The War of 1812 is remembered in very different ways on opposite banks of the Niagara River.
On the United States side, the military clash, which started 200 years ago this month, June 18, 1812, during the presidency of Democratic-Republican James Madison, is mostly forgotten. The war pales in comparison to the significance of other armed conflicts fought on American soil, like the Revolutionary War and Civil War.
But, in Canada, especially on the Niagara Peninsula, the war is thought of as a major military and political event during which the nation — with assistance from the British and First Peoples warriors — successfully repelled American attacks into its territory.
Prof. John Stagg of the University of Virginia’s Corcoran Department of History and editor-in-chief of the Papers of James Madison, explained the difference in an email interview by writing, “Even if Americans have forgotten much about the War of 1812, they should remember that Canadians have a very different view of this war, as will become immediately apparent if American tourists visit the Canadian historical sites along the Niagara Peninsula. To Canadians, the American failures in the War of 1812 ensured that Canadians would not become republican citizens of the U.S. In the longer run, the war laid the foundations for the establishment of a separate Canadian nation in 1867.”
Similarly, the war, which officially lasted until the United States ratified the Treaty of Ghent, a status quo ante bellum agreement, in February 1815, is considered historically insignificant to one of its primary combatants, the British, too. It was well overshadowed by the kingdom’s simultaneous struggles with the French, led by Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, in Europe.
“The war has been completely forgotten, in Britain, 1812 is when Napoleon marched to Moscow, and [Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of] Wellington won at Salamanca,” wrote Prof. Andrew Lambert, a member of the Department of War Studies at King’s College London and author of the 2012 book “The Challenge: Britain Against America in the Naval War of 1812.”
In comparison, the war is still an important part of Canada’s identity. The Canadian War Museum will celebrate and solemnly honor the conflict with an exhibit titled “1812” on display between June 2012 and January 2013.
“Canadians remember the War of 1812 as a heroic epic. The Royal Navy and British Army, supported by Canadian regulars, Canadian militia, and First Peoples warriors, defended Canada and triumphed against the odds,” wrote Peter MacLeod, the pre-confederation historian of the Canadian War Museum, in an email.
The conflict, in the beginning, was between the United States and United Kingdom. Tensions existed for several reasons: 1) Britain’s impressment of American sailors, 2) Britain’s disruption of United States’ trade, 3) Britain’s incitement of Native Indians in an attempt to prevent the United States from expanding into the west, 4) The Chesapeake-Leopard Affair when members of the HMS Leopard boarded the USS Chesapeake looking for British deserters, 5) The United States’ desire to acquire valuable Canadian farmland.
“These disputes translated into anxieties about ‘national honor’ and reputation, about the future of republicanism itself as a viable form of government, and into maneuvers that were intended to advance the fortunes of one political party at the expense of the other,” wrote Stagg. “A more accurate way to describing the situation would be to say that the Madison administration, by the summer of 1811, had concluded that a diplomatic resolution of the nation’s disputes with Great Britain had become all but impossible, leaving war as the last resort.”
The United States House of Representatives voted 79-49 to declare war. The Senate approved the measure by a count of 19-13. Support primarily came from southern and western War Hawks in the Democratic-Republican Party, led by Speaker of the House Henry Clay and Rep. John C. Calhoun. Federalists from New England opposed the war.
It was the first formal declaration of war in the young nation’s history.
Almost immediately, the United States launched a series of invasions into Canada.
Individuals as varied as Isaac Brock, Charles-Michel d’Irumberry de Salaberry, Laura Secord, and Tecumseh helped repel the attacks. Brock, a British major general, was in charge of defending Upper Canada. De Salaberry, a French-Canadian aristocrat, stopped an American advance toward Montreal. Secord, a private citizen, warned the British about an impending attack that allowed the soldiers to win the Battle of Beaver Dams. Tecumseh, leader of the Shawnee, helped British forces capture Fort Detroit.
“Isaac Brock, Charles de Salaberry, Laura Secord, and Tecumseh became, and remain, iconic Canadian heroic figures,” MacLeod said.
MacLeod continued: “For Canadians, the War of 1812 was about the successful defense of a small colony against attack by a much larger neighbor.”
Meanwhile, in the United States, Britain captured Washington D.C. in August 1814 and burned many government buildings, including the White House and Capitol. At the time, the torching of the capital was considered needless vandalism by some and justifiable retribution for the United States’ declaration of war and invasion of Canada by others.
“The basic war aim was to make the Americans stop invading Canada and attacking British merchant ships,” Lambert said. “The terms agreed in 1814 status quo ante were always there for the Americans, it just took the Continentalist Republican Party a long while to realize that attacking Britain was a very bad idea. Perhaps the burning of Washington was necessary to make the point.”
Lambert added, “The War of 1812 was a very bad idea, it divided America, and bankrupted the nation. It also marked the point when America ceased to be a maritime state and became a continental military power. This leads on to the Mexican War. The internal divisions that the war exposed festered for another 50 years. The Civil War was divided along the same lines as 1812.”
From an American perspective, the most historic events were Navy Captain Oliver Hazard Perry capturing control of Lake Erie in September 1813, the USS Constitution going undefeated in battle, Francis Scott Key writing “The Star-Spangled Banner” after witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry, and Gen. Andrew Jackson winning the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815 after the Treaty of Ghent was signed but before it was ratified.
Ultimately, when fighting ended, the conflict was a stalemate with pre-war borders left intact.
Canada felt a sense of pride at having defended itself. Britain was simply glad to be done with the hostilities. The United States was left politically divided and with a national debt of over $100 million.
“Many of the changes resulting from the war were more intangible than tangible in nature,” concluded Stagg. “The U.S. gained none of the diplomatic goals it had sought to accomplish by war, but the mere fact that the republic had survived the war intact and without serious losses provided a considerable boost to public morale (something that had been lacking in the war itself). After 1815, the U.S. felt, and acted, as if it were a stronger and more secure nation than it had been before 1812.”