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The War of 1812 and Later

The American war of independence ended in 1783 with the Treaty of Paris and with many Loyalists moving to Canada. To accommodate them, Canada was divided into French-speaking Lower Canada (later Quebec) and English-speaking Upper Canada (later Ontario), each with its own male-elected legislative assembly – which could be over-ruled by Britain's governors-general or the government in London.

Britain's war against Revolutionary France began in 1793, and in 1803 it responded to Napoleon's preference for war. The power of its navy was a primary concern. In 1806 they the British took Cape Colony (South Africa) from the Dutch – who were being ruled by Napoleon. From the Dutch, Britain took Surinam and Essequibo (today Guyana) on the northern coast of South America. From Napoleon's ally, Denmark, they took the Caribbean islands of St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix (the Virgin Islands). Also in the Caribbean they took France's islands in the Lesser Antilles. And they took the French islands of Bourbon (Reunion and Mauritius) east of Madagascar.

The United States had been expanding territorially. Vermont joined the union in 1791, Kentucky in 1792, Tennessee in 1796, and Ohio in 1803. In July 1803 the US bought Louisiana Territory from Napoleonic France, and in April 1812 Louisiana became a state.

In Europe the British had been fighting Napoleon with a counter-blockade, cutting French trade where they could, and this created a problem with the United States, whose merchants were pursuing trade with whomever they could. British sailors were deserting to US merchant ships, where they could get higher pay. To discourage this, the British were conducting searches and seizures of ships owned and operated by US citizens. The French were also harassing American merchants, French privateers and cruisers were seizing goods they thought were headed for Britain. Among those in the US interested in war were those supporting expansion westward. Indians under the leadership of the half-integrated Tecumseh were resisting the advances of whites across Indiana, and Indians in the area had good relations with the British of Canada, while pro-war newspapers in the United States were talking about the "Anglo-savage" war and of "British savages" and complaining that the British were trying to return Americans to colonial subservience. There were calls for an alliance with Napoleon against Britain in order to complete the revolutionary war. These were issues in the election campaigning of 1810-11, and doing well in those elections were Democratic-Republicans (the party of former President Jefferson and of James Madison, President since 1809). The 12th Congress, which convened in November 1811, was overwhelmingly Democratic-Republican in both the House and the Senate, and there were speeches about the need to go to war to defend the nation's honor.

In May 1812, Britain's Prime Minister Spencer Perceval was assassinated (by an English businessman with a personal grievance and the primitive notion that he was performing justice). Perceval's successor, Lord Liverpool, was more moderate than Perceval had been. The British Navy was instructed to avoid clashes with the Americans. But Americans ignored Britain's attempt at compromise. On June 1, 1812, President Madison sent a message to Congress citing as causes for war Britain's impressment of US naval personnel, violations of neutrality rights, Indian aggression, and Britain meddling in American trade. The vote proceeded along party lines, the majority of Democratic-Republicans voting for war and a Federalist minority voting against it. Congress declared war against Britain on June 18, 1812. Many found the news of war exhilarating. In Washington, handshakes abounded and there was rejoicing. In Kentucky, muskets and cannon were fired and there was much cheering.


On July 12, a US force led by general William Hull entered Canada. Tecumseh gathered 800 warriors in support of the British, and the British made common cause with the Indians against expansion by Americans. Hull was driven back to Fort Detroit, surrounded by British regulars, by militia and Indians under Tecumseh, and he surrendered the fort without firing a shot.

In March 1813, US troops burned the town of York (today Toronto) on the shore of Lake Ontario. On August 30, 750 Creek warriors attacked a US fort in Alabama, killed more than 500 and suffered 50 to 100 deaths. On Lake Erie in September a small fleet of US ships commanded by Oliver Perry repelled an attack by British ships. In November, the British defeated an advance led by General Wayne Hampton into Canada. And at the end of that month, General John Floyd raided the Creek village of Autossee in central Alabama, killing 200 and destroying 400 dwellings — part of the Creek War of 1813, with one Creek faction siding with the US forces.

After Napoleon's abdication in April 1814, the British were able to intensify their naval blockade of the Atlantic coast and to increase their troop strength in Canada. The British attacked at Niagara in July, and US troops stopped their advance. A British force arrived by sea at Chesapeake Bay, and in August they burned public buildings in Washington in retaliation for the US burning York and Newark in Canada and also to impress upon the administration President Madison the futility of continuing the war. In early September, the British sent a force from Canada to Plattsburg Bay on Lake Champlain, and a US naval and land engagement sent the British into retreat.

Also in September there was the three-day Battle of Baltimore. US forces at that port city with something like 11,000 and 150 artillery pieces held off 19 British warships with a landing force of 5,000 men. Francis Scott Key had allowed himself to be taken as a prisoner of war to one of the British ships from which he later saw in the "dawn's early light" that after 25 hours of bombardment the US flag was still flying above Baltimore's Fort McHenry. (Flag poles are not easily toppled by naval cannon or artillery, but the symbolism remains: the British had failed.) The US lost 28 killed, 163 wounded, and 50 captured. The British lost from 42 to 46 killed and from 280 to 296 wounded.

Meanwhile, since August, negotiations had been taking place to end the fighting and dying. A peace treaty was signed on December 24, proudly hailed as restoring "peace, friendship, and good understanding" between "His Britannic Majesty and the United States."

Canadians were pleased by the end of the war. The war had given them a national identity as something more than a territory of scattered outposts within the British Empire. They had their legends of heroism. One hero was Isaac Brock, the victor at Detroit in 1812 and leader of Canada's defense. Another was Laura Secord, born in Massachusetts. She had been forced to billet three officers of an invading US force just inside Canada and had overheard the officers discuss plans for a surprise attack at Beaver Dam. She had walked 20 miles including a six-hour climb over the Niagara Escarpment to warn of the attack.

The war that the US had started was officially over. Boundaries between the US and Canada remained unchanged. But there was one more battle. Communications were slow in those days, and an assault the British had planned for the New Orleans area near the mouth of the Mississippi River was executed. In early January, Andrew Jackson, commander of the US forces, behind a canal and a breast-high dirt barrier reinforced by sugar barrels, drove back three frontal attacks by the British, who suffered more than 2,000 casualties, including the death of their commander. The British retreated. Some in the United States were overjoyed by Andrew Jackson's victory, and he became a military hero.

American deaths in the War of 1812 has been described as roughly 15,000. The US population according to a 1810 census was 7,240,000. That is roughly one death for every 482 persons. One in every 482 persons in today's population of 321 million would be more than 600,000 deaths, something like 13 times what the US suffered in the Iraq war of 2003-11. (The Iraqis during that war lost roughly one in every 142.3 persons.)

Before the war the British Navy had been instructed to avoid clashes with the Americans. Following the war, tensions remained between the United States and Britain. A naval arms race developed in the Great Lakes region, and incidents occurred on the lakes as the British continued with what they believed was their right to search US ships. The war had not changed that. But the War of 1812 was the last of what could be called a war between the US and its northern neighbor.

Beginning in 1816, the US government put high tariffs on British imports, inspired in part by the desire to deprive Britain of one of its largest export markets as well as to protect American manufacturers and farmers from foreign competition. In 1818, the US and Britain produced their friendly Rush-Bagot Agreement for disarmament on the Great Lakes. Each power was to have no more than four warships on the Great Lakes, none of which was to exceed 100 tons.

Maine joined the union in 1820 and began granting lands to settlers, lands in the valley of the Aroostook River, an area claimed by the British. During the winter of 1838-39, British lumberjacks entered the area to cut wood. From the US a land agent arrived to expel them. In February the lumberjacks seized him. Maine sent 10,000 troops to the area. In Canada a militia in Canada was called up. But there was no hothead, rah-rah follow-up. Instead, a treaty was arranged: the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842. It gave 7,015 square miles to the United States, 5,012 square miles to the British and left the British with military communications between New Brunswick and Montreal. Britain agreed to pay Maine and Massachusetts $150,000 each, and the US reimbursed Britain for expenses incurred during the crisis.

CONTINUE READING: Napoleon Bonaparte: Flawed Hero

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