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The War of 1812:  An Introduction
by R. Taylor

 
Fort George powder magazine. The oldest military building in Ontario, Canada

When we look at world history, the war that broke out in North America in 1812 was greatly overshadowed by the war between France and Britain in Europe . It was a small war but Canadians remember it as one of the most important times in their history.

The young provinces of Upper Canada, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island had scarcely established themselves before there were signs of serious trouble in store for them. Events in continental Europe, the United States and Great Britain were following a course that was to breed conflict, a conflict in which the British colonies of North America were to become involved.

In Europe, France and Britain were at war between 1793 and 1802. There were a few months of peace, and then, in 1803, the French dictator Napoleon Bonaparte, again declared war. An ambitious person, Napoleon was anxious to re-create the mighty French empire of earlier days. One step in this direction was persuading Spain to return to France the North American territory of Louisiana granted to Spain in 1763.

The news that land lying to the west of the Mississippi River had again become French proved disturbing to the Americans. There was the possibility, they believed, that if Britain should defeat France in Europe, Louisiana might fall into British hands. In either case, the people of the United States were not happy with the new development.

By 1803, Napoleon had become discouraged by the success of British sea power. The chance of France's holding and developing Louisiana was growing so slim that Napoleon decided, rather hurriedly, to sell the territory to the United States. American statesmen, including President Thomas Jefferson, were stunned by the offer but soon recovered and happily agreed to the purchase. Here was a magnificent opportunity to acquire vast areas of land by means of a simple and friendly business arrangement.

On April 12, 1803, the Louisiana Purchase Treaty was signed by representatives of the French and American governments. Not since King Charles the second of England had signed the Charter of Hudson's Bay Company had such a huge territory changed hands in North America by peaceful means.

For the price of fifteen million dollars, the Americans bought a territory stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada, from the Mississippi to the Rockies. Here was a land area, approximately one third the size of the present United States, which in time was to be divided into new vigorous states. In 1803, the purchase of the Louisiana Territory actually doubled the size of the United States.

Although peaceful conditions existed between the United States and Great Britain after the American Revolution (1775-1783) there were a number of Americans who still harboured ill will towards the former mother country. There were even some who believed that all of British North America properly belonged with the new nation. They felt that Canada should have been conquered during the Revolution and added to the United States.

Many Americans were soon given added reason for ill feeling as a result of events taking place during the European conflict. After the Royal Navy, in 1805, had defeated the French in the sea battle of Trafalgar, Britain became "Mistress of the Seas" with no other nation strong enough to challenge her rule. In order to cripple the British, Napoleon Bonaparte issued decrees ordering Russia, Prussia and other European nations to cease trading with Britain. In reply, the British Navy blockaded European ports, preventing ships from delivering their cargoes to the continent.

This sudden stoppage of trade affected the United States as it affected other countries engaged in trading. Although considerable business was lost, many Americans, particularly those in the eastern states, accepted the situation because substantial trade was being conducted with Great Britain. However, elsewhere in the United States, particularly in the south, groups of business men were greatly angered by the British blockade.

Another British war measure "The Orders in Council" served to increase bitterness in the southern regions of the United States. This activity was the Royal Navy's practice of stopping American merchant ships at sea in order to search for deserters. When seamen suspected of being deserters were discovered, they were removed and pressed into British service. There is no doubt that British deserters were serving aboard American vessels where the pay was higher and working conditions were better. It was, therefore, a great temptation to many British sailors to escape from their own ships and seek work with the Americans. The British procedure of taking men by force was considered a high-handed and lawless act, an infringement of American liberty on the high seas. There is no doubt, too, that great injustice was often done when men who had never served in the Royal Navy were seized.

Anger regarding this matter reached a new peak in the United States when the British frigate "Leopard" fired upon an American warship, the "Chesapeake". Having raked her decks with gunfire, killing three men and wounding eighteen others, the British went aboard and removed five men who were suspected of being deserters. Later, it was discovered that only one of these men was actually a deserter.

War might well have developed then and there between the United States and Great Britain had it not been for the coolness and clear thinking of President Thomas Jefferson. He knew that his nation's organized military power was not equal to a full - scale conflict. He believed too, that Britain might eventually be weakened or even humbled by France in the European fighting. Therefore, instead of resisting with arms, Jefferson chose to protest in a different manner- using trade as a weapon. Accordingly, by the Embargo Act of 1807, the American government forbade any ship to leave American ports for any foreign destination. Jefferson and his government thought that as a result Britain would be seriously handicapped by the loss of food and supplies.

The Embargo Act, however, did not have any such effect. It is true that the loss of American goods was disturbing to Britain but it is equally true that the loss of British trade was a hard blow to merchants in the eastern United States. One American historian states:

Farmers could no longer sell their produce; ships were left to rot at the wharf; shipyards and warehouses were deserted and empty. The value of American export trade dropped from $108,343,150 in 1807 to $22,430,960 in 1808.

However , it appears that a few daring American traders were willing to disobey the Embargo Act. One method was to load ships with goods that seemed to be destined for ports in the southern United States. Once out of sight of land, the ships sailed eastward to meet British vessels at pre-arranged points. There the cargoes were transferred to British vessels, and sometimes both ships and cargoes were handed over to the British.

The results of the Embargo Act caused so much dissatisfaction in the United States that the Act was repealed by Congress in 1809.

James Madison became President in 1809, and after the election of 1810 a number of new men found their way into Congress, men who were determined to fight for American liberties at home and on the high seas. They believed in taking a stronger attitude toward Great Britain or any other country that threatened American rights. It was also natural that they should be attracted by British North America with it's fertile soil and richly wooded areas, so desirable and apparently defenceless. It was their belief that the whole continent, from ocean to ocean and from the Gulf of Mexico to the North Pole, should be under the Stars and Stripes- a dream that was a nightmare for their northern neighbours. Strong, proud men, they soon held such power in Congress that they became national leaders of importance. Among them were such persons as thirty-five-year-old Henry Clay of Kentucky and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, then only twenty-nine years of age. These men and their supporters came to be known as the War Hawks.

Americans who were pushing westward into the Ohio valley and on toward the Mississippi found what they imagined to be still another cause of resentment toward Britain. They came into conflict with Indian tribes who considered the westward surge of settlers an invasion of their lands. There were quarrels, murders, scalpings and scattered raids.

Because some of the Indians were equipped with fire-arms, the frontiersmen complained loudly that the British in Canada were arming the Indians and inciting the tribesmen to fight the Americans. These charges were grossly exaggerated. It is true that Indians did acquire a few muskets through normal trade, as they had done for many years, but the British forces in North America were so poorly equipped that they had no surplus guns to give to American Indian tribes. Unfortunately, the noisy charges of the frontiersmen deceived a large number of American citizens.

The Indians themselves, fearful of the American advance, prepared to protect their lands. There rose to power among them one of the greatest Indian leaders in North American history, a Shawnee chief, Tecutha or Tecumseh. Seeing some hope of stemming the tide of American settlement, Tecumseh planned a great Indian confederacy that would be strong enough to resist the white men. He travelled the Mississippi valley as far south as Tennessee, arguing, pleading, encouraging and demanding assistance. In the meantime, his brother, a medicine man known as the Prophet, exerted great influence, teaching that the tribesmen should return to their old ways and give up the evil habits and customs they had learned from the white men. The two brothers were a powerful force in uniting the western tribes against American settlers.

Serious trouble developed over a bitter disagreement regarding the American purchase of three million acres of land in Indian territory. Angered by the incident, Chief Tecumseh protested the arrangement and demanded the return of the Indian land. In a fiery speech, he said:

These lands are ours, and no one has the right to remove us, because we were the first land owners; the Great Spirit above has appointed this place for us on which to light fires, and here we will remain. As to the boundaries, the Great Spirit above knows no boundaries, nor will his red people know any ... If my great father, the President of the Seventeen Fires, has anything more to say to me, he must send a man of note as his messenger ...

Tecumseh used his oratory to rally even more tribes to his cause, and an increasing number of warriors collected at Prophet's town on the Tippecanoe River.

In 1811, disturbed by the hostility of the Indians and a number of unpleasant incidents, Governor Harrison of the Indiana Territory sent for troops and called out his militiamen. Determined to take a firm grip on the situation, he marched with a thousand men in the direction of the Prophet's town on the Tippecanoe. Near the town, contact was made with the Indians and arrangements were completed for a council. Unwisely, the Prophet decided to attack the Americans while they lay sleeping that night in camp. In the battle that followed, the Indians were routed and the Indian town was put to the torch.

Tecumseh, who had been among the tribes to the south, returned to find the town in ruins, his warriors scattered and his brother making weak excuses for the defeat. Tecumseh was so angry that he shook the Prophet by the hair of his head. Years of careful planning and organization had gone to waste.

Early in June 1812, Tecumseh, accompanied by a small group of his followers, left the Indiana territory and joined the British at Amherstburg, on the Canadian side of the Detroit River.

The War Hawks gained such power in the Congress of the United States that their words were listened to with growing attention. It became increasingly obvious that these aggressive men were bent on war with Great Britain. By Autumn of 1811, they were openly demanding an immediate invasion of British North America.

Despite opposition from other members of Congress and protests from various parts of the nation, Henry Clay and his supporters "beat the drums of war." Clay was so confident of an easy victory in a strike across the border that he said, "I trust I shall not be presumptuous when I state that I verily believe that the militia of Kentucky alone are competent to place Montreal and Upper Canada at your feet." He estimated that it would take the American troops no more than four weeks to overrun and hold the important regions of British North America.

By February of 1812, Congress had ordered the creation of a volunteer army of 50,000 men. On June 18th 1812 came a declaration of war against Great Britain. Oddly enough on June 23rd 1812 Great Britain had revoked the restrictions on American commerce, thus eliminating one of the chief reasons for going to war.

However the War Hawks had displayed much more energy in talking about war than in planning and preparing for war. At the beginning of hostilities there were about 7,000 men in the regular forces and these were commanded by senior officers who were old, incompetent or lacking in experience. Congress had voted for war, but seemed reluctant to spend the necessary funds upon equipment and supplies. A bill introduced into Congress with the purpose of increasing the size of the American Navy was turned down by the members. Volunteer soldiers were badly fed and disgracefully clothed. In winter, the unfortunate sentries who patrolled the Canadian-American border shivered and shook on duty because they lacked overcoats.

To make matters even more embarrassing for the War hawks, people in the New England states openly disapproved of the war. In Massachusetts, the New Englanders placed their Stars and Stripes at half-mast when war was declared. As the conflict progressed they refused to volunteer for military service and they withheld financial support for the war effort. Some merchants actually kept selling beef to British army authorities.

It soon became clear that great numbers of Americans were not at all united in approving the conflict with Great Britain. Many felt that it was a contest fought for purposes other than those which had been declared by the War Hawks. These feeling were put into eloquent words by the famous American orator and statesman, Daniel Webster, when he spoke in Congress:

Whoever would discover the causes which have produced the present state of things, must look for them, not in the efforts of the opposition, but in the nature of the war in which we are engaged ... Quite too small a portion of public opinion was in favor of war to justify it originally. A much smaller portion is in favor of the mode in which it has been conducted ... Public opinion, strong and united, is not with you in your Canada project ... The acquisition of the country is not an object generally desired by the people ... You are you say, at war for maritime rights, and free trade. But they see you lock up your commerce and abandon the ocean. They see you invade an interior province of the enemy. They see you involve yourselves in a bloody war with native savages; and they ask you if you have, in truth, a maritime controversy with the Western Indians, and are really contending for sailors' rights with the tribes of the Prophet.

If the American prospects of waging a successful war appeared disappointing, the British prospects of defence were even less promising. The British provinces lacked the population, the food supplies, the military equipment, the manufacturing resources and the troops available to the United States. Officials in all seriousness wondered if the French Canadians and former Americans might not prove a danger during these tense days of warfare. It was sobering to consider the possibility of thousands of Canadian inhabitants welcoming American invaders and taking up arms against the British government.

The British army in North America, a mere 4,450 men, was faced with the staggering problem of defending a border that stretched for a thousand miles to the south and west of Montreal. Fortunately, this hardy little force was commanded by General Isaac Brock, a daring, skilful officer. It was perhaps fortunate, too, that overland travel along the frontier was still a difficult procedure. The undeveloped nature of the land and the lack of proper roads were to prove a severe handicap to the invading Americans.

 

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