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Events People Places Things

article by Pierre Berton, James H. Marsh

revised byTabitha Marshall

published

03/06/12

last edited

03/20/15

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Causes of the War

American and British Planning


The British Attack

Campaigns in Upper Canada (1812)

Campaigns in Upper Canada (1813)

The War on the Western Flank (181314)

The War in Lower Canada (1813)

Last Invasion of Upper Canada (1814)

Invading the United States (1814)

The Treaty of Ghent

Who Won or Lost the War?

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home Events Military Engagements

War of 1812

The War of 1812 (which lasted from 1812 to 1814) was a military conflict between the United States and
Great Britain.

1775

1818

Veterans of the War of 1812.

L. to r. - Col. Duggan, Rev. Geo. Ryerson, Wm. Roe, Jacob Snider, Dr. Jas. H. Richardson, Jos. Dennis, J.
Woodall, Jas. ross, Col. Bridgford, Geo. Ridout. Photo taken Oct. 23rd, 1861. (Image courtesy of Library
and Archives Canada-C-014466.)

Tecumseh, Shawnee chief

Tecumseh allied his forces with those of the British during the War of 1812, and his active participation
was crucial. Painting by W.B. Turner (courtesy Metropolitan Toronto Library, J. Ross Robertson/T-
16600).
Chief Oshawana

Chief Oshawana (John Naudee), Tecumseh's chief warrior at the battle of the River Thames. Photo taken
in September, 1858. (Image courtesy of Library and Archives Canada-C-008543)

Isaac Brock, military hero

Isaac Brock was long remembered as the fallen hero and saviour of Upper Canada (courtesy Library and
Archives Canada/C-36181).

Six Nations Veterans of the War of 1812.

Six Nations Warriors who fought with the British. Photo taken in July, 1982. (Image courtesy of Library
and Archives Canada-C-085127)

Fort York

Fort York was sacked twice by the Americans during the War of 1812 (courtesy Library and Archives
Canada/C-40091).

HMS Leopard, USS Chesapeake

The battle between the British warship HMS Leopard (left) and the American warship US Chesapeake
(right) on 22 June 1807, in which the British attacked and boarded the Chesapeake, was a catalyst for all-
out war a few years later (painting by F. Muller, courtesy American Memory, Library of Congress).

The Battle of Longwoods, Reenactment


The Upper Thames Military Reenactment Society at the 22nd Annual Battle of Longwoods Heritage
Days, Longwoods Road Conservation Area, southwestern Ontario (courtesy Upper Thames Military
Reenactment Society).

The Battle of Longwoods, Cenotaph

The Battle of Longwoods cenotaph, Middlesex County, Ontario (photo used with permission from the
website www.ontarioplaques.com).

Battles of the War of 1812

Battles of the War of 1812 (courtesy The Canadian Encyclopedia).

War of 1812

The War of 1812 (which lasted from 1812 to 1814) was a military conflict between the United States and
Great Britain. As a colony of Great Britain, Canada was swept up in the War of 1812 and was invaded a
number of times by the Americans. The war was fought in Upper Canada, Lower Canada, on the Great
Lakes and the Atlantic, and in the United States. The peace treaty of Ghent, which ended the war,
largely returned the status quo. However, in Canada, the war contributed to a growing sense of national
identity, including the idea that civilian soldiers were largely responsible for repelling the American
invaders. In contrast, the First Nations allies of the British and Canadian cause suffered much because of
the war; not only had they lost many warriors (including the great Tecumseh), they also lost any hope of
halting American expansion in the west, and their contributions were quickly forgotten by their British
and Canadian allies.

Note: This article focuses primarily on land campaigns; for more detailed discussion of naval campaigns,
see Atlantic Campaign of the War of 1812 and War on the Lakes in the War of 1812.

Causes of the War


The origins of the War of 1812 were in the conflict that raged in Europe for almost two decades after
Napoleon Bonaparte became First Consul (later Emperor) of France. These Napoleonic Wars (1799
1815) caused Great Britain to adopt measures that greatly aggravated the United States.

On 21 November 1806, Napoleon ordered a blockade of shipping (the Berlin Decree) aimed at crippling
British trade. He ordered all European ports under his control closed to British ships and 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. Following the victory of Lord Nelson at Trafalgar on 21
October 1805, Great Britain had the sea power to enforce its blockade of France.

For many years the Americans had 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 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, but American
certificates of citizenship made no impression on the British. Moreover, some British captains even tried
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. While a British
naval squadron was watching the area for French ships, several British sailors deserted and promptly
enlisted 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.
Several years later, on 1 May 1811, officers from the British ship HMS Guerriere impressed an American
sailor from a coastal vessel, causing further tension.

This dispute over maritime rights might have been resolved with diplomacy; in fact, the new British
government of Lord Liverpool rescinded the orders-in-council a few days before the US declared war,
though the news hadn't reached America in time. Moreover, not all Americans wanted war with Great
Britain, notably the merchants of New England and New York.
However, President James Madison was intrigued by the analysis of Major General Dearborn that in the
event of war, Canada would be easy pickings even that an invasion would be welcomed by the
Canadians. Furthermore, the "War Hawks," a group of Congressmen from the south and west, loudly
demanded war. Motivated by Anglophobia and nationalism, these Republicans encouraged war as a
means to retaliate against Britain for the economic distress caused by the blockade, and for what they
perceived as British support for the First Nations in resisting American expansion into the West. On 18
June 1812, President Madison signed a declaration of war against Great Britain, supported by both the
Senate and Congress.

American and British Planning

As American leaders planned their invasion of Canada, they quickly decided that Upper Canada was the
most vulnerable to attack. The Atlantic provinces were protected by British sea power, and Lower
Canada was protected by its remoteness and by the fortress of Qubec. In contrast, Upper Canada
seemed to be an easy target. The population was predominantly American and the province was lightly
defended.

Upper Canada was defended by about 1,600 British regulars, formed mostly from the 41st Regiment of
Foot and detachments from other units. However, the badly outnumbered British were in fact better
prepared than the Americans knew. The 41st Regiment of British regulars had been reinforced by a
number of militia units (although their loyalty and reliability was uncertain). The Provincial Marine
controlled Lake Ontario. Much of the preparation was thanks to the foresight of Major-General Sir Isaac
Brock, administrator of Upper Canada. Brock had a thorough grasp of the challenges of the upcoming
conflict and had been preparing for five years, reinforcing fortifications, training militia units and,
perhaps most important, developing alliances with the First Nations.

The British Attack

Like most commanders, Brock was dissatisfied by the number of troops at his disposal, with only some
1,600 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. He therefore sent orders to the commanding officer of Fort St. Joseph on
Lake Huron to capture a key American post at Michilimackinac Island on 17 July. The force of 46 British
soldiers and 400 Aboriginal warriors captured the fort quickly and without bloodshed.
Meanwhile, an American force under General William Hull had crossed from Detroit into Canada, forcing
Brock to quickly march his men from the town of York to counter the invasion. When he arrived at the
British fort at Amherstburg, Brock found that the American invasion force had already withdrawn to
Detroit. 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.

Campaigns in Upper Canada (1812)

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 1812) after their militia refused to cross into Canada, citing the
constitutional guarantee that it would not have to fight on foreign soil. (However, during the
engagement Brock was killed a significant loss to the British and Canadian cause.)

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 January 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
Qubec and sending reinforcements to Upper Canada only when additional troops arrived from
overseas.

Campaigns in Upper Canada (1813)

As the campaign of 1813 opened, an American flotilla of 16 ships landed at York [Toronto], the capital of
Upper Canada. The Americans briefly occupied the town, burning the public buildings and seizing
valuable naval supplies destined for Lake Erie (see The Sacking of York); however, the British frustrated
the American plan to appropriate a half-completed warship at York by burning it instead had the
Americans succeeded, they might have gained greater control over Lake Ontario. As it was, neither side
totally controlled that lake for the balance of the war.

The Americans soon abandoned York and on 27 May 1813 their fleet seized Fort George at the mouth of
the Niagara River. While this was the bleakest period of the war for the British, the military situation was
not irretrievable. The Americans did not take advantage of their success, and failed to immediately
pursue General John Vincent and his army as they retreated from Fort George to Burlington Heights. The
American forces did not set out from Fort George until 2 June, allowing the British time to recover and
prepare. On the night of 5 June 1813, Vincent's men attacked the American forces at Stoney Creek. In a
fierce battle the British dislodged the Americans, capturing two of their generals; the dispirited
American force retired 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. The British had been warned of the American attack by Laura
Secord, a Loyalist whose husband had been wounded at the Battle of Queenston Heights.

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 War on the Western Flank (181314)

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 shores of the lake, 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 in effect became an
American lake. The British army abandoned Detroit and retreated up the Thames River. Procter delayed
fatally in his retreat, however, and Harrison caught up with him at the Battle of the Thames (aka
Moraviantown). There, the exhausted British regulars and First Nations warriors were routed and
scattered. Procter fled and Tecumseh was killed. The defeat was not fatal to the province, 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, the American fleet searched for British supply vessels, which led to the sinking of the
Nancy; they also 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.

The War in Lower Canada (1813)

America forces also invaded Lower Canada during the war. The Americans could potentially have struck
a mortal blow against the British in Lower Canada, but their invading armies, which outnumbered the
enemy 101, were led with almost incredible ineptitude by Generals James Wilkinson and Wade
Hampton. A miscellaneous force of British regulars, Voltigeurs, militia, and First Nations harassed the
advancing Americans and turned the invasion back at Chteauguay (2526 October 1813) under
Lieutenant-Colonel Charles de Salaberry, and at Crysler's Farm (near Cornwall, ON) on 11 November
1813, under Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Wanton Morrison.

Last Invasion of Upper Canada (1814)

The following year, 1814, the Americans again invaded Upper Canada, crossing the Niagara River at
Buffalo. They easily seized Fort Erie on 3 July, and on 5 July turned back a rash attack by the British
under General Phineas Riall at Chippawa. 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 a stalemate. The American invasion was
now effectively spent, and 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 (1415
August 1814). With both sides exhausted, a three-month standoff followed (see Siege of Fort Erie).
Finally, on 5 November, the Americans again withdrew across the Niagara River, effectively ending the
war in Upper Canada.

Invading the United States (1814)

On the Atlantic front, Nova Scotias Lieutenant-Governor, Sir John Sherbrooke, led a force from Halifax
into Maine, capturing Castine on 1 September 1814. By the middle of September, British forces held
much of the Maine coast, which was returned to the US only with the signing of the peace treaty in
December 1814. The most formidable effort by the British in 1814 was the invasion of northern New
York, in which Governor Prevost led 11,000 British veterans of the Napoleonic Wars to Plattsburgh on
Lake Champlain. However, Prevost was hesitant to attack he was no Brock and the defeat of the
British fleet in Plattsburgh Bay by the American commodore, Thomas Macdonough, on 11 September
led Prevost to withdraw his troops.

The Treaty of Ghent

Prevosts decision to withdraw from American territory affected peace negotiations in Ghent, which had
begun in August 1814. Had Prevosts invasion succeeded, much of upper New York State might be
Canadian today. However, his withdrawal forced the British peace negotiators at Ghent to lower their
demands and accept the status quo. When the treaty was signed on Christmas Eve 1814, all conquests
were to be restored and disputes over boundaries were deferred to joint commissions.

Hostilities continued after the peace treaty was signed, however. The last battle of the war is often cited
as the Battle of New Orleans (8 January 1815), but British and American forces also clashed on 11
February 1815 at Fort Bowyer on Mobile Bay. A number of naval engagements also followed the signing
of the treaty, including the final battle of the war, 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.

Who Won or Lost the War?

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, most 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.

Several units of the Canadian militia actively participated in the war; this included the Coloured Corps, a
small corps of Black Canadians that fought at the Battle of Queenston Heights (see also Richard
Pierpoint Heritage Minute). Although the majority of the fighting was done by British regulars and First
Nations warriors, a myth developed that civilian soldiers had won the war, and this 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 resolved in the peace treaty, the war could be considered a failure; however, the
Americans had some spectacular victories at sea, which were indicators of the future potential of
American power. The war was certainly a failure for the "War Hawks," who coveted the annexation of
Canada the war proved that this was not 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, any 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.

Brock Tecumseh 1812 War of 1812 battles International Affairs war

Suggested Reading

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).

Links to other sites

Causes and Events of the War of 1812: A Timeline

A chronology of key political, military, and European events in the War of 1812. Also check this
extensive site for details about individual military conflicts and prominent personalities in the War of
1812.

War of 1812
Check out this interactive timeline of the War of 1812 from Historica Canada.

Pierre Berton's War Of 1812

Pierre Berton's compelling account of the War of 1812 from the perspectives of both common soldiers
and the generals who led them. From indigo.ca.

1812: One War, Four Perspectives

Experience the War of 1812 on-line from multiple Canadian and American perspectives. From the
Canadian War Museum.

War of 1812 monument unveiled on Parliament Hill

An article on the debut of the War of 1812 Monument in Ottawa featuring numerous photos and a
video clip with artist Adrienne Alison explaining the monuments features. From the Ottawa Citizen.

Mapping the War of 1812

A detailed and profusely illustrated teaching guide to the War of 1812 from the Association of
Canadian Studies.

War of 1812

Check out vintage documents and other artifacts related to the War of 1812 in Ontario. From the
Archives of Ontario website.

The War of 1812

Explore the major events and issues of the War of 1812 through the biographies of Canadians who
served and sacrificed in that conflict. From the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.

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