Keith Hunt - Canada/USA History - Page Onehundred- Sixtyseven   Restitution of All Things

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Canada/USA History you may Not have been Taught #4

The Invasion of Canada again by the Americans




THE INVASION OF CANADA, which began in the early summer of 1812
and petered out in the late fall of 1814, was part of a larger
conflict that has come to be known in North America as the War of
1812. That war was the by-product of a larger struggle, which saw
Napoleonic France pitted for almost a decade against most of
Europe. It is this complexity, a war within a war within a war,
like a nest of Chinese boxes, that has caused so much confusion.
The watershed date "1812" has different connotations for
different people. And, as in Alice's famous caucus race,
everybody seems to have won something, though there were no
prizes. The Russians, for instance, began to win their own War of
1812 against Napoleon in the very week in which the British and
Canadians were repulsing the invading Americans at Queenston
Heights. The Americans won the last battle of their War of 1812
in the first week of 1815 - a victory diminished by the fact that
peace had been negotiated fifteen days before. The British, who
beat Napoleon, could also boast that they "won" the North
American war because the Treaty of Ghent, which settled the
matter, had nothing to say about the points at issue and merely
maintained the status quo.

This work deals with the war that Canada won, or to put it more
precisely "did not lose," by successfully repulsing the armies
that tried to invade and conquer British North America. The war
was fought almost entirely in Upper Canada, whose settlers, most
of them Americans, did not invite the war, did not care about the
issues, and did not want to fight. They were the victims of a
clash between two major powers who, by the accident of geography,
found it convenient to settle their differences by doing violence
to the body of another. The invasion of Canada was not the first
time that two armies have bloodied neutral ground over issues
that did not concern the inhabitants; nor has it been the last.

Of all the wars fought by the English-speaking peoples, this was
one of the strangest - a war entered into blindly and fought
(also blindly) by men out of touch not only with reality but also
with their own forces. Washington was separated from the fighting
frontier by hundreds of miles of forest, rock, and swamp. The
ultimate British authority was an ocean away and the nominal
authority a fortnight distant from the real command. Orders could
take days, weeks, even months to reach the troops.

Like some other wars, this one began bloodlessly with expressions
of civility on both sides and the conviction that it would be
over by Christmas. It did not end that way, for horror breeds
hatred, and no war (certainly not this one) can be free of
atrocity. Nor was it free of bombast. As in most wars, the
leaders on both sides were convinced that their cause was just
and that the Deity was firmly in their camp, leading them to
victory. Slogans about "freedom" and "slavery," "despotism" and
"liberty" were batted back and forth across the border like
shuttlecocks. Each side believed, or pretended to believe, that
the other was held in thrall by a pernicious form of government.


At the outset, it was a gentlemen's war. Officers on opposing
sides met for parleys under flags of truce, offered hospitality,
exchanged cordialities, murmured the hope that hostilities would
quickly end. Belligerents addressed one another in flowery terms.
The same men who declared they would never be slaves of the enemy
had "the honour to be y'r humble and obedient servant." When
Isaac Brock fell at Queenston, the men responsible for his death
joined in the general grief. Roger Sheaffe, his successor,
expressed in writing his great regret for the wounds suffered by
an opposing commander - wounds that put him out of action and
helped Sheaffe win the day. "If there be anything at my command
that your side of the river cannot furnish, which would be either
useful or agreeable... I beg you will be so good as to have me
apprised of it," he wrote to the enemy. When the first word of
the declaration of war reached the British post at Fort George on
the Niagara frontier, its officers were entertaining their
American opposite numbers at dinner. They insisted that the meal
continue as if hostilities had not commenced, then, with much
handshaking and expressions of regret, accompanied their guests
to their boats. Within a few weeks, the former dinner companions
were ripping through one another's homes and fortifications with
red-hot cannonballs.

For a war of thirty months' duration, the casualties were not
heavy. In those same years many a European battle counted far
more dead and wounded in a single day. But for those who did
fall, it was a truly terrible war, fought under appalling
conditions far from civilization and medical aid. Those victims
who were torn to pieces by cannonballs, their brains often
spattering their comrades, might be considered lucky. The wounded
endured agonies, banged about in open carts, exposed to blizzards
or driving rain, hauled for miles over rutted tracks to the
surgeon's table where, with a musket ball clamped between their
teeth and when possible a tot of rum warming their bellies, they
suffered the horrors of a hasty amputation.

As the war progressed, it grew more vicious. There was savagery
on both sides by white frontiersmen as well as Indians, who
scalped the fallen sometimes when they were still alive. Men were
roasted in flaming buildings, chopped to pieces by tomahawks,
sliced open by bayonets, drowned, frozen, or felled by sickness,
which took more lives on both sides than all the battles
combined. There were times when a third of an army was too ill to
fight. The diseases were given vague names like "ague" and "swamp
fever," which might mean influenza, pneumonia, malaria, typhus,
dysentery, or simply that the combatants were too cold, too
weary, or too dispirited to march or even stand. And no wonder:
on both sides the armies, especially the citizen soldiers of the
militia, were ill equipped for war. Men were forced to trudge
through ankle-deep snow and to wade freezing rivers without
shoes; to sleep in the open without blankets; to face the
Canadian winter lacking mitts and greatcoats, their clothes in
tatters, their hands and feet bound in rags, tormented by
frostbite in January and insects in June. The military may have
seen the war coming, but the politicians were not prepared to pay
its price.
(My what grossly perverted minds of deception would wage a war
under those conditions - Keith Hunt)

At the planning the war was marked by incredible dungling. As in
so many wars, but especially in this one, the day was often won
not by the most brilliant commander, for there were few brilliant
commanders, but by the least incompetent. On the American side,
where civilian leaders were mixed in with regular army officers,
the commands were marked by petty jealousies, vicious infighting,
bitter rivalries. On certain memorable occasions, high-ranking
officers supposedly fighting the British preferred to fight each
other with pistols at dawn. Old soldiers were chosen for command
simply because they were old soldiers; they acted like sports
heroes long past their prime, weary of the contest, sustained
only by the glamour of the past, struggling as much against the
ambitions of younger aspirants as against the enemy. Some were
chosen capriciously. One general was given an important command
solely for political reasons - to get him out of the way.

On the Canadian side, where "democracy" was a wicked word and the
army was run autocratically by British professionals, there was
little of this. Many of these men, however, were cast-offs from
Europe. The officers gained their commissions through purchase,
not competence. With certain exceptions, the cream of the British
Army was with Wellington, fighting Napoleon's forces on the
Iberian Peninsula. Aging veterans made up part of the garrison
forces in Canada. Boys of fourteen and fifteen fought with the
militia. Lacklustre leadership, incompetent planning, timidity
and vacillation were too often the concomitants of command on
both sides of the border.

The militia on both sides was a rabble. Hastily summoned and
hastily trained when trained at all, they fought sometimes
reluctantly, sometimes with gallantry. On the Canadian side these
citizen soldiers were drilled about three days in a month. They
were called up when needed, placed away from the centre of the
line, on the flanks (when the line existed at all), and, after an
engagement, sent back to their homes and farms until needed once
more. The more patriotic signed up for the duration and became
seasoned warriors. The American army was a confusion of regular
soldiers, state militia, and federal volunteers recruited from
the militia for terms of service that ranged from one month to a
year or more.

On both sides men thought nothing of leaving the scene of battle
to thresh their grain at harvest time. For most of the men who
fought it, then, it was a part-time war. Some refused to fight.
In spite of the harsh discipline, men on both sides mutinied.
Soldiers were shot for desertion, forced to ride bent saplings,
to stand barefoot on sharpened stakes, branded, or flogged almost
to death. Neither threats nor pleas could stop thousands of
American militiamen from refusing to fight on foreign soil. To
the dismay of their commanders, these amateur soldiers took
democracy at its face value, electing their own officers and, on
occasion, dismissing them. In Upper Canada treason worked its
slow poison, even invading the legislature. Farmers were hanged
for abetting the enemy; tribunes of the people took refuge on
foreign soil to raise squads of traitors; dark suspicions, often
unfounded, seeped down the concession roads, causing neighbour to
denounce neighbour.

The war, like other wars, brought disaster to thousands and
prosperity to thousands more. Prices rose; profits boomed. The
border might be in flames, its people at each other's throats,
but that did not prevent merchants on both sides from crossing
over in the interests of commerce. Americans on the eastern shore
of Lake Champlain fed the British troops fighting on the western
side. Montreal middlemen grew rich supplying the needs of New
England. Pork, beef, and grain from Vermont and other states
found their way into the commissariats of Upper Canada. Before
the invasion came to an end, two out of every three soldiers
fighting for the safety and honour of Canada were subsisting on
beef brought in by enemy contractors.

In the Atlantic provinces and the neighbouring New England
states, the war scarcely existed. On July 3, 1812, the
Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia issued a proclamation
announcing that his province and New Brunswick would abstain from
predatory warfare against their neighbours and that trade would
continue "without Molestation." Between Maine and New Brunswick
it was more than business as usual; it was frolic as usual. The
border town of St.Stephen, realizing that its American neighbour,
Calais, could not obtain fireworks for its Independence Day
celebration, obligingly helped out with a gift of gun powder.

But on the fighting frontier it was civil war. There is a story
that the man who fired the first cannonball across the river
during the battle of Detroit killed his best friend on the
American side - a legend, possibly, but perfectly plausible.
Almost everyone had a friend or a relative on the other side of
the border. Sheaffe, the British general, had a sister Margaret
in Boston. William Hull, the defender of Detroit, had a brother
Isaac living on the Thames. The border was irrelevant; people
crossed it as they would a street. Many owned land or had
business interests on the other side. One of these was John Askin
of Sandwich, Upper Canada, the venerable fur trader and patriarch
(various members of whose extensive family will appear from time
to time in these pages). During the war, Askin continued to
correspond with his friend and kinsman Elijah Brush, the militia
commander at Detroit, who was married to Askin's daughter
Adelaide. When the Americans invaded Sandwich and Askin was
forced to flee, Brush obligingly detailed some of his men to
harvest Askin's crops. When Detroit fell, Brush consigned his
personal papers, money, and members of his family to Askin's
care. None of this prevented Askin's sons, nephews, and grandsons
from taking up arms and killing Americans.

They did so reluctantly, for this was a war that almost nobody
wanted. The British, who had been embroiled with Napoleon for
seven years, certainly did not want it, did not believe it would
occur, and in a clumsy, last-minute effort tried to prevent it.
The Canadian settlers, struggling to master a forbidding if
fertile wilderness, did not want it either; at best it was an
interruption, at worst a tragedy. The majority, whenever
possible, did their best to stay out of it. Nor did the mass of
the American people want to go to war; a great many, especially
in the New England states, sat it out; others fought
half-heartedly. Congress, in the words of a Kentucky editor, was
"driven, goaded, dragged, forced, kicked" into the conflict by a
small, eloquent group that Thomas Jefferson dubbed the "War
America went to war as a last resort because her leaders felt
that the nation's honour had been besmirched to a point where any
other action would be unthinkable. In their zeal to conquer
Napoleon, the British pushed the Americans too far and dismissed
their former colonists with an indifference that bordered on
contempt, thus repeating the errors of 1776. In that sense, the
War of 1812 was a continuation of the American Revolution.
It began with Napoleon, for without Napoleon there would have
been no war. (The President, James Madison, remarked after the
fact that had he known Napoleon would be defeated his country
would have stayed out of it.) Great Britain, fighting for her
life against France, was bent on all-out maritime warfare. If a
neutral America, reaping the economic benefits, was bruised a
little on the high seas, well, that was unfortunate but
necessary. America, in British eyes, was a weak, inconsequential
nation that could be pushed around with impunity. In the words of
the London Courier, "two fifty gun ships would be able to burn,
sink and destroy the whole American navy."

This attitude was expressed first in the British policy of
boarding American ships and impressing American seamen for
service in the Royal Navy on the grounds that they were deserters
from British service. At least three thousand and perhaps as many
as seven thousand fell victim to this practice, which infuriated
the country and was one of the two chief causes of the war.
The other was the equally galling Orders in Council, the last
enacted in November, 1807, as an act of reprisal against the
French. With cool disdain for the rights of neutrals as well as
for American sea power, the British warned that they would seize
on the open ocean any ship that dared sail directly for a
Napoleonic port. By 1812 they had captured almost four hundred 
American vessels, some within sight of the U.S. coast, and played
havoc with the American export trade.

There were other irritants, especially in the more volatile
southern and western states, where a serious economic depression
was blamed, not without reason, on the British blockade. The
slump hit the Mississippi Valley in 1808, shortly after Britain
proclaimed the Orders in Council. Prices collapsed. Cotton and
tobacco could no longer be exported. This, combined with the
growing Indian threat to the frontier settlements, was used to
bolster the arguments of those seeking an excuse for war. In
Kentucky especially - the most hawkish of states - and in Ohio
and the territories, it was widely believed that British agents
were goading the various tribes to revolt. There was talk of
teaching the Indians a lesson, even driving the British out of
North America, thereby breaking the fur monopoly, opening the
land to settlement, and strengthening the Union. Certain western
expansionists also saw the coming war as one of liberation. It
was widely believed that most Canadians wanted to become
Americans. If they did not, well, that was their destiny.
In the summer of 1812, with three American armies threatening the
border strong-points--Amherstburg, Queenston, Montreal, and
Kingston-the early fall of Upper Canada and the subsequent
collapse of Quebec seemed certain. In British North America there
were some three hundred thousand souls, in the Union to the
south, almost eight million. In Upper Canada, three out of five
settlers were newly arrived Americans, people of uncertain
loyalties, lured from New York, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut by
the promise of cheap land. They scarcely thought of themselves as
British, though they were forced into a token oath of allegiance,
and they certainly did not call themselves Canadian. (That word
was reserved for their French-speaking neighbours, many of whom
lived on American soil in the vicinity of Detroit.) Surely these
people would not oppose an invasion by their compatriots!
Nor, on the face of it, would they. There is little evidence of
any surge of national pride rippling across the grain fields,
swamps, and forests of Upper Canada in the early days of the war;
quite the opposite. The main emotion was not patriotism but fear:
fear of the invaders who could and did loot the farms to feed
themselves; fear of the British regulars, whose task it was to
stiffen the backbones of the reluctant citizen soldiers; fear of
the Indians; fear of losing a harvest, a homestead, and above all
a life. Many of the militia had to be goaded into fighting, while
large numbers of settlers expressed pro-American sympathies,
sometimes openly, more often privately. It is possible, even
probable, that without the war the province would eventually have
become another state in the Union. The Americans could have had
it by osmosis. But the war intervened.

How was it that a tiny population, badly divided, with little
claim to any national sentiment, was able to ward off continued
attack by a powerful neighbour with vastly greater resources?
There are at least three considerations.

First, the British presence. The regulars were few in number but
well disciplined. Raw troops were no match for them. And, thanks
to Isaac Brock's prescience, the country was better prepared for
war than its enemy.

Second, American ineptness, especially in the war's first,
crucial year. The United States was not a military nation. Her
leaders were antiquated or inexperienced, her soldiers untrained,
her government unready for conflict, her state militia reluctant
to fight on foreign soil.

Third, and by no means least, the alliance between the Indians
and the British, which led to decisive victories in the campaigns
of 1812.

History has tended to gloss over the contributions made by the
various tribes - and especially by the polyglot army under the
leadership of the Shawnee war chief Tecumseh - in the first year
of the war. Yet without the presence of the Indians at crucial
turning points in the conflict, much of Upper Canada would surely
have been in the hands of the Americans by the spring of 1813, if
not sooner. British regulars alone could not have stemmed the
tide. To shore up the thinly held garrisons the Indians were
They were often a nuisance. Mercurial and unreliable, indifferent
to the so-called civilized rules of warfare, difficult, even
impossible to control, they came and went as they pleased,
consuming vast quantities of scarce provisions. But as guerrillas
they were superb. Their very presence was enough to terrify the
Americans into submission.
For this, the United States had itself to blame. Jeffersonian
policy, stripped of its honeyed verbiage, was to cheat the
Indians out of their hunting-grounds. This thinly disguised
thievery alienated the tribes in the Northwest, produced the
phenomenon of the Shawnee Prophet, led to the inspired leadership
of Tecumseh, and eventually drove thousands of native Americans
into the arms of the British, leaving America's left flank
dangerously exposed in the war that followed.

The only group of Americans who truly thirsted for war, apart
from the handful of congressmen known as "War Hawks," were
Tecumseh's followers. In revenging themselves on the hated Long
Knives they hoped to regain the lands from which they had been
driven. It was a wistful fantasy, doomed to failure. One of the
several ironies of this FOOLISH and UNNECESSARY war is that the
warriors who helped save Canada gained nothing except a few
American scalps.

The role of the Indians and that of the British regulars was
played down in the years following the war. For more than a
century it was common cant that the diverse population of Upper
Canada - immigrants, settlers, ex-Americans, Loyalists, Britons,
Scots, and Irish, closed ranks to defeat the enemy. This belief
still lingers, though there is little evidence to support it.
Certainly the old Loyalists and their sons rushed to the colours,
and in the capital of York the British aristocracy (whose leading
ornament was the Reverend Doctor John Strachan) glowed with
patriotic fervour. 
But the mass of the people were at best apathetic and at worst
disaffected. Some five hundred of the latter have been officially
identified - men and women who either fled to the other side or
supported the enemy by word or deed. Who can guess how many more
kept prudently silent or worked in secret for the invaders? The
reluctance of the militia to do battle when the war went badly
suggests that the number was not small.

Traditionally, a common enemy unites a people in a common cause,
especially when family farms are overrun, crops despoiled,
homesteads gutted, livestock dispersed. But again there is little
evidence of a united front against the enemy on the part of the
people who suffered these disasters; it is doubtful if they were
any angrier at the Americans than at the British and Indians, who
actually caused a third of the devastation. The total bill for
war losses came to almost a million dollars at a time when a
private soldier's daily pay was twentyfive cents. Compensation
was not paid until 1824 and never paid in full. None of that
helped make the cause universally popular.

Yet, in an odd way, the war did help to change Upper Canada from
a loose aggregation of village states into something approaching
a political entity. The war, or more properly the myth of the
war, gave the rootless new settlers a sense of community. In the
end, the myth became the reality. In the long run it did not
matter who fought or who did not, who supported the cause or who
disdained it. As the years went by and memories dimmed, as old
scars healed and old grudges evaporated, as aging veterans
reminisced and new leaders hyperbolized, the settlers began to
believe that they had repelled the invader almost single-handed.
For the first time, Upper Canadians shared a common tradition.
It was a tradition founded to a considerable extent on a
rejection of American values - a rejection encouraged and
enforced by the same pro-British ruling elite who fed the myth of
the people's war and who made sure that the province (and
eventually all of Canada) would embark on a course markedly
different from that of the people to the south. They were, after
all, "the enemy," and to be pro-American in post-war Upper Canada
was to be considered vaguely traitorous. This attitude affected
everything - politics, education, civil liberties, folkways,
architecture. It affects us to this day, even those who do not
think of themselves as Upper Canadian.

Thus the war that was supposed to attach the British North
American colonies to the United States accomplished exactly the
opposite. It ensured that Canada would never become a part of the
Union to the south. Because of it, an alternative form of
democracy grew out of the British colonial oligarchy in the
northern half of the continent. The Canadian "way" - so difficult
to define except in terms of negatives - has its roots in the
invasion of 1812-14, the last American invasion of Canada. There
can never be another.


The Canadian "way" was proclaimed loud and strong at the recent
2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, B.C. So "unreserved" and even
enthusiastically "flashy" by the people at large, that even the
veteran Canadian journalists, TV announcers, sports broadcasters,
and the Canadian Government itself, were surprised and even
SHOCKED by the voices of the people of Canada. We are not so
reserved after all - hey!

The details of this war are covered in the next 300 or so pages
of this book "The Invasion of Canada 1812-1813" by the late
Pierre Burton.

I will present the highlights as given in the CBC production
"Canada - A People's History."

Keith Hunt

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