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. Annes in Ancaster,
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 Brocks 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 Britains 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 publics 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.
Whats 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 Canadas
brilliant General Isaac Brock.
In a master stroke, Brock sidestepped Hulls army and
instead attacked and defeated the American garrison at Mackinac
Concerned about the Michigan Territory, a panicking Hull
soon hurried back to Detroit.
Neutral First Nations warriors, emboldened by Brocks
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 Brocks right hand during the victory.
And now to Mrs. Kennedys 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.
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.
I swear Ive 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 enemys 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 couldnt 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.
Although a postcard with Laura Secords image wasnt
available, this circa 1925 advertising card for the famous sweets
is a pretty nice runner-up.
Against conventional wisdom, Americas 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
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, Proctors
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
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 Cryslers 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
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 Lundys
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
At the Battle of Plattsburg the following month, the Americans
achieved yet another great victory over the Royal Navy. The Battle
of Lundys 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
havent 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), Ill 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