Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:

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


Military History of Canada



[This text was written in 1948. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]

It is customary nowadays to decry military history as unimportant; and undoubtedly the emphasis laid by some of the older school of Canadian historians on trivial skirmishes in the Seven Years' War and the War of 1812 has been misplaced. But it is futile to deny that military factors have had a profound influence on the course of human history; and on the history of Canada their influence has been at times decisive.


The French and the Indians .


It is clear, for example, that the growth of the colony of New France was conditioned by the long feud between the French and the Iroquois. With the Algonkians and Hurons north of the St. Lawrence and lake Ontario, the French established friendly relations; but in 1609, and again in 1615 Champlain   incurred for the French the sleepless hostility of the Iroquois by allying himself with their Algonkian and Huron enemies. Once the Iroquois had obtained fire-arms from the Dutch traders on the Hudson river , they proceeded to exact a fearful vengeance. For nearly a century the menace of Iroquois attack hung like a pall over the colony of New France , and confined settlement to the immediate neighbourhood of the seigniorial forts or loop-holed grist-mills. Even the palisaded town of Montreal lived in constant fear of Indian attack; and in 1660 only the heroism of Daulac   [ Dollard des Ormeaux ] and his companions at the Long Sault saved it from possible extinction. The Jesuit missions in Huronia were completely wiped out; and the fur-trade was almost strangled. In 1665 the French government was compelled to send out to Canada the Carignan-Salières regiment; and these troops, veterans of the Turkish wars, carried fire and sword through the Iroquois villages, so that even the fierce Mohawks were cowed, and New France had peace for nearly twenty years. But after the recall of Frontenac as governor in 1682, the attitude of the Iroquois again became belligerent; and in 1687 Denonville led a punitive expedition into the Iroquois country. In doing so, however, he merely stirred up a hornet's nest; and in the summer of 1689 the Iroquois fell on the village of Lachine , only a few miles from Montreal , and massacred most of its inhabitants. The French government sent out Frontenac again to cope with the situation; and before his death in 1698 Frontenac had succeeded once more in taming the Iroquois. But this was not before the colony had passed through the valley of the shadow of death, and its inhabitants had exhibited a courage and heroism typified by the famous defence in 1692 of the fort of Verchères, near the mouth of the Richelieu , by the fourteen-year-old Madeleine de Verchères . Once the menace of the Iroquois was removed, New France entered on a new lease of life.


The French and the English.


More decisive than the feud between the French and the Iroquois, however, was the long-drawn-out struggle between the French and the English for mastery in North America ¾ a struggle that culminated in the conquest of Canada . Rivalry between the French and the English in North America became acute at an early date. As early as 1629 an English fleet under Sir David Kirke captured Quebec ; and the English held it until it was restored to France by the Treaty of St. Germain-en-Laye in 1632. But even before this the struggle had begun in Acadia . Port Royal was destroyed in 1613 by the Virginian freebooter Argall ; and for a century after this Acadia was "the cockpit of America ". In 1628 the French forts in Acadia were captured by Sir David Kirke; but they were handed back to France in 1632. In 1654 Acadia was overrun by a New England force under Major Robert Sedgwick , but was restored to France in 1667. In 1690 Port Royal was captured by Sir William Phips , but reverted to France by the Treaty of Ryswick in 1696. Finally, Acadia was captured by a combined British and New England force under Samuel Vetch ; and in 1713 it became British territory by the Treaty of Utrecht , and was re-named Nova Scotia .


Meanwhile the struggle had spread to other areas. So long as the French and English settlements in North America were confined to the seaboard, or to the banks of great rivers such as the St. Lawrence and the Hudson, there was, except in Acadia , little conflict between them. Both New England and New France had plenty of elbow room with out fighting for it. But when inland expansion took place, trouble soon resulted. The French, pushing inland from the St. Lawrence valley, founded posts on the Illinois and the Mississippi , and in 1699 Iberville   founded a post at the mouth of the Mississippi . Gradually it dawned on the English colonies on the Atlantic seaboard that they were being hemmed in by an encircling ring of French settlements, and that if they were to have room for westward expansion they had to crush French ambitions in North America . In 1690 they dispatched against Quebec a fleet under Sir William Phips, and only the dauntless defence of Quebec by Frontenac   prevented the capture of the chief citadel of France in America . The French, on the other hand, were not slow in carrying the war into the enemy's territory. They carried out a series of border forays on the English settlements in northern New England and New York ; and they made raids on the English forts on Hudson bay , both by land and by sea, that almost succeeded in driving the English from that area. The British government in 1711 finally launched against Quebec a powerful naval expedition under Sir Hovenden Walker ; and had not this expedition come to grief on the rocks at the mouth of the St. Lawrence, the capture of Quebec by Wolfe   in 1759 might have been anticipated by nearly half a century. In 1713, by the Treaty of Utrecht , Great Britain was able, it is true, to assert its sovereignty, not only over Acadia, but over Hudson Bay as well. The French remained, however, in control of the valleys of the Missouri and the Mississippi ; and the peace that supervened officially for a quarter of a century was merely a breathing-spare before the final struggle between France and Great Britain for supremacy in North America .


The Seven Years' War.


The Seven Years' War , which resulted in the conquest of Canada by British arms, began (to speak strictly) in 1756. But long ere this coming events had cast, their shadows before. The French, anxious to safeguard the entrance to the St. Lawrence, built on Cape Breton Island the fortress of Louisbourg , at an expense so great that the French king inquired if the streets were being built of gold; and this fortress proved such a menace to the trade of New England that in 1745 the New Englanders launched an expedition against it under Sir William Pepperell , and with the help of the British fleet, succeeded in capturing it. Three years later, by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle , it was handed back to France , in exchange for Madras in India ; but it was generally recognized in America that the task of capturing the fortress would have to be faced again. In preparation for the coming struggle the British in 1755 took the extreme measure of deporting from Nova Scotia the entire Acadian population; and before the Seven Years' War was officially declared in Europe, it had already begun in America . In 1755 the British launched in America no less than four distinct attacks on New France. General Braddock , with a force of regulars and colonials, marched against Fort Duquesne , a French outpost in the Ohio valley; Governor Shirley   headed an expedition against Fort Niagara ; Sir William Johnson   moved against Crown Point on lake Champlain; and Colonel Monckton   took the offensive against Fort Beauséjour on the Chignecto isthmus. These expeditions had varying degrees of fortune. Monckton captured Fort Beauséjour ; Johnson defeated the French forces under Dieskau   near lake George; Shirley failed to reach Fort Niagara ; and Braddock met on the banks of the Monongahela river one of the worst defeats in the history of British arms. Braddock's regulars, unused to forest warfare, were ambushed and shot down in hundreds by the invisible Indians and Canadians.


Though the English colonies in America had in 1756 a population that outnumbered that of New France by fifteen to one, New France proved to have a defensive strength truly amazing. For this there were various reasons. One was the fact that society in New France was really organized on a military basis, and that the autocratic system of government in New France was more conducive to military discipline and efficiency than the more democratic system of government in the English colonies. Another was the genius of the French commander-in-chief, the Marquis de Montcalm , one of the great soldiers of history. "I will save New France ," wrote Montcalm, "or perish in the attempt"; and he was as good as his word. During the first two or three years of the war, victory perched on his banners. In 1756 he captured the English fort at Oswego , on the south shore of lake Ontario ; and in 1757 he captured Fort William Henry , which Sir William Johnson had built two years before on lake George. In the summer of 1758 he inflicted a severe defeat on a much larger British force that attacked Ticonderoga on lake Champlain. But not even his genius could convert into an omen of victory the fact that France was losing control of the sea. Louis XV had allowed the French navy to sink into neglect; whereas William Pitt , England 's great war minister, had realized that sea-power was likely to be the decisive factor, and had put new life into the British navy. The turn of the tide came when, in 1758, the British navy landed at Louisbourg a British army that compelled the surrender of this great fortress. The capture of Louisbourg gave the British command of the gulf of St. Lawrence, and so made possible a combined military and naval attack on Quebec . Montcalm was forced to withdraw his forces to Quebec , to meet the impending attack; and one fort after another in the interior, with their weakened garrisons, succumbed to the English onslaught.


Finally, in 1759, a British fleet under Charles Saunders   sailed up the St. Lawrence and disembarked opposite Quebec a British army under James Wolfe . In Wolfe , Montcalm met an adversary of equal genius. The capture of Quebec was not an easy problem. Montcalm held the north bank of the St. Lawrence in such strength that Wolfe was at first nowhere able to effect a landing. It was only on the morning of September 13, that Wolfe, by means of a clever ruse succeeded in getting his army ashore at what is now known as Wolfe's cove; and later in the morning there was fought on the plains of Abraham the battle that decided the fate of Quebec and of Canada . Both Wolfe and Montcalm fell in the battle; but the British captured Quebec , and though they were themselves beleaguered in Quebec by the French forces under Lévis , the arrival the following spring of ships flying the Union Jack sealed the fate of New France . The French army fell back on Montreal , and on September 8, 1760, capitulated with the honours of war.


The Peace of Paris in 1763 marked the formal cession of Canada to Great Britain . All that remained to France of her North American possessions were the two little islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon , which she retained as a shelter for her fishing ships on the banks of Newfoundland . The British, however, were not to enjoy possession of their new domains without a further struggle. In 1763-4 the Indians allies of the French rose in one last struggle against the British invaders. Under a chief of the Ottawas named Pontiac , they attacked and overwhelmed the frontier posts from Virginia to lake Superior. Only Detroit held out; but after a year's siege, it was relieved, and Pontiac was compelled to sue for peace. With the collapse of the " Conspiracy of Pontiac ", as the outbreak was known, the British gained undisputed possession of Canada, and the Union Jack flew supreme from Hudson bay to the gulf of Mexico, and from the Atlantic to the western prairies.


The War of the American Revolution .


The Union Jack was not long, however, to fly over this vast territory. Barely a decade after Canada became British territory, the American Revolution broke out. This resulted in a new invasion of Canada by warlike forces. Both in the provinces of Quebec and Nova Scotia there were elements that sympathized with the American rebels; but neither province joined the union of rebellious states to the south, and early in 1775 the revolutionary leaders decided to invade Canada , and try to win it over to the revolutionary cause. Ethan Allen   and his " Green Mountain boys" captured without difficulty the posts of Ticonderoga and Crown Point on lake Champlain; and this success paved the way for an invasion of Canada . The Continental Congress launched against Canada two small armies. One, under Colonel Benedict Arnold , was to ascend the Kennebec, cross the wilds of Maine, and descend the Chaudière river to Quebec; the other, under Brigadier-General Richard Montgomery   was to advance on Montreal by way of lake Champlain and the Richelieu river, and then to join forces with Arnold before Quebec. At first, the American campaign proceeded according to schedule. Montgomery captured the British forts at Chambly and St. Johns [ St. Jean ], and occupied Montreal without firing a shot; he then moved down the river to Quebec , and here he effected a junction with the forces of Arnold , which had, after an amazing march through almost impassable country, already begun still another siege of Quebec . Sir Guy Carleton , who was in command at Quebec, had, however, learned the lesson of the battle of the Plains of Abraham, and refused to come out from behind the walls of Quebec. The Americans were therefore compelled to attempt to carry Quebec by storm. On New Year's Eve, 1775, they made a night assault on the barricades at the eastern and western end of the lower town. The attack was an almost complete failure. Montgomery was killed, Arnold was wounded, and most of the Americans who penetrated the barriers were taken prisoners. During the rest of the winter, the Americans continued a passive siege of Quebec ; but on the arrival of the British fleet, with reinforcements, in the spring, they beat a hasty retreat, and by the end of 1776 they had withdrawn from Canadian soil. Such was the termination of what has been described as "the struggle for the fourteenth colony."


In the later stages of the American revolutionary war, Canada was the base from which a number of the British military operations were carried out; but, thanks to the failure of the British War Office to effect a proper co-ordination of the movements of the British forces in America, these operations were largely abortive, and served chiefly to rouse the revolutionists to more determined measures, though they did not again attempt to attack Montreal and Quebec. In the Illinois country, however, which had been re-annexed to Canada by the Quebec Act , American frontiersmen under George Rogers Clark succeeded in driving back the British to the walls of Detroit and in wresting from them those vast territories which are sometimes known as "the Old North West". Thus the War of the American Revolution, though it left Canada British, resulted in the loss of a large part of what had been Canada during the French régime.


The War of 1812 .


For thirty years after the close of the American revolutionary war, peace reigned along the Canadian border. During a greater part of this period, it is true, relations between Great Britain and the United States were far from amicable. For nearly half this period, Great Britain, because of the failure of the Americans to carry out this part of the Treaty of Versailles , refused to give up the so-called "western lake posts" of Oswego, Niagara, Detroit, and Michilimackinac; and it was only by Jay's treaty in 1796 that these posts were surrendered. But ten years later a new source of friction developed. The Napoleonic wars resulted in 1806-7 in the blockade of Napoleon's "continental system" by Great Britain , and in the assertion by Great Britain of the right to search neutral ships. This right was vigorously disputed by the United States , and its exercise ultimately led in 1812 to the declaration of war on Great Britain by the American Congress.


Canada had no connection with the origin of the War of 1812 ; but there was a growing party in the United States which believed that the time had come to add Canada to the American union, and in any case Canada was the only accessible target of attack. If the Americans had been united in the prosecution of the war, the fate of Canada would have been a foregone conclusion; for the colony had a population only a small fraction of that of the United States , and there were in Canada only a few regiments of British regular troops. But, fortunately for Canada , many parts of the United States were lukewarm in their prosecution of the war. Some of the New England states refused to send their militia to the front; and the militia of other states, when they did reach the front, were reluctant to cross the border. On the other hand, the inhabitants of Canada were mainly either French-Canadian or Loyalist ; and neither element looked with equanimity on absorption in the United States . The American invaders of Canada seemed to think that they were deliverers, come to free Canada from the yoke of British domination; but actually the Canadians regarded the war as an unprovoked attack on their homes and their lives; and they fought consequently as if they had their backs to the wall. There was a small element in Upper Canada , com­posed of recent immigrants from the United States , which was in sympathy with the invaders; but this element was negligible, and exerted no influence on the result. The decisive factor, however, was probably that Canada was still largely an unbroken wilderness, without any system of roads; and it was conse­quently a very difficult country to invade. Armies require a commissariat, especially when they cannot live off the country; and a commissariat breaks down in a country without roads.


The War of 1812 was in a military sense one of the most futile wars in history. It began in nothing, and it ended in nothing; and out of nothing as a rule nothing comes. But out of the War of 1812 something did come. It gave rise to the first stirrings of Cana­dian national feeling. Just as the War of Scottish Independence gave rise to Scottish nationalism, and the War of Swiss Independence to Swiss national­ism, so the War of Canadian Inde­pendence (as the War of 1812 might fittingly be described) gave rise to Canadian nationalism. Consequently, the minor battles and skirmishes of which the war was made up have taken in the eyes of the Canadian people a significance out of all proportion to their importance from the standpoint of the military historian. It is therefore desirable that the course of the struggle should be described here in some detail.


It was on the Detroit border that the Americans struck first. Early in July, 1812, an American force under General Hull marched north to Detroit , and proceeded to invade the western part of Upper Canada from this point. General Brock , who was at this time administrator of Upper Canada , as well as commander-in-chief, decided to meet this attack with a counter-offen­sive. Though he had at his disposal only about 700 troops, with 600 Indians under the famous Tecumseh , as against Hull's 2,500 men, he made a forced march from York (Toronto) to the western extremity of the province, compelled Hull to retire on Detroit, and then, with almost foolhardy audacity, crossed the Detroit river, and prepared to attack Detroit itself. Hull , overawed apparently by Brock's strategy, sur­rendered before the British attack developed; and Detroit was thus cap­tured, "without the sacrifice of a drop of British blood," on August 16, 1812.


The American attack next developed along the Niagara frontier. Here, during the summer of 1812, the Americans had been concentrating an army; and on the night of October 12, they effected a landing on the Canadian side of the Niagara river, near the village of Queenston . Brock, who had returned to the Niagara frontier within a week of the capture of Detroit, led an attack on the Americans, who had entrenched themselves on Queenston Heights; and though he himself fell mortally wounded in the attack, his second-in-command, General Sheaffe , eventually succeeded in driving the invaders into the river on the afternoon of October 13. The Americans made later another attempt to obtain a foothold on the Canadian side of the river, above Queenston Heights ; but this too failed of success, and the coming of winter found Cana­dian soil everywhere intact.


The year 1813 proved to be much more critical for Canada than 1812. The Americans, galled by their ill success, launched against Canada three separate attacks ¾ one on the Detroit front, one on the Niagara front, and one directed against Montreal ¾ all three of which proved dangerous. On the Detroit front, Colonel Procter , the British command­ant, took at first the defensive; but he was eventually compelled to fall back on Amberstburg, opposite Detroit , and later he was forced to fall back from this position by the failure of the tiny British fleet on lake Erie to retain command of the lake. Commodore Chauncey, the American naval commander on lake Erie, built a fleet which, under Lieutenant Perry, succeeded on September 9 in annihilating the British flotilla; and thus closed the line of water communication between Niagara and Amherstburg. Procter retreated up the valley of the Thames , followed closely by the Americans; and at Moraviantown he and his Indian allies were forced to stand and give battle. The result was an ignominious defeat for the British. Procter escaped "by the fleetness of his horse"; but Tecumseh, the Shawnee chief who led the Indians, was slain in the battle, and Procter's force was eliminated as a factor in the struggle. Fortunately for the British,. however, the lack of communications in the western part of Upper Canada made it impossible for the Americans to follow up their victory, and their success ended with Moraviantown.


On the Niagara frontier, the Americans massed heavy forces; and early in the year the British were compelled to evacuate the forts on the Niagara river, and to withdraw from the Niagara peninsula. On lake Ontario , moreover, the Americans succeeded in obtaining as they did on lake Erie, a naval superiority; and in April 27 they landed near York ( Toronto ) a. force which captured the capital of Upper Canada , and held it for a week. But in the later part of the year, the fortunes of war were reversed. Commodore Yeo , an able British officer who had been given command of the naval forces on the Great lakes, succeeded in regaining command of lake Ontario ; and Colonel Harvey , inflicted on the American land forces at Stoney creek, near the head of lake Ontario , a defeat which eventually brought about their retirement behind the Niagara river . On retiring, they burned the undefended town of Newark (Niagara-on-the-lake); and this wanton act afterwards led to reprisals on the part of the British, such as the destruction of Buffalo and the burning of the public buildings at Washington by a landing-party from the British fleet in the Atlantic .


The most serious threat was, however, that against Montreal . If Montreal were captured by the Americans, it followed that the whole of Upper Canada must fall into their hands. Against Montreal two American armies were set in motion. One was to advance from Sackett's Harbour, at the eastern end of lake Ontario , the other from the southern end of lake Champlain; and the two were to meet at the mouth of the Châteauguay river, opposite the island of Montreal . The meeting, however, never took place. The force from Sackett's Harbour suffered a set-back at the battle of Crysler's Farm, on the north shore of the St. Lawrence; and the force from lake Champlain, though it reached the Châteauguay river, was defeated on the banks of this river by a combined force of French-Canadian Voltigeurs and Scottish-Canadian Highlanders, in one of the most brilliant exploits of the war. In both of these engagements, the British forces were greatly inferior in numbers to the Americans; and if the Americans had shown greater determination, they might have captured Montreal . But the season was already far advanced, and the Americans therefore decided to withdraw to winter quarters, and break off the campaign. Thus it came about that, with the exception of the western end of Upper Canada (which was, in any case, an almost uninhabited wilderness), the end of 1813 saw Canada still unconquered.


The campaign of 1814 followed roughly the same lines, and ended in the same results as the campaign of. 1813. On the Niagara frontier, the Americans enjoyed at first some success. They crossed again the Niagara river, captured Fort Erie , and won the battle of Chippawa; but at Lundy's Lane they met the main British forces, and a stubborn and bloody battle was fought, in which each side claimed the victory. The result of the battle was, however, that the American advance was stayed; and later in the year, when the American fleets on lake Erie and lake Ontario were forced to take shelter, the Americans evacuated Fort Erie, and left the Niagara peninsula once more free of the invader.


In their attack on Montreal , the Americans in 1814 advanced by way of lake Champlain. Here they were met by strong British forces under Sir George Prevost , the governor of Canada , who, reinforced by some of Wellington 's veterans, decided to take the offensive. The success of his offensive was, however, conditional on his obtaining naval control of lake Champlain; and the small British flotilla on the lake was defeated opposite Plattsburg, on the western side of lake Champlain. The British land forces were thereupon compelled to retreat; and Prevost's conduct of the campaign brought upon him severe censure. But the British offensive, even if it ended in disaster again, prevented the Americans from reaching Montreal , and thus served its chief purpose. The fact remained that, after nearly three years of warfare, the Americans had failed to come within striking distance of Montreal , which was their chief objective.


Up to 1814 the British had been under a great handicap in their defence of Canada , since their chief efforts had been devoted to defeating Napoleon in Europe . But with the incarceration of Napoleon on Elba in 1814, Great Britain was at last able to turn her full energies toward meeting the American attack on Canada; and the United States, weary of a war which had yielded no results, gladly signed a treaty of peace at Ghent , in the Netherlands, on December 24, 1814. In the treaty no mention was made of the causes of the war, and provision was made for the return of all conquered territory. From the standpoint of concrete results, the war might as well never have taken place.


The Hundred Years of Peace.


For one hundred years after the War of 1812 Canada enjoyed an almost unbroken period of peace. In 1837, it is true, there was an armed rebellion in Upper and Lower Canada, and there were engagements between the rebels and the loyalist troops at Montgomery's Farm, at St. Denis, and at St. Eustache; and in 1838 American sympathizers with the Canadian rebels created disturbances at Navy island in the Niagara river, at Prescott on the St. Lawrence (where "the battle of the Windmill" was fought)   and on the Detroit frontier. These episodes severely strained the relations between Canada and the United States , but did not rupture them, and they may be regarded therefore as little more than domestic disturbances. Similarly, in 1866 and in 1870, inroads on the Canadian frontier were made by Irish-Americans belonging to the Fenian organization; and engagements were fought at Ridgeway in 1866 and at Eccles Hill in 1870, but the Fenians received no support from the government of the United States, and their raids, which had no result but that of strengthening the demand for an efficient militia in Canada, can only by courtesy be described as military operations. In 1870 and in 1885 it became necessary to dispatch to the Canadian North West military expeditions to cope with the insurrections of the French Metis on the Red river and on the Saskatchewan ; but these were purely domestic affairs.


During this period, of course, Canadians took part in the wars of the British Empire . A Canadian, Lieut. Dunn, won the Victoria Cross at the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava in the Crimean War in 1856. Later, in 1884, a force of Canadian voyageurs or boatmen were sent to assist at the attempted relief of General Gordon at Khartoum on the Nile; and between 1899 and 1901 three small contingents of Canadian troops were sent to take part in the South African War. The dispatch of these minor expeditions produced, however, little more than a ripple in the life of Canada [a nuance might have to be made in the case of the South African War which caused the resignation of Henri Bourassa from the Liberal Party and the rise of the nationalist movement in Quebec.]; and it was not until 1914 ¾ exactly a century after the close of the War of 1812 ¾ that the outbreak of the World War reduced Canada again to a war-time basis. But even this war was fought wholly outside Canada 's borders; and it is therefore dealt with in a separate article (see World War).




There is no military history of Canada comparable with Sir J. W. Fortescue's monumental History of the British army (20 vols., London, 1899-1930); but much information relative to the French period of Canadian military history may be derived from the scattered writings of Benjamin Sulte, and much relative to the English period from the chapter on "Defence, 1812-1912", contributed by C. F. Hamilton   to A. Shortt and A. G. Doughty (ads.), Canada and its provinces, vol. vii (Toronto, 1914), and those by C. F. Hamilton on The Canadian militia (Canadian Defence Quarterly, 1929). Books and pamphlets relating to the military history of the Seven Years' War, the War of the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Rebellion of 1837, the North-West Insurrections of 1869-70, and 1885, the South African War, and the World War, will be found listed under these separate heads.


Source: W. Stewart WALLACE, "Military History", in The Encyclopedia of Canada , Vol. 3, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 396p., pp. 167-175.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College