Causes of the War of 1812
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. Known as the “Chesapeake Affair,” the event 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 Henry 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 Quebec (see Quebec City in the War of 1812). 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.
First Nations and Métis Peoples in the War of 1812
Studio portrait taken in July 1882 of the surviving Six Nations warriors who fought with the British in the War of 1812. (Right to left:) Sakawaraton - John Smoke Johnson (born ca. 1792); John Tutela (born ca. 1797) and Young Warner (born ca. 1794).
First Nations and Métis peoples played a significant role in Canada in the War of 1812. The conflict forced various Indigenous peoples to overcome longstanding differences and unite against a common enemy. It also strained alliances, such as the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) Confederacy, in which some nations were allied with American forces. Most First Nations strategically allied themselves with Great Britain during the war, seeing the British as the lesser of two colonial evils (see Indigenous-British Relations Pre-Confederation) and the group most interested in maintaining traditional territories and trade (see First Nations and Métis Peoples in the War of 1812).
Two Shawnee brothers, Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa, implored Indigenous peoples to unite in order to defend their dwindling lands against the growing incursions of American settlers and the United States government. The promise of such an Aboriginal state never came to fruition. During negotiations for the Treaty of Ghent (1814) that ended the war, the British tried to bargain for the creation of an Indian Territory, but the American delegates refused to agree.
For Indigenous peoples living in British North America, the War of 1812 marked the end of an era of self-reliance and self-determination. Soon they would become outnumbered by settlers in their own lands. Any social or political influence enjoyed before the war dissipated. Within a generation, the contributions of so many different peoples, working together with their British and Canadian allies against a common foe, would be all but forgotten (see Aboriginal Title and the War of 1812).
The British Attack
Sir Isaac 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 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. Nearly 400 Dakota (Sioux), Menominee, Winnebago, Odawa and Ojibwe warriors, along with 45 British soldiers and some 200 voyageurs (including Métis) 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 (see Fort Amherstburg and the War of 1812). 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 (see Capture of Detroit, War of 1812).
DID YOU KNOW?
Shawnee war chief Tecumseh (1768–1813) sided with the British, not because he fully trusted them, but because he saw them as a strategic ally with common interests. Tecumseh combined a passionate concern for his people with an acute strategic military sense. During the War of 1812, a large number of Indigenous nations fought under Tecumseh, who gained the alliance of the Potawatomi, Ojibwa, Shawnee, Odawa, Kickapoo and others, though not all groups supported him.
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.)
DID YOU KNOW?
Outnumbered more than 10 to 1, Mohawk chiefs John Norton (Teyoninhokarawen) and John Brant (Ahyonwaeghs) and about 80 other Haudenosaunee and Delaware warriors held back American forces at Queenston Heights for several hours — long enough for reinforcements to arrive so that the British could retain the crucial outpost.
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 conserved his thin forces carefully, keeping a strong garrison at Quebec and sending reinforcements to Upper Canada only when additional troops arrived from overseas.
The Coloured Corps was a militia company of Black men raised during the War of 1812 by Richard Pierpoint, a formerly enslaved man from Bondu (Senegal) and military veteran of the American Revolution. Created in Upper Canada, where enslavement had been limited in 1793, the corps was composed of free and enslaved Black men. Many were veterans of the American Revolution, in which they fought for the British (see Black Loyalists). The Coloured Corps fought in the Battle of Queenston Heights and the Battle of Fort George before it was attached to the Royal Engineers as a construction company.
The company was disbanded on 24 March 1815, following the end of the war. In claiming rewards for their service, many faced adversity and discrimination. Sergeant William Thompson was informed he “must go and look for his pay himself,” while Richard Pierpoint, then in his 70s, was denied his request for passage home to Africa in lieu of a land grant. When grants were distributed in 1821, veterans of the Coloured Corps received only 100 acres, half that of their White counterparts. Many veterans did not settle the land they were granted because it was of poor quality. Despite these inequities, the Coloured Corps defended Canada honourably, setting the precedent for the formation of Black units in future (see The Coloured Corps: Black Canadians and the War of 1812).
Campaigns in Upper Canada (1813)
As the campaign of 1813 opened, an American flotilla of 16 ships landed at York (now 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 300 Kahnawake and a further 100 Mohawk warriors led by Captain William Kerr (see Mohawk of the St. Lawrence Valley). 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.
DID YOU KNOW?
Laura Secord walked 30 km from Queenston to Beaver Dams, near Thorold, to warn James FitzGibbon that the Americans were planning to attack his outpost. Secord took a circuitous route through inhospitable terrain to avoid American sentries on her trek and was helped by a group of Mohawk warriors she encountered along the way.
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 (see The Burning of Washington).
War on the Western Flank (1813–14)
The Americans fared better on the western flank. The British tried and failed to take William Henry Harrison’s stronghold at Fort Meigs on the Maumee River. A struggle for control of Lake Erie followed (see War on the Lakes). 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. Henry Procter delayed fatally in his retreat, however, and Harrison caught up with him at the Battle of the Thames (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 British 10–1, 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 Châteauguay (25–26 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.
The Canadian Voltigeurs was a volunteer corps raised and commanded by Charles-Michel d’Irumberry de Salaberry, a British army officer born in Beauport, Lower Canada. The Voltigeurs were initially assigned to defend the Eastern Townships.
In November 1812, they faced American Major General Dearborn and his 6,000-strong force, who invaded the region from Plattsburgh. De Salaberry rushed with a company of Voltigeurs and 230 Kahnawake Mohawk warriors to staunch the invasion at Lacolle. While they could not halt the invasion, days of skirmishing increased the cost, and Dearborn retreated days later.
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 bloodiest 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 (14–15 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 Scotia’s 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 Sir George Prevost led 11,000 British veterans of the Napoleonic Wars to Plattsburgh on Lake Champlain. However, Prevost was hesitant to attack, 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
Prevost’s decision to withdraw from American territory affected peace negotiations in Ghent, which had begun in August 1814. Had Prevost’s 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 (see Treaty of Ghent).
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. Several 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 of 1812?
Washington had expected the largely American population of Upper Canada to throw off the “British yoke” as soon as its army crossed the border. This did not happen. Lured northwards by free land and low taxes, 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 wanted to annex, or take over, 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 (see First Nations and Métis Peoples in the War of 1812). 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 Indigenous allies in the peace, just as they had several times before.