That Time We Beat the Americans
Canada existsLet’s begin with an obvious fact no one will admit: Canadians and Americans are more or less the same people. A Torontonian in New York does not stick out, while a Kentuckian well might. Neither does a resident of Medicine Hat, Alberta, feel out of place in Butte, Montana, though a Vancouverite definitely would. Which is not to say that no significant differences exist between Canadians and Americans — just that our shared national border, unlike those of Europe, was not shaped by linguistic and ethnic variations. The War of 1812 made all the difference here. A complicated and unpleasant struggle, mostly forgotten, sundered our two countries. And that struggle is now 200 years old, which makes this as good a time as any to start remembering.
for no natural reason
Canada exists because ofMilitary historians generally describe the War of 1812 as a stalemate. After two and a half years of fighting, not much changed between the United States and England, nor between the United States and Canada. But the war — as much as the more decisive battle of the Plains of Abraham, the American Revolution, and the Civil War — foretold North America’s political shape, its current reality. For the US, the war confirmed its status as a sovereign state and tested the limits of manifest destiny. On this side of the border, the matter is much simpler: if we hadn’t won the War of 1812, we wouldn’t be Canadian.
the War of 1812
Canada exists because ofIn a continental irony, after the revolution the new American government had to raise taxes far higher than British authorities had ever dreamt of doing, to finance the overthrow of Westminster rule. Across the border, the British suddenly realized colonists could easily grow alienated. So they lowered taxes and offered prospective settlers of Upper Canada 200 acres of free land. Loyalists and late Loyalists, followed by tax exiles and land speculators from the newly united States, quickly populated what would become the province of Ontario. Upper Canada’s settler population ballooned, from 6,000 in 1785 to 14,000 in 1791, with men and women looking for opportunities and willing to wink at their US citizenship — just as British officials willingly welcomed them back from their flirtation with liberty, without too many questions.
taxes (and tax breaks)
Major General Sir Isaac BrockHe was born on October 6, 1769, to an upper-class family from the Channel Island of Guernsey. Although he purchased each of his ranks, except for his captaincy, his tactical brilliance and empathy drew praise from his superior officers. Brock was assigned to Canada in 1802, but he disliked the colony. He regarded it as a backwater and would have rather been fighting, and dining, in Europe. He played a primarily administrative role in Montreal, until the governor general, Sir George Prevost, appointed him Upper Canada’s military leader and acting lieutenant-governor, in 1811. Brock’s defining moment, the battle of Queenston Heights, took place on October 13, 1812. With his captains busy commanding the grenadiers, he led the charge against American forces embedded atop the Niagara Escarpment. The general was shot in the chest at close range, and died on a battlefield just north of Niagara Falls. But Brock lives on across the country — most of which wasn’t even part of Canada when he was alive. Consider the countless roads, towns, and institutions that bear his name: Vancouver has General Brock Elementary School; Saskatchewan has the village of Brock; Newfoundland has Brock’s Head Path. In Ottawa, steps from Parliament Hill, a bust of him can be found at the Valiants Memorial, which honours fourteen of Canada’s war heroes, three of them from the War of 1812. There, a bronze inscription quotes Virgil: “No day will ever erase you from the memory of time.” — Barry ChongSo in the days leading up to the war, it was optimistic but not preposterous for Representative John A. Harper of New Hampshire to predict that Canadians would greet American soldiers as liberators: “They must sigh for an affiliation with the great American family — they must at least in their hearts hail that day, which separates them from a foreign monarch, and unites them by holy and unchangeable bonds, with a nation destined to rule a continent.” They would not, after all, be invaded by a foreign people. Canadians would be brought back into the fold of American Revolutionary ideals. What occurred two centuries ago was more or less a family feud. The Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Alan Taylor titled his 2010 survey of the conflict The Civil War of 1812 — a phrase that captures the profound connection between the combatants, and the unstable relationship between the Empire and the Republic. “Brother fought brother in a borderland of mixed peoples,” he writes. Those on both sides instantly recognized, and noted, the unique horror of firing on people so like themselves.
Canada existsThe reasons the United States invaded Canada were, and remain, contentious and unclear. Officially, residues of the revolution — unresolved issues of maritime law, military conscription, and possession of the Ohio Country — led to the declaration of war on June 18, 1812. But the unofficial reasons — the prize and the odds of success — were grubby, petty. “United States,” then as now, was something of a misnomer, and the war emerged out of squabbling between the majority Jeffersonian Republicans, who hungered for expansion, and the minority Federalists, who benefited from close economic ties with Britain. By declaring war, the Republicans intended to make the Federalists look anti-patriotic and undemocratic. Both parties, however, believed the conquest of Upper and Lower Canada would be a cakewalk. At sea, the Royal Navy, though sixty times the size of the fledging US Navy, was distracted by Napoleon’s ships; on land, nearly eight million Americans would square off against just 300,000 Canadians. In August 1812, former president Thomas Jefferson declared, “The acquisition of Canada, this year, as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching.”
because of Hubris
Canada exists because ofThe comedy of errors began immediately. Even though the United States declared war, which should have given its soldiers the advantage of surprise, a messenger carried the news to Canadian military outposts on the Niagara River before it reached the New York side. British soldiers quickly detained several important — and unsuspecting — American personages on our side of the river. The initial blunder served as a telling prequel to subsequent disasters.
a series of lucky breaks
Canada exists because ofThe grand view of history has traditionally offered two paths for the interpretation of events. The first imagines social trends rising up from below to sweep humanity along in their irrepressible, all-powerful waves. The other dreams of iconic figures who shape history through their own vision and will. In the case of the United States during the War of 1812, we find neither. Instead, a third way emerges: history dominated by stupidity and impulse. From the revolution to the present moment, hardly a single generation of Americans has passed without giving rise to a bona fide military genius. The Civil War alone produced half a dozen. To Canada’s good fortune, the post-revolution US Army was stacked with bunglers and officers past their prime. It might have taken Canada easily, if not for the miraculously systemic idiocy among the top brass.
Canada exists because ofEvery Canadian city should build a statue to Brigadier General William Hull, because it is largely thanks to the American officer’s poor planning and cowardice that our provinces and territories do not number among a Star-Spangled constellation. Taylor describes Hull as “tall, strong, and courtly, he looked the part of a war hero, but he lacked substance, alternating an imperious manner with chronic indecision.” He drank. He bragged. His subordinates despised him. President James Madison, at Hull’s urging, made the terrible decision to divide the already weak army into three and attack Upper Canada from Detroit. If the United States had decided to strike straight at Montreal — a strategy confused by backroom dealings with a political heavyweight from Ogdensburg, New York, who didn’t want his land trampled on — it might well have been “a mere matter of marching,” as Jefferson predicted.
TecumsehHe belongs to a tradition of misappropriated heroes, whereby one-time enemies are whitewashed as icons of a popular history. Canadians have named streets and schools after him, and the Friends of the Tecumseh Monument are now raising $5 million to honor his legacy in Southwestern Ontario. At the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, midshipmen rally around a bronze likeness, in the aptly named Tecumseh Court, which they cover in war paint for Commissioning Week, during exams, and before they face football rivals. In life, Tecumseh fought for the survival and continued sovereignty of the Shawnee people. Born in the Ohio Country in 1768 and killed on October 5, 1813, near Moraviantown, Upper Canada, he campaigned for a confederacy of Indigenous nations. He urged Aboriginal leaders, from the Great Lakes to Georgia, to affirm pan-tribal ownership of the land — to reject settler-imposed boundaries. During the War of 1812, he allied with the British to fight a common enemy. As Isaac Brock declared, “A more sagacious or more gallant Warrior does not I believe exist. He was the admiration of everyone who conversed with him.” Yet British actions in the battle of the Thames were not as gallant. Despite plans to fight side by side, Major General Henry Proctor retreated, leaving Tecumseh’s vastly outnumbered men to face the Americans alone. Tecumseh’s Confederacy was overwhelmed; its leader died and, along with him, the last, best chance for Aboriginal self-governance. — Bronwen JervisBut Canadians can thank William Hull for much more than his dreadful advice to the president. In person, he was a military buffoon and an accidental nation maker. On July 5, 1812, he arrived in Detroit with orders to take the small town of Amherstburg, just across the river. He found the town well fortified, so he sent his men instead to the undefended settlement of Sandwich, whose inhabitants immediately fled. At Sandwich (now Windsor, Ontario), he made one of the most important pronouncements in Canadian history, declaring, “No white man found fighting by the side of an Indian will be taken prisoner. Instant destruction will be his lot.” Since every Canadian militiaman and British regular served alongside Aboriginal allies, the edict effectively promised death to any farmer or shopkeeper who resisted invasion. Then Hull allowed his soldiers to plunder homes, shops, and farms, and he continued to avoid a battle at Amherstburg, even though his men outnumbered the British and Canadian troops by two to one. His cowardice proved as sizable as his malice. Spurred on by American incompetence, the residents of Upper Canada chose to fight, where before they had been rather ambivalent and resigned to retreat. Hull squandered his military dominance and achieved the worst possible outcome. He was unnecessarily brutal, cowardly and, worst of all, totally ineffective. The major outcome of his campaign was that he left behind settlers — who may or may not have been Loyalists and late Loyalists before — who were now self-conscious possessors of a territory and a recognizable identity. William Hull ineffectually assaulted a disparate group of people. He left behind a cohesive, distinct Canadian community.
Canada exists because ofTecumseh was a Shawnee leader and one of the great military minds of all time. Outside the walls of Fort Detroit, he marched his men around and around, out of sight and back again, making his force appear five times larger than it was. The sleight of hand worked. Terrified, Hull liquored up and neglected his troops. The soldiers and militiamen under his command, both humiliated and scared, plotted mutiny. Major General Sir Isaac Brock, military commander and acting Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, had fewer men, and Hull held the fort. But all Brock had to do was threaten further use of Tecumseh’s force — the terror of all American soldiers. Hull’s men deserted, and he surrendered without a fight. Brock and Tecumseh were so disgusted by their opponent that they didn’t even grant him the customary honours of war. Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Tuscaroras, Cayugas, Senecas, and other First Nations fought alongside British detachments and Canadian militias throughout the war, and they played pivotal roles at the battles of Queenston Heights, the Thames, and Stoney Creek, all up and down the Niagara Peninsula. Yet we rarely recognize this fact.
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