Did Canada win the War of 1812?


Dear Straight Dope:

Since moving to Korea a few years ago, I've befriended many of the Canadians living/working here. Being an American, it's invariable that Canadians will bring up that they "won" the War of 1812. My understanding of the war is that America defeated the British, and the Canadian connection involved a failed attempt by some radical Americans to invade Canada. This, as I understand, was not an attempt by the American government to overthrow Canada, but more of a minor footnote to the war. Am I wrong? And what exactly are Canadians taught about the War of 1812? From the Canadians I meet here, it seems they must take a full-year high school course only on this subject. Please enlighten.

SDStaff Gfactor replies:

I hope you don’t have money riding on this, Kris, because I’ve got bad news for you. The idea that America won the war of 1812 is a myth, though one commonly believed by Americans. Similarly, the invasion of Canada wasn’t a minor part of the war, but a crucial part of America’s war plan. In fact, President James Madison thought a successful invasion of Canada would quickly end the conflict. The botched invasion prevented Madison from testing his theory … but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s start with the U.S.’s war goals regarding Canada. The U.S., or parts of it, were definitely interested in Canada for several reasons. First, Americans had coveted Canadian territory and its fur trade since colonial times. Before the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress invited French Canadians to become a 14th colony. The Canadians declined. The Americans invaded Canada during the revolution in an attempt to drive the British from Quebec. In September 1775, General Richard Montgomery succeeded in capturing Montreal, but when Montgomery and General Benedict Arnold joined forces to invade Quebec, Montgomery was killed and Arnold was wounded. By June 1776, American troops had been driven out of Canada completely. Some Americans, particularly the expansionists in the West, still had their eyes on Canada in 1812.

A second reason was tactical. Canada wasn’t an independent country during the War of 1812 — Britain controlled it. In a war, it would be the easiest territory for the Americans to attack. America’s navy was no match for Britain’s, so a maritime campaign was impractical. In Don’t Give Up the Ship: Myths of the War of 1812 (2006), Donald Hickey notes that the U.S. needed to apply pressure to Britain. He says, “The easiest way appeared to be by targeting Canada. Great Britain’s North American colonies were thinly populated and lightly defended.”

So, was acquiring Canadian territory a reason for going to war? Probably, but it wasn’t an official one. And the desire for Canadian turf alone did not cause the war.

Hickey frames the issue nicely: “Without the maritime issues, is it likely that the United States would have declared war on Great Britain to get Canada? Probably not.” He continues: “If the United States had no territorial ambitions, is it likely that it still would have gone to war in 1812 over the maritime issues? Probably so.” He concludes that “what drove American foreign policy in this period was not the wish to acquire Canada (as desirable as that might be) but a determination to win recognition for what contemporaries called ‘Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights.'” Canada just happened to be the the handiest way to achieve that policy.

The official reasons for the war mostly involved maritime issues. At the time, England was embroiled in the Napoleonic wars. England and France both declared blockades of each other’s trade (although France’s was mainly on paper since it had no effective navy). Each insisted that a country that traded with the other was an enemy. If either side caught such ships at sea, it would seize them as prizes. America was caught in the middle. In fact, for a long time, Americans weren’t sure whether there would be war with England, France, or both.

In addition, Britain had a policy of impressment of sailors. British vessels would stop American ships at sea to search for English sailors who had deserted. While they were at it they would often take American citizens and force them to fight for their side. Britain insisted that its citizens could not renounce their citizenship, so some native Britons who had become naturalized Americans were seized. What really set America off, though, was Britain’s impressment of native-born Americans. Thousands of Americans were deprived of their freedom in this way. Questions of justice aside, the practice interfered with U.S. commerce — vessels were left shorthanded and had to take detours to pick up replacements.

In a letter to Congress, President Madison gave several reasons for the war. Hickey, in The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict (1995), summarizes:

The British were arraigned for impressing American seamen; violating American waters; establishing illegal blockades; employing a secret agent to subvert the union; and exerting a malicious influence over the Indians in the Northwest Territory.

Hickey notes that the reasons were not in order of importance, but apparently in chronological order.

At any rate, those are the reasons America gave. The bit about a secret agent (John Henry) was true, but didn’t amount to much. Henry had been sent to America as a spy. When he returned to England, he was paid about $900 for his efforts. He demanded more and was rejected. He then sold some incriminating documents to the U.S. for $50,000.

The part about exerting a malicious influence over the Indians wasn’t true, although Madison probably believed it was. The British in Canada had long supported the Indians, but far from urging them to assault Americans were trying to persuade them not to do so. The Indians were angry at American expansionist policies — the Americans had attacked them more than once. The British feared (correctly) that they would be blamed for Indian belligerence. Truth is, the last thing the British wanted was a war with America. They had their hands full with Napoleon.

If America’s true war goals mostly involved maritime issues, you might wonder what strategic purpose an invasion of Canada would serve. If you do, you’re not alone.

J.C.A. Stagg, in Mr. Madison’s War: Politics, Diplomacy, and Warfare in the Early American Republic 1783-1830 (1983), notes that the plan to invade Canada was criticized by many, including some who favored the war overall. Opponents pointed out that those who claimed it would give the U.S. a bargaining chip failed to explain “why Britain would abandon the belligerent measures it had adopted for the defense of its navigation system on account of the loss of some, or even all, of its Canadian territories.” Stagg says the real purpose of invading Canada was twofold. First, while America had responded to the British blockade by imposing its own trade restrictions, those restrictions were largely ineffective because of smuggling through Canada. Madison believed that if America held Canada, its trade restrictions would have more of an impact on Britain. Second, he believed that the Napoleonic wars and other developments made Britain more dependent on Canada for resources. Stagg concludes, “This development promised to leave Britain almost wholly dependent on Canada for the resources it would need to maintain its navigation system, and for this reason Madison believed that a Canadian war would compel Britain to respect the shipping rights of neutrals.”

As I’ve already suggested, others had their own motives for wanting to annex Canada: acquiring its territory and fur trade and expelling the British from North America. But the prospects of America achieving these goals were slim. In Don’t Give Up the Ship, Hickey doubts the U.S. could have held Canada even if an invasion had succeeded. He thinks the U.S. declaration of war can best be interpreted as a bluff. Some felt the British didn’t take America’s complaints seriously and thought declaring war would get their attention. Hickey notes, “This explains why both … Madison and … Monroe … laid out American terms for peace to the departing British minister … shortly after war was declared.” The British didn’t accept the deal because they didn’t understand it — they were used to wars that involved actual fighting.

The U.S. bluff having been called, Canada was the obvious target. It wasn’t radical Americans who led the invasion, but rather William Hull, governor of the Michigan territory. The story of Hull’s humiliating defeat is interesting but long, so I’ll cut to the chase. Hull’s men crossed the Detroit River and took Sandwich on July 12, 1812 with the intention of capturing Fort Malden. Hull worried about his supply lines, though, and wound up retreating.

The British then invaded Detroit. After what Hickey describes as a “one-day artillery duel,” Hull surrendered unconditionally. When he returned to the U.S. on parole, the U.S. court-martialed him for cowardice and neglect of duty. At his trial Hull blamed Major General Henry Dearborn for his defeat — he thought Dearborn’s forces should have put on more of a show to the east, reducing the number of troops Hull faced. This was an ill-advised legal strategy, since Dearborn presided over the tribunal. Hull was convicted and sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted based on his Revolutionary War record. Historians disagree about Dearborn’s responsibility for the fiasco, but most concur that Hull was incompetent.

Hull’s invasion was part of a three-pronged attack. The other two invasion forces fared no better. Hickey summarizes in Forgotten Conflict:

Thus, America’s invasion of Canada in 1812 failed on all three fronts. The “blustering, bullying, mountain laboring campaign,” said a Federalist paper in Vermont, had produced nothing but “an unbroken series of disaster, defeat, disgrace, and ruin and death.” Armies had surrendered at Detroit, Frenchtown, and Queenston; much of the Northwest had fallen into enemy hands; and no headway had been made against the British positions on the St. Lawrence. “The series of misfortunes,” said Albert Gallatin, “exceeds all anticipations made even by those who had least confidence in our inexperienced officers and undisciplined men.”

The whole sorry mess might have been avoided if intercontinental communications had been faster. The British scrapped their blockade system by mid-June of 1812; Madison said that if he’d known, he wouldn’t have declared war.

America took some serious beatings in the war. The British invaded and burned Washington, D.C. in retaliation for America’s pillaging and burning of York, Upper Canada (now Toronto, Ontario). The U.S. did win some battles, at York for example, although it only held the town for five days. Its best showing was the storied battle of New Orleans in January 1815, a resounding victory for forces led by Andrew Jackson. The battle had no bearing on the outcome of the war, however; the Treaty of Ghent had been signed before it began. True, the war wasn’t over; the treaty specifically conditioned the cessation of hostilities on ratification of the treaty by both parties, and the U.S. didn’t ratify until more than a month after New Orleans. The fact remains that the terms of the settlement had already been agreed to.

The U.S. did better at the bargaining table than it had on the battlefield – it avoided giving up any territory, for one thing. The maritime issues that had ostensibly led to the war remained unresolved; the treaty made no mention of them. Each side agreed to pull out of enemy territory, not to carry off enemy property, return prisoners of war, return recently taken prizes, make peace with the Indians and return Indian property, and to “use their best endeavors” to abolish slavery. Considering what America’s representatives at Ghent had to work with, we got off pretty easy. Some say America lost the war but won the peace.

What are Canadians taught about the War of 1812? Wesley Turner, a professor of history at Brock University in Ontario, wrote a book whose title tells the story: The War of 1812: The War that Both Sides Won (2d ed. 2000). Turner’s account is consistent with the other books I consulted.

Did America win the war? We already know Turner’s view from the title of his book. In Forgotten Conflict, Hickey says:

If the causes of the war are unclear, so too are the consequences. The United States has won most of its wars, often emerging with significant concessions from the enemy. But the War of 1812 was different. Far from bringing the enemy to terms, the nation was lucky to escape without making extensive concessions itself.

The final paragraph of Hickey’s book says:

After the years slipped by, most people forgot the causes of the war. They forgot the defeats on land and sea and lost sight of how close the nation had come to military and financial collapse. According to the emerging myth, the United States had won the war as well as the peace. Thus the War of 1812 passed into history not as a futile and costly struggle in which the United States had barely escaped dismemberment and disunion, but as a glorious triumph in which the nation had single-handedly defeated the conqueror of Napoleon and the Mistress of the Seas.

That pretty much sums it up. It didn’t take long for Americans to forget the war’s true outcome. Stagg says that by 1816, “British visitors to the United States were complaining they had to endure such boastful claims that Andrew Jackson was a better general than the Duke of Wellington and that the abilities of Lord Nelson paled beside those of Commodore Rodgers.”

Not everyone agrees the U.S. lost — scholars have argued the question every possible way, since the war was complicated and lacked decisive battles. Hickey in Don’t Give Up the Ship points out that there are really five groups that must be considered: the U.S., Great Britain, Canada (i.e., the British North American colonies), Indians living in the U.S., and Indians living in Canada. Judging the results of the war against each party’s war aims, he concludes that “the biggest winner was Canada; then came Great Britain; and then the Indians living in Canada. The biggest losers were the Indians living in the United States; after them came the United States, which … for the first time in its history lost a war.”

Many Canadians consider the War of 1812 a victory for Canada. For example, the Canadian author Pierre Berton says his book about the first year of the war, The Invasion of Canada: 1812-1813 (1980), “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.”

He’s got a point. Even if the United States didn’t openly acknowledge conquest as a reason for the war, Canadians knew Americans were hungry for land. The U.S. at the time was dispossessing the indigenous population and trying to grab parts of Florida land from Spain. While America never declared war against Spain, frontiersmen from Georgia and American settlers in Florida invaded under General George Matthews. Madison had initially approved the invasion but seems to have changed his mind before it took place. Whether Matthews was authorized to go to war is still debated by scholars, but it’s clear the Madison administration officially wanted it stopped. Matthews died in August 1812, but hostilities continued for about two years (1812-1814).

To some extent, America’s motives were irrelevant. Whether America invaded Canada for tactical reasons or for land, the invasion was a threat to Canadian colonists. While Canada technically didn’t win the war (as I pointed out before, Canada didn’t yet exist as a political entity), it successfully thwarted an invading force. The invasion was a loss for the United States, even if it managed not to flat out lose the war.

I asked my Canadian friend, Straight Dope Message Board member Northern Piper, about Canadian attitudes on the War of 1812. He echoed the point about Canadians viewing the thwarted invasion as a victory, noting that many Americans describe an equally complicated conflict, the Vietnam War, as having ended in defeat.

The War of 1812 is credited by some as the progenitor of Manifest Destiny. From the end of the war until around 1860, America saw territorial acquisition as its national mission. Our Canadian neighbors were less than thrilled and still view the war as part of a pattern of land grabbing that persisted for more than a century.

Bottom line: The war was a bust for the U.S., and — if you take the view that Canada’s only war goal was to avoid becoming an American territory — a success for Canada.

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.


Comment on this Column