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Lamenting the War of 1812

The War of 1812 presentation is a painless history lesson that changed the direction of both Canada and the U.S -- and was completely unnecessary. As one soldier of 1812 laments, it pitted people of the same background against one another. For what? No one is sure.

It's a safe bet that not many who are reading this realize that next year will be the 200th anniversary of the war of 1812.

PBS and Canadian and British contributors have produced what could be called a two-hour "docudrama" on this two and a half-year war that shaped the continent and which is largely unknown today.

It's an intriguing presentation which will air on PBS TV stations along the border at 9 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 10, and should be essential watching for Canadians.

As a bevy of historians (American, Canadian, British and North American Indian) remind us, most Americans know very little about the 1812 war (perhaps because they lost it); the British barely remember it (they were fighting Napoleon at the time).

Canadians have reason to remember it because we won -- defeated invading Americans in several battles. What we Canadians may not realize is that Indians fighting on our side tipped the balance. Yet Indians were betrayed when British pledges to recognize their territory came to naught.

It was a curious war with relatively small casualties, judging by wars that followed. But it had brutal moments. And it took unexpected turns.

The Americans had far more soldiers (mostly militia), but were soundly defeated when they tried to invade from Detroit, Niagara (Queenston Heights), and a pincher attack towards Montreal.

At sea, the mighty Royal Navy expected to easily demolish the tiny U.S. Navy -- but was mostly defeated at sea, and on the Great Lakes where Capt. Oliver Hazard Perry was the hero of the battle of Lake Erie.

So nothing turned out as expected. Essentially, three aspects benefitted Canada: 1) a small core of professional British soldiers defended the country and rallied civilian soldiers; 2) Incompetence verging on cowardice of American part-time generals; 3) Indians, initially led by the great chief Tecumseh, went on the war path on behalf of the British and terrified American militiamen, who on occasion were mercilessly slaughtered and mutilated.

The Americans raided and burned York (later renamed Toronto). Bodies of the dead are said to periodically turn up in ground excavated near St. James Cathedral on King street.

In retaliation, the Royal Navy sailed to Washington, then a village, and burned the White House. The Brits then attacked Baltimore which was a thriving seaport and centre of commerce.

After the peace treaty -- Treaty of Ghent -- the British attacked New Orleans where Andrew Jackson (dubbed by some historians as the physically bravest president the U.S. has ever had) won the battle. Neither side realized the war was officially ended.

Out of that war emerged the Star Spangled Banner song that later became the U.S. National Anthem.

In retrospect, Canada was defended by competent commanders -- like Gen. Isaac Brock, killed at Queenston Heights -- who knew how to fight a war, and who was hoping to return to Britain and fight Napoleon.

In 1812, Napoleon captured Moscow; England was minimally concerned about Canada.

One outcome of the war -- and the poor showing by American men-at-arms -- was the realization in Washington that the 36-year-old "revolutionary" country needed to develop a professional army.

The sorriest aspect of the war was the Indians and Tecumpseh -- the great Shawnee chief who some see as hoping to emulate George Washington and uniting Indian tribes from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico into a United Indian confederacy. Once the war was over, Britain forgot its pledge to Indian allies.

Well respected by Sir Isaac Brock and British commanders, Tecumseh's death in battle ended his dream, and led to 50 years of Indian wars as Americans opened the West.

The War of 1812 presentation is a painless history lesson that changed the direction of both Canada and the U.S -- and was completely unnecessary.

As one soldier of 1812 laments, it pitted people of the same background against one another. For what? No one is sure.

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