Invade Canada! A Brief History of the War of 1812

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Two centuries ago, the U.S. declared war on Britain, and invaded its closest colony. Why was the War of 1812 fought, and who really won?

War of 1812 Re-enactors/

Who started the war?

The United States was the first to declare war, though after repeated British provocations. At the time, the Napoleonic wars were raging across Europe, and the Royal Navy had taken to seizing American sailors at sea and press-ganging them into their undermanned fleet. Already infuriated by British attempts to prevent the U.S. from trading with France, President James Madison and the so-called War Hawks in Congress urged the country to go to war and defend its recently won independence. But the June 1812 vote to go to war only narrowly passed the House and the Senate, and critics condemned "Mr. Madison's War" as a foolhardy adventure, motivated less by crimes at sea than by a lust for land. Indeed, the American offensive began with a land invasion of Canada.

Why invade Canada?

It was the closest British colony, but Madison also had political reasons for targeting America's northern neighbor.

His Democratic-Republican Party drew much of its support from the rural South and what was then the American West — the territory stretching up the Mississippi basin to the Great Lakes. Frontier inhabitants were eager to strike at the British in Canada because they suspected them of arming Native American tribes that were standing in the way of America's westward expansion. Many Americans also believed that the invasion would be a cakewalk, and that ordinary Canadians were keen to shake off their British overlords. The "acquisition of Canada," predicted former President Thomas Jefferson, "will be a mere matter of marching."

How did the invasion go?

Terribly. At the outbreak of hostilities, the U.S. Army was a poorly equipped force of fewer than 7,000 men, many of them "complete amateurs with virtually no training or discipline," said historian Alan Taylor. It didn't help that the initial offensive was led by the aging Gen. William Hull, later damned by a subordinate as an "imbesile" [sic]. After an abortive foray across the Detroit River into Canada, Hull fell for a bogus report that a vast Indian war party was heading his way and surrendered his 2,500 troops to a much smaller force. With the war only a few months old, the entire Michigan territory had fallen into British hands.

Did the U.S. have any victories?

Yes — strangely enough, at sea. In 1812 and 1813, the tiny U.S. Navy bested the supposedly invincible British fleet in a series of duels on the Great Lakes and in the Atlantic. "It is a cruel mortification to be beat by these secondhand Englishmen upon our own element," a British minister declared. But in 1814, Britain decided to teach the upstarts a lesson, and launched a counteroffensive along the mid-Atlantic coast, overwhelming small American gunboats. Some 4,000 Royal Marines marched into Washington, which American officials had abandoned so hastily that an uneaten banquet for 40 was left laid out in the White House. The Marines downed the food and wine before torching the White House and the Capitol building — vengeance for the earlier American ransacking of York (now Toronto). But the British offensive stalled outside Baltimore, where a small American garrison at Fort McHenry withstood a 25-hour naval bombardment — a sight that inspired a young lawyer, Francis Scott Key, to scribble out the words to "The Star-Spangled Banner" on the back of a letter.

How did the war end?

It was essentially a stalemate. By late 1814, the U.S. government was almost bankrupt because of the expense of the conflict, while Britain wanted to end what it regarded as a sideshow to the larger war against Napoleon. So on Christmas Eve, 1814, the two sides signed a peace treaty in Ghent (now in Belgium) that restored the prewar borders of the U.S. and Canada, without even mentioning the maritime issues that had started the conflict. But news of the peace deal didn't reach the 5,000 British troops gathered outside New Orleans in time. They attacked the city on Jan. 8, 1815, but were easily repulsed by some 4,000 defenders led by Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson. By the end of the day, the British had lost 291 men, the Americans only 13. The military triumph restored U.S. pride, and Jackson was hailed as a national hero.

What was the war's legacy?

Everyone declared victory. Canadians could celebrate that they had repelled an invasion, an achievement that united them in a new sense of nationhood. "We were refugees, American loyalists, British soldiers, First Nations, a mixed bag of people who realized they had a common land to defend," said Thom Sokoloski, a Canadian artist who organized a recent 1812 art exhibit in Toronto. For America, meanwhile, the late victory at the Battle of New Orleans was a major morale booster. "The war had become a glorious re-declaration of independence," said historian James Lundberg. "Its missteps were forgotten, and a new generation of national heroes was born — Andrew Jackson first among them." The only real losers were Native Americans. Ravaged by the conflict and abandoned by their British allies, the tribes along the frontier would soon be outnumbered and pushed aside by a wave of American settlers.

The Americans are coming!

The War of 1812 produced its own Paul Revere, except this folk hero was a woman who served the British. On the evening of June 21, 1813, Laura Secord overheard American officers billeted at her home, in Queenston, Ontario, plotting a raid on a nearby British outpost. The 37-year-old mother of five hiked for 18 hours through mosquito-infested swamps and forests to reach the redcoats' camp. Armed with her information, the British and their Indian allies were able to ambush the American force, capturing 462 soldiers. Secord received no recognition or compensation for her part in the victory until 1860, when the Prince of Wales stopped in Queenston to pay tribute to the veterans of 1812. Told of Secord's heroism, he awarded the then 85-year-old 100 pounds as thanks for her bravery.

Every so often, we'll reprint something from our sister publication, The Week. This is one of those times.