Tuesday, December 16, 2014

What if they gave a war and no one cared?

Remember when we invaded Canada? I didn't think so. I recently read J. Mackay Hitsman's excellent history, The Incredible War of 1812: A Military History, and learned a whole bunch of stuff they never bothered teaching us in American history class. Hitsman was a Canadian historian who specialized in military history. Not surprisingly, the Canadians have a slightly different perspective on the War of 1812 than we Americans do.

Now, I did know a few odd bits of trivia about the War of 1812. Thanks to an August Derleth book, The Captive Island, my grandmother gave me when I was in about 5th grade, I knew the British had taken Mackinac Island back from the Americans. The Derleth book is a young adult historical novel about an American youth who escapes from the island to bring information to the Americans at Detroit, which the British also took away from the United States, at least briefly. Having worked for the Park Service, I knew about the huge honking monument at Put In Bay, Ohio, dedicated to Oliver Hazard Perry and his fleet's victory over the British back in 1813. And I had been to Fort Ontario in Oswego, New York, back in the 1980s and saw the poor saps doing their re-enactments on a hot July day while dressed in the heavy wool uniforms common in the early 19th century. I have a vague recollection of kind of scoffing at the idea of a fort being built on Lake Ontario to protect us all from Canadian invaders even though the interpretive material at the time no doubt mentioned there had been an actual battle at Oswego.

In any event, when I thought about the War of 1812 at all I remembered Fort McHenry, the origins of "The Star Spangled Banner," the White House getting torched, and the fact the Battle of New Orleans was fought after a peace accord had already been signed in Europe. Does it still count as a victory if the war ended before the battle took place? What never crossed my mind was the fact that the active front of the war, the main line of battle, so to speak, was the United States-Canadian border. There was a fair amount of naval action on the Atlantic Ocean in the form of British warships blocking access to American ports with American privateers retaliating by harassing British merchant ships, but Hitsman makes it clear that the major military operations, both naval and land-based, took place along the northern border of the United States. This could be a function of the author's obviously pro-Canadian bias, but it does seem to match up with the facts. Both countries worked frantically in their Great Lakes ports to construct more warships, from small gunboats to frigates that came close to qualifying as ships of the line, because both sides recognized that whoever controlled the Lakes had the upper hand in the war.

Actually, I shouldn't describe the concerns in such sweeping terms. It would be more accurate to say that the guys doing the actual fighting recognized that whoever controlled the Lakes would have the upper hand. No one else seemed to care very much. In North America, despite the war there was a lot of cross border commercial activity: the Canadians bought supplies of various types from the merchants in New York and New England,and vice versa. Ports that were supposedly blockaded actually weren't because so many special exceptions and passes were issued that the blockades and trade embargoes were essentially meaningless. The War of 1812 was a war no one really wanted -- everyone recognized that it was hurting business, citizens in both countries realized that there was always the danger the Indian allies on either side could be hard to control and tended to have a take no prisoners approach, and none of the men in the state and provincial militias particularly wanted to fight. In fact, members of the New York state militia flat out refused to cross the border when ordered to pursue British troops into Canada, saying that it was illegal to make them fight on foreign soil (and wouldn't it be nice if American troops would do that now? Just say hell, no, I'm not getting on a plane to BFE to fight people who don't even know where the U.S. is?)

Adding to the complicated mix was the fact that many of the settlers in Canada were people who had been living in what was now the United States and decided to move following the Revolutionary War, some for economic reasons and some because they viewed Canada as just another frontier that the U.S. was going to eventually cross. Instead of going west to settle in what is now Ohio or Illinois, they opted to go north to what is now the province of Ontario. Some were loyal to Great Britain, some were loyal to the United States, and no doubt a fair number shifted their allegiance based on what they perceived to benefit themselves the most.

Over in Europe, Great Britain had no choice but to focus most of its attention on the Napoleonic wars. Thus, when the War of 1812 began, there were no British troops to spare to send to Canada. By the time there were troops and supplies available that could be diverted to North America, peace negotiations had ended the conflict. The war itself had effectively been a draw. Neither side gained any territory, but neither side lost any. The United States had invaded and seized sites in Upper Canada; the British had invaded and seized sites in the United States (e.g., Fort Michilimackinac, Detroit). Both had retreated from those sites so neither was in possession at the time of negotiations, hence, an argument could not be made for retention of conquered territory.

The Incredible War of 1812 was an interesting book. I had no idea there'd ever been a Battle of Plattsburgh or that the British government issued medals for something called the Battle of Crysler's Farm. I did know there had been a battle at the River Raisin near Detroit -- the site is, if memory serves me right, the nation's most recently created National Battlefield park -- but was struck by just how low the numbers were of the combatants and others involved. By contemporary (or even Civil War) standards, it wasn't much of a battle. It's also hard to believe that, as the park's website puts it, the phrase "Remember the Raisin!" served as a rallying cry, especially when what seems to have swung the battle in the British favor was the complete incompetence of the U.S. commanders. First, General William Hull had surrendered all of Michigan Territory to the British in 1812. Then, in January 1813 the Americans found themselves surrendering to the British for a second time. In the aftermath of that battle, Native Americans allied with the British raided the Frenchtown settlement, burning houses, carrying off prisoners, and killing about half a dozen civilians. In a logical world, "Remember the Raisin!" would have been the rallying cry for a couple of courts martial. But apparently not in frontier America. Although Winchester did quietly slink away later in the year -- he had had a checkered, apparently rather sleazy career, and apparently figured out that (a) there was no money to be made on the battlelines in the Northwest Territories and (b) he might end up dead by accident. He didn't exactly resign, but he did get replaced.

Minor digression: considering that almost 200 years had passed before that battlefield park had been created and it is in the southeast corner of the Downer Peninsula, an area that's seen wave after wave of development, what exactly was left there that made it merit park status? It does seem like the site could have been adequately commemorated with one of those book on a stick historic markers the State of Michigan erects if there's sufficient public pressure. Oh well. . . the Park Service can always use a few punishment parks, places to shuffle incompetent superintendents off to when they're not yet eligible for retirement but need to maintain the illusion of still being gainfully employed.

There were numerous other skirmishes on both sides of the border on the shores of Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, and the banks of the Niagara River. Both sides engaged in behavior the other side condemned as barbaric, e.g., the Americans burned the government buildings at York (the capital of Upper Canada). In fact, when the British were condemned for later trying to burn down the President's house in Washington, their response was they were simply giving the Americans a taste of what they had done in York. And so it went for two years, seesawing back and forth across the border and neither side gaining much of an advantage for very long. In the end, the border remained where it had been, the British continued their impressment policies on the high seas, and, other than for the guys who died, the war didn't change much of anything.

Would I recommend The Incredible War of 1812 to other readers? Only if military history fascinates you. Overall, I thought it was worth reading but have to confess there were sections where Hitsman really got into minutiae and I had a hard time staying focused. On the other hand, it is well-written and meticulously footnoted. There is a treasure trove of fascinating trivia hiding in the notes, so I guess I'd recommend it to historians. All historians love good footnotes.


  1. There's a great documentary about the invasion of Canada. It's called "Canadian Bacon" and stars John Candy.

  2. I have a book for you: John Sugden's epic biography of Tecumseh...Tecumseh, A Life.
    Tecumseh was a major player in the events leading to the War of 1812 in the Great Lakes. I am a history fanatic and the history of Michigan and Great Lakes is a major passion for me. My family was there on both sides and I've been doing a lot of research on the history of the region. I recently discovered the village in France my ancestor left from in 1632 to emigrate to Quebec...Strangely enough, I now live about 40 kilometers close to it. I will check out the Hitsman book! I can't wait!

  3. I saw the Candy movie recently and it is hilarious! I think it was inspired by the Leonard Wibberly classic "The Mouse That Roared" In the movie version, Peter Sellers played multiple roles and led a invading force of medieval warriors from The Grand Duchy of Fenwick against America ...they had to use the NYC subway system! The idea was that they surrender and the Americans would give them lots of foreign aid....unfortunately, they won.
    The classic story of the War of 1812 is the British Invasion of the capitol and burning the White House and being scolded by Dolly Madison, while her husband and the cabinet watched from the hills

  4. America writes history to look like what it wants it to look like.

  5. History are the lies the winners tell about the losers. Maybe. I've blogged on this topic before: http://mannikkomaki.blogspot.com/2014/03/lies-damned-lies-and-interpretations.html

  6. I love good foot notes: will add to my reading list.
    The Ol'Buzzard

  7. Actually, the Americans won the war and the native Americans lost it. Up to that time the Brits had been holding back the Americans who wanted to move farther west. There were treaties with the Indians that the Brits were upholding. After the war, this was all conveniently forgotten and American had free run all across what is now northern USA clear to the Pacific. the fate of the Indians is well known.
    Tecumseh's death was a great loss not just to the British but especially to the native population. He was an incredibly able leader.

  8. The USA had already reached the Pacific. The Lousiana Purchase happened in 1803, and we'd gotten the Old Northwest Territory as part of the settlement ending the Revolutionary War. The Brits weren't holding anyone back south of the US-Canada border.


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