Remembering a forgotten war


Canadians may know about Laura Secord — at least the chocolates — and Americans may know about The Battle of New Orleans, a  pop hit from the 1950s by Johnny Horton, but anything else about the War of 1812 remains relatively unknown on both sides of the border. On this side of the border, the Harper government is spending millions this year and next year to commemorate the 200th anniversary of what for most Canadians is an unknown event in this nation’s history.
According to the Harper government, the War of 1812 was a “defining moment” for Canada. “The heroic efforts of those who fought for our country in the War of 1812 tell the story of the Canada we know today: an independent and free country with a constitutional monarchy and its own distinct parliamentary system,” said federal Heritage Minister James Moore, who is touring Ontario and Québec — where the battles were fought — throwing money around to help mark this “defining moment.”
The government’s own survey has found a significant lack of knowledge among Canadians about the war. Only 14 per cent of those interviewed were able to identify the three countries involved, 20 per cent suggested France was also involved, while others named Russia, Spain or even Japan. For the record, it was the U.S., Britain and Canada, although the latter didn’t officially become a nation until 1867. The combatants in the war also involved aboriginals, who primarily sided with the British and Canadians.
The Americans started the war as a protest against Britain’s interference with its ships on the high seas. The British were stopping American merchant ships to enforce a blockade against the French, who under Napoleon posed a real threat to the sovereignty of Great Britain.
While the British were engaged in a life-or-death struggle with Napoleon, American politicians felt the time was ripe to attack Canada where British forces were thinly spread and loyalty to the Crown was erroneously believed to be suspect. Former U.S. President Thomas Jefferson came to the conclusion that the conquest of Canada was “a mere matter of marching.”
But just how a land invasion of Canada could be a method to stop the British detention of neutral American ships remains an enigma. Perhaps similar to the Fenians in the 1860s, the Americans felt that capturing Canada would become a useful tool to blackmail Britain in order to achieve another end (the Fenians wanted to trade Canada for Irish independence, but their invasions were failures). Like the Fenians of the 1860s, the Americans continually invaded Canada and were continually repulsed. Yet, if you ask an American who won the War of 1812, the response is invariably an emphatic, “We did!”
Truth be told, no one really won the War of 1812, although the Americans were kept out of Canada. When the Treaty of Ghent was signed, ending the war, the borders between British North America and the U.S. remained the same as when the Americans began their march. In fact, a deciding factor for signing the treaty  was that the war combined with the British blockade had bankrupted the U.S., which had no money to continue the conflict.
The Americans entered the war with fifes playing and soldiers marching, but their initial enthusiasm was short-lived. British General Sir Isaac Brock used a small force of British Army regulars, Canadian militia and aboriginals under the leadership of Tecumseh to take to the battle to U.S. soil. In one of the grand ruses of the war, Brock used the threat of Tecumseh and his warriors to bluff American General William Hull to surrender his entire force at Detroit, which greatly outnumbered those lead by Brock. The Americans had a deep-seated fear of such warriors, which undoubtedly stemmed from their own pitiless treatment of aboriginals in the U.S.
In the early years of the war, the British, Canadians and aboriginal warriors had able leadership, while the Americans were led by incompetents. The very able Brock was killed during the Battle of Queenston Heights, but the Americans were defeated and forced to flee back to their own side of the river anyway.
Laura Secord — not the chocolates — played a part in the defeat of an American invasion. On May 27, 1813, the American army launched another attack across the Niagara River, successfully capturing Fort George. On the evening of June 21, Secord became aware of plans for a surprise American attack on British troops and reportedly walked 30 kilometres to tell of the approaching invaders. A small British force and a larger contingent of Mohawk warriors were then readied for the attack with the result that almost all of the American soldiers were taken prisoner in the ensuing Battle of Beaver Dams.
During another invasion of Canada in October 1813, U.S. Maj.-Gen. Wade Hampton was met by Lt.-Col. Charles-Michel de Salabury, who, although French-Canadian, had been a soldier in the British Army. He commanded a force of French-Canadian militia and a smattering of native warriors. Although the Canadians were vastly outnumbered, they sent Hampton and his men scurrying back across the border. The most recognized image from the Battle of Chateauguay is de Salabury standing on a tree stump and ignoring the menace of death-dealing musket balls while he directed his troops. “I have won a victory mounted on a wooden horse,” he wrote his father.
In November 1813, Lt.-Col. Joseph Morrison, who commanded a mixed bag of British Army regulars, Canadians and natives, held off a numerically greater American force at Chrysler’s Farm. Once again, the Americans fled the battlefield for their side of the border.
During the war, the Americans did burn York (now Toronto) and the British burned Washington, but little territory actually exchanged hands. And after their series of defeats, the Americans had little stomach to again invade Canada. Occasionally there were border skirmished, but no repeat of the earlier full-scale invasions. Essentially, the Americans gave up their plan to add Canada to its republic through force of arms. The “mere matter of marching” had turned into a military disaster.  
As far as the battle of New Orleans in January 1815, it was nothing more than a sideshow since the treaty had already been signed weeks earlier, although the combatants had not been told. The Americans did win this battle, and the British were “sent a running,” as in the Horton lyrics, but it didn’t have any bearing on the actual outcome other than creating an American myth that they had won the war of 1812.
Canada was saved and the northern half of the continent remained in British hands, so the war was a “defining moment,” as stated by the Harper government, but at best it only offered a fledgling starting point for a Canadian identity. In truth, such an identity remained to be determined by future events.