 videos" link above the clip to view additional videos. From the Western Corridor Bicentennial Alliance.
War of 1812 in the Western District
An extensive website about the many border conflicts in the western Ontario region during the War of 1812. Check out the video clips and other special features. From the Windsor Public Library and partners.
An overview of major battles and events, historic sites, and heroes of the War of 1812. From the Government of Canada.
Information central for news and events marking the bicentennial observance of the War of 1812 in Ontario. Also offers an overview of key events in the war.
Fort George National Historic Site of Canada
Take a virtual tour of Fort George National Historic Site, a much fought over location in the War of 1812. From Parks Canada.
War of 1812 Bicentennial Website
This site highlights the numerous historic sites, exhibits, and specific events in Ontario communities marking the bicentennial of the War of 1812.
Sir Isaac Brock
A biography of Sir Isaac Brock, a colonial administrator and British officer who was lauded as a hero of the War of 1812. From the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.
Battle of the Châteauguay National Historic Site of Canada
This site offers a summary of issues that precipitated the War of 1812 as well as details of the role of British commander Charles-Michel d’Irumberry de Salaberry in the 1813 Battle of the Châteauguay. From Parks Canada.
This site features a searchable online collection of numerous War of 1812 era documents, paintings, military gear, and related archival material. See also War of 1812 learning activities. From the Brock University Special Collections Department and partners.
Western Corridor War of 1812
An extensive tourist guide that provides the latest news about 1812 Bicentennial events and places to visit in the "Western Corridor" region of Ontario. Also offers historical information and educational resources about the War of 1812. From the Western Corridor War of 1812 Bicentennial Alliance.
Invasion Repulsed, 1812
This capsule history of the War of 1812 documents the primary issues that determined the course of the war and some of its outcomes. From the website for The Canadian Atlas Online.
Canadian Military History Gateway
Search this website for authoritative information about Canadian military history. Provides links to websites for Canadian museums, libraries, archives, and other heritage organizations. Also features an online glossary of military terminology, educational resources and much more. From the Department of National Defence.
From Colony to Country: A Reader's Guide to Canadian Military History
An extensive online bibliography concerning Canadian military history. From Library and Archives Canada.
A Bevy of Books on the War of 1812
See brief reviews of books concerning various aspects of the War of 1812. From the “Canadian Military Journal.”
War of 1812
This site focuses on films that explore the War of 1812 from various vantage points. Click on the film titles for brief synopses. From the National Film Board of Canada.
War of 1812 Timeline
A War of 1812 timeline from the Canada's Historic Places website.
The War of 1812
View excerpts from the book "The War of 1812." Features profiles some of the prominent figures on both sides of the conflict. From Google Books.
Ontario Historical Society: War of 1812
Check the Ontario Historical Society website for updates on celebrations marking the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812.
St. Lawrence War of 1812 Bicentennial Alliance
The latest news about upcoming community events commemorating the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 in Eastern Ontario. Features local history and online archival material about the war. From the St. Lawrence War of 1812 Bicentennial Alliance.
Carleton Martello Tower National Historic Site of Canada
The website for Carleton Martello Tower National Historic Site of Canada, which was established to defend Saint John during the War of 1812. From Parks Canada.
The War of 1812
An online exhibit about the major issues and events in the War of 1812. Features images of British military officers, battle scenes, important documents, and more. From the Archives of Ontario.
Review: Half-Hearted Enemies: Nova Scotia, New England and the War of 1812
A critical review of a book that offers a history of naval engagements along the Atlantic coast during the War of 1812. From the War of 1812 Magazine.
The Civil War of 1812
Watch a video clip in which American author Alan Talyor presents his interpretation of the impact of the border conflicts in the War of 1812 on civilian populations. From C-SPAN 2 in the US.
The Undefended Border: The Myth and the Reality
An online booklet that discusses the sometimes uneasy relationship between Canada and its southern neighbour, the United States of America, in the 19th century. Published by the Canadian Historical Association. From the Library and Archives Canada website.
War of 1812 Bicentennial
An informative online guide to major events and heritage sites in the Southern Georgian Bay area related to bicentennial commemoration of the War of 1812. Features articles and videos that explain the lasting impact of the war on this picturesque region of Ontario.
Courage and Reward in the War of 1812
This article reviews issues concerning the recognition and rewarding of courage and bravery shown by British forces and local militia in the War of 1812. Scroll down to page 99 for a note about British soldiers at the siege of Fort Meigs in 1813. See page 102 for a reference to John Norton. From the Canadian Army Journal.
Regiments and Units Serving in Canada 1755-1871
A listing of military regiments and units that were posted to Canadian locations from 1755 to 1871. From the Canadian Military History Gateway.
The War of 1812, in connection with the Army Bill Act
An analysis of the impact of the events of the War of 1812 on commerce and the economy within Canadian territory. From the Literary & Historical Society of Quebec.
Command Structure and Appointments in Upper Canada, 1812 to 1814
An outline of the British military command structure in Canadian territory during the War of 1812. From the "War of 1812 Magazine."
Rural Raids and Divided Loyalties: Southwestern Ontario and the War of 1812
An account of the "Battle of Malcom's Mills," the last military action ever fought on Canadian soil against a foreign power. From the website for the Ontario Visual Heritage Project.
Leading Myths of the War of 1812
This article debunks some of the more outlandish myths about British and American achievements in the War of 1812. From the War of 1812 Magazine.
Much To Be Desired: The Campaign Experience of British General Officers of the War of 1812
See brief profiles of senior British officers who served in Upper Canada during the War of 1812. Focuses on their overall quality of leadership and prior military experience. From the War of 1812 Magazine at napoleon-series.org.
The Forgotten Conflict - From the Other Side of the Hill
A brief review of a book that examines the relationship between the top British commanders in Canada during the War of 1812 with an emphasis on the ongoing challenges that Sir George Prevost had to deal with during the conflict. From the War of 1812 Magazine.
Unturned Stones in War of 1812 Studies
This article identifies a number of significant, but underreported, events in the War of 1812. From the War of 1812 Magazine.
The Duke of Wellington, the Peninsular War and the War of 1812
An article about the significant, but rarely discussed, connections between the Napoleonic Wars and the outbreak of the War of 1812 in North America.
Historical Dictionary Of The War Of 1812 by Robert Malcomson
A review of the book "Historical Dictionary Of The War Of 1812" by Robert Malcomson. From the Canadian Military Journal.
Who Won the War of 1812?
Scroll down the page for a brief discussion about "Who Won the War of 1812?" From the War of 1812 Magazine.
Oath of Alligence to King George III
Click on the URL link to see a digitized copy of an "oath of allegiance to King George III of England" taken by members of the Second Regiment of the Lincoln Militia on 4 September 1812. From the War of 1812 Collection at Brock University.
The Events of November 10, 1812
This site offers background notes and a link to a mp3 file of Norman Sherman's composition "The Events of November 10, 1812." From the "CanSona Arts Media" website.
The War of 1812: The Canadian Perspective
Watch a video clip presenting the British North American perspective on the US failed invasions of Canada. Part of the PBS (US) documentary miniseries about the War of 1812.
The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies
See a review of Alan Taylor's book in which he characterizes the War of 1812 as a "characteristically savage civil war". From canadahistory.ca.
Walter R. Borneman on 1812
Author Walter R. Borneman provides an American perspective on the War of 1812. From HarperCollins Canada.
Galafilm: War of 1812
An extensive illustrated guide to noteworthy people, events, and places in the War of 1812. From Galafilm.
Key Figures of the War of 1812
Information about coins featuring key figures of the War of 1812. From the Royal Canadian Mint.