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The War of 1812 was really just a little side battle in the Napoleonic Wars between France and Britain. Because the United States had been providing a certain amount of support for the French, the British attempted to blockade American shipping and had, on occasion, impressed American seamen into the Royal Navy. The US finally became fed up and declared war on Britain on 18 June, 1812. Likely never having any intention to attack the British Home Islands directly, the American strategy was directed north towards the Canadas (Upper and Lower), the heart of British possessions in the Americas. The US was likely encouraged by the large population of American expatriates in the Canadas. The encouragement was misplaced, as these ex-Americans had moved north to escape the Revolution - making the choice to remain British. Having sacrificed so much in that initial choice, they were willing to fight their old homeland to remain United Empire Loyalists.
The Campaign of 1812
War is Declared
Unfortunately for the Americans, their declaration of war came before their preparations were complete. American General Hull crossed in force into Canada from Detroit to try to persuade the Canadians not to fight. After four weeks wandering what is now southern Ontario, Hull crossed back to Detroit without success. Hull was court-martialled and sentenced to be shot for cowardice but received a presidential pardon.
The British, on the other hand, although vastly outnumbered, had as their leader the audacious Major-General Isaac Brock. Reading the strategic situation correctly, Brock struck immediately. Although an American capture of Montreal would be the logical first step, Brock knew that American forces would concentrate to the west, where British ally Brigadier-General Tecumseh of the Shawnee was already harrying the Americans.
Brock sent his forces to capture the strategic American fort on Michilimackinac Island at the entrance to Lake Superior. The fort was taken without a fight on 16 July, 1812.
On 16 August, the British took Detroit, which had been captured from them by American forces in 1796. On the previous day, Brock began bombarding the fort with his heavy guns while Techumseh had his Shawnee warriors repeatedly advance and withdraw from the forest, creating the false impression that he had five times his actual strength. Worn down by the bombardment and fearing a massacre at the hands of what they thought to be 'savages', the Americans under Brigadier-General Hull capitulated with limited conditions after only a day-siege and without a fight. The Article of Capitulation makes very interesting reading. Strangely, the Detroit Historical Museum web page has no mention of the capture of Detroit in the War of 1812. The capture of Michilimackinac Island and Detroit gave the British control of the Western Front, Michigan Territory, and the Upper Mississippi Valley.
On 13 October at Queenston Heights, on the Upper Canadian side of the Niagara River, the Americans lost yet another army when the local militia refused to cross the river as reinforcements, invoking their constitutional right to stay on their own territory. At Queenston Heights the greatest American success was the death of the British commander, Brock.
A new American army under William Henry Harrison marched north from Kentucky in a campaign to retake Detroit. One wing of this army was badly defeated at Frenchtown on 22 January, 1813, by a combined force of British, Canadians, and Indians commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Proctor. This brought the 1812 campaign to a close with the British holding two American forts and no Americans in Canada.
The Campaign of 1813
Kingston? No, York
The campaign of 1813 opened with an American plan to capture Kingston at the east end of Lake Ontario. If this plan was to succeed, it would cut the Canadas in half. However, the Americans suddenly changed strategy and marched on York, the capital of Upper Canada - at the other end of the Lake, which they captured on 28 April. The Capture of York was something of a disappointment for the Americans, as the retreating British set fire to the one partly-built warship left in the harbour, so naval power on the lake remained balanced. The Americans did capture a quantity of military supplies; this loss hampered the British further to the west. The Americans soon abandoned York after burning most of the public buildings.
The Americans moved on to Fort George on the Niagara Peninsula, which they captured on 27 May. This gave the Americans control of the Niagara River, a waterway which would have had much more strategic importance if that famous waterfall hadn't made it unnavigable. Unfortunately for the American fleet, the British army stationed at Fort George escaped.
Stoney Creek and Beaver Dams
That British army went on to defeat the Americans at the Battle of Stoney Creek on 6 June, capturing two American Generals. The Battle of the Beaver Dams on 24 June, in which a force of some 500 Americans was surprised and captured by some 50 British soldiers, forced the Americans back to Fort George. For the remainder of the 1813 campaign, the Niagara Peninsula was patrolled by small harrying bands from both sides.
On December 10, the remaining Americans in Fort George, worn down by the siege, abandoned the Fort and crossed back into the United States.
Newark and Buffalo
On their way to the river, the American troops set fire to the Canadian town of Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake). This action enraged the British, who retaliated by burning Buffalo, New York on 30 December, 1813.
Fort Meigs and Put-in-Bay
At the western front, the British tried early in the 1813 campaign to dislodge Harrison from Fort Meigs, south of Frenchtown, but failed. The two hastily built fleets, fought through the summer for control of Lake Erie and finally met at Put-in-Bay on 10 September. The British were short on supplies because of the capture of York and were defeated and captured by American Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, the first American commander to ever capture a British fleet.
Retreat to Moraviantown and the Battle of the Thames
The British abandoned Detroit and retreated from Fort Amherstburg through the southern tip of Upper Canada to Moraviantown. At Fort Amherstburg on 13 September, Tecumseh made a speech to his allies, reprimanding them for their retreat. On 5 October, Harrison's Kentuckians met Proctor's combined force of Shawnee, British, Canadians, and Newfoundlanders in the Battle of the Thames. Brigadier-General Tecumseh died in the battle and the British were defeated, but it was harvest time in Kentucky and Harrison's soldiers wanted to go home. Harrison was unable to advance further. This was the end of the 1813 campaign in the west.
In the east, a new American plan to divide the Canadas was mounted - this time aimed at Montreal. On 26 October, Lieutenant-Colonel Charles de Salaberry led a small force of Lower Canadian voltigeurs (elite soldiers) against an American army of 4000 at Chateauguay and drove the Americans back across the border.
On 11 November, Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Morrison routed James Wilkinson's force of Americans at Crysler's Farm on the Saint Lawrence River and drove the survivors out of Canada. The 1813 campaign left the Americans in possession of the British Fort Amherstburg, giving them control of the Detroit River, and the British holding the American forts of Niagara and Michilimackinac.
The Campaign of 1814
Fort Erie and Chippawa
On 3 July, 1814, the Americans captured Fort Erie, at the south end of the Niagara River. They capitalised on this victory two days later by defeating the British at Chippawa.
At Lundy's Lane on the night of 25 July, the two forces inflicted heavy casualties on each other and the American advance was stopped.
Fort Erie Again
The Americans retreated south to the area of Fort Erie, still held by the British. The British commander, Lieutenant-General Gordon Drummond, ordered a night attack on the Americans and was badly defeated. The Americans and British were at a stalemate in the Niagara Peninsula until 5 November, when the Americans withdrew.
The Sack of Washington and the Battle of Baltimore
On 19 August, a British force landed at the mouth of the Patuxent River. By 24 August they had marched north and captured Washington, almost without a fight. The British sat down at a captured White House banquet and, after a pleasant dinner, set fire to the White House and much of the city in retaliation for the American burning of a number of small villages in Upper Canada, contrary to an earlier agreement. The burning of Washington was done at the specific request of Sir George Prevost, the Governor of Canada. The American First Lady at the time, Dolly Madison, has left an account of the burning.
Brigadier-General Robert Ross, the commander of the British land force, turned his sights from Washington toward Baltimore but he was killed in a skirmish en route on 12 September. On the morning of 13 September, British warships began the bombardment of Fort McHenry. The Bombardment failed to shake the defenders of Fort McHenry, but it did inspire Francis Scott Keys to write 'The Star Spangled Banner'. The British completed their withdrawal on 15 September.
The Capture of Maine
In September, the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia led a force south from Halifax and captured Castine, in Maine, on 3 September. Within a few weeks, the British held most of Maine and retained control until it was returned to the Americans with the Treaty of Ghent.
Prairie du Chien and Michilimackinac Island Again
During 1814, French Canadian voyageurs captured Prairie du Chien on the Mississippi and burned the fort. They also fought off an American attempt to recapture Michilimackinac. In that attempt, the Americans lost two warships captured by the French Canadians.
The Aborted Battle of Plattsburg
In September, the British commander mounted a final push against the Americans around Lake Champlain. With newly arrived veterans of the Napoleonic campaigns, which had now ended, Prevost marched south with 11,000 men. On 11 September, the British fleet on Lake Champlain was defeated at Plattsburgh Bay by Commodore Thomas Macdonough, and the cautious Prevost called off the ground offensive.
The Treaty of Ghent
Negotiations for an end to the war were ongoing and finally, a treaty was signed. The treaty came into effect on 24 December, 1814. The boundaries were returned to their pre-war positions. All pre-war conflicts were resolved by the end of the Napoleonic wars, which were the cause of the actions that had precipitated the War of 1812.
The Battle of New Orleans
Communication was slow in the 19th century. The last battle of the war, the Battle of New Orleans was largely fought after the war was over. This was probably a good thing for the British, as they were defeated by Andrew Jackson's rag-tag force of American regular soldiers, Choctaws, freed slaves, and pirates.
The Battle of the Windmill
American northern ambitions were by no means ended with the Battle of Lundy's Lane. In November of 1838, British and Canadian forces defeated a small American invasion force at the Battle of the Windmill near Wellington, Ontario. The British victory prevented the American capture of Fort Wellington. This invasion was another attempt to divide the Canadas preparatory to a full-scale invasion.
Polk and '54-40'
In 1844, James K Polk campaigned for the Presidency with the slogan '54-40 or fight'. This was a reference to his desire to expand the northern boundary of the Oregon Territory to latitude 54°, 40 minutes. Such an expansion would have cut Canada off from the west coast. Neither the northward expansion nor the fight occurred.
The Salmon (and Softwood Lumber, and Wheat, and...) War
In the 20th Century, disputes continued between the United States and Canada, beginning with the Alaska Border Dispute, which was decided by an international commission in favour of the US in 1903. This decision completed a part of Polk's vision and cut Canada off from a small bit of the Pacific Coast.
Despite Free Trade Agreements, the 20th Century ended with salmon wars, softwood lumber wars, and wheat wars, being ongoing disputes between the nations. There has not been military action in these disputes, but there have been coastguard seizures.