War of 1812 myths persist

While I write this, the government’s events to mark the War of 1812 are kicking into high gear. This fall marks a few key events: the captures of Fort Mackinaw and Detroit by Major-General Sir Isaac Brock, and the repulsion of an American invasion at the Battle of Queenston Heights. Of course the war wasn’t over in just two months. Most operations were confined to Upper Canada; essentially modern-day Ontario. In a series of campaigns fought mostly during the summer months, Britain and America battled for control of Canada. The war amounted to an annual invasion, which was pushed back by the end of the campaign season.

Both sides crossed the border in raids where they burned public buildings, destroyed crops and livestock, exchanged gunfire across border rivers, built forts and fought for naval supremacy. A couple of attempts were made to capture parts of Quebec, a move which would have severed communications along the St. Lawrence valley, but both were repelled. In the Atlantic Ocean, both countries authorized privateers. These were private individuals who armed their own ships and then went about harassing each other’s shipping. Rather than fight for naval supremacy, privateers sought profit and only preyed on weaker commercial vessels, seizing both the ship and cargo. More than a few fortunes were made. Today, the war is 200 years into the past, and both sides claim victory. As funny as it sounds, that may even be true. The war ended, not with a total victory on one side, but with a treaty.

The Americans did get some concessions from the British government, but they didn’t get any part of Canada. Looking back now, the war has taken on some mythical elements. Canadians have been taught that a combined force of patriotic Canadians, brave British soldiers, and native allies, joined forces to repel the American invaders. The truth is, in the early days of the war, Canadian militiamen were scarce. Unsure of the loyalty of many immigrants to Canada, at first it was decided only to arm selected companies, and many only formed up for short periods of time. Much of Canada was agricultural, and calling up the able-bodied population left the farms undermanned.

In many cases militia units, when they did form, were dismissed to allow for planting and harvest. But they were there and did participate in almost every major battle, as did other army groups recruited from Canada. What’s more, Canadians at that time viewed themselves as British subjects, not a separate people. In fact, English-speaking residents viewed themselves as provincials, the term Canadian being almost exclusively used for French-speaking residents. As for the natives, they were loyal to neither side. They viewed themselves as separate people and pursued their own policies. Tecumseh sought an independent nation, while some of the others pursued an anti-American policy, while still others simply sought the best offer. In several cases, natives even supported U.S. forces. But the myth persists, and with good reason.

Over the years the Canadian role has been magnified to reflect the truth that the War of 1812 did help create our modern identity. By the end of the war, the diverse population had a shared experience that brought them together. It set Upper and Lower Canada on a path that would lead to unification, Confederation, and the Canada we know today. A few years ago, plans began forming for events across North America to mark this anniversary. The governments of Canada, Great Britain and the United States are all involved. It is a happy coincidence that the campaign season of 200 years ago nicely matches the tourist season of today. We can expect more stamps. Certainly Charles de Salleberry and Laura Secord are due, and I suspect that we can expect a more extensive program as events heat up in the coming years. Back then, Canada’s postal service was somewhat limited and weak, but I’m sure there’s at least one good postal history article out there.

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