The War of 1812 - 200 years later

 
 
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Heroes and Heroines from the War of 1812
 
By Mike Smith
It often amazes me what things I can recall from my days in elementary school.
 
When asked to whip up this article on the War of 1812 for the Wayback Times, one of the first images that came to mind was that of my Grade 2 teacher at St. Anne’s in Ancaster, Mrs. Kennedy.
 
You see, Mrs. Kennedy had been telling us stories about the War of 1812 and got very excited as she tried to re-enact General Isaac Brock’s counterattack at Queenston Heights.
 
I remember her holding up a yardstick (her mock sabre) and yelling “Come on men!” as she pranced around her desk. She was a great teacher.
 
The reasons why nations declare war on one another are often confusing but, in this instance, the U.S. declaration of war on Great Britain in 1812 seemed completely understandable.
 
For one thing, during the Britain’s ongoing war with Napoleon her navy had been boarding American merchant ships trading with France and conscripting seaman.
 
There was also some truth to the American public’s belief that Britain was deliberately stirring up First Nations peoples on the frontier to counter U.S. western expansion.
 
When the Americans had had enough, President James Madison declared war on Great Britain on June 18, 1812. The president and his cabinet undoubtedly knew it would have been foolhardy to confront Britain at sea.
 
Canada, the under-populated colony, was another matter altogether. Former President Thomas Jefferson is said to have stated that taking Canada “would be a mere matter of marching.” After all, at 7.7 million inhabitants in 1812, the U.S. population was more than 10 times bigger than ours.
 
What’s that expression? “Famous last words”? Unfortunately for the American soldiers who “marched” into Upper Canada (now Ontario) from Fort Detroit in July 1812, their leader, General William Hull, was no match for Upper Canada’s brilliant General Isaac Brock.
 
In a master stroke, Brock sidestepped Hull’s army and instead attacked and defeated the American garrison at Mackinac Island (Michigan).
 
Concerned about the Michigan Territory, a panicking Hull soon hurried back to Detroit.
 
Neutral First Nations warriors, emboldened by Brock’s initial success, joined his army of British and Canadian troops and together they hooted, hollered and literally bluffed Hull into surrendering Fort Detroit on Aug. 16.
 
As he marched out of the fort a prisoner, Hull was said to have been horrified when he realized he had just ceded the Michigan Territory to a force half the size of his. Legendary Shawnee leader Tecumseh was at Brock’s right hand during the victory.
And now to Mrs. Kennedy’s prance. After some surprising victories at sea against the Royal Navy, a morale-restored American force invaded Upper Canada yet again in 1812. This time they crossed the Niagara River on the evening of Oct. 12 and captured the village of Queenston.
 
Brock, who had set up his headquarters at Fort George (not far from Queenston near present-day Niagara-on-the-Lake) rallied all available troops and, sabre in hand, counterattacked the Americans on the 13th.
 
We all know the bittersweet result. Brock was killed by a sniper during his charge but again, with the help of First Nations warriors, achieved a great victory. More than 900 Americans were captured at the famous Battle of Queenston Heights.
 
 
Figure 1
This circa 1910 postcard by F.H. Leslie of Niagara Falls shows the cenotaph erected on the spot where Major General Isaac Brock fell at Queenston Heights.
 
 
 
Figure 2
I swear I’ve seen the Brock monument on as many postcards as those of the Horseshoe Falls. This circa 1906 card was published by the Souvenir Post Card Co. of New York.
 
The Americans had a little more success on land in 1813, but not much. In late April, their newly minted Lake Ontario fleet landed troops near Fort York (now Toronto), scattered the garrison (who blew up the fort rather than surrender it) and then occupied the town.
 
Before they evacuated York, they looted the place and burned down the provincial parliament buildings.
 
The next month, an American force crossed the Niagara River again and captured Fort George. The British and Canadian troops that escaped the fort had the last laugh though. As the Americans advanced westward, they were defeated at the Battle of Stoney Creek (near modern day Hamilton) on June 6.
 
A few weeks later, a second American force was defeated at the Battle of Beaver Dams (near modern day St. Catharines) after the British 49th Regiment was forewarned of the American advance by Laura Secord.
 
Secord had overheard the enemy’s plans while eavesdropping on the American troops who spent the night at her farm. Aided by First Nations scouts, she scurried over 20 miles (32 km) of field and forest to warn the British.
 
Alas, I couldn’t find a Laura Secord postcard, so readers will have to make do with the advertising card shown in Figure 3. Her bold deed may be forgotten, but her name has been associated with yummy chocolate treats since 1913.
 
Figure 3
Although a postcard with Laura Secord’s image wasn’t available, this circa 1925 advertising card for the famous sweets is a pretty nice runner-up.
 
Against conventional wisdom, America’s biggest victory in 1813 was against the Royal Navy. At the Battle of Lake Erie on Sept. 10, U.S. Commodore Perry captured the entire British squadron.
 
With the loss of naval superiority on Lake Erie, British General Proctor decided to move his troops eastward from the Windsor area and abandon the western part of Upper Canada.
 
This “cowardice” infuriated our First Nations allies, especially Tecumseh, but they had no choice but to follow Proctor. It went from bad to worse when the retreating army was overtaken by a larger American force on Oct. 5.
 
At the Battle of Moraviantown, near present-day London, Proctor’s forces were scattered and the great Tecumseh was killed leading a desperate charge with his men. Proctor was later court martialled in Montreal for the Moraviantown defeat.
 
Reinvigorated, the Americans shifted focus eastward and launched a major campaign against Lower Canada (Quebec) with the aim of taking Montreal.
Unfortunately for them, their invasion force of over 4,000 infantry, cavalry and First Nations allies ran up against 400 Canadian Voltigeurs, brilliantly led by Lt.-Col. Charles De Salaberry.
 
At the Battle of Chateauguay on Oct. 26, the invaders were soundly defeated. Less than a month later, the Americans sent another invasion force into Lower Canada and were routed again at the Battle of Crysler’s Farm.
 
After the war, De Salaberry, like Brock, Tecumseh and Secord, was hailed as one its heroes. I had no luck finding an image of De Salaberry on a postcard, but the First World War poster card shown in Figure 4 at least makes reference to the Voltigeurs’ great victory.
 
Figure 4
This First World War postcard, based on a recruiting poster, is directed at the “Sons of Montcalm and Chateauguay.” Interestingly, in 1914 the 230th Voltigeurs were commanded by a Lt.-Col. R. De Salaberry.
 
In 1814, the most significant battles were at Lundy’s Lane (now part of present-day Niagara Falls), Plattsburg, N.Y. (on Lake Champlain) and Washington, D.C.
 
At Washington on Aug. 24, a newly-landed British army burned the Whitehouse in retaliation for the American destruction at York.
 
At the Battle of Plattsburg the following month, the Americans achieved yet another great victory over the Royal Navy. The Battle of Lundy’s Lane occurred earlier that summer and was one of the bloodiest of the war. Over 1,700 men were killed on both sides after a five-hour clash.
 
On Christmas Eve 1814, the war officially ended when Britain and the U.S. signed the Treaty of Ghent. Territorial conquests made during the war were returned, and Canadians and Americans haven’t fired a shot at each other since.
 
From a strategic standpoint, Canada was the winner in that we held back an invader 10 times our size. If there were losers, it was really the First Nations. The deaths of Tecumseh and his good friend Isaac Brock doomed any chance of a negotiated First Nations territory in Canada or the U.S. after the war.
 
Oh, there was one final battle made famous in a catchy 1960s tune – the Battle of New Orleans. Since it was fought in January 1815, after the war was officially over (and no Canadians were involved), I’ll let the Americans sing all they want about that one.
 
Michael J. (Mike) Smith is an RMC graduate (Class of '77) and ex-naval officer who has been an avid collector of Canadiana for most of his life. His current passion is collecting and writing about Canadian antique postcards. He is currently working on his eighth postcard handbook. Visit postcard-directory.com/mikesmithbooks
 
 
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