The history of North America has been profoundly influenced by the political conflicts and wars of its European founders. Trade disputes between Britain and France led to the Seven Years' War (1754-1763), and fallout from this war eventually sparked the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783). Both conflicts helped redraw the borders and shape the political landscape and culture of the continent.
In the early years of the 19th century, North America again was entangled in the wars of Europe, where Britain was engaged in bitter fighting with France, which was led by Napoleon Bonaparte. Both nations wanted to keep supplies from reaching their enemy and passed embargoes banning trade with neutral nations. The United States responded by instituting a series of trade restrictions on European nations, but these moves only hurt the United States economically. In 1810, the United States agreed to reopen trade with Britain and France, provided those nations dropped their restrictions against the United States. While France seemed receptive to the idea, Britain refused to halt its blockade of trading ships and continued its long-running practice of impressment—the kidnapping of U.S. seamen from merchant vessels and forcing them into service in the Royal Navy.
Officials in the American government became angry and called for war. President James Madison used impressment, as well as other issues, as a rallying cry, and on June 18, 1812, the U.S. Congress declared war on Britain. With the British homeland across the Atlantic Ocean unreachable by military forces, the United States struck at the British province of Canada, a territory viewed as a potential prize in an American victory. The confident Americans thought the fight would be an easy one, with former U.S. president Thomas Jefferson calling the conquest of Canada nothing more than a march.
Hero of Upper Canada
While it was the United States that began hostilities when General William Hull invaded Canada on July 12, 1812, it was the British who won the first victory. Since it took time for official news of the war to reach the border outposts, British forces at Ontario's Fort St. Joseph heard of the U.S. declaration before the Americans in nearby Fort Mackinac (now Michigan). Seizing on the opportunity, British commander Charles Roberts launched a surprise attack on Fort Mackinac and captured it without firing a shot—and without the Americans even knowing they were at war.
Hull's plan was to capture the British Fort Malden in Amherstburg, Ontario, but his forces were unprepared for battle. Despite outnumbering his enemy, Hull was slowed by a British-led resistance and retreated to Fort Detroit when he heard Fort Mackinac had fallen. The British commander in Upper Canada, Major-General Sir Isaac Brock, who had organized the resistance to Hull's invasion, decided to take aggressive measures. He led a force of British soldiers, Canadian militiamen, and First Nations allies headed by Shawnee war chief Tecumseh and attacked Fort Detroit. Brock's troops were outmanned, but he used Tecumseh's men to fool the Americans into thinking his army was bigger than it was, and Hull surrendered the fort on August 16, 1812.
On October 13, 1812, Brock commanded his troops against a major U.S. invasion attempt at Queenston Heights, Ontario, near Niagara Falls. The British-led army emerged victorious, but Brock was killed in the battle while leading his men in a charge at American forces. Despite his death, the victory gave the British and Canadians a needed boost in morale. It also proved to the British that members of the Canadian militia—many of whom were transplanted Americans—would fight to defend their new homeland. For his wartime heroics and sacrifice, Brock was called the "Hero of Upper Canada."
Burning of York and an Unlikely Hero
A large American force crossed Lake Ontario in April 1813 and drove the British from the capital of Upper Canada, York (now Toronto). After briefly occupying the capital, the Americans set fire to the shipyard and British government buildings, including Parliament, before withdrawing. A year later, the British retaliated by burning the White House, U.S. Capitol, and other government buildings when they occupied Washington, DC.
In the spring and summer of 1813, both sides traded victories—the British capturing Ogdensburg in New York, and the Americans taking Fort George, Fort Erie, and the town of Niagara, Ontario. In June, an American force planned to attack a British outpost at Beaver Dams, near Queenston, Ontario. Taking the outpost would give the Americans a decided military advantage in the Niagara peninsula. As the Americans stopped overnight in Queenston, their plan was overheard by Laura Secord, the wife of a wounded Canadian militiaman. With her husband unable to make the trip, Secord set out through 12 miles of rugged countryside to warn the British of the impending attack. She delivered her message, and two days later, the American forces were attacked by Britain's First Nations allies and forced to surrender. The British officer, Lieutenant James FitzGibbon, credited Secord with helping to win the battle.
Battle of Lake Erie and the Push Toward Montréal
While Britain and the United States battled on Canadian soil, war was also raging on the Great Lakes and high seas. The British navy, which was partially based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, had been maintaining a blockade of the American coastline. The Americans had been preparing a fleet of warships to challenge the British on the strategic waters of Lake Erie, a valuable supply line for British forces. On September 10, 1813, British commodore Robert Barclay led his ships into battle against American commander Oliver Hazard Perry in the Battle of Lake Erie. Perry and the American fleet defeated the British and took control of Lake Erie. With the British supply lines severed, the Americans were able to recapture Fort Detroit and the surrounding garrisons and force the British to retreat. U.S. forces pursued the British into Upper Canada and defeated them in the Battle of the Thames on October 5, 1813. First Nations war hero Tecumseh was killed in the battle.
With the year winding down, the Americans launched an offensive to capture Montréal in October. As the U.S. forces advanced, they were met by French Canadian officer Charles-Michel d'Irumberry de Salaberry at the Châteauguay River. De Salaberry set up a blockade of trenches and downed trees, and he used battlefield trickery to make the Americans think his forces were larger than they really were. His strategy worked; the American forces retreated and de Salaberry became known as the "Hero of Châteauguay." A similar U.S. attack on Kingston, Ontario, was also repelled in November.
In 1814, British forces in Europe had finally defeated Napoleon and the French. The Americans realized Britain could turn its full military attention to North America, so they mounted a last push to take Upper Canada. The Americans advanced past the Chippewa River and as far as Fort George near Niagara. When expected reinforcement did not arrive, however, the Americans retreated. After a bloody stalemate in the Battle of Lundy's Lane in July 1814, both sides fell back to regroup. British forces advanced on Fort Erie but failed to dislodge the Americans and eventually retreated.
Peace Treaty and a New Identity
After two years of fighting and no clear winner in sight, both Britain and the United States began to seek an end to the war. Peace talks were initiated in August 1814. On December 24, 1814, the nations signed the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the conflict and restored all national boundaries to what they had been before the war.
While it seemed like the War of 1812 had no victor, it had a profound effect on the North American nations that fought it. The United States came away with confidence in itself as a nation, having twice stood up to the British superpower and survived. The war had a deeper impact on the Canadians. If the Americans had triumphed, Canada—as it is today—would not exist. It would have been incorporated into the United States, and there is no guarantee that Canada's unique bicultural heritage would have been allowed to continue. The war also sparked a new national patriotism. Before the war, Canada was made up of people who identified with their country of origin or nationality. Standing up and fighting for their homeland united the population into a distinctive Canadian identity.