200 Years on from the War of 1812

A friend has drawn my attention to the Canadian Government’s website note on the war of 1812, when the United States tried for the second time to invade Canada.

A bit tame, I thought: the Canadians seem to be trying hard not to upset their big neighbours.

This is what I have to say about it in my book 500 Fenwicks (still in draft):

Another small War in America – the War of 1812

  1. A war that is largely forgotten these days is the 1812 war between Britain and the United States. It is a war that does not even have any very well-established name, usually being referred to simply as the War of 1812.
  2. There was no real motive for the war.  Those Americans who are now keen to blame someone else for starting the war (which is most of them) claim that their forebears were unhappy that the British Navy was stopping American ships to reclaim deserters, but that was hardly sufficient reason to declare war. A much more likely motive was a wish by the Americans to make another attempt to take Canada (they had made a previous attempt in 1778, during the First Civil War, in which they succeeded in taking Montreal, but then faltered and failed while attempting to take Quebec). There were two parties in the United States at the time, the Federalists and the Republicans. The Federalists were generally pretty pro-British; the Republicans not.  James Madison – a Republican – had come to the presidency in 1809, and no doubt reasoned that the British would be too busy to fight.
  3. The United States declared war on Britain in June 1812.  At first, the British had difficulty in taking the declaration seriously; at the time, it was at the height of its life-and-death struggle with Napoleonic France, and it must have seemed almost beyond belief that its American cousins would take the French part.  But the reality was apparent all too soon: on 9th July 1812, a United States army under General Hull invaded Canada by crossing the Detroit River and occupying Sandwich (now known as Windsor).  Hull found, however, that his supply lines were cut off, and retreated to Fort Detroit, where he surrender to a smaller force of British soldiers under Major General Isaac Brock, apparently in the fear of Indian atrocities (the native Indians at the time were very largely allied with the British against the United States).
  4. This was just the first of 4 attacks intended to force Canada’s surrender. The others fared little better. Just 3 months later, the Americans attacked again, this time with much greater force at Queenston, near Niagara.  The Americans suffered some losses during the river crossing (including Lt-Colonel John Roger Fenwick[1], who was wounded by a shot in the face, and was captured), and were then defeated by the British forces, who were again outnumbered and again under the command of Major General Isaac Brook. Probably, less than 100 US combatants were killed in the fighting, but nearly 1,000 were captured. The British and Canadians lost about 15 dead, with about another 5 Indian allies; among the dead was Brock himself, who had shown considerable bravery during the fighting.
  5. The war was by no means universally supported with the United States.  In fact, New England was vehemently opposed to the war, and there was talk – by no means idle – of the New England states, and in particular Massachusetts,  seceding from the Union at the time.  Further, to the Americans’ surprise:
  • The French Canadians were against them: they much preferred their independence as part of the British Empire to United States domination;
  • Similarly, all other colonial Canadians – from other parts of Europe including the British Isles –  were against them;
  • The native Americans were against them;
  • Obviously, the British were against them;
  • Equally obviously, Afro-Americans who had escaped from Slavery in the south, were against them.
  1. In 1813, the Royal Navy set out dealing with the problem of American privateers preying on British shipping. British resources were stretched at that time, but Napoleon was defeated in 1814, and exiled to Elba.  The British were able to devote more attention to the war, and on 24th August 1814, having defeated the Americans at the Battle of Bladensburg, a British force under Major General Robert Ross occupied Washington, D.C.  The British set fire to many public buildings including the White House and the Capitol, but no damage was done to the private buildings.
  2. In December that year, the war was ended by the Treaty of Ghent.  The British retained no captured territory, and the whole thing was, in large part, swiftly forgotten. As with the First Civil War, the British had no appetite for a fight with their American cousins (as they were still perceived), and in any event, the escape of Napoleon from Elba and the almost instantaneous resurrection of the French threat demanded all available British attention until Napoleon was again and this time finally defeated at Waterloo in 1815.
  3. Overall, the war was a bit of a disaster for the Americans. Their main purpose, to invade Canada, had been an ignominious failure. Their seat of power – the White House – had been burned.  And they suffered a series of humiliating defeats of their navy at sea[2]:
  • 1st June 1813: HMS Shannon captured the USS Chesapeake off Boston in an engagement lasting just eleven minutes;
  • 28th February 1814: HMS Phoebe took the USS Essex at Valparaiso, Chile;
  • 14th January 1815: the American flagship, USS President was defeated off Sandy Hook by the smaller British ship HMS Endymion. At the time, the treaty ending the war had been signed, but not yet implemented.
  1. Worse for the Americans, their flagship USS President – having been captured by the British – was renamed HMS President, and the British paraded it around as a reminder to the Americans to mind their manners.  When it had to be scrapped, the Royal Navy built a replica, which they also called HMS President, and did exactly the same thing with it.
  2. For the British, to allow the Americans a restoration of the pre-war borders was very wise. It kept the Americans out of the Napoleonic revival in 1815. American policy shifted to defence, and their programme of building serial fortifications along their Eastern seaboard against the risk of a similar drubbing.  British diplomats gently reminded the Americans of the war for decades to come, and in a somewhat roundabout way, the special alliance relationship between the United States and Britain was able to develop very largely undisturbed by further conflict.  John Roger Fenwick was honoured and promoted in rank by the Americans for his role in the war (despite his and his army’s failure), but it is impossible not avoid the conclusion that his loyalist older brothers Ned and Tom would have been far more content with its eventual outcome.

[1] See page 268 below.

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2 Comments

Filed under History

2 responses to “200 Years on from the War of 1812

  1. It has been pointed out to me that the paragraph numbers do not really work properly here, as I copied the text from the Word document which is my book 500 Fenwicks. If I were a better sort of a geek, I would probably know how to fix this. But I’m not. So I don’t and I haven’t fixed it. Sorry, peeps. But it is not a really big deal.

  2. Pingback: Ban the Book | phenell

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