Saturday, July 1, 2017

The War of 1812: A British-Canadian Victory

by Tom Taylor

Anglo-American War 1812; CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons

This year marks the 205th anniversary of the War of 1812, an extension of the Napoleonic war that many consider Canada’s war of independence, not from Britain but from the United States. Historians often take the beginning of the war to be the Battle of Tippecanoe in November 1811, when General Harrison and the U.S. Fourth Infantry burned Prophet’s Town to the ground. Tecumseh never forgave the Americans for destroying his home and consequently he fought beside the British to the time of his death.

The United States declared war on Great Britain on June 18, 1812 under the guise of an injured party. The royal navy was seizing British deserters off American ships, impinging on newly won American sovereignty. And British orders in council prevented any country trading directly with France. All cargoes had to be approved by England before they could touch a continental port.

In North America, there had been talk of an Indian buffer state between the U.S. and the Canadas which found support in the British foreign office. Also, Canadian fur traders were too successful dealing with the natives in old northwest [now Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois.] Congressional “war hawks” knew they could solve a lot of problems by what was perceived to be an easy land grab from Britain to the north. Thomas Jefferson declared the acquisition of Canada “will be a mere matter of marching.”

And why wouldn’t he think that? There were eight million Americans against five hundred thousand northern British subjects, many of whom had just arrived from the United States. And to defend an area larger than Britain and France combined, there were 5700 British regular officers and men. Of that number, only 1150 were stationed in all of Upper Canada where 3 out of 5 settlers were newly arrived from the USA. Jefferson and the war hawks looked on British North America as if it was low hanging fruit.

However, at the opening of the war, they hadn’t counted on the unique resistance of Major General Isaac Brock [Guernsey Island man], the cunning of Tecumseh, the determination of Lt. Col. de Salaberry, and the genuine desire of the Canadas to maintain a different way of life.

Sir Issac Brock by John W.L. Forster
[Public Domain] Wikimedia Commons

While much of the land fighting took place in the Niagara Peninsula, there were battles in other key areas. Michilimackinac and Detroit surrendered to the British with few casualties; cargoes were seized on the Great Lakes in the Atlantic Ocean over ship to ship fighting; Queenston Heights was defended at the cost of Brock’s life; Toronto was sacked and burnt; and fought in the pitch dark with bayonets, the battle of Stoney Creek became a turning point for the war in 1813. And all this happened in just the first 12 months.

Some strange events took place during the war. American Lieutenant Porter Hanks, who surrendered Fort Mackinac to the British – Washington had forgot to tell him that war had been declared – was giving his testimony to General Hull in Detroit, when a cannon ball fire from Sandwich [now Windsor], cleared the parapet, bounced in the courtyard, went through an open door, and cut him in half, spewing his innards over the shaken general. Next time you think you are having a bad couple of weeks, think of poor Hanks.

Did you know that Tecumseh, with just twenty-four Shawnee warriors defeated an American force almost ten times his number at the Battle of Brownstown just south of Fort Detroit? His concept of limited siege starved the fort of supplies. It’s said that when Hull surrendered to Brock, he had less than twenty day’s rations remaining.

Tecumseh: attributed to Owen Staples (1866-1949)
Toronto Public Library
[Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Little is known about the “Company of Coloured Men” that fought at the Battle of Queenston Heights. A mixture of ex-slaves and former Butler Rangers, but all Afro-American, fired one or two volleys and charged the American line with bayonets. Think of their fear and courage, knowing that if the Americans won this war, they would be going back to their slave masters.

Southwest of Montreal, in October of 1813, at the Battle of Chateauguay, “the first ever truly all Canadian army” engaged the enemy. Canadian Fencibles and Voltigeurs, 460 of your average French workers so to speak, put to flight 4000 American invaders. The enemy was so sure that Lower Canada would not fight for the British, they sent an emissary on the battle’s eve who shouted from his horse, “Brave Canadians, surrenders yourselves; we wish you no harm.” The Canadian commanding officer, Lt.Col. de Salaberry, grabs a musket himself, and shoots the officer from his horse. A nice French Canadian welcome to Canada.

The next year, we burnt down Washington, and the president’s house! But that story is for another day.

John Donne, the great English writer, in his famous essay/eulogy, The First Anniversary, points out that it is our duty not just to the dead, but to ourselves to remember the spirit those who have past. The notion holds true for individuals and societies. As a nation, we are greater knowing who we are and how we got here.

The War of 1812 isn’t some distant boring history that we can’t understand. Stand in the gates of Fort Malden in Amherstburg, and look out across the river. What did General Brock feel like when he ordered the invasion of the United States against a superior force in a fortified position? Climb the face of the Niagara gorge at Queenston Heights and imagine the American’s fear when they jumped to their deaths rather than face the tomahawk of native warriors. Breathe the fresh water smell of the Niagara River in the early morning. See, feel, touch and smell our history.

The War of 1812 was the last foreign war fought on Canadian soil. As much or perhaps more than any other single war, this war and its myths defined who we are as Canadians and solidified our loyalty to the British crown for generations. We owe it to ourselves to embrace and honour this great British/Canadian achievement. We’re still here. We won.


Tom Taylor is the author of Brock’s Agent, and three other award winning novels with the backdrop of the War of 1812. Published by Bonnier Publishing, Zaffra Imprint Division in the UK, and by Hancock and Dean in Canada, the series follows the career of Upper Canada’s first secret agent in the war. For more information about his writing, visit his website


  1. Excellent article, Tom. Thanks for posting.

  2. And I cannot resist recommending the late M.m.Bennetts' novel, May 1812 to add the shelf. I have ordered Brock's Agent today and am looking forward to it


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