Radio Freethinker

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Why Celebrate the War of 1812?

Posted by Ethan Clow on March 28, 2011

Last week on the show I rained on the parade discussed the recent announcement that the Conservative government is planning to spend $100 million on War of 1812 bicentennial. Of course in the meantime the Conservative government has fallen on a vote of no confidence and now we don’t know for sure who will be in power next year. Nevertheless, I think the discussion of celebrating the bicentennial of the War of 1812 is still worthwhile.

What will $100 million be spent on? According to the article, the commemoration will include re-enactments of famous battles, the repair of monuments and plaques, a new visitor centre at Fort York in Toronto, a documentary, a national essay-writing competition and a dedicated website.

According to spokespeople for the Conservative government, the War of 1812 is an important part of Canadian history and yet many Canadians are not informed on the history of the war.

The government is also considering how to reach out to new immigrants and make the bicentennial mean something to them. One proposal is to tell the story of 1812 using puppets accompanied by south-east Asian music. This begs the question, why do they think Asian people will be fascinated by puppets?

So is the war of 1812 important?

In 1812, America declared war on the British Empire. The reasons for war included a desire for expansion into the Northwest Territory, trade restrictions because of Britain’s ongoing war with France, impressment of American merchant sailors into the Royal Navy, British support of American Indian tribes against American expansion, and the humiliation of American honour. The main grievance being expansion into the west and impressment – which was essentially conscription into the navy, only the British would stop any ship and if it had any British citizens on it they would force them into the Navy. The problem was the British Empire didn’t recognize American citizens as non-British so they would be conscripted as well.

What makes this war important for our perspective was that the battle ground was North America with both limited and temporary invasions of Canada and the United States. From an American and Canadian point of view, it was a very important conflict, but of lesser importance to Britain as during part of the war, they were still fighting Napoleon in Europe.

How did the war go? Neither side was particularly prepared for war. The British favoured a defensive strategy since most of their forces were fighting Napoleon in Europe. America had a small army at the time (around 12,000) and tried to expand that to 30,000 which resulted in a number of poorly trained and hastily assembled forces.

On July 12, 1812, General William Hull led an invading American force of about 2500 untrained, poorly equipped militia across the Detroit River and occupied the Canadian town of Sandwich (now a neighbourhood of Windsor, Ontario)

Isaac Brock, nicknamed The Hero of Upper Canada prepared a force to meet the Americans. Because of problems he had getting militia to volunteer, he didn’t tell them they were marching to a battle. He managed around 900 militia. (although close to half deserted)

He eventually raised a force of about 1300, a combination of British forces and militia and Six Nations Warriors. (about 400 volunteers, about 7% of the eligible militia in Upper Canada.) The American forces retreated back across the Detroit River and then further abandoned the town of Detroit when Brock pursued them.

Several months later, the U.S. launched a second invasion of Canada, this time at the Niagara peninsula. On October 13, U.S. forces were again defeated at the Battle of Queenston Heights, where General Brock was killed.

After 1814, Napoleon was defeated and the British launched a series of large scale attacks on America that all ended in defeat. However by this point, most of the fighting was done on American soil or at sea.

Among other things, the war provided some cultural boons, including the American national anthem the “Star Spangled Banner” was written in response to the defence of Baltimore. It’s said that a national identity emerged in Canada, we shall see. In addition, the British realized they couldn’t defend Canada in another war, which would impact future relations.

So it’s clearly an important historical event that Canadians should be aware of and understand. But, this leads to some important questions.

Should the war be celebrated?

Should any war be celebrated? That’s more a philosophical question that can’t really be answered. However, in this case, as long as that celebration is primarily about education and not imperialism, it would seem worth it.

You have two elements to potentially celebrate. There’s the educational aspect of this war, looking back on colonial life and relations with the various Indian tribes, the cultural development of the colonies etc.

But there’s also the celebration that generally ignores the history and focuses on Imperialism and what I like to characterize as the masking of British history/culture as Canadian. What I mean by that is taking a largely British conflict and pretending it was Canadian. This is a symptom of a far larger issue in Canada where celebrating “Canadian culture” usually involves a rejection of “American culture” in favour of “British culture.”

At the time, many “Canadians” (those living in Upper Canada) were not interested in war and wanted nothing to do with it. This is an important issue but will this celebration be about education or imperialism? Or to re-phrase that, will the history get accurately portrayed or is this an excuse to get all patriotic and have a collective rah-rah?

One of the big on-going debates is how large a role the Canadian militia played in the combat. Many Canadians are under the impression that the Canadian militia accomplished an amazing feat by defeating the professional army of the United States and even burned Washington DC.

In reality, the Canadian militia was around 14,000 compared to the 50,000+ British forces. In reality, the suggestion that the Canadian militia was primarily responsible for repelling the American invasion is historic fiction.

The Militia myth was popularized by people like Egerton Ryerson (father of the Ontario school system) in 1880. He compared the Canadian militia to the Spartans fighting the Persians. Such a statement is generally considered to be ancestor worship on the part of Canadians.

The records indicated that historians of this time relied on public pronouncements from wartime officials apparently unaware that they were getting propaganda.  When you distil the war down to a very basic narrative that a colony defended by less than 2000 troops regularly defeated several American armies. Of course it sounds like a great victory for the Canadians.

Since then, several modern historians have however weighed in and stated that it was the British army which was responsible for saving the colony, not the militia.

When determining who won this war, which surely is an important issue in the bicentennial. Anti-climatically, it’s really hard to decide who actually won this war, the British had 1,600 killed in action and 3,679 wounded, another 3,321 British died from disease.

The Americans had 2,260 killed in action and 4,505 wounded.

Neither side achieved any of its objectives for the war, except, that the British succeeded in keeping the Canadian colonies. Most historians consider the war a stalemate or a very minor British victory.

However, everyone is quite in agreement who the losers were. The Native peoples in North America suffered heavy losses, lost land, influence, and any chance of an autonomous state. In both countries Natives either lost their land to settlers or were forcibly removed.

If the bicentennial accurately represents the history and shines some new attention on the myths about this war, it might be worth it. If not, and it just reinforces misconceptions, then it’s a waste of money and intellectually dishonest.

One of the lasting consequences was the creation of the Canadian militia myth, which as I’ve explained has the context of making Canadians think the militia defeated the American armies and not the British, but it also had an effect of convincing Canadians at the time and for many years after that Canada did not need a standing army.

The notion being that Canada could rely on patriotism to rally its citizens to take up arms and didn’t need to invest in any real defence forces. In reality this was a clear misunderstanding of Canadian military history. The majority of volunteers in the militia in 1812 weren’t very pleased to be fighting. The majority of Upper Canadians tried many tactics to be excused from military service.

However the notion of a willing and waiting population persisted, arguably, until after the First World War.

One of the common conceptions about the War of 1812 is that it fostered a new national identity and patriotism in Canada. Indeed, this is part of goal of the bicentennial. But did the war really have that effect?

In reality war was a freighting concept to most Canadians, few wanted anything to do with it. Because of the already existing divides in race, background, religion, distance and culture, there wasn’t much unity within the colonies at all. And during the war, these differences only intensified. There was frequent disagreement between the British soldiers and the militia, who resented each other. There was wide spread pillaging and significant tension between the white settlers and Indian fighters.

After the war, the long term economic results bread a lot of contempt and there was the frequent issue of back pay for the militia. Other disputes like war loses, pensions, land grants for veterans, American immigration, caused significant problems for the post war period.

One myth was that the new shared national identity was what led to the union of Upper and Lower Canada, in reality it was the economic bankruptcy which led to the union.

Now that I’ve sufficiently rained on that parade, I can say that I fully endorse celebrations that focus on history and encourage people to learn more about the history of the world.




The Incredible War of 1812: A Military History by Donald E. Graves

Soldiers of the King: The Upper Canadian Militia 1812 to 1815 by William Gray

Plunder, Profit, and Paroles: A social history of the war of 1812 in Upper Canada by George Sheppard



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