The Napoleonic struggles, a protracted series of conflicts between Britain and France that ebbed and flowed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, ultimately helped to create tensions between the United States and British North America. Britain’s superior sea power could effectively control the oceans, while Napoleon Bonaparte’s armies and alliances effectively cut the European continent off from trade with Britain. The United States, alarmed by British orders to prohibit trade with the French and its European allies, as well as with French attempts to limit trade with the British, passed a series of embargo laws. The Royal Navy routinely stopped American ships on the high seas to interdict trade with the Continent. In addition, it habitually impressed sailors from American ships who may or may not have been deserters from the British fleet. Young congressional representatives, known as the War Hawks, agitated for retaliation against the British for their purported assistance to Native peoples in their confrontations with Americans who were flooding into the interior. President James Madison’s call for war in 1812 highlighted the key American grievances of the British blockade of free trade, impressments (forced conscription) of American sailors, and support of Amerindians in the interior of North America. Many argued that the United States declared war to get respect; thus, the War of 1812 (1812-1814) is still referred to as the “second American revolution” by a fair number of American historians.
With a superior British navy holding forth on the high seas, and to the delight of the American “War Hawks” who wanted to remove the British presence in North America, the only logical war plan entailed attacks on British North America. Whether the colonies were to be held as hostages to force the British to capitulate or to be absorbed by the United States remains a question of historical disagreement. Undisputed is the fact that Britain had most of its forces occupied in a massive struggle with Napoleon in Europe, so only a relatively small contingent of regular soldiers were positioned to defend British North America.
The war was a series of unmitigated military disasters for the Americans, with the surprising exceptions of naval victories on Lakes Erie and Champlain. An ill-advised attempt to mount an invasion from the west ended in a humiliating defeat of American forces at Detroit in 1812. In the fall of the same year, a battle in the Niagara region at Queenston Heights cost the British the life of a popular warrior and governor, Isaac Brock, but British forces with support from Canadian militia and Amerindian allies won an important victory. Repeated attempts by the Americans to attack the Canadas through the Niagara or by using the Lake Champlain/Richelieu River route met with formidable rebuttals. The Americans found a measure of success with small naval contests on Lakes Erie and Champlain and burned buildings in York (Toronto). Canadians remember the Americans being repelled at Beaver Dams, Chateauguay, Crysler’s Farm, and Stoney Creek. One contest at Beaver Dams created a heavily mythologized heroine out of Laura Secord, who forewarned the British of an impending battle after hearing American officers discuss campaign plans at her home. A French-Canadian military leader, Charles de Salaberry, captured fame at the Chateauguay River. Thus, Canadians have a pantheon of heroic figures from the war, among them Brock, Secord, and de Salaberry.
With the American invasions failing dramatically, the war’s final stages brought a series of attempts on the part of the British to attack the United States. Ironically, despite battle-seasoned troops pouring into British North America in the wake of Napoleon’s defeat in 1814, the British fared no better at their invasion plans. They caused havoc in a campaign in the Chesapeake, including torching the White House, but were soundly defeated in their attempts to move down Lake Champlain, and they lost a stunning battle at New Orleans in early January 1815. Thanks to a lag time in receiving dispatches from Europe, the battle took place after a peace agreement had been signed in Ghent in late 1814. Americans, sobered by the painful rift between the states that the war had created and embarrassed by the inability of its forces to take the seemingly easy prize of British North America, were pleased to end the hostilities. The British returned territory it had captured from the Americans in Maine but refused to yield to the American demands that had triggered the conflict.
The War of 1812, as historian Charles Perry Stacey sardonically observed, was a conflict that eventually made everyone happy. It was not a contest of great global import. The British still consider it a minor nuisance during a more important struggle against Napoleon’s attempts to master Europe. The Americans, despite the fact that they were politically divided and had compiled a dismal military record, found honor by standing up to the powerful British on the principles of trade and protecting the integrity of their citizens.
Canadians have their own interpretations of the War of 1812. Out of the American attempts to conquer British North America came embellished memories of the role played by Canadian militiamen. In fact, most of the war was fought by regular soldiers from England and Ireland. On a more practical level, the war helped to unify the two Canadas for defensive purposes and led to improvements in the movement of goods and construction of roads. Coupled with the recent American incursions during the Revolutionary War, the conflict reminded many British North Americans that the colonies lay open to attack and that Americans could not be trusted.
The British and Americans, in the war’s immediate wake, worked to defuse tensions in North America and articulate their boundaries more clearly. In an attempt to demilitarize the Great Lakes, the Rush- Bagot Agreement of 1817 limited ship tonnage and weaponry on the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain. Although the treaty’s spirit was sorely tested in the years after its signing and both sides continued to build forts along the boundary, it remained a centerpiece of the British and American resolve to avoid conflict in North America. The Convention of 1818 drew a boundary line along the forty-ninth parallel from the Lake of the Woods, west of Lake Superior, to the Rocky Mountains. A poorly understood and much disputed region, the lands west of the Rockies were left open to joint occupation. An important legacy of the War of 1812, therefore, was a more clearly etched border between the United States and British North America.