The United States declared war on the British Empire and invaded Upper Canada.
Part 1 of 2
As Monday is the 200th anniversary of the American declaration of war in 1812, it’s important to look at the real reasons why a small nation of less than eight million decided to take on Great Britain and its 1,000-ship Royal Navy.
According to Canadian and American textbooks, this thousand-day war was all about free trade and sailor’s rights — the British Royal Navy was cruelly stopping U.S. vessels and taking away American sailors to serve on board British ships. They were also providing Native American warriors with guns and ammunition used to viciously kill white settlers.
A closer look at the war shows a very different story. These public excuses for war were simply political spin, a smokescreen generated to hide a very different reason for the conflict. Behind the propaganda war of the ruling Democratic Republican Party, led by a trio of Virginia slave-owners — Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe — were some real economic and geopolitical advantages for the young country.
First and foremost, the War of 1812 was an attempt by the opportunistic Americans to capture Canada while Britain was locked in a life and death conflict with Napoleon.
The goals, the timing and the results of this conflict clearly show that the invasion of Canada was a special project of the Virginians, and their ally, French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Canada was one of the three main battlefronts of the war — the others were Spain and Russia. Napoleon was the chief driver of the War of 1812. He was obsessed with defeating Britain, and he came to realize that with two bold blows, he could knock Britain out of the war.
I have found new evidence to suggest that the American attack on Upper Canada was indeed timed to go off at exactly the same time as Napoleon’s attack on the armies of Tsar Alexander of Russia. Indeed, Napoleon’s Grande Armée crossed the River Neman toward Russia six days after President Madison’s declaration of war.
Most people know that Napoleon’s invasion was a disaster — hundreds of thousands of his men died during the disastrous retreat from Moscow — but the reasons for his conduct are not so clear. Why was Napoleon so angered by the Tsar that he sent the largest army in history — almost 700,000 men — against Russia?
I believe the answer is hemp — cannabis. No, not the psychoactive variety; rather the industrial fibre produced by hundreds of thousands of serfs in the Tsar’s dominions.
Britain’s Royal Navy ran on hemp. Ships of the line had to have their sails and ropes replaced every year and a half, and they were all made of hemp. The British had no supplies of the fibre, and bought 90 per cent of their needs from Russia. Ironically, during this last stage of the Napoleonic Wars, most of the ships engaged in this trade were from New England — U.S. ambassador to Russia John Quincy Adams witnessed hundreds of Yankee trading ships flying the American flag in Russian waters, making good profits supplying Britain with hemp.
Napoleon’s master plan was to strike one bold blow against the Tsar, and at the same time have the Americans strike the other against the British in North America.
He knew that the Royal Navy also ran on spruce and oak, a good deal of it from Nova Scotia and Canada. This resource was equally important to the British — in 1809, Isaac Brock marvelled at the sight of the basin of Quebec packed with hundreds of ships waiting to load timber for the Royal Navy.
The Americans were crucial to Napoleon’s plans. He had relied on them before in his battles against the British. In 1803, abandoning his empire in the Western hemisphere, he sold Louisiana to the Jefferson administration for about $250 million in today’s money. “This accession of territory affirms forever the power of the United States,” he declared, “and I have given England a maritime rival who sooner or later will humble her pride.”
The Emperor immediately used these funds to build an army to invade England, but his project came crashing down on Oct. 21, 1805, when Admiral Nelson and the Royal Navy defeated the French and Spanish fleet at Trafalgar. Frustrated at sea, Napoleon was then forced to turn his attention to bringing all of the land mass of Europe under his control, as monarchy after monarchy bowed to the power of his armies.
As 1812 began, Bonaparte had been battling the British for over 10 years. His treasury was nearly exhausted, and he was now facing potential defeat due to a continuing blockade of European trade by the British. Guerillas and Wellington’s crack regulars, supplied by sea, were hamstringing his forces in Spain.
Napoleon needed to strike quickly, or all was lost. To light a fire under the Americans, and get them to open a western front on his behalf, he promised them Spanish Florida, then the personal property of his brother Joseph, King José of Spain.
So in June of 1812, while the Emperor started his invasion of Russia, his American allies began their own march toward Canada.
The war was a chance to drive the Native Americans back from the frontier and west of the Mississippi, and open new territories for slavery and plantations. One of the American War Hawks eager for western expansion, Henry Clay, was a major promoter of hemp production using slaves.
The military results that year were a disaster for both the French and the Americans. After he pulled in 30,000 men from his army in Spain for the Russian invasion, Napoleon’s remaining forces were soon driven north toward the French border. In August, the Russian Army deflected the French from marching on the Russian capital at Saint Petersburg — Napoleon feared to get too close to the Baltic coast since it was controlled by the Royal Navy — and the Emperor himself led the way to Moscow instead. On Sept. 14, he entered an empty city, stripped of all supplies, including food for his foraging army. Fires broke out that night, consuming most of Moscow.
Napoleon maintained his army in the ruined Russian capital for a fatal five weeks in the hope of bringing the Russians to terms, then began his disastrous wintertime retreat. One of those following his army was American ambassador to France Joel Barlow, who froze to death in a Polish village.
In North America, the U.S. invasion was repelled by Isaac Brock at Detroit, and, after his death, by his British regulars at Queenston Heights.
Next Monday on this page, we’ll look at how the British army in Canada responded to the war after Isaac Brock’s death.
Alastair Sweeny is author of Fire Along the Frontier: Great Battles of the War of 1812, published by Dundurn Press (www.alastairsweeny.com/1812).
© Copyright © The Ottawa Citizen
The War of 1812 shaped Canada forever
It was a small war. Some of its most important battles seem little more than skirmishes when judged on the scale of other conflicts.
It began in confusion, with the United States declaring hostilities unaware that one of its major war aims was already addressed. And it ended that way, too, with a last, pointless battle fought weeks after a peace treaty was signed. Civilians on both sides suffered, there were horrible massacres, and even more bungling by generals than is customary in warfare.
And yet the War of 1812 had a powerful, invigorating influence on what would become Canada. Indeed, had the struggle been lost, this country likely wouldn’t exist.
Hostilities were launched 200 years ago on Monday, when U.S. president James Madison signed a declaration of war pitting his nation against Great Britain. He cited, at length, maritime complaints stemming from Britain’s blockade of Napoleonic Europe. American vessels were routinely stopped by British warships and searched. Sailors, even U.S. citizens, were often removed and pressed into service in the British navy. And the American economy suffered as U.S. ships were restricted from trading with continental Europe.
Ironically, those trade restrictions were lifted shortly before Madison’s declaration of war. But it was too late for the U.S. to change course. “War hawks” controlled Congress and the call to arms came loudest from newly formed states west of the Appalachians, where settlers were eager to seize more Indian land and punish the British for supporting native resistance.
Madison’s war speech made only passing mention of the Indian conflict — and none at all of Canada — but it was clear from the start that this struggle would primarily be fought on Canadian soil. And British holdings were, quite naturally, expected to fall. No less a figure than Thomas Jefferson predicted that acquiring Upper and Lower Canada “will be a mere matter of marching.” With an attack on Halifax to follow, the result would be “the final expulsion of England from the American continent.”
It didn’t happen that way.
Repeated U.S. invasion attempts were either broken or stalled through the combined efforts of British regular troops, local militia and Indian warriors. Indeed, the war would almost certainly have been lost without the participation of all three.
British regulars, brilliantly led at the outset by Maj.-Gen. Isaac Brock, formed the professional core of Canadian defence forces. But they were few in number — just 4,450 to protect what is now southern Ontario and Quebec. They would surely have been overwhelmed by the sheer number of U.S. invaders if not for militia drawn in Upper Canada from a local population of about 100,000. Equally important were Britain’s Indian allies, initially led by the legendary Tecumseh. Several key victories would have been impossible without them.
Over the course of the war both Brock and Tecumseh were slain. York, now Toronto, was captured and looted. And Newark, now Niagara-on-the-Lake, was burned. British forces attacked Washington and torched the White House.
The two sides finally tired of fighting and signed a peace treaty on Christmas Eve, 1814. The Treaty of Ghent simply affirmed pre-war borders. So, in the end, thousands of lives were lost, communities burned and wealth squandered with no material gain of any importance for either Britain or the United States. In one final irony, the Battle of New Orleans was fought more than two weeks after the peace treaty was drafted, resulting in a U.S. victory and 2,000 British casualties. They suffered in vain, not knowing the war was over.
But dismissing this conflict as a small, bumbling affair of little consequence would be a cardinal error. In fact, the War of 1812 had profound impact, most of all on the Indian nations. They were left shattered. Tecumseh’s dream of a native confederacy that could hold its own against encroaching Americans was forever lost.
Americans, on the other hand, emerged with new confidence in their revolution, having stood — for a second time — against Great Britain and endured.
The war had more effect on Canada. For one thing, the outcome left its territory intact instead of swallowed by the United States. But it also wrought a deep psychological change. Before 1812 many settlers, especially in what is now Ontario, did not feel particularly Canadian. Some were United Empire Loyalists, arriving here after being driven north by the revolution. Many others were more recent arrivals: Americans lured over the border by the prospect of easily available land. They had no strong connection to the Crown.
Collectively fighting for their land, and seeing it ravaged by an invader, went a long way in hammering these people into a unified whole — into Canadians.
Few in 1812, if any, could imagine they were defending what would grow to become the second-biggest country in the world, spanning an entire continent. And surely none could foresee that the roots they planted — and protected — would one day blossom into the diverse, free and prosperous Canada that exists today. Yet what we have and, to a great degree, who we are, we owe to them.
That is why this war mustn’t be ignored, or discounted, or dismissed as irrelevant. In remembering these events we better understand ourselves. Moreover, we pay a simple debt of gratitude to a brave generation that fought for Canada — and thus for us — two centuries ago.