The War: From Outbreak to End

The following sections will provide an historical snapshot of the War of 1812, the end of the War and the signing of the Treaty of Ghent.

The Outbreak of War

From June 18, 1812 to February 16, 1815, the United States was at war with Britain. Canada was the battleground.

The War represents an extremely significant chapter in the history of Canada and the United States during which the Americans came very close to annexing Upper Canada (Ontario) and all territory west of it.

In 1793, Great Britain was forced into a war with revolutionary France that would last for the next two decades, with only one very brief respite of peace. The war became global in nature as Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French, sought to establish his dominance over Europe and threatened other parts of the World. By 1812, this global struggle was severely straining Britain’s resources. 

After the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, the British Royal Navy dominated the seas. The Royal Navy enforced a blockade of Europe, to prevent supplies of warlike materiel, food and other supplies from reaching their enemy. In pursuance of this blockade the navy forced the ships of neutral nations to enter British-controlled ports where contraband cargoes were seized. Neutral merchant ships were stopped on the high seas to be searched by British sailors.

To keep the Navy manned, a shortage of volunteers forced the British to “press”, or conscript, men to serve. The British, like many nations, did not recognize the validity of naturalization and considered all British-born men to be British subjects even if they had emigrated to another country and become naturalized citizens of that country. British-born sailors manning ships from neutral nations, even those carrying American citizenship papers, were pressed into the Royal Navy. To the new republic of the United States, these actions on the high seas and the seizure of American citizens violated American sovereignty.

Since the end of the American Revolution the United States had been expanding within North America. Settlers continued to move into the interior of the continent, dispossessing and displacing Aboriginal inhabitants as settlements were pushed ever westward. First Nations people resisted, resulting in sporadic raids on frontier settlements and all-out warfare between the United States Army and various Aboriginal Nations.

In the last decade of the 18th century and the first decade of the 19th century, Tenskwatawa, a Shawnee prophet, and his brother Tecumseh, united a number of Aboriginal Nations in a confederacy to resist American westward expansion. The United States accused Britain of supplying equipment and encouraging Aboriginal leaders to repel the Americans, thus interfering with America’s plans for expansion into the Northwest.

In response to the perception that Britain was failing to recognize the validity of the United States as an independent nation, war fever reached its zenith in 1812.

On June 18, 1812, the United States declared War on Great Britain. The primary American war objective was the conquest of British North America, primarily Upper Canada (Ontario) and Lower Canada (Quebec). This theatre of war would be the focus of American military action.

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The Course of the War

In the first year of the War, American strategy was to launch a three-pronged attack on central Canada on the Detroit River frontier, Niagara peninsula and Montréal.  However, the relative unpreparedness of the American military for war and the strong resistance of both the population of Canada and First Nations meant that each campaign met with failure.

In 1813 the same strategy was used and while the Americans gained control of the Detroit frontier as well as temporary control of the Niagara frontier, they were defeated on two fronts late in 1813 in their plan to attack Montreal.

The Treaty of Ghent negotiated on December 24, 1814, and ratified on February 16, 1815, finally ended the War.

The battlefields, associated sites and the heroes and heroines of the War of 1812 were recognized in Canada at an early date as being of national historic significance.

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The War at Sea

Image of the capture of the American USS Chesapeake, by the British HMS Shannon.

Image of the capture of the
American USS Chesapeake,
by the British HMS Shannon

While armies struggled on land and navies fought for control of the Great Lakes, a great deal of action was happening on the high seas. British Royal Navy squadrons based out of Halifax and the West Indies maintained a blockade of American ports. From time to time, American naval frigates were able to slip out and in many cases defeated Royal Navy vessels in ship-to-ship action. On June 1, 1813 the British celebrated one of its few single ship victories over the American Navy when the HMS Shannon captured the USS Chesapeake. After the victory, the defeated USS Chesapeake was led into Halifax harbour by the victorious HMS Shannon.

Much more active was the privateers’ war. In what is now Atlantic Canada, merchants and fishermen from the Atlantic provinces and from the United States received “letters of marque” to legally enable them to prey on enemy merchant shipping. Many of these privateers made fortunes capturing enemy shipping and selling the ships and cargoes, pocketing the proceeds. Privateering did more damage to the economies of each belligerent than any action taken by official navies of either nation. Liverpool, Nova Scotia, became renowned as a base for privateers. However, these vessels, some mere fishing smacks armed with small cannon and determined crews, and others that rivaled navy ships in numbers of guns and sailors, sailed from all ports in the Atlantic Provinces.

On the Great Lakes, Lake Champlain and major rivers, vessels of the Provincial Marine fought to defend Canada from American attacks. Members of the Provincial Marine were from diverse backgrounds, including Englishmen, Scots, Irish, French Canadians and others. The uniforms of the officers of the Provincial Marine on Lake Ontario were described as "blue and white, with large yellow buttons with the figure of a beaver, over which is inscribed the word, 'Canada'". Despite suffering one significant defeat, at the Battle of Lake Erie in September 1813, the men of the Provincial Marine played an essential role preventing the American conquest of Upper Canada.

A fourth aspect of the naval war during the War of 1812 is the use of the British fleet, based in Halifax, to launch attacks on the American towns on the eastern seaboard. Beginning in 1813, the Royal Navy raided many towns and villages on the Atlantic coast. Landing parties of sailors and marines would invade towns, seizing stores, pillaging and destroying shipyards and merchant vessels deemed to be involved in privateering. These raids were both revenge for the burning of Niagara and St. Davids in Upper Canada by Americans and to bring terror to Americans who, the British hoped, would be more amenable to sit down to negotiate an end to the War.

In 1814, British Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane issued a proclamation offering freedom to any enslaved people who would escape to rendezvous with his fleet’s landing parties and volunteer for British service.  During the War of 1812, as many as 3,600 people of African descent escaped. Cochrane recruited about 300 for military service, mostly into the Royal Colonial Marines, who served on board his fleet. Others were recruited into one of the five battalions of the West Indian Regiments. Of the many that were unfit or unwilling to enlist, about 1000 were given freedom and free passage to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Others were shipped to New Brunswick, Nova Scotia or the British West Indies. Many slaves tried to escape but there was not enough room aboard the ships for all of the fugitives and many had no option but to return to slavery.

Once Napoleon was defeated in the spring of 1814, the British could free up more military and naval resources and planned to launch attacks against major American towns to give the British a stronger position in peace negotiations. A campaign was launched to capture the American base of Plattsburg, New York, in September 1814. But, the British army turned back after their flotilla was defeated at the Battle of Lake Champlain. A British force beat an American Army at Blandensburg, and went on to capture Washington D.C. where they burned down government buildings. However, the British were unsuccessful in an attempt to capture Baltimore, Maryland, the following month, inspiring an American poet to pen the “Star Spangled Banner.”

Finally, the British Royal Navy carried a large army to land in New Orleans, Louisiana, but was defeated during the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815 – a battle which was fought after the treaty that would end the War was negotiated, but before it was ratified.

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A coin honouring the Treaty of Ghent; engraved: “On Earth Peace Good Will to Men”.

A coin honouring the Treaty of Ghent; engraved: “On Earth Peace Good Will to Men”.

Throughout the War of 1812 the British were expending huge resources in manpower and material in fighting the French to prevent Napoleon from dominating Europe. Few resources could be spared to fend off American attacks on British territory and the sole war aim of the British was to get the Americans to the negotiating table to end the War. With victory over France in the spring of 1814, the United States became more anxious to enter peace talks, knowing that the British could deploy more soldiers and ships to fight against the Americans. 

At the start of the War, the United States hoped to be able to gain large chunks of British North America through their campaigns, but by 1814, the Americans were hopeful that they could end the War with honour and their sovereignty intact.

A coin honouring the Treaty of Ghent; engraved: “Treaty of peace and amity between Great Britain and the United States of America signed at Ghent, December 24, 1814”.

A coin honouring the Treaty of Ghent; engraved: “Treaty of Peace & Amity between Great Britain and the United States of America signed at Ghent Dec. 24 1814”

At the same time that the British were attacking Washington D.C. in the late summer of 1814, American delegates were meeting their British counterparts in Ghent, Belgium to try and forge a peace treaty. They finally agreed on the terms on December 24, 1814. The new treaty would come into effect once ratified by the British Parliament and the American Congress. Copies were immediately sent to both nations. In those days, word travelled slowly and as the dispatch ship started its long journey to Washington to gain the presidential signature another large British Army on board Royal Navy ships was advancing on the American port of New Orleans, a move that had been planned to force the Americans to come to peace terms.

The Treaty of Ghent had been negotiated but still not ratified on January 8, 1815 when the Americans beat the large British Army at the Battle of New Orleans. The remnant of that Army would go on to capture the American Fort Bowyer in Mobile Bay on February 12, 1815. Four days later, the President signed off, ratifying the treaty. The War of 1812 was over. All captured territory was to be returned. A boundary commission would be formed to confirm the boundaries between British North America and the United States. The Treaty of Ghent made no mention of the British impressments of American seamen or their interference with merchant ships on the high seas.

Painting of the American delegates meeting their British counterparts in Ghent, Belgium, to agree to the terms of the Treaty of Ghent, on December 24, 1814.

Painting of the American
delegates meeting their
British counterparts in Ghent,
Belgium, to agree to the terms
of the Treaty of Ghent, on
December 24, 1814

While First Nations rights, as they stood in 1811 were guaranteed, the dream of many First Nations to carve out a territory in north-western North America that would be free from further American encroachment was not to be realized. Nevertheless, by choosing to resist the American invasion and side with what became Canada, First Nations helped create the foundation for modern Canada, including its respect for the rights of Aboriginal Peoples.

The War confirmed American sovereignty and enabled Americans to take their place among the sovereign nations. The events also set the stage for the emergence of an independent Canada. The war gave Canadians a sense of shared experiences and relationships, paving the way for confederation 50 years later. The peace showed North Americans that two distinct nations can share the longest undefended border in the world, with disputes settled at the negotiating table, not on the battlefield. On February 17, 2015 we will begin our third century of peace and mutual friendship.

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