Sunday, September 23, 2012

1812 in Retrospect

"The acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching, and will give us the experience for the attack on Halifax, the next and final expulsion of England from the American continent."

So said Thomas Jefferson in a letter of 1812. His confidence came from knowledge that the area known as Upper Canada, now Ontario, was thinly populated with former residents of the new United States. Some were Loyalists, who found themselves in bad company during the Revolutionary War and moved north to find less hostile neighbors. Many others had immigrated on their own accord in the decades that followed. At the outbreak of hostilities in 1812, three out of five settlers in Upper Canada had arrived in recent years. Knowing this, the American government felt confident that their planned foray onto Canadian soil would receive--some resistance, to be sure--but also support from relieved American settlers.

Instead of blustering with indignance, the average resident of Upper Canada mostly agreed with Jefferson's assessment. They felt a sense of futility. How could their militia, some British regular soldiers, and a shaky alliance with the First Nations hold the border against 30,000 Americans? To add to the problem, British attention was preoccupied with fighting Napoleon in Europe. Compared to that, the tiny colony in North America was very small beans indeed. Isaac Brock, the commander charged with defending Upper Canada, wrestled with this problem:

My situation is most critical, not from any thing the enemy can do, but from the disposition of the people—the population [of Upper Canada], believe me, is essentially bad—A full belief possesses them that this Province must inevitably succumb. This prepossession is fatal to every exertion—Legislators, Magistrates, Militia, Officers, all, have imbibed the idea… Most of the people have lost all confidence—I however speak loud and look big. (Conrad)

Isn't that great? I just love the last line. I also like how Brock brushes off "any thing the enemy can do" as nothing of concern. Undaunted by the odds, Brock set his face to rally the defence of the colony.

                And he did more than speak loud. In the early stages of the War, Brock led three successive victories that changed the people's defeatism into confidence. First, he captured Fort Michilimackinac -- which is hard to pronounce, much less conquer. With that gateway to the fur trade secure, he led his troops in the capture of Detroit. When I say "led," I don't mean he planned the attack and then watched through binoculars, chardonnay in hand. I mean he planned the attack and then actually marched in front of his troops, stared down by two 24-pound cannon. Sadly, the same practice led to his death at Queenston Heights. Though the battle was successful, Brock was shot in the chest as he led his troops from the front. Though he was removed from the war, the memory of his bravery, and the victories he led, gave lasting hope to the Canadian people.

                The War of 1812, for all of its waste and bloodshed, had the effect of galvanizing the residents of Upper Canada into Canadians. At the outset of the war, the province was inhabited by former residents of the United States. Although some were loyal to Great Britain, everyone saw defeat as a likely prospect. After Brock's successful campaigns of the first year, the people were inspired with new hope in a victorious Canada. And as wars are wont to do, the following years of conflict deepened divisions across the border. Though sympathetic to "their counterpart among the enemy" (Wunker), the average Canadian came to a settled opposition against American values and institutions. Thus, the seeds of Canadian nationalism were planted. Sir John A. Macdonald expressed much the same feeling when he brought an 1891 audience to a standing ovation with his famous words: "A British subject I was born; a British subject I will die."


The Canadian Encyclopedia. “Sir Isaac Brock”

Encyclopedia Brittanica. “Sir John Macdonald”

"9 U.S. President’s Quotes About Canada"

Pierre Berton. Flames Across the Border: 1813-1814.

Margaret Conrad and Alvin Finkel. History of the Canadian Peoples: Beginnings to 1867.

Russ Wunker. Vengeance across the Border: Some Aspects of Retaliation in the War of 1812.

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