When was the “War of 1812” fought? Unless you’re a “Jaywalker” on the Jay Leno show the answer is easy . But if the average American is pressed much further on the subject he/she is liable to start drawing a blank. It is not one of our best known wars. The “when” is easy. As to what happened and why, we Americans are real fuzzy on that. Now, on the two-hundredth anniversary of this war, I think it a good idea to look back and sort things out.
As a dyed-in –the –wool US history buff I knew a few things prior to reading Walter Borneman’s excellent and highly readable account entitled: 1812:THE WAR THAT FORGED A NATION. I knew that the impressments of US sailors by the British, the practice of stopping US ships and taking crew members off to serve on their own ships, was a major cause. I knew that there were battles on the frontier with Native Americans that were somehow related to the struggle with the British, that the USS Constitution was called OLD IRONSIDES after a victory or two over British ships, that Washington City was raided and the White House set afire in retaliation for a US raid into Canada, that Francis Scott Key wrote the words to our national anthem while British ships bombed Fort McHenry near Baltimore and most of all, I knew that our very own Andy Jackson won a great victory over crack British regulars at the Battle of New Orleans early in 1815, after the peace treaty/armistice had been signed. Beyond these basics, I really couldn’t say much. Yes, I was ill-equipped for a good discussion on the subject.
Why did the US decide in the early Summer of 1812 to go to war against Great Britain? Ostensibly it was about grievances on the high seas, the impressments of American sailors to serve on British ships and, to a lesser extent, the manner in which British agents had functioned as “outside agitators” to various Native groups on the frontier. When President James Madison’s call for war was read to congress there was no mention of a desire to seize Canadian territory. Still it was understood . Canada, owned and controlled by the British, would be the spoils of war. A country doesn’t to war simply to make a point and preserve her “honor” although that word was thrown around a good bit by the war hawks and sabre-rattlers in 1812. A country goes to war, sheds precious blood and expends her treasure to gain land/real estate, especially if that nation is the United States in the nineteenth century.
Here in Tennessee, soon to be called the “Volunteer State” (due to her enthusiasm for the war of 1812,) our own Felix Grundy, an avowed “War Hawk”, exhorted his fellow Tennesseans in the THE CLARION on July 7, 1812 (a Nashville newspaper) thus:
…war is declared against Great Britain, it now remains for the people of the US to shew themselves Americans…that nation (GB) has never ceased to employ means to reduce us to a worse state than that of colonization…she has continually harassed & now almost annihilated our commerce…the savage tribes, at the instigation of British agents, are now waging against us a cruel warfare…it was established that the Governor of Canada, with the approbation of his government, had employed & sent into our country a secret agent to poison the minds of our citizens, to create disunion…what man can doubt that nation capable of any act, however base and dishonorable? (cited in the NASHVILLE RETROSPECT, VO. IV, No. 1, July 2012)
The “ war hawks” of 1812 had made it clear: the war was to be against Canada and her British masters-the two were one and the same. This war would finish the business started in 1775. It was no longer acceptable to have the British breathing down our necks next door on Canadian soil. It was longer acceptable for British ships to control the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes, waterways vital to US commerce, communication, and Westward expansion.
An important lesson I learned from Mr. Bourneman’s book was this: except for a few Naval victories and the battle of New Orleans, there’s little to brag about in the war of 1812. Americans had anticipated a short, easy victory over the British and Canadians. It didn’t happen. There were victories against “Indian” forces. But it’s pretty unfashionable these days to make much of that. As long as we avoid focusing on most of what preceded the battle of New Orleans in early 1815, the last battle of the war (and a defensive one at that), we can look back on the war of 1812 as a second war of independence-more or less. Maybe we could sum it up by saying something like “despite some complications and failures along the way- all’s well that ends well.”
That would be “spin” alright.
When we view the war of 1812 as a second victory over our old enemies the British and their native allies, we’re forgetting something very important: The US also fought Canada. And that part of the war, the offensive part, in the minds of the war hawks the biggest part of going to war in the first place, was a failure. No Canadian territory was ceded to the US in the Treaty of Ghent that formally ended the war in late 1814. Knowing that the British would have laughed in their faces had they brought it up, the American delegation didn’t even try. But this is jumping ahead.
“Success has many fathers and failure is an orphan” One of the worst aspects of being an orphan is that the orphan is often overlooked, and forgotten, unclaimed and unwanted. Over the last two hundred years, Americans have forgotten that the 36 year old US nation under the administration of James Madison, goaded on by Western expansionists, went to war in 1812 (in part) to take Canada away from the British. The resulting campaigns to conquer and annex Canada became “orphans” in our national historic consciousness, an overlooked and forgotten chapter our national story, an overlooked part of a mostly forgotten war.
In 1810 the “saber-rattling” Henry Clay of Kentucky (a colleague of Felix Grundy) boasted to his political allies that “the Kentucky militia alone are competent to place Montreal and Upper Canada at your feet.” (p.57) Despite the stated reasons for the war, Clay and the war hawks made no secret of what they expected the spoils of war to be: Canada. Except for a few New England doubters, most Americans agreed. In the event of war, that ripe Canadian plum was theirs for the picking.
Once war was declared the US lost no time in getting started. The first expedition launched against Canada in the Summer of 1812 soon after the declaration of war, was commanded by William Hull, a fifty-nine year old veteran of the American Revolution and, as it turned out, a poor choice for command. The expedition he led, the Western portion of a broad three-pronged US offensive, was a disaster. After a few weeks Hull ended up surrendering his small army to the enemy, control of the Michigan territory passed to the British, and Hull was himself later brought up on charges and court-martialed-not an inspiring beginning to the army’s role in the war of 1812. Nowadays only college history professors, employees at historic sites and a few historic novelists will remember who William Hull was. An orphan for sure, Hull and his ill-fated campaign, the Western thrust of a US campaign to seize Canada, are now but a footnote.
To the East, US ground forces comprising the second prong of the US offensive fared no better. Under the command of Stephen Van Ressalaer, a political general with little combat experience, American forces, mostly regular US troops, ventured across the Niagara River( the accepted national border connecting Lake Erie and Lake Ontario) a few miles above Niagara Falls into Canadian territory and captured a British fort at Queenston Heights. When nearby British forces counterattacked to re-take the fort, the American troops there under the command of a youthful Lt. Col. Winfield Scott, outnumbered and isolated, were forced to surrender. Why? American militia troops on the other side of the river, despite the pleading of General Van Ressalaer, had refused to cross over into Canadian territory to help them. Apparently they were not aware of a major reason for the war: to take Canada. Consequently, their fellow Americans on the West side of the river, about eight hundred men, became prisoners of the British and Canadians.
The third prong of the US offensive against Canada in 1812, in all honesty, never materialized. When troops under the command of Henry Dearborn, like Hull, a veteran of the Revolution and an equally uninspiring leader, after some delays, finally marched from New England toward Montreal in the late Fall of 1812, state militia troops once again refused to cross the border into Canada and turned back at the border. Apparently they too had not received the memo as to what the war was all about. By this time the British and Canadians were getting a good laugh as the war on land degenerated into a comedy of US errors, miscalculations, and sheer incompetency. Walter Borneman concludes: “There it was. On land, the American campaigns of 1812 had been unmitigated disasters.” (p.76)
Americans had assumed that the Canadians would be eager to rise up against their British masters and enjoy the “liberation” that the US would bring. Instead they fought the US invasion. And did so fiercely. You know what you get when you assume. Being the sons of Tories, those who had supported the crown and fled the rebellious colonies during and after the American Revolution, the Canadians, it seems, had no love for the United States. After receiving all the bad news around Christmas, Henry Clay of Kentucky was forced to eat his words. Maybe the conquest of Canada wasn’t going to be so easy after all.
Despite the dismal failure of the previous Summer and Fall, the Madison administration was determined to finish what it had started. Soon after Lake Ontario thawed, a small army under the command of Zebulon Pike (yes, the fellow for whom the mountain was named) boarded a number of small ships at Sackett’s Harbor on the far Eastern end of Lake Ontario and sailed for York, (later called Toronto) the capital of “Upper Canada.” At York they hoped to capture two ships under construction there and ..well… the other objectives were a bit fuzzy, which may be one of the reasons things got out of hand when they did reach the town on April 27, 1813.`
Things went well for the American expeditionary force initially. British and Canadian forces at York either fled or surrendered was soon as they appeared. But one enterprising group, not wanting their stores of powder to fall into American hands exploded it in a blast that killed Pike, the explorer-general not long after he had entered the town. An hour or two later General Dearborn, who had somehow managed to retain his position, stumbled ashore and, as best he could, took command of the US forces. But with the great explosion, all order with the US troops seemed to somehow disappear. They began looting and burning, even putting the parliament buildings to the torch. Not satisfied with this, Dearborn the next day ordered other government buildings destroyed. A few days later the US forces, having finished their dirty work, re-boarded their boats and returned to Sackett’s Harbor leaving a great part of the town in ashes, the unhappy citizens of the place happy to see them leave and vowing revenge. Exactly how this raid was supposed to bring about or even assist in the conquest of Canada was never explained.
Undaunted the US tried again in the Summer of 1814 with a number of incursions across the Niagara River into Canadian territory. A few battles were fought. Winfield Scott again rendered solid performances at two of these battles but lacking sufficient resources to follow up on what little success was achieved, US forces by early November returned to the East side of the river and things remained unchanged.
In the late Summer of 1814 British troops under the command of Sir George Prevost, emboldened by the poor performance of the US on Canadian soil, invaded New York from Lake Champlain down the Hudson River along the Eastern border of New York state, roughly the same route utilized by “Gentleman” Johnny Burgoyne in his ill-fated mission resulting in the surrender of his entire army at Saratoga in October 1777. It was, by the standards of the day, a large army numbering nearly 10,000. He was opposed at Plattsurg by a much smaller American army dug in to contest his advance. This time things didn’t go so well for the British and Canadians. In a fierce contest on Lake Champlain their navy was soundly defeated by the American Navy, an event that put Prevost’s lines of supply, reinforcement and communication in severe jeopardy. R emembering the fate of Burgoyne years before, Prevost got the jitters, burned his excess supplies, turned his army around and headed back to Canada. The big land battle in the North on US soil where the US army could win a resounding victory never materialized.
The US celebrated but, they realized, the victory at Plattsburg had been anti-climatic and strictly defensive. So far, in spite of two and a half years of US efforts, the American-Canadian border was no different than it had been when the war started. In the Northern theatre of the war it was not “All’s Well that Ends Well” it was more like: “Much Ado about Nothing.”
The US had little to celebrate in late 1814. A British blockade of the major US ports was strangling the country. The US capitol city lay mostly in ruins after a late Summer British raid (in retaliation for the US raid on York mentioned earlier). General Winder, whose timidity and incompetence had allowed it, was subjected to a court of inquiry, the latest in a growing line of generals to face censure or court-martial for poor performance in the field. That Fall the US congress was forced to meet in the patent office, one of the few places in Washington City still standing. President Madison himself, the luckless commander-in-chief, was bitterly assaulted in the press and from political foes, not a happy time for his administration. The war that had begun with the expectation of an easy victory followed by growth and expansion had now, it seemed, turned into a fight for mere survival.
For nearly two years US military expeditions into “Upper Canada”, the area that, on the map, seems to protrude into US territory, an area between what is now Michigan and New York state bordered on the South by lakes Ontario and Erie were, for the most part, embarrassing failures accomplishing nothing except driving the Canadians even more strongly into the British fold. Nowadays, modern Canadians can make a pretty good case for victory in the war of 1812, a notion that most US citizens would find silly. Canada defeat the US in a war? Tough to admit as it is, they did, and with a little help from their British friends, ended any further threats from that big “bully”(from their point-of-view) to the South .
There might be some debate on just who won if the Canadians are reminded that they and the British had been meddling (a little) in what the US considered it’s internal affairs and territorial claims in the old Northwest and Michigan territory. This did cease with the war’s conclusion. At best then, our war in the North with Canada and her British allies could be considered a draw-from the US point-of-view. The Canadians, of course, have tended to see it differently. US forces, in their view, invaded their country and were repulsed, sent back where they came from with their tails tucked between their legs. Canada remained in the British fold-for the time being. For them, even now, that would be the end of the discussion. Of course, they would likely be very nice about it.
Astonishingly, the major cause of the war, impressment of US sailors, was not even mentioned in the peace articles of the Treaty of Ghent signed on 12/24/14.It seems that what both delegations wanted was simply an end to hostilities. American merchants desperately wanted an end to the British naval blockade that was slowly strangling US commerce. They sent a clear message to the US delegation prior to their departure: “Forget Canada. Get this mess over with so that we can get our goods sold and delivered! We’re dying here!” Henry Clay, one of the US delegates at Ghent, had to swallow his pride and do just that. Hostilities ceased, the blockade was lifted and, almost as a bonus, the British, on their own volition, discontinued the practice of impressment because, they later said, the Napoleonic wars had ceased and the Royal Navy no longer needed the manpower, no longer needed to keep so many ships afloat which indeed seemed to be the case.
Then came the Battle of New Orleans, fought two weeks after the treaty was signed, a smashing victory for the US and a terrible humiliation for the British, catapulting Andrew Jackson, our own Tennessee hero, into national prominence. Finally Americans had something to cheer about, a shout of triumph atop a great sigh of collective relief, suddenly giving a happy ending to a war which had gone sour. It obscured however, the reasons the US had gone to war in the first place, not for survival but for expansion. And, as much as I love our national anthem, it too, with lines such as: “Our flag was still there..” suggests that the war of 1812 was much like the Revolution 37 years previous when, in all honestly, it wasn’t. In 1812 Great Britain had no desire to regain her lost colonies but simply to hold on to her big remaining colony. Only in a very limited sense was the war of 1812 a second war of independence. Or a war for national survival. We might say that it was a war that simply tied up the loose ends, one of which was Canada. The British officially let most of their American colonies go (except Canada) at the Treaty of Paris in 1783. At the Treaty of Ghent thirty-nine years later, it was the United States turn to let Canada go.
As for Henry Clay of Kentucky, the key figure among the “war hawks” of 1812, the battle of New Orleans saved him from a debilitating embarrassment enabling him to remain in the national political spotlight as speaker of the house and later secretary of state. Over his long and distinguished career, he made five serious runs at the presidency but as any school child who has memorized the list of presidents can tell you, his name ain’t on that list.
Americans, in time, as their borders extended Westward, forgot about how badly they had wanted to extend their borders Northward into Canada but, as the Englishman Mick Jagger reminded us all, even us “Yanks” many years later: “You can’t always get what you want..” No sir you can’t.