Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
July 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


War of 1812


[This text was written by J. Castell Hopkins in 1901. For the precise citation, see the end of the document.]


AS in the case of so many historic conflicts, the nominal causes of the War of 1812 between Great Britain and the United States were not the real ones. The Berlin Decrees of Napoleon Bonaparte and the retaliatory Orders-in-Council of the British Government, by which each Power sought to blockade the coast of its enemy and check its trade and commerce, naturally bore hardly upon neutral Powers. Especially was this the case with the American Republic, which had come to almost monopolize the carrying trade of the world during England's prolonged death-grapple with France. So far as the latter country was concerned, the blockade was a mere paper mandate, but in the case of England, with her immense and effective navy, the Orders-in-Council became a stern reality and were not a little injurious to American interests.




Still, the action on the pact of England was just in itself, as well as a matter of justifiable self-defence, and had there been anything approaching a general spirit of friendliness or kinship in the United States, to say nothing of sympathy with the Mother-country's continued struggle for the liberties of Europe, the policy would have been borne patiently or modified as a result of courteous representations. But, except in parts of New England , and in isolated instances elsewhere, this sentiment did not exist, and the irritation which still lingered from the days of the Revolution grew in force and fire as it fed upon the unfortunate effect of the war on American commerce.


So also with the question of the right to search neutral ships upon the high seas for deserters. From the United States' standpoint of the time and with any clear perception of the natural feelings of a young, proud and high-strung nation, under all the circumstances of the case, it is easy now to see how offensive the seizure of its vessels and the forcible removal of suspected seamen must have been. At the same time, had there not been the bitterness of a strong and preconceived hostility of sentiment, the reasonableness of England 's position from her standpoint would have been far more generally recognized.


                                                   AMERICAN EXPECTATIONS

The latter country was engaged in a great struggle for national existence, and her very

life depended upon the fleet whose strength was being steadily depleted by the   desertion of its seamen to American vessels. Under such circumstances her exercise of a right of search, which had not been previously questioned with any degree of seriousness by other Powers, might at least have been met in a spirit of some   compromise. To have refused to accept, or to have aided in returning, the deserters   from ships of a friendly Power, under such conditions of extreme gravity, might have been thought a reasonable action. But it does not seem to have been even considered, and the unfortunately high-handed. action of H. M. S. Leopard in capturing the Chesapeake and taking certain alleged deserters to Halifax Harbour, where they were tried and punished, complicated matters still further. And this despite the immediate apologies of the British Government and recall of the officers concerned. Then came the unprovoked destruction of the Little Belt by an American frigate in 1811. Jefferson's embargo, excluding British ships from American ports, also followed; though it was afterwards repealed from inability to enforce its provisions. And so things developed in connection with these two nominal causes of a sanguinary struggle.


First of all, the real reasons for the war lay deeper. There was, the still smouldering hostility of Revolutionary days in the United States. There was, still further, the natural sympathy of its people with France, as an old-time ally against England, and despite the apparent inconsistency of a republic supporting the ambitions of a military autocracy. There was, also, a lingering and longing desire to round-off the country by the acquisition of British America ; and the strong popular belief that it would be an easy thing to do in the event of war. There was the inevitable political complication of parties struggling for public support and, in the end, there was the spectacle of President Madison accepting re-nomination (and eventual election) upon an actual pledge to declare war against Great Britain .


These were the real causes of the struggle. England had no desire for it. Her every interest was in peace and her every effort was to preserve it. Canada, indeed, suffered during the early days of the war from actual instructions to the Governor-General, Sir George Prevost, to take things easy on the chance of an arrangement being patched up and the greatly burdened backs of the British soldier and sailor and taxpayer saved from the addition of a new conflict. At this time Wellington was still warring in the Peninsula, Napoleon was at the height of his power, and British money was being poured out like water to hold the allied nations of Europe from utter collapse. It was, in fact, the critical moment in the prolonged British conflict with a great soldier who seemed now to have a continent at his feet and 400,000 of the finest troops ever trained by genius and con­quering skill ready at his hand. His only danger, the only check upon his colossal ambitions, came from the little country across the channel against whom the United States, on June 18, 1812, formally declared war.                                                                                                                                                             

If England, however, had reason to regret the addition of one more enemy and another conflict to the catalogue of her responsibilities and difficulties, the scattered Provinces of British America had still more apparent cause to do so. From the Detroit River to Halifax there were spread along a thousand miles of border-line less than 5,000 British troops. The population of the whole vast region was only 300,000, men, women and children as against an American population of 8,000,000. The people of Upper Canada, where the bulk of the fighting was to take place, were only 77,000 in number. The result seemed so certain that Jefferson described it as "a mere matter of marching;" Eustis, the Secretary of War, declared that "we can take the Canadas without soldiers;" Henry Clay announced that "we have the Canadas as much under our command as she (Great Britain) has the ocean."




Much of the successful resistance of the Provinces to the ensuing invasion of their territories by eleven different armies in two years is due to the wisdom and courage of Major-General Sir Isaac Brock who, in 1812, was Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada and Commander of the forces. Nearly every war, in every country, seems to produce someone central figure, and Brock is undeniably the hero of this important struggle - a war which decided the destiny of half a continent and affected the whole future of Great Britain and its then infant Empire. He anticipated what was coming, warned the British authorities of its inevitability, and strove with limited means and shadowy support to prepare for the time of struggle. Addressing the Legislature of his Province on February 4, 1812, and more than four months before the actual outbreak of the war, he described the situation of England and Upper Canada in stirring and historic words


"The glorious contest in which the British Empire is engaged and the vast sacrifice which Britain nobly offers to secure the independence of other nations might be expected to stifle every feeling of envy and jealousy and at the same time to excite the interest and command the admiration of a free people ; but, regardless of such general impressions, the American Government evinces a disposition calculated to impede and divide her efforts. England is not only interdicted the harbours of the United States while they afford a shelter to cruisers of her inveterate enemy, but she is likewise compelled to resign those maritime rights which she has so long exercised and enjoyed. Insulting threats are offered and hostile preparations actually commenced; and though not without hope that cool reflection and the dictates of justice may yet avert the calamities of war, I cannot be too urgent in recommending to your early attention the adoption of such measures as will best secure the internal peace of the country and defeat every hostile aggression."


Within the last few lines of this speech there is a hint at internal disaffection. It was, indeed, an unfortunate fact that American settlers in certain districts of the Province had elected to the Legislatures men who reflected their views and seriously hampered for a brief period the action of the Executive. Two of these so-called British legislators and citizens afterwards fled to the invaders' lines, and one of them, named Wilcocks, ultimately fell in fighting the country of his adoption and allegiance. But Brock knew that he could depend upon the mass of the people in his Province and that the loyalty of the men of 1783 and their sons would flame forth as brightly at this crisis as it had ever done in the days of revolution and migration. He told them truly, through an appeal to the Legislature, that the free spirit of a free people can never die and never be conquered, and that Great Britain would stand by them to her last man and her last gun in resisting the coming wanton invasion of British territory.


Under all these circumstances, therefore, when the news of the declaration of war reached Brock, through a private source, he knew that everything would depend upon swift and sweeping action. He promptly sent some regulars to try and hold the Niagara frontier, summoned the Legislature, called out the militia, and made such preparations as he could pending the receipt of official information regarding the action of the United States. It did not come, but on July 11th General Hull crossed the St. Clair River, from Detroit to Sandwich, with 2,000 men, and issued a braggadocio proclamation announcing protection to all non-combatants, declaring the certainty of conquest and relief from British "tyranny and oppression," and stating that if the British Government accepted assistance from its Indian subjects in resisting his invasion, "instant destruction" would be the lot of all who might be captured fighting beside an Indian contingent. Brock replied with a most eloquent, dignified and patriotic manifesto, and, on July 27th, met the Legislature with an address which was a model in sentiment and expression. By the 8th of August Hull had returned again to Detroit on hearing of the capture by Captain Roberts, in pursuance of orders from his chief, of the important American position at Michilimackinack.


One week later Brock, with 320 regulars and 400 militia from York and Lincoln, assisted by the gallant Indian chief Tecumseh and some 600 followers, was crossing the St. Clair in pursuit of his enemy. Hull had been startled, first by a summons to surrender, and then by seeing the little British army crossing the river-General Brock "erect in his canoe, leading the way to battle," as Tecumseh in graphic Indian style afterwards described the event. Before an assault could be made, however, Null and his entire force of 2,500 men, including the 4th United States Regiment and its colours, surrendered. With the capitulation went the entire Territory of Michigan ; the town and port of Detroit, which practically commanded the whole of western Canada; the Adams war brig; many stands of arms, a large quantity of much-needed stores, thirty-three pieces of cannon and the military chest. It had been a bold, a venturesome action on the part of Brock, and the result affected almost the entire struggle. It inspirited the militia from end to end of the Provinces; it showed many of those having disloyal tendencies that it might be safer to at least appear loyal ; it electrified the masses with vigour and fresh determination.


Following this all-important action Brock turned to meet greater difficulties than were presented by the enemy in the field. He had to encounter the weakness and vacillation of Sir George Prevost, who, as Governor-General and Commander of the forces, was directing affairs from Quebec in the spirit of one who believed that hostilities would soon cease, and knew that the Ministry at home was anxious to do nothing that would intensify difficulties in that connection. An armistice, arranged by Prevost, neutralized many of the benefits derived from the capture of Detroit; orders from the same source prevented Brock from destroying American shipping on the Lakes which was in course of building, and which he foresaw might endanger the control of that most vital part of the situation.; commands actually issued for the evacuation of Detroit, though they were fortunately capable of evasion ; while the very documents and General Orders written by Prevost, were dispiriting in effect and unfortunate in terms.


But Brock turned to his militia, and, though refused the right of aggressive action which might have turned the whole tide of events, he proceeded with a system of organization which soon made his volunteer force as effective in health, spirit, drill and condition as wellequipped and experienced regular troops. And, through the summary measures of imprisonment, or practical banishment, accorded those who showed an overt inclination to the American side-coupled with the magnetic influence of his own character and strong, personal confidence in the result of the struggle--he obtained full control over the population as well as the Legislature.


He made every effort to give the volunteers an opportunity of getting in their crops, and all over the Province the women themselves helped by working in the fields. Throughout the conflict, indeed, the signal devotion of noble women was continuously added to a record of determined defence of their country by the men; and the incident of Laura Secord walking miles through snake-infested swamps and a gloomy forest region to give a British force warning of the enemy's approach, was by no means an isolated instance of devotion. On the 18th of September, while his preparations were still in progress, Brock wrote his brother that in a short time he would hear of a decisive action and added: "If I should be beaten the Province is lost." This reference to the gathering of 8,000 American troops upon the border, for invasion by way of Niagara , illustrates the signal importance of the coming conflict at Queenston Heights . Their intention was to take and hold this strong position as a fortified camp and from thence over-run the Province with troops brought at leisure from 'the ,immense reserves behind. At the same time, General Dearborn with a large force was to menace Montreal from New York State by way of Lake Champlain , General Harrison was to invade the Upper Province from Michigan with 6,000 men, and Commodore Chauncey was to take a force across Lake Ontario .





The first part of this programme commenced on October 13th, with an attempted movement of 1,500 U. S. regulars and 2,500 militia across the Niagara River. About 1,100 troops, slowly followed by other detachments, succeeded in getting over and climbed the Heights of Queenston in the face of what slight resistance could be offered by a British outpost. If the Americans could have held this position the result was certain and would probably have been much in the line of their expectations. Meantime, Sir Isaac Brock - unknown to himself he had been gazetted an extra Knight of the Bath one week before as a. recognition of his victory at Detroit - had arrived from his nearby post at Fort George whence he had been watching matters.


But before he could do anything further than show himself to his troops, size up the situation, hasten up his re-inforcements and shout out an order to "Push on the York Volunteers," to resist an American contingent which at this point was making its way up the Heights, he fell with a ball in his breast and with only time to request that his death should be concealed from the soldiers. The re-inforcements, under Major-General Sheaffe, arrived shortly afterwards and, with 800 men in hand, a bayonet charge was made upon the enemy which forced them over the Heights down toward the shore, many in their headlong retreat being dashed to pieces amidst the rocks, or drowned in attempting to cross the wild waters of the Niagara. The survivors surrendered to the number of 960 men, including Major-General Wadsworth, six Colonels and 56 other officers-amongst whom was the afterwards famous General Winfield Scott. The British loss was trifling in numbers, though amongst them was the gallant young Lieutenant-Colonel John McDonell, Attorney-General of the Province.


Considerable as was the victory, however, and important as was the result to Upper Canada, nothing could counter-balance the death of the hero of the war. The inspiration of his memory remained, it is true, and was lasting in its effect, but the presence of his fertile intellect, his powers of rapid movement, his genius for military organization were forever lost. Had he lived his name would probably have been a great one in the annals of the British army and the world. As it is, although his place is secure in the web and woof of Canadian history and in the hearts of its people, it has, in too many British and American records of war, been relegated to the position, held by myriads of gallant officers who have simply done their duty and been killed in some obscure outpost skirmish. The vast import of the influences and issues decided by these first events of the struggle are in such cases disregarded or unknown.


Winter was now at hand and, after a futile invasion from Buffalo under General Smyth which was repulsed by a few troops commanded by Colonel Cecil Bisshopp, the scene of the conflict goes for a brief moment to Lower Canada. Prevost had his difficulties there, as well as Brock in the other Province, but he was without the latter's vigour and determination. He had succeeded to the troubles of Sir James Craig's administration) and 'found a community which had been violently stirred by frothy agitations and by influences resulting from 'the peculiar racial conditions of the country. So great was the apparent discord that it had undoubtedly helped the war party in the States to spread the belief that the passive French Canadians of 1776 were now, at last, active in their antagonism to British rule. But when war was once declared the internal strife vanished as if by magic and the local Legislature showed immediate willingness to support the Governor in all necessary steps-and in this proved superior in its loyalty to the little Assembly at York which had allowed Wilcocks and his supporters to momentarily block procedure.


The Governor-General was authorized to levy and equip 2,000 men and, in case of invasion, to arm the whole militia of the Province. The members voted £32,000 for purposes of defence and at the next Session granted £15,000 a year for five years in order to pay the interest on the issue of army bills. It may be stated here that the Upper Canada Legislature, in Februarys 1812, also recognized the immediate need of money by authorizing General Brock to issue army bills to the extent of £500,000-two million dollars in the Halifax currency of $4.00 to a pound which was so long and extensively used in the Provinces. The payment of the interest was guaranteed, and in January, 1814, the authorized amount of issue was increased to £1,500,000 currency-six million dollars. The financial arrangements of the war in both Provinces were, indeed, excellently made. No public officer was allowed to profit by the use of these notes and the payment of the interest was carefully attended to on a circulation of which the highest point appears-to have been $4,820,000. In December, 1815, it may be added, the bills were called in and redeemed by Sir Gordon Drummond, then Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, and acting on behalf of the British Government.


Meantime, to again refer to the campaign of 1812, some 10,000 men under General Dearborn had threatened the Lower Province from near Lake Champlain; but after a brief demonstration which was checked by the Montreal militia under Lieutenant-Colonel de Salaberry, the American forces all along the line retired into winter quarters and the Canadas found that they had come through the first campaign of the war without a defeat or the loss of a foot of soil. Some progress, however, had been made by the Americans in obtaining that command of the Lakes which Brock had been so wisely anxious to avert at the commencement of the contest.




The campaign of 1813 was not quite so pleasant an experience. It opened successfully for the British and Canadian forces. On January 19th, Colonel Procter with 500 British regulars and 800 Indians under the Wyandotte chief, Roundhead, crossed the frozen St. Clair, and, two days later attacked General Winchester, who had about an equal number of men under him. After a severe battle in which he lost by death or wounded, 182 men, Procter won a decisive victory and took nearly 500 prisoners. The loss to the enemy in killed was between three and four hundred men. It was a dearly-purchased success, however, as it won for Procter a reputation which he sadly failed to live up to. Colonel George McDonell, who had raised a strong regiment amongst the gallant Highland Catholics of the Glengarry settlement, on February 23rd attacked Ogdensburg, in New York State-from which some predatory excursions had come during the winter-and captured eleven guns, a large quantity of ordinance and military stores and two armed schooners. Four officers and seventy privates were taken prisoners.


In April, however, Commodore Chauncey with a fleet of 14 ships and 1,700 troops, sailed from Sackett's Harbour, on the New York coast of Lake Ontario, for York (Toronto) which was then a small place of 800 population, containing the Government buildings of the Province. Under the immediate command of Brigadier-General Pike the Americans landed on April 27th, but were for some time held in check by the determined resistance of two companies of the 8th Regiment and about Zoo Canadian militia. The Fort, situated at some distance from the little town, was finally captured after an accidental explosion in which Pike and 260 of his men were killed. As the advance continued, General Sheaffe withdrew his small force of regulars from York and retreated to Kingston. The town then surrendered with some 250 militia, and, despite the terms of capitulation, was freely pillaged and all its public buildings burned. Even the Church was robbed of its plate and the Legislative Library looted. In this latter connection Chauncey expressed great indignation and made a personal effort to restore some of the stolen books.


Incidents of importance now came swiftly one upon another. On May 27th, Fort George, on the British side of the Niagara River, was captured by the Americans, and, two days later, Sir George Prevost was repulsed in an attack upon Sackett's Harbour. Early in June two American gunboats were captured on Lake Champlain, and on the 5th of the same month, Colonel Harvey - a soldier with some of Brock's brilliant qualities and afterwards Lieutenant-Governor of all the Maritime Provinces in turn - attacked in the night a large force of at least 3,50o Americans encamped at Burlington Heights (near the Hamilton of later days) and captured a number of guns, two general officers, and over a hundred other officers and men. On the 24th of June Lieutenant Fitzgibbon, of the 49th Regiment, by a clever concealment of his numbers, forced the surrender of 544 American soldiers under Colonel BoerstIer, not far from Fort George and Queenston. He had only some 66 troops and 250 Indians in his command. During the next two months the British captured Black Rock, where they lost the gallant Colonel Bisshopp, and Fort Schlosser-both on the Niagara frontier. Plattsburg, on Lake Champlain, was captured and the public buildings burned in memory of York : The latter place was taken a second time by the Americans.


Then came the disastrous British defeat on Lake Erie, where Captain Barclay, with six vessels and 300 seamen, was beaten by Commodore Perry, with nine vessels and double the number of men. Not only disastrous, but disgraceful, was the ensuing defeat of General Procter, near Moraviantown, by General Harrison who had driven him from Detroit and Amherstburg. Procter was retreating steadily with some 400 troops, and 800 Indians under Tecumseh, pursued by the American force of 4,000 men. The battle was fought on October 5th, and the natural result followed, with, however, the added loss of Tecumseh. The disgrace to Procter, who fled early in the day and was afterwards court-martialed, censured and deprived of all command for six months, was not in defeat under such circumstances, but in the utter lack of all proper military precautions, either at the time of conflict or during his previous retreat. The death of the great Indian chief was one of the severest blows to the British cause in the whole campaign. It was more important even than the fact that this victory placed the entire western part of the Province in American hands. The territory might be won back, the leader never. Tecumseh was, indeed, a savage of heroic mould, one who inspired victory, and who, when acting with men such as Brock or Harvey, was almost invincible. His Indians would do anything for him - even refrain from massacre or cruelty - and the fear of him felt by the Americans was shown in the unfortunate indignities offered to his corpse.


The next few months saw some events of bright import, and attention must now be transferred to Lower Canada. The French­Canadians earnestly and enthusiastically showed their love for the land of their birth and home by turning out in large numbers and fighting bravely wherever required-notably on the memorable field of Chateauguay.                                                               




By October an army of 8,000 men had been collected at Sack Sackett's Harbour, N. Y., under Generals Wilkinson and Boyd, for the descent upon Montreal by way of the St. Lawrence. As these forces descended the river they were followed by a small and compact body of British troops under Colonels Pears on, Harvey, Morrison and Plenderleath, accompanied by eight gun-boats and three field-pieces which did much damage to the enemy. On November 11th, Wilkinson and his main army were with the flotilla near Prescott and on the way to effect a junction with an army under General Hampton which was to meet them at the mouth of the Chateauguay. General Boyd, with 2,500 men, was marching along the shore followed by 800 British troops under Colonel Morrison who had resolved to attack the enemy at a place called Chrystler's Farm. The result was one of the most complete victories of the war, the Americans losing many prisoners besides 339 officers and men, killed or wounded. The British loss was 181. Boyd immediately returned to his boats and joined Wilkinson. They then proceeded to the place at which the junction with Hampton was to be made and from whence they were to advance upon Montreal .


Meanwhile, Hampton had marched from Lake Champlain with 7,000 men toward the mouth of the Chateauguay. At this point, and amid the natural difficulties of forest surroundings, he was met on the night of October 25th by Colonel de Salaberry in command of 300 French-Canadian militia and a few Indians and supported by Colonel

McDonell with another French contingent of 600 men, who had made the most rapid forced march in Canadian history and had reached Chateauguay the day before the battle. The Americans advanced upon the hidden first line with 4,000 men, but, on driving it back, they met the second line under Colonel McDonell and, there, encountered the stratagem of buglers placed at considerable distances apart and sounding their instruments so as to give the impression of large numbers, while at the same time the bewildering yells and war-cries of some fifty scattered Indians immensely increased the uproar and tumult. The immediate result was the defeat of the American forces, their retreat on the following day and their consequent failure to meet Wilkinson at the mouth of the Chateauguay.


This failure involved the collapse of an elaborate campaign of 15,000 men for the capture of Montreal, through the timely gallantry and clever leadership of two little armies of about 2,000 men altogether. One of the curious incidents of the battle of Chateauguay was when Colonel de Salaberry - his first line of troops being forced back by overwhelming numbers-held his own ground in the darkness with a bugler boy whom he caused to sound the advance for McDonell - thus giving the latter an opportunity to put into effect the stratagem which led the American General to think he was opposed by several thousand men. A less pleasing incident was the mean and untruthful manner in which Prevost endeavoured in his despatches to take the whole credit of this victory to himself (Notably that of 31st of October, 1813.).   Despite this, the facts became known - largely through the intervention of H. R. H. the Duke of Kent, who had often proved himself a friend to De Salaberry - and at the end of the war McDonell and De Salaberry were each decorated with a C. B.          


In Upper Canada during this period there had been another glaring evidence of   Prevost's incapacity. Frightened by the apparent results of Procter's defeat near Moraviantown, he, had ordered the British commander at Burlington and York (General Vincent) to abandon all his posts and retire upon Kingston. Had this been done the Upper Province would have been practically in American hands. Instead of doing so, however, Vincent maintained his ground, and Colonel Murray, with some 378 regulars and a few volunteers and Indians, was given permission some weeks later to advance upon the enemy who, with 2,700 men under General McClure, was holding Fort George. On December 10th the latter evacuated the Fort, but, before doing so wantonly and cruelly burned to the ground the neighbouring village (and one-time capital) of Newark. It was a cold winter's night, and the beautiful little village contained chiefly women and children-the men being either away at the front or prisoners across the river. The unfortunate inhabitants were driven into the snow without shelter and in many cases very scantily clothed. British retribution was swift. The American Fort Niagara, just across the river, was promptly stormed and held until the end of the war, and the neighbouring villages of Lewistown, Youngstown, Manchester and Tuscarora were burned. These events closed the campaign of 1813, at the end of which the Americans only held possession of Amherstburg, on the frontier of Upper Canada, and, besides losing all the benefits of Harrison's success against the incapable Procter, had also lost Fort Niagara on the American side and with it the control of the frontier in that direction.




General Sir Gordon Drummond, a brave and able officer, had meanwhile, become Administrator and Commander in Upper Canada, and this fact had much influence upon the succeeding struggle of 1814. This last campaign of the war commenced with another advance from Lake Champlain by 4,000 men under General Wilkinson. It was checked, and eventually repulsed on March 30th by a gallant handful of some 300 men commanded by Major Handcock, at Lacolle's Mill -a small stone building on the Lacolle River, and about a third of the way between Plattsburg and Montreal. A little later Michilimackinac was relieved by Colonel McDonell, and in May Sir Gordon Drummond and Sir James Yeo, the naval Commander, captured Fort Oswego on the New York side of Lake Ontario, together with some valuable naval stores. Meantime, some minor defeats had been encountered by British detachments, and early in July Major-General Brown, with 5,000 troops, backed by 4,000 New York militia, which had been ordered out and authorized for the war, invaded Upper Canada from Buffalo. To meet this attack Drummond had about 4,000 effective regulars, depleted however, by the necessity of garrisoning a number of important posts. His difficulties in meeting the invasion were also increased by the seeming impossibility of making Prevost understand the situation and the need of re-inforcements. The latter could only see the menace offered to Lower Canada by the massed forces at Lake Champlain .


Fort Erie surrendered to the Americans on July 3d, and General Riall was defeated at Chippewa two days later, with the loss of 511 men killed or wounded. The victorious

American advance was checked, however, at Lundy's Lane, where Sir Gordon Drummond, who had come up from Kingston with 800 men, assumed command, and on July 25th, within sound of the roar of Niagara Falls and in the most beautiful part of a picturesque and fertile region, there was fought the fiercest battle of the whole war, and one which continued during the greater part of a dark night. The victory is variously claimed, but the bare facts are that, after trying for six hours with 5,000 men to force a British position held by half that number, Brown had to retire to Chippewa with a loss of 930 men as against Drummond's loss of 870, and with his advance effectually checked.


On the 26th he retreated to Fort Erie, and was there shortly after attacked unsuccessfully by the British with a .loss, to the latter of 500 men. Until September, however, he was blockaded within the walls of the Fort.


The struggle with Napoleon in Europe was now temporarily over, and 16,000 trained and experienced British troops had been, meanwhile, landed at Quebec. Prevost advanced with a force of 12,000 of these troops to Plattsburg, where he was to co-operate with the British fleet on Lake Champlain. The latter was defeated, however, and the British general, with an army which, under Brock, might have menaced New York City itself; ignominiously retreated in the face of two or three thousand American soldiers (He was recalled end only escaped the condemnation of a Court Martial by death.). So far as the Canadas were concerned territorially this practically ended the war. Despite Prevost's disgrace at Plattsburg, the campaign for the year terminated with the British control of Lake Ontario - although the Americans were masters of Lake Erie - and with their possession of several forts on American soil, to say nothing of a portion of the State of Maine.


In the Maritime Provinces the struggle had not been so severely felt. Major-General Sherbrooke was Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia and, through the vicinity of the British fleet at Halifax and the presence of a sufficient number of regulars, was able in 1814 to make a series of attacks upon the coast and frontier of Maine until the whole region from Penobscot to the St. Croix was in British hands. Sherbrooke had also been sending troops up to Canada whenever possible and the march of the 104th Regiment in February, 1813, through hundreds of miles of frozen wilderness; was of special interest as well as importance.


Elsewhere on sea and land the war had been equally varied. A number of naval victories were won by the United States as well as by Great Britain but, excluding the actions fought in Canadian waters, there seems in nearly every case of American victory to have been a great superiority on their part in men, guns, metal and tonnage. The purely British part of the campaign of 1814 included the capture of the City of Washington and the burning of its public buildings in revenge for the previous harrying of the Niagara frontier and the burnings of York and Newark. An unsuccessful attempt was also made to capture New Orleans. The terrible bloodshed of this last struggle of the war - over 3,000 British troops were reported killed, wounded or missing - was the result of ignorance of the fact that on December 24, 1814 , a treaty of peace had been signed at Ghent.




The immediate effects of the struggle are clear upon the pages of history. The Americans obtained not a foot of British territory and not a solitary sentimental advantage. Their seaboard was insulted and injured, their capital city partially destroyed and 3,000 of their vessels captured. The immense gain to their carrying-trade which had previously accrued as a result of England's conflict with Napoleon was neutralized, while their annual exports were reduced to almost nothing and their commercial classes nearly ruined. A vast war-tax was incurred and New England rendered disaffected for years to come. The twin questions of right of search and the position of neutrals in time of war which had been the nominal causes of the conflict were not even mentioned in the Treaty of Ghent. Some military and naval glory was won, but the odds were in favour of the United States throughout the struggle and, when England's hands were finally freed by Wellington 's march upon Paris, the war ceased. In many of these conflicts, however, both on sea and land - notably in the famous duel of the Chesapeake and the Shannon when Sir Provo Wallis, of Nova Scotian birth, laid the foundation of fame and fortune - United States soldiers and seamen showed all the courage and skill of the race from which they had sprung.


To Great Britain the war had been only one more military and naval burden. It added to her difficulties in fighting France , subsidizing Europe and holding the seas against the sweeping ambitions of Napoleon. But her struggle for life or death had been so prolonged in this connection and the shadow of its wings so dark and menacing, that the conflict in Canada did not -then, and has not since, attracted the attention it deserved. While this was natural enough at that period, the time has now come when the position should be changed and the memories of Brock and De Salaberry, Morrison and McDonell, Harvey and Drummond, be given their place in the historic pantheon of Empire. Canadian difficulties in the struggle should be understood, the courage of its people comprehended, the results of the conflict appreciated. The conflict meant more than the mere details of skirmishes, battles and the rout of invading armies would indicate. It involved considerations greater than may be seen in the ordinary record of campaigns in which the Canadian militia and British regulars appear as able to hold their own in a prolonged struggle.


That a population of 500,000 people, scattered over widely sundered areas, should be able, almost unaided, to thus successfully oppose the aggressive action of an organized republic of eight millions was an extraordinary military performance and it is not unnatural that, in considering the record and the result, it has been chiefly done from the military standpoint. To the up-building of Canada , however, the war holds a place not dissimilar in national import to that of the Revolution in United States history.


It consolidated the British sentiment of the whole population from the shores of Lake Huron to the coasts of the Atlantic. It eliminated much of the disloyal element which was beginning to eat into the vitals of Provincial life in Upper Canada ; and modified in some measure the force of the American spirit which remained in the hearts of a section of its settlers. It checked the growth of Republicanism amongst the French of Lower Canada and helped to prevent the Rebellion of 1837 in that Province from being the rising of a whole people united in political sympathies - as were its leaders - with the great and growing population to the south. It made the authorities of the Roman Catholic Church in the same part of the country feel once more as they did when the Continental Congress of 1775 attacked the Quebec Act that the only visible danger to what they considered the sacred rights and privileges of their faith came from the other side of the international line. It, for a time, brought Canadians of French and English extraction together in defence of their hearths and homes and laid in this fact an almost invisible foundation for that seemingly vain vision - the permanent Federal Union of British America for purposes of common defence, interests and government. It affected powerful religious organizations, such as the Methodist denomination, which were becoming dependent on American pulpits, supplies and polity. It affected social life and customs by drawing still more distinct the Loyalist line against innovations from the other side of the border. Finally, it greatly affected political development and assured the ultimate success of those who strove honestly, though sometimes mistakenly in- detail, to preserve and promote the permanent acceptance of British, as opposed to American, principles of government upon the northern half of the continent.


Source: J. Castell HOPKINS , "The War of 1812-15", in The Story of the Dominion. Four Hundred Years in the Annals of Half a Continent. A History of Canada from its Early Discovery and Settlement to the Present Time; Embracing its Growth, Progress and Achievements in the Pursuit of Peace and War., Toronto, The John C. Winston Company, 1901, 668p., pp. 183-207.




© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College