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History Pre-confederation (to 1867)

Pierre Berton's War of 1812

by (author) Pierre Berton

Doubleday Canada
Initial publish date
Nov 2011
Pre-Confederation (to 1867), North America, Canada
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Nov 2011
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To commemorate the bi-centenary of the War of 1812, Anchor Canada brings together Pierre Berton's two groundbreaking books on the subject. The Invasion of Canada is a remarkable account of the war's first year and the events that led up to it; Pierre Berton transforms history into an engrossing narrative that reads like a fast-paced novel. Drawing on personal memoirs and diaries as well as official dispatches, the author has been able to get inside the characters of the men who fought the war - the common soldiers as well as the generals, the bureaucrats and the profiteers, the traitors and the loyalists.

The Canada-U.S. border was in flames as the War of 1812 continued. York's parliament buildings were on fire, Niagara-on-the-Lake burned to the ground and Buffalo lay in ashes. Even the American capital of Washington, far to the south, was put to the torch. The War of 1812 had become one of the nineteenth century's bloodiest struggles.

Flames Across the Border is a compelling evocation of war at its most primeval - the muddy fields, the frozen forests and the ominous waters where men fought and died. Pierre Berton skilfully captures the courage, determination and terror of the universal soldier, giving new dimension and fresh perspective to this early conflict between the two emerging nations of North America.

About the author

Pierre Berton, well-known and well-loved Canadian author, journalist, and media personality, hailed from Whitehorse, Yukon. During his career, he wrote fifty books for adults and twenty-two for children, popularizing Canadian history and culture and reflecting on his life and times. With more than thirty literary awards and a dozen honorary degrees to his credit, Berton was also a Companion of the Order of Canada.

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Excerpt: Pierre Berton's War of 1812 (by (author) Pierre Berton)

The invasion of Canada, which began in the early summer of 1812 and petered out in the late fall of 1814, was part of a larger conflict that has come to be known in North America as the War of 1812. That war was the by-product of a larger struggle, which saw Napoleonic France pitted for almost a decade against most of Europe. It is this complexity, a war within a war within a war, like a nest of Chinese boxes, that has caused so much confusion. The watershed date “1812” has different connotations for different people. And, as in Alice’s famous caucus race, everybody seems to have won something, though there were no prizes. The Russians, for instance, began to win their own War of 1812 against Napoleon in the very week in which the British and Canadians were repulsing the invading Americans at Queenston Heights. The Americans won the last battle of their War of 1812 in the first week of 1815—a victory diminished by the fact that peace had been negotiated fifteen days before. The British, who beat Napoleon, could also boast that they “won” the North American war because the Treaty of Ghent, which settled the matter, had nothing to say about the points at issue and merely maintained the status quo.

This work deals with the war that Canada won, or to put it more precisely did not lose , by successfully repulsing the armies that tried to invade and conquer British North America. The war was fought almost entirely in Upper Canada, whose settlers, most of them Americans, did not invite the war, did not care about the issues, and did not want to fight. They were the victims of a clash between two major powers who, by the accident of geography, found it convenient to settle their differences by doing violence to the body of another. The invasion of Canada was not the first time that two armies have bloodied neutral ground over issues that did not concern the inhabitants; nor has it been the last.

Of all the wars fought by the English-speaking peoples, this was one of the strangest—a war entered into blindly and fought (also blindly) by men out of touch not only with reality but also with their own forces. Washington was separated from the fighting frontier by hundreds of miles of forest, rock, and swamp. The ultimate British authority was an ocean away and the nominal authority a fortnight distant from the real command. Orders could take days, weeks, even months to reach the troops.

Like some other wars, this one began bloodlessly with expressions of civility on both sides and the conviction that it would be over by Christmas. It did not end that way, for horror breeds hatred, and no war (certainly not this one) can be free of atrocity. Nor was it free of bombast. As in most wars, the leaders on both sides were convinced that their cause was just and that the Deity was firmly in their camp, leading them to victory. Slogans about “freedom” and “slavery,” “despotism” and “liberty” were batted back and forth across the border like shuttlecocks. Each side believed, or pretended to believe, that the other was held in thrall by a pernicious form of government.

At the outset, it was a gentlemen’s war. Officers on opposing sides met for parleys under flags of truce, offered hospitality, exchanged cordialities, murmured the hope that hostilities would quickly end. Belligerents addressed one another in flowery terms. The same men who declared they would never be slaves of the enemy had “the honour to be y’r humble and obedient servant.” When Isaac Brock fell at Queenston, the men responsible for his death joined in the general grief. Roger Sheaffe, his successor, expressed in writing his great regret for the wounds suffered by an opposing commander— wounds that put him out of action and helped Sheaffe win the day. “If there be anything at my command that your side of the river cannot furnish, which would be either useful or agreeable . . . I beg you will be so good as to have me apprised of it,” he wrote to the enemy. When the first word of the declaration of war reached the British post at Fort George on the Niagara frontier, its officers were entertaining their American opposite numbers at dinner. They insisted that the meal continue as if hostilities had not commenced, then, with much handshaking and expressions of regret, accompanied their guests to their boats. Within a few weeks, the former dinner companions were ripping through one another’s homes and fortifications with red-hot cannonballs.

For a war of thirty months’ duration, the casualties were not heavy. In those same years many a European battle counted far more dead and wounded in a single day. But for those who did fall, it was a truly terrible war, fought under appalling conditions far from civilization and medical aid. Those victims who were torn to pieces by cannon-balls, their brains often spattering their comrades, might be considered lucky. The wounded endured agonies, banged about in open carts, exposed to blizzards or driving rain, hauled for miles over rutted tracks to the surgeon’s table where, with a musket ball clamped between their teeth and when possible a tot of rum warming their bellies, they suffered the horrors of a hasty amputation.

As the war progressed, it grew more vicious. There was savagery on both sides by white frontiersmen as well as Indians, who scalped the fallen sometimes when they were still alive. Men were roasted in flaming buildings, chopped to pieces by tomahawks, sliced open by bayonets, drowned, frozen, or felled by sickness, which took more lives on both sides than all the battles combined. There were times when a third of an army was too ill to fight. The diseases were given vague names like “ague” and “swamp fever,” which might mean influenza, pneumonia, malaria, typhus, dysentery, or simply that the combatants were too cold, too weary, or too dispirited to march or even stand. And no wonder: on both sides the armies, especially the citizen soldiers of the militia, were ill equipped for war. Men were forced to trudge through ankle-deep snow and to wade freezing rivers without shoes; to sleep in the open without blankets; to face the Canadian winter lacking mitts and greatcoats, their clothes in tatters, their hands and feet bound in rags, tormented by frostbite in January and insects in June. The military may have seen the war coming, but the politicians were not prepared to pay its price.

At the planning level, the war was marked by incredible bungling. As in so many wars, but especially in this one, the day was often won not by the most brilliant commander, for there were few brilliant commanders, but by the least incompetent. On the American side, where civilian leaders were mixed in with regular army officers, the commands were marked by petty jealousies, vicious infighting, bitter rivalries. On certain memorable occasions, high-ranking officers supposedly fighting the British preferred to fight each other with pistols at dawn. Old soldiers were chosen for command simply because they were old soldiers; they acted like sports heroes long past their prime, weary of the contest, sustained only by the glamour of the past, struggling as much against the ambitions of younger aspirants as against the enemy. Some were chosen capriciously. One general was given an important command solely for political reasons—to get him out of the way.

On the Canadian side, where “democracy” was a wicked word and the army was run autocratically by British professionals, there was little of this. Many of these men, however, were cast-offs from Europe. The officers gained their commissions through purchase, not competence. With certain exceptions, the cream of the British Army was with Wellington, fighting Napoleon’s forces on the Iberian Peninsula. Aging veterans made up part of the garrison forces in Canada. Boys of fourteen and fifteen fought with the militia. Lacklustre leadership, incompetent planning, timidity and vacillation were too often the concomitants of command on both sides of the border.

The militia on both sides was a rabble. Hastily summoned and hastily trained when trained at all, they fought sometimes reluctantly, sometimes with gallantry. On the Canadian side these citizen soldiers were drilled about three days in a month. They were called up when needed, placed away from the centre of the line, on the flanks (when the line existed at all), and, after an engagement, sent back to their homes and farms until needed once more. The more patriotic signed up for the duration and became seasoned warriors. The American army was a confusion of regular soldiers, state militia, and federal volunteers recruited from the militia for terms of service that ranged from one month to a year or more.

On both sides men thought nothing of leaving the scene of battle to thresh their grain at harvest time. For most of the men who fought it, then, it was a part-time war. Some refused to fight. In spite of the harsh discipline, men on both sides mutinied. Soldiers were shot for desertion, forced to ride bent saplings, to stand barefoot on sharpened stakes, branded, or flogged almost to death. Neither threats nor pleas could stop thousands of American militiamen from refusing to fight on foreign soil. To the dismay of their commanders, these amateur soldiers took democracy at its face value, electing their own officers and, on occasion, dismissing them. In Upper Canada treason worked its slow poison, even invading the legislature. Farmers were hanged for abetting the enemy; tribunes of the people took refuge on foreign soil to raise squads of traitors; dark suspicions, often unfounded, seeped down the concession roads, causing neighbour to denounce neighbour.

The war, like other wars, brought disaster to thousands and prosperity to thousands more. Prices rose; profits boomed. The border might be in flames, its people at each other’s throats, but that did not prevent merchants on both sides from crossing over in the interests of commerce. Americans on the eastern shore of Lake Champlain fed the British troops fighting on the western side. Montreal middlemen grew rich supplying the needs of New England. Pork, beef, and grain from Vermont and other states found their way into the commissariats of Upper Canada. Before the invasion came to an end, two out of every three soldiers fighting for the safety and honour of Canada were subsisting on beef brought in by enemy contractors.

In the Atlantic provinces and the neighbouring New England states, the war scarcely existed. On July 3, 1812, the Lieutenant- Governor of Nova Scotia issued a proclamation announcing that his province and New Brunswick would abstain from predatory warfare against their neighbours and that trade would continue “without Molestation.” Between Maine and New Brunswick it was more than business as usual; it was frolic as usual. The border town of St. Stephen, realizing that its American neighbour, Calais, could not obtain fireworks for its Independence Day celebration, obligingly helped out with a gift of gun powder.

But on the fighting frontier it was civil war. There is a story that the man who fired the first cannonball across the river during the battle of Detroit killed his best friend on the American side—a legend, possibly, but perfectly plausible. Almost everyone had a friend or a relative on the other side of the border. Sheaffe, the British general, had a sister Margaret in Boston. William Hull, the defender of Detroit, had a brother Isaac living on the Thames. The border was irrelevant; people crossed it as they would a street. Many owned land or had business interests on the other side. One of these was John Askin of Sandwich, Upper Canada, the venerable fur trader and patriarch (various members of whose extensive family will appear from time to time in these pages). During the war, Askin continued to correspond with his friend and kinsman Elijah Brush, the militia commander at Detroit, who was married to Askin’s daughter Adelaide. When the Americans invaded Sandwich and Askin was forced to flee, Brush obligingly detailed some of his men to harvest Askin’s crops. When Detroit fell, Brush consigned his personal papers, money, and members of his family to Askin’s care. None of this prevented Askin’s sons, nephews, and grandsons from taking up arms and killing Americans.

They did so reluctantly, for this was a war that almost nobody wanted. The British, who had been embroiled with Napoleon for seven years, certainly did not want it, did not believe it would occur, and in a clumsy, last-minute effort tried to prevent it. The Canadian settlers, struggling to master a forbidding if fertile wilderness, did not want it either; at best it was an interruption, at worst a tragedy. The majority, whenever possible, did their best to stay out of it. Nor did the mass of the American people want to go to war; a great many, especially in the New England states, sat it out; others fought half-heartedly. Congress, in the words of a Kentucky editor, was “driven, goaded, dragged, forced, kicked” into the conflict by a small, eloquent group that Thomas Jefferson dubbed the War Hawks.

America went to war as a last resort because her leaders felt that the nation’s honour had been besmirched to a point where any other action would be unthinkable. In their zeal to conquer Napoleon, the British pushed the Americans too far and dismissed their former colonists with an indifference that bordered on contempt, thus repeating the errors of 1776. In that sense, the War of 1812 was a continuation of the American Revolution.

It began with Napoleon, for without Napoleon there would have been no war. (The President, James Madison, remarked after the fact that had he known Napoleon would be defeated his country would have stayed out of it.) Great Britain, fighting for her life against France, was bent on all-out maritime warfare. If a neutral America, reaping the economic benefits, was bruised a little on the high seas, well, that was unfortunate but necessary. America, in British eyes, was a weak, inconsequential nation that could be pushed around with impunity. In the words of the London Courier , “two fifty gun ships would be able to burn, sink and destroy the whole American navy.”

This attitude was expressed first in the British policy of boarding American ships and impressing American seamen for service in the Royal Navy on the grounds that they were deserters from British service. At least three thousand and perhaps as many as seven thousand fell victim to this practice, which infuriated the country and was one of the two chief causes of the war.

The other was the equally galling Orders in Council, the last enacted in November, 1807, as an act of reprisal against the French. With cool disdain for the rights of neutrals as well as for American sea power, the British warned that they would seize on the open ocean any ship that dared sail directly for a Napoleonic port. By 1812 they had captured almost four hundred American vessels, some within sight of the U.S. coast, and played havoc with the American export trade.

There were other irritants, especially in the more volatile southern and western states, where a serious economic depression was blamed, not without reason, on the British blockade. The slump hit the Mississippi Valley in 1808, shortly after Britain proclaimed the Orders in Council. Prices collapsed. Cotton and tobacco could no longer be exported. This, combined with the growing Indian threat to the frontier settlements, was used to bolster the arguments of those seeking an excuse for war. In Kentucky especially—the most hawkish of states—and in Ohio and the territories, it was widely believed that British agents were goading the various tribes to revolt. There was talk of teaching the Indians a lesson, even driving the British out of North America, thereby breaking the fur monopoly, opening the land to settlement, and strengthening the Union. Certain western expansionists also saw the coming war as one of liberation. It was widely believed that most Canadians wanted to become Americans. If they did not, well, that was their destiny.

In the summer of 1812, with three American armies threatening the border strongpoints—Amherstburg, Queenston, Montreal, and Kingston—the early fall of Upper Canada and the subsequent collapse of Quebec seemed certain. In British North America there were some three hundred thousand souls, in the Union to the south, almost eight million. In Upper Canada, three out of five settlers were newly arrived Americans, people of uncertain loyalties, lured from New York, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut by the promise of cheap land. They scarcely thought of themselves as British, though they were forced into a token oath of allegiance, and they certainly did not call themselves Canadian. (That word was reserved for their French-speaking neighbours, many of whom lived on American soil in the vicinity of Detroit.) Surely these people would not oppose an invasion by their compatriots!

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