Thursday, August 16, 2012
As a child I was told stories of the War of 1812. It was fought right here in my home of Western New York and that is pretty cool. Since it is 2012, two hundred years later, I thought it deserved a review.
On the first of June, 1812, President James Madison sent a message to congress. It was a list of grievances against Great Britain. After four days of deliberation the United States Congress voted to to declare war for the first time in the history of the union.
This was the start of the war against Canada. Who were the Canadians? Most of them were the indigenous natives, exiles from the Revolutionary era United States or post war immigrants. The United Empire Loyalists (Revolutionary exiles) were generally hostile to the United States. It had only been about 29 years since the end of the Revolutionary war and grudges can last a generation or two.
These British Loyalists were all for the war while the immigrants were generally neutral and didn't really participate in the conflict. The American strategy was based upon the idea that the oppressed peoples of Canada would would rise up and greet the American army as liberators from the oppressive UK. This is a common thought that we Americans seem to have. See "Bay of Pigs", "Afghanistan", and "Iraq". As in most cases, it was an incorrect notion and the Americans would receive no assistance or supplies from the locals. The American military forces retreated after a single successful battle.
Many in the states were pro war and had great desire to annex the remainder of North America and drive the British out for good. One of these was former President Jefferson, who said "The aquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching, and will give us the experience for the attack on Halifax, the next and final expulsion of England from the American Continent." But recall that Jefferson was a bit of an asshole.
Recall that this is the period where Napoleon was conquering basically the entire continent of Europe and England was really busy fending off that guy. The Napoleonic Wars lasted from 1803 to 1815. England was in no position to defend the new world when they were busy defending the old one. If there was a time to conquer Canada, this was it.
Sadly, even though both sides had been bitching and threatening for a while the U.S. was in basically the same position as the Brits. The U.S. was unprepared for all out war. President Madison assumed that the state militias would easily seize Canada and there would be victory negotiations and that would be that. The U.S. regular army consisted of less than 12,000 men in 1812. The Congress authorized an expansion to 35,000 but getting men to volunteer was rough. No GI bill or draft. The pay was poor and there was little honor in it. To Madison's dismay the militias did not want to fight outside of their home states, were not disciplined, and were generally not good soldiers.
July 12, 1812, An invading army of 1,000 American militia men invaded the town of Sandwich (now part of Windsor Ontario) from Detroit. These poorly trained and disciplined troops held the town for a month or so before being driven out and retreating back to Detroit where they surrendered Brigadier General Isaac Brock and the Shawnee leader Tecumseh. The surrender cost them the village of Detroit (yeap, village) but most of Michigan.
By mid fall the U.S. was ready to launch a second Canadian Invasion. This time it is on the Niagara peninsula. Basically Buffalo and Niagara Falls invaded the southern Toronto area.
The U.S., under a new Secretary of War, tried and failed to take Montreal with 10,000 men. After that failed the U.S. retreated again (Oct 1813).
The war became a Naval battle across the Great lakes. The Battle of Lake Erie was decisive by cutting off British and Native forces from supply lines. Lake Ontario changed hands several times and should have provided one side or the other with some modicum of superiority but neither side was able to use it to real advantage.
On December 30, 1813 British and Native military captured the village of Black Rock and Burned the Fledgling City, Buffalo to the ground. I am from Buffalo and am still a little bitter about this. The U.S. Military was as well and this precipitated the invasion of and burning of Toronto.
To recap, they burned Buffalo so we burned Toronto. Neener neener neener. So they burn D.C. Remember that the reason the U.S. was able to hold it's own against the British was that the Brits were in heavy conflict with Napoleon at the time. Very busy there.
After Napoleon's defeat and exile, in 1814, the British were able to spare troops, ships and supplies for the North American war. The British formed a Naval blockade off the eastern coast of the U.S. in an attempt to draw resources from the U.S. campaign against Canada.
The Capital building had not begun construction yet but the buildings being used by the House and Senate were burned. There was total destruction of the interior, including the Library of Congress but the exterior walls were not really susceptible to flame and a rainstorm protected them from further damage. Thomas Jefferson later sold his personal library of over 6,000 books to restock the Library of Congress.
As British troops approached the White House government officials fled but First Lady Dolly Madison stayed behind to organize the slaves and staff to keep the valuables from the British. She took the valuables and fled just before the Brits got there and good idea too as the White House was burned to the ground. It burned through the next day, due to additional fuel being added to make sure it was cinder when the Brits were done.
One of the motives for the sheer wanton destruction of D.C. was retaliation for what the U.S. troops did to Toronto. So they burned Buffalo. We burned Toronto. They Burned D.C. So, they won on that one. No way we could burn London. Goddamn Limey Brits.
Since the Brits came out on top of this one they began making crazy demands in treaty negotiations, neutral land ceded from our Midwest for the Native Americans being the most offensive. Madison made the demands public and the U.S. populace was finally really unified against the Brits. The war would go on.
Robert Banks Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool and Prime Minister of the UK, had been aware of the financial and political strain of constant war. The taxes to support a war against invading Napoleon was one thing but the populace would get pissed to continue to support a war in North America. Lord Liverpool reopened trade with the U.S.
Christmas Eve, 1814 the diplomats signed the Treaty of Ghent which was ratified by the Brits on December 27 and arrived in D.C. on February 17th when the U.S. ratified it. The war of 1812 was over.
The terms called for all the territory returned to prewar ownership and the U.S. got fishing rights in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. None of the prewar grievances were addressed in the treaty. The war gained basically nothing for either side.
It is estimated that around 15,000 people died from combat and disease due to the war. This number excludes the Canadian militia and Natives who fought. The war cost the United States around $105 million (in 1814 dollars).
In the following decades both the U.S. and the Canadians (proto-Canadians?) saw the war as a victory. How that works is not sharing textbooks. Both countries saw the victory as establishing a strong foundation for their nationhood. The British saw it as a footnote to the Napoleonic wars and no more.
Many Historians say that the war was a stalemate but that it began 200 years of peaceful coexistence between the U.S. and Canada. So, in a way they did both win.
There is an argument that the winner was the UK. They were the defenders and held their boarder. The US failed to achieve their goal of seizing Canada. Therefor the U.S. lost. Failed invasion.
A third opinion is that The U.S., Canada and UK all won the war and the Natives lost. The British won by not losing any territory. The U.S. won by taking on the most powerful country in the world and re-winning independence. This created a real case for the U.S as the regional power of the new world. The war also ended the British funded raids by the different Native tribes and coercing the Brits away from their plan to have a Midwest Native sanctuary which allowed the U.S. free access to the Pacific. The U.S. additionally got the UK as a trading partner and that brought in big bucks to the start of the growing mercantile economy.
There is little doubt about the result for the Natives. They were losing badly to the U.S. in the west and Midwest and they were being kept supplied largely by the British who really did not like the U.S. The British removal of protection gave the U.S. freedom to basically take the land to the Pacific and kill or relocate everyone in our way.
As a Buffalonian, I am a fan of the War of 1812 as it was the only combat fought in my area. It is the only military history Western New York has. I urge you to go out and look to see what kind of history your area has. It is a great Journey.