Ever since England and the United States went their separate ways in 1783, they felt nothing but mutual hatred for one another. Thus, when the Napoleonic Wars broke out in Europe, neither side needed much of an excuse to fight again in North America. And considering how truly sour their relationship was, it's surprising war did not break out between the two countries earlier than 1812.
In Europe, the English Channel and Great Britain's formidable navy prevented Napoleon Bonaparte from invading England. The French fleet lacked the numbers and leadership to confront the English navy (which was the strongest in the world at the time). On the flip side, England could not really invade Europe: their small population prevented them from mustering an army large enough to challenge Napoleon's. Thus, the English tried to hurt the French economy by putting in place a naval blockade of continental Europe.
For the Americans the British blockade was too effective; that is, the blockade cut off American merchants from European markets; and without access to these lucrative markets, America sank into economic recession. Moreover, the British were confiscating American ships bound for France (and seizing their cargoes).
Adding insult to injury, the English were "impressing" American sailors. If you recall, Britain never acknowledged America's independence. Thus, from a British point of view anyone sailing for the American navy was still an English subject and therefore could be pressed into the service of Great Britain.
Lastly, the United States suspected the British were actively encouraging Natives to attack American settlements along the western frontier. So, with Britain preoccupied with France in Europe, the United States seized the opportunity to exact their revenge and attack British North America.1
America could not have gone to war under more favorable circumstances: firstly, their population was 13 times greater than all of British North America combined; secondly, English naval power would not really influence the outcome of the war as most of the battles were fought on land; and lastly, the Canadians—French and English alike—had doubtful loyalty to King George III of England. This is because the majority of settlers in Upper Canada were recent immigrants from America.
Thus former American president Thomas Jefferson seemed justified when he said conquering Canada would be "a mere matter of marching."2 Fortunate for Canada, though, the war was extremely unpopular with most Americans. And this unpopularity would ultimately mitigate some of America's apparent advantages.
General Isaac Brock was the governor of Upper Canada when America formally declared war in June of 1812. He was an experienced military strategist and well understood frontier warfare. Additionally, he was the type of leader men naturally followed: he was tough but fair, decisive but not impulsive, and he related well to soldiers.
Now compared to the Americans, Brock's overall military position was precarious at best. He had barely 1,600 soldiers with which to defend a thousand miles of shared border with the United States. The Americans had a much larger military force at their disposal. Therefore, they could chose when and where to strike. If Brock had been a lesser man, he would've felt that he had no choice but to go on the defensive. Instead, he chose to attack the Americans.
He opted for an aggressive military strategy for two reasons: first, he knew he could not count upon the Upper Canadians to support the British in repelling the American invaders; secondly, through a daring invasion Brock hoped to catch the Americans off-guard (and maybe steal the initiative).3
Oh, and one last thing, Brock did have one advantage the Americans did not—the support of the influential Shawnee war captain, Tecumseh.
Tecumseh was an important leader of the Shawnee First Nation. He had a profound dislike for Americans for they had killed members of his family and stolen his people's lands. E.g., Under pressure from American settlers, the Shawnee had moved west to the Ohio Valley; and not too long thereafter they were again forced to move yet further west because of renewed American expansion.
What the majority of the Natives didn't appreciate, and only the Shawnee seemed to understand, was that the American lust for land was insatiable. There was no escaping them. Tecumseh felt that Native peoples had two choices: they could either join the Americans and forget their culture and traditions or they could collectively resist American expansion. Tecumseh chose resistance.
Therefore, in 1805 Tecumseh began building a united Indian Confederacy to oppose the United States. Unfortunately, the majority of Native peoples did not share Tecumseh's distrust of the Americans. Most tribes in central North America had been insulated from the effects of white expansion. They felt the Americans were a distant enemy, a myth, not a real threat.4
The situation was complicated: many Native American tribes were traditional enemies of one another. But Tecumseh was an effective speaker: he used his nation's experience with the whites as a means of convincing chiefs to forget their differences and join the Indian Confederacy. Nevertheless, many chiefs just sloughed off the Shawnee captain's warnings. The American threat was too abstract of a concept for people with a cyclical view of time.
Tecumseh is known to have used the following argument when speaking to chiefs, "The white men aren't friends to the Indians. At first they only asked for land sufficient for a wigwam; now, nothing will satisfy them but the whole of our hunting grounds from the rising to the setting sun."5
Although Tecumseh did not manage to convince every tribe that the Americans were the common enemy, he did manage to add a number of powerful groups to his intertribal alliance. The most powerful of which were the Delaware, Wyandot, Kickapoo, Seneca, and Potawatomi.
By 1811 Tecumseh's confederacy had grown significantly. For their part the Americans well understood the purpose of the native organization—to stop America from fulfilling their "manifest destiny."
Ultimately, for the Indian Confederation to be effective there had to be an administrative center. For instance, it would be difficult to imagine how a country as large as Canada could be effectively governed without a central government in Ottawa.
Tecumseh chose to establish his capital in the Indiana Territory. The capital was called Prophetstown and it was constructed on the Tippecanoe River. The choice of location was important as the river straddled the western frontier where America ended and the Indian frontier began. Tecumseh's strategy was simple: Prophetstown would be both a symbolic and physical obstacle to westward encroachment by the Americans.
The capital was appropriately named Prophetstown after Tecumseh's brother Tenskwatawa (who was simply known as the "Prophet"). Tenskwatawa was the spiritual leader of Tecumseh's pan-Indian movement. He advocated a rejection of the white man's ways and a return to the traditions that had preserved Native culture for so long.
An opportunity for the Americans to attack Prophetstown came in 1811. Tecumseh was away trying to convince more tribes to join his confederation. Before leaving he instructed the Prophet not to provoke the Americans in any way. However, in a vision the Creator told the Prophet that Native warriors would not be harmed by the bullets of the Americans if there was a fight. Further, the Creator told the Prophet that if they shot the American leader riding the white horse the Natives would be victorious in battle.
(Dreams are fine and all but the Prophet would've been better off asking the Creator how to go about inventing kevlar vests. When the battle started the warriors indeed fell and died when musketballs tore through their flesh.)
On November 7th, 1811, American troops led by William H. Harrison descended upon Prophetstown. Ignoring Tecumseh's advice, the Prophet commanded his warriors to attack the Americans. The Prophet told his men to take out Harrison (who was supposedly riding a white horse). During the battle, Harrison's horse was in fact shot and killed from underneath him. However, he himself was not killed and continued to lead the attack. Although both sides in the battle suffered roughly equal losses, the battle was a victory for the Americans. Prophetstown was burned and destroyed.
Technically speaking, the Battle of Tippecanoe did not take place during the War of 1812 (it happening in 1811 should have been your first clue). Actually, the battle was part of the ongoing Indian Wars (just one of the many wars of genocide launched by the Americans against Native peoples). Yet, Tippecanoe did influence events during the War of 1812, in that, Tecumseh would later make common cause with Great Britain (Canada) against the Americans.6
In 1812, the American army was poorly organized and ill-prepared for war. The same could be said of the Continental army during the American Revolution; however, in 1776 America's sense of mission galvanized them into a effective fighting force. During the War of 1812, they were not fighting for independence. They were waging a war of conquest and their hearts were not really in it.
The majority of Americans opposed going to war with the British. However, the American government did not listen and went to war anyways (a pattern that sadly continues to repeat itself in American political culture, I.e. Vietnam War, War in Iraq, etc.).
Additionally, the Americans never took full advantage of their numerical superiority over the British-Canadian-Native alliance. For instead of launching a single massive attack on Montreal or York, the Americans divided their forces and struck at the British in multiple places all along the shared frontier.
The American strategy was a sound one, in that, by striking in multiple places simultaneously the British-Canadian defenders would be incapable of mounting a solid defense; however, for such an approach to work you had to be organized and disciplined: the Americans were anything but organized as there was significant division and disagreement between officers within the American army.7
The Americans struck first on July 12th, 1812. General William Hull marched unopposed ahead of 3,000 men into the wilderness of Upper Canada. Hull mistakenly took the inaction of the Canadians as a sign the local people would support him. To that end he issued a proclamation that read as follows: "Inhabitants of Canada! The army under my command has invaded your country, and the standard of the United States now waves over the territory of Canada. To the peaceable, unoffending inhabitants, it brings neither danger nor difficulty. I come to protect, not to injure you. The United States offers you Peace, Liberty, and Security. Your choice lies between these and War, Slavery, and Destruction. Choose then, but choose wisely..."8
The initial success of Hull's invasion was short-lived for the Canadians did not join the American cause. In fact, Hull's army was soon chased out of Upper Canada by a combined British-Canadian-Native force (led by Brock and Tecumseh).
With Hull's pathetic attempt at invasion, Brock gained an insight into the mind of his opponent: the enemy used smaller armies than expected, they appeared disorganized, and based on their hasty retreat they seemed to lack the resolve to fight.
Brock lacked the soldiers to fight the Americans using conventional tactics. This mattered little as the War of 1812 was a frontier war, a war of cat and mouse. Consequently, the British commander used a mix of bluff and psychological warfare to accomplish his goals. For instance, the Americans were absolutely terrified of the Natives (and Brock knew it). There was no shortage of stories on the American frontier of Indian massacres. Stories of butchery, beheadings, scalping, cannibalism, etc. abounded. Although some of these stories reflected actual events, I.e. Schenectady, Lachine, etc. the stories of terror were largely a product of American paranoia.
Before arriving at Fort Detroit General Brock allowed the Americans to intercept a "secret" message. In the message, the British general asked his superiors to send 5,000 more Native warriors to support the impending attack on Detroit. After reading this piece of British propaganda, General Hull lost whatever will he had to fight: how could his army of 2,000 stand up to such a force? In reality, Brock had only 1,000 men total under his command.9
When Brock and Tecumseh arrived at Fort Detroit on August 15th, 1812, they went right to work demoralizing the Americans. Hull watched in horror as "thousands" of Native warriors marched in front of the fort. The funny thing was that there were only about 400 Native warriors total (Tecumseh presented the same warriors over and over giving the impression of greater numbers). To add to the illusion of greater numbers, Brock dressed the Canadian militia in the red coated uniforms of the British regular army. Brock's strategy depended upon bluff for success.
Following the procession, Brock wrote a letter to Hull. The letter, when translated into modern day ebonics, read something like: "I won't be able ta prevent ma Native homies from massacring y'all once da battle starts. You know das right!" And to assist Hull in making up his mind, Brock gave the order for his artillery to start "pounding da walls o' the hood at Fort Detroit." General Hull surrendered the fort without even pulling out his Glock 9mm.10
Even before Detroit surrendered, a second British force attacked nearby Fort Dearborn (or present day Chicago) on August 15th, 1812. I don't believe Brock played any part in the massacre at Dearborn. But his Native allies definitely were behind the slaughter of American prisoners of war; it is probable that Indian massacres like at Dearborn, etc. influenced the scale and severity of the subsequent American genocide of Native Americans during the Indian Wars following 1815.
The British victories at Detroit and Dearborn added considerably to Brock's prestige in Canada. Thereafter, the British commander had little difficulty convincing Canadians—French and English alike —to join the militia. And with the fall of Fort Dearborn in particular, Brock dealt the United States its worst defeat on home soil in its entire history. Brock's victories encouraged the Iroquois to end their neutrality and join the British side. The Mohawk were led by John Brant the adoptive son of Joseph Brant (a man we learned about him during the American Revolution unit).11
Following the loss of Dearborn, the Americans decided to invade at a place called Queenston Heights in Upper Canada. To his credit General Brock anticipated the American attack. He, like the American military planners, understood that whoever held the Heights would probably end up controlling all of Upper Canada. Consequently, when the invasion began Brock was stationed at nearby Fort Grey.
The battle began on October 13th, 1812, with American cannons raining fire down upon Fort Grey from their side of the Niagara River. So much for subtlety. The cannon fire woke General Brock from his sleep. He mounted his horse Alfred and rode towards thedirection of the noise. When he arrived at the Niagara River he saw dozens of boats full of American soldiers crossing the Niagara River to the Canadian side. The invasion was underway.
Ironically, Brock was encouraged by what he saw: the Americans did not have boats large enough to properly transport men, cannon, and supplies across the river. Moreover, the river's strong current made it difficult for the enemy to cross. Over the course of two hours the Americans did manage to get ashore 1,200 men. In addition, the invaders successfully captured and held the high ground at Queenston. For a time it appeared as though the battle was going to be won by the Americans.
A combined British-Native force counter-attacked. They forced the American invaders against the edge of a cliff. Brock could smell victory and decided to personally lead the final charge against the American position. Before the general mounted his charge he was shot dead by a sniper. With the death of their brilliant (but not bullet proof) general, the British and their allies fell into confusion. Luckily for Canada their Native allies had lost none of their resolve. Led by John Brant a force of 300 Mohawk warriors launched repeated charges against the Americans. The Americans had nowhere to go and many of them jumped off the cliffs to avoid being caught by the Natives.
On the American side of the river, the American commander tried to persuade his remaining men to cross and help their countrymen. Not a man would budge. He was helpless as his men on the Heights were butchered without mercy by the Anglo-Native force.
The Americans at Queenston tried repeatedly to surrender. The Natives ignored the attempts. I think they were having too much fun exacting revenge on the people responsible for destroying their ancestral homeland. Eventually the British finally got a handle on the situation and the Americans were at last allowed to surrender.
The Canadian victory was a hollow one, in that, although they had defeated the Americans they had lost their leader. The Americans wreaked a little revenge a month later when they sacked York. But this is Canadian history and I don't want to dwell on American victories. Snicker.12
In autumn 1813, an American army of 3,000 men followed General Harrison into Upper Canada. British General Henry Proctor, commanding a similar sized army, was stationed at nearby Fort Malden (along with Tecumseh and his warriors).
Tecumseh was eager to fight Harrison. He wanted avenge the loss of Prophetstown. Proctor, however, chose to retreat instead of fight. In some respects, Proctor's decision to retreat was a smart one: the American navy had recently defeated the British in the Battle of Lake Erie. With the Americans firmly in control of Lake Erie, they could prevent Proctor's army from being supplied. However, by running away the British gave up whatever advantage comes from defending a fixed position like a fort.
Also, the unwillingness of the British to fight placed a huge strain on the Anglo-Native alliance. The Natives did not respect Proctor's decision and many left for home in disgust. Tecumseh's army had been nearly 1,000 strong at Fort Malden. Now fewer than 500 remained. Proctor's own men questioned his leadership; and when the Americans finally caught up to the retreating Proctor the British put up only token resistance.
The British left Tecumseh and his warriors to face the Americans virtually alone. The warriors fought heroically against hopeless odds. But they were inevitably overwhelmed and Tecumseh was killed. His body was never recovered. The idea of a unified Native confederacy died with him.
After the American victory at the Battle of the Thames, Harrison found himself in a position to conquer Upper Canada. Two factors prevented him from completing his conquest: firstly, he had reached the end of his supplies; and secondly, the onset of winter turned him away like it had Phips and Arnold before him.13
During the American Revolution, Laura's family established a homestead in Upper Canada. In 1797, she married a man by the name of James Secord (who had been a member of Butler's Rangers). The couple was one of the first pioneer families in the Queenston area. When the War of 1812 broke out James rejoined the military.
James was wounded at the Battle of Queenston Heights and was apparently left for dead. (Considering the British only lost 14 people killed total in that battle, I'm thinking either they didn't try too hard to locate the wounded or James just wasn't all that popular in the bunk house.) James' determined wife traveled to the battle site, found her husband, and took him home. Soon after she had brought him back, Americans arrived and confiscated her farm. For some reason the Secords were allowed to stay at the homestead; it was then that Laura overheard American officers discussing plans for a surprise attack at a place called Beaver Dams.
The next morning Laura woke up with the intention of warning the British then encamped not too far from Beaver Dams. The problem was the Americans would not just let her leave. She would need some sort of excuse to be allowed to go. She told her American guests that she wanted to leave for a short time to visit a sick relative living in the neighboring village of St. David's. With great foresight the Americans allowed her to leave. Laura then set off on a 16 mile journey through the wilderness to the British camp at Beaver Dams. When she finally arrived at the camp, night had fallen, and her feet were bloody and swollen.
Laura immediately communicated to the British commander the American plans. Soon thereafter the British set up an ambush and waited for the Americans to arrive. On June 24, 1813, the British and their Mohawk allies basically frightened the Americans into surrender. The Battle of Beaver Dams effectively ended America's attempts to conquer Upper Canada.14
Two weeks after Proctor's humiliation and the death of Tecumseh, two American armies descended upon Lower Canada. Both armies shared a common objective—Montreal.15
Leading the Canadien contingent was an imposing man named Charles de Salaberry. He was cut from the same cloth as d'Iberville, in that, he was a seigneur and a career soldier. De Salaberry was a natural choice to lead his countrymen against the American threat. With Brock's victories at Detroit and Dearborn, the French willingly rallied to the British cause. De Salaberry's reputation and charisma made the decision to join the Canadien militia all the more easy. Consequently, he established the French fighting force called Les Voltigeurs Canadiens (literally translated "Canada's Acrobats").16
Uhm, I hope acrobats in de Salaberry's day were more physically intimidating than they are in mine. The specter of acrobats wearing tight multi-colored spandex charging me with bayonets (and circus music playing in the background) does not exactly fill me with fear. Now when I think of Mohawk warriors coming at me at full speed I say to myself, "Scary." But with acrobats I think of Cirque de Soliel (and I'm pretty sure even I could beat up those guys).
The battle at Chateauguay was a 100% Canadian victory. The British played no direct part in it. The Americans had an army 4,000 strong. The Canadian force numbering about 300 was made up of French and English-Canadians and a Mohawk contingent. Luckily for the Canadians 1,200 of Hampton's men from New York State refused to cross the frontier into Canada. Therefore, the army confronting de Salaberry numbered only 3,000.
The French Canadien commander came up with a plan of ambushing the invaders. Once the Americans were bottlenecked, his much smaller force could concentrate their fire and devastate the Americans. However, the Americans would not knowingly walk into a trap. They would have to be led or forced into it. Therefore, de Salaberry gave the order to destroy specific bridges and cut down strategically located trees in the area. By doing this he eliminated a number of travel options available to the Americans. If the invaders wanted to take Lower Canada, they would have to come through the route de Salaberry had set up.
As the Americans walked along the path Salaberry had created, the French commander positioned his men behind earthworks on top of some high ground overlooking the Chateauguay River. The position gave the Canadians a perfect position to fire down upon the Americans below. To help push the enemy into his trap, de Salaberry placed men on either side of the river some distance away from the main base. These men were instructed to make noise and consequently direct the Americans into the bottleneck.
Three days after the Canadiens completed their preparations the Americans arrived. The enemy was gunned down as they foolishly and repeatedly attempted to break past the Canadian gunners. The battle was bloody and lasted most of the night. Hampton, who had little stomach for the war in the first place, ordered his men to retreat. De Salaberry thought that the Americans retreated in order to regroup. Thus, he and his men stayed holed up in their defenses for eight rainy days and nights. He did not move from his position until First Nations scouts told him the Americans had completely withdrawn.17
Three weeks after the Battle of Chateauguay (1813), a second American army marched west along the St. Lawrence River. Unlike Chateauguay, the Battle of Crysler's Farm was a conventional "thin red line" battle.18
The American force, led by a loud mouthed Kentucky general named James Wilkinson, attempted to advance on Montreal. A combined Anglo-Canadian force pursued the Americans and finally caught up to them at a place called Crysler's Farm. The subsequent fight was short: the Americans turned and tried to break through the English lines. The attack failed and the Americans withdrew. Both sides claimed victory. I'm not sure how the Americans could claim victory here. They ran away.19
A legend emerged during the reconstruction of the president's home: apparently white paint was applied to the House to hide the burn damage (and thereafter it became known as the "White" House). Well, unfortunately, this is just a legend. The White House had been white ever since its completion in 1798.
After a couple days, the British packed up and sailed north attacking the City of Baltimore and laying siege to Fort McHenry. The attack inspired a poet named Francis Scott Key to write a poem called the "Star-Spangled Banner." The poem was adopted as the American national anthem in 1931.20
The War of 1812 had mainly negative consequences for Native peoples in North America. As relations between Canada and the United States normalized, the First Nations were no longer needed as allies. The time when either the British or the French would look to them for help was over. And just as Tecumseh had warned, the Americans and Canadians moved westward glutting themselves on Native lands (and destroying centuries old societies in the process).22