Niagara Gazette

March 4, 2012

Why we went to war in 1812

By Don Glynn
Niagara Gazette

NIAGARA FALLS — It has been called the “Second War of Independence.”

Yet neither of the major combatants — the Americans nor the British — was initially enthusiastic about waging it.

Today it is questionable how many people even care to commemorate it.

The Niagara Frontier was a major hub in the War of 1812,  one of three targets that President Madison selected to invade Canada, known then as British North America.

Aside from the abortive attempt to attack at Queenston, Ont., the Americans had planned assaults on Upper Canada (Ontario) from Detroit and Lower Canada (Montreal and Quebec) from upstate New York.

All three missions failed miserably, due mostly to America’s incompetent generals, its military ranks riddled by insubordination, and a mind-bogging lack of communications between commanders of the invading forces. “Especially at Queenston, that was a disaster (for the Americans),” said Thomas Chambers, an associate professor and chairman of the Niagara University Department of History.

Chambers, who also is active with the 1812 Legacy Council, noted that a number of the New York state militia then serving under Gen. Stephen Van Renssalear refused to cross the border from Lewiston into Ontario because they did not feel obligated to fight on foreign soil.

Overall, had the war spanning more than a dozen states widely divergent regions ended differently, the U.S. would perhaps now include the 10 Canadian provinces and three territories north of the 49th parallel, from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Although many names and places have faded, the events overshadowed by the more costly and devastating wars of the 19th and 20th centuries, the War of 1812 has left an indelible mark on U.S. and Canadian history.

The 35-mile border here was the scene of repeated attacks on Fort George at Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.) and Fort Niagara, Youngstown. The action often turned ugly on residents as well with widespread looting and torching of homes from Lewiston to Buffalo. Battles at Fort Erie, Ont., Chippawa and Lundy’s Lane also took a heavy toll.

In addition to the Buffalo-Niagara area and southwestern Ontario, this war captured international attention with the British burning Washington City (now the capital); the Battle of Lake Erie and Commander Oliver H. Perry’s inspiring message (”We have met the enemy and they are ours...”); Francis Scott Key composing the U.S. national anthem during the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore; and Andrew Jackson leading the Americans to victory in New Orleans, a prelude to his winning the presidency in the next election.

Scholars cite several factors in triggering the war:

n The impressment of American seamen with the British stopping and boarding those ships to force the sailors to serve with the Royal Navy. In the early 19th century, the British seized an estimated 6,000 sailors from American vessels. It is unknown how many of those may have at one time deserted from the British forces.

n The British blockades of enemy ports which proved a heavy loss of U.S. trade on the high seas.

n Britain’s policies were widely interpreted as affronts to America’s national honor.

n The War Hawks in Congress including Henry Clay of Kentucky and Peter Porter of Buffalo, N.Y., staunchly supported expansion, whether that meant driving the Indians off the lands or invading Canada. Both options were pursued in earnest.

When the war did break out, it was not taken seriously by Britain which, at the time, was deeply engaged in a fierce life-and-death struggle with Napoleon. In Canada, however, the provinces (British possessions) were soon aroused to a new awareness of nationhood.

Britain and France resorted to blockading ships, an effective weapon of economic warfare. The U.S. tried to remain neutral but that was almost impossible because they were then trading with France.

“With the British fighting Napoleon, they decided to cut off any ships supplying goods to France,” said Ron Dale, superintendent of Niagara National Historic Site of Canada, Niagara-on-the-Lake. All neutral ships trading on the continent were suddenly ordered to stop first in Britain and pay a duty,” Dale added.

Andrew Lambert, a professor of naval history in the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London, England, said: “There was a price to pay for neutrality.” Lambert noted that the Royal Navy that once had upwards of 120,000 sailors in its ranks were losing them at a rate of 10,000 a year. “If they lost their sailors, they would lose the war,” Lambert emphasized.

The British impressment of American sailors had actually started almost five years before President Madison declared war, June 18, 1812.

When the U.S. frigate Chesapeake sailed out of Norfolk, Va., in June 1807 — after undergoing extensive repairs — it was followed for some 10 miles by the H.M.S. Leopard, a 50-gun frigate of the Royal Navy.

Suspecting the Chesapeake crew included some British deserters, the Leopard fired a broadside into the American ship, killing three men and wounding 18 more. After shelling the Americans for nearly 10 minutes, the Chesapeake surrendered.

“It was perhaps the most egregious example of the British (impressment) and the Americans were not about to tolerate it,” said Victor Suthern, a Canadian naval expert and author of “The War of 1812” (1999).

What was clear from the outset, the Americans were ill-prepared for a prolonged battle. Their army and naval forces were sharply reduced after the Revolutionary War. To compound matters, the U.S. War Department suffered not only with inept leaders and disorganization but from a blatant lack of communications that weakened the entire chain of command.

Less than a year before war erupted, Upper Canada (Ontario) had a population of some 80,000 that included 35,000 Loyalists and their descendants (who opposed the American Revolution) and about 25,000 Americans who settled in the province because the government there had offered each persons a minimum 160 acres of farmland, a move to spur population and hard-pressed economy.