The Civil War of 1812

Presented by Lloyd Alter, 29 October 2013


I grew up with certain preconceptions; that we won the War of 1812 because the USA wanted to annex Canada, that they attacked and got nothing; that Isaac Brock’s attack on Queenston heights was heroic; that Laura Secord changed the course of the war;  that the battle of New Orleans was irrelevant; that it had nothing to do with Canada, really, because we didn’t exist.

In fact, none of the above is true. The Americans lost almost all the battles but they won the war; Isaac Brock was an overconfident jerk; Laura Secord is barely a footnote; and the War of 1812 in fact made us Canadians.

Alan Taylor calls it a “Civil War”; when I heard him speak last year he said he did that to goose the sales of the book, because everyone is interested in the American Civil War and nobody is interested in the war of 1812. He was not going to discuss the returns to the bookstores by disappointed purchasers. He writes:

To call the War of 1812 a “civil war” now seems jarring because hindsight has distorted our perspective on the past…. In fact, the republic and the empire competed for the allegiance of the peoples in North America—native, settler, and immigrant. Americans and Britons spoke the same language and conducted more trade with one another than with other nations, but their overlapping migrations and commerce generated the friction of competition.

Most of the people in Ontario at the time were Americans, either Loyalists who came right after the war of Independence, or “late loyalists”, enticed by John Graves Simcoe with offers of land.

The Americans knew this, and expected that there would be little trouble from anyone if they invaded. Jefferson thought it would be a cakewalk, saying “ “the acquisition of Canada, this year, as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching,” It turned out to be nothing of the kind.

It was an odd war, but the politics sound familiar, much like George Bush’s Iraq war. The government wanted to do it on the cheap; a sea war against Britain was expensive but they thought a land war would be affordable. They didn’t want to really annex Canada; the southern states didn’t want to add real estate to the north, and the New England states, controlled by the anti-war federalists, got along quite well with the British. The Americans never attacked in the St. Lawrence area because one of the biggest financial supporters of the government had land there; Taylor writes:

BRITISH MILITARY OFFICERS marveled at the American failure to contest the St. Lawrence River, which served as the critical supply line of British Canada. “If they had done so with any kind of spirit, we must have abandoned Upper Canada, Kingston, and the fleet on [Lake] Ontario included,” a British officer explained.

Hampered by long supply lines, incompetent leadership and very scary indians, the Americans suffered defeat after defeat. Even when they had victories, like the burning of York, they compromised them by failing to finish the job properly.  “

Averse to levying adequate taxes, the Madison administration struggled to raise the money to recruit and supply a sufficient army. And waging war on the cheap turned out to be surprisingly expensive, as inept commanders and indifferent soldiers wasted supplies and equipment.”

The real point of the battle wasn’t to annex Canada and to push out the british; The war of 1812 was less of a war against the British than it was against the Indians. The British supported Indian rights in the Ohio valley, and this was blocking American westward expansion.

To condemn vast regions of territory to perpetual barrenness and solitude, that a few hundred savages might find wild beasts to hunt upon it, was a species of game law that a nation descended from Britons would never endure.”

In the end the Americans got what they wanted. The British were tired of fighting and wanted trade with America, and agreed to generous terms, and abandoned their commitments to the native peoples. The Americans brought out the spin masters:

Having failed to conquer Canada or compel British maritime concessions, the Republicans redefined national survival as victory. Monroe assured the Senate that “our Union has gained strength, our troops honor, and the nation character, by the contest.” He concluded, “By the war we have acquired a character and a rank among other nations, which we did not enjoy before.”

Canadians developed a national identity as well. Where before we were British subjects who stayed loyal to the crown, after the war there were Americans, finally accepted by Britain as citizens of a different country, and us, north of the border, a different breed.








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