Damn Yankees are trying to steal our victory in 1812

As plans are made to commemorate the War of 1812, the U.S. tries to re-write the ending

Damn Yankees

Fanshawe Pioneer Village, London, Ont. (Colin O'Connor/Maclean's)

Meet Col. Joel Stone, Canada’s newest hero of the War of 1812.

Born in Connecticut in 1749, Stone moved to Upper Canada during the tumult of the American Revolution and settled at Gananoque, in eastern Ontario along the St. Lawrence River, where he opened a sawmill and got himself appointed to a variety of government posts, including commander of the local militia. But his quiet life as a gentleman settler ended when the United States declared war in June 1812. Suddenly Col. Stone and his small community found themselves in the midst of the fight for Canada.

The St. Lawrence was the British army’s sole supply route to Upper Canada and the Great Lakes. If the American military cut river access, the whole province, from Kingston to what is now Windsor, would inevitably fall to the invaders. If Canada was to exist as an independent country, Col. Stone and the Gananoque militia had to keep their part of this vital supply route open.

A challenge wasn’t long in coming. On Sept. 21, 1812, in one of the first engagements of the war, a raiding party led by Capt. Benjamin Forsyth, and comprising 100 skilled riflemen from North Carolina and Virginia, attacked Gananoque in a night raid. Their aim: create havoc, control the river and starve the British army.

“Colonel Joel Stone, commanding the Gananoque militia, successfully defended Gananoque during the first raid into Canada by American troops from Sackets Harbor during the War of 1812,” reads a recent release from the federal government, recollecting the efforts of Col. Stone and his men that night long ago. To commemorate this important but little-known battle, Ottawa is paying half of the $600,000 cost to build the Joel Stone Heritage Park—a tribute to “the founder of Gananoque and a local hero of the War of 1812.”

With the bicentennial of the war fast approaching, Canadians can expect to hear a lot more about Col. Stone and many other familiar and unfamiliar names from the conflict. It’s often said that Canada suffers from an excess of geography and a deficit of history, and so the anniversary is a rare and welcome opportunity for the entire country to celebrate a time of daunting heroes, dangerous invaders, grave perils and miraculous triumphs. Over the next three years, Ottawa is undertaking a massive campaign to remind everyone of the drama and importance of these 200-year-old stories. Expect plenty of period-dress re-enactments, well-publicized investments in existing historical sites, a new national war memorial at Parliament Hill and plenty of money for smaller local commemorations, like Col. Stone’s park.

The defence of Canada between 1812 and 1814 should be seen as a foundational moment for modern Canada. What was a disparate group of recent immigrants spread across a broad and lonely frontier became, once the war was over, a burgeoning nation with a distinct Canadian identity. The War of 1812 is as significant to the birth of Canada as Confederation. And considerably more action-packed.

Yet if war is the continuance of politics by other means, the War of 1812 may well prove the opposite is true as well. Canada is not the only former combatant gearing up for the bicentennial. Our former adversaries, those rebellious and aggressive Americans, are planning their own commemorations, and with a different take on the war. They think they won.

If Canada intends to claim victory in the War of 1812 we’re going to have to fight for it. All over again.

Often called the “forgotten war” by historians, the War of 1812 has, until now, occupied a rather small corner of the Canadian collective consciousness. Sir Isaac Brock and Laura Secord are well-known names, but largely because they’ve been appropriated for other purposes—a university and candy company. Keen history buffs may recall a few notable addresses, such as Queenston Heights, Crysler’s Farm or Lundy’s Lane, but these glimmers of recognition typically pale in comparison to the mighty nation-building narratives built around Confederation, the construction of the CPR or Vimy Ridge.

By the time James Moore, the federal heritage minister, is finished, however, he expects all Canadians to understand the war’s importance. “Canadian identity was largely shaped by the War of 1812,” says Moore. “It was a fight for Canada and the beginning of our independence.”

Unusual for an historical event, the War of 1812 found itself a key plank in the federal Conservatives’ recent election platform, which promised a new national memorial in Ottawa, proper interment for soldiers’ remains from the battle of Stoney Creek, belated recognition of many Canadian militia units from the war and “hundreds of events and re-enactments across the country.” Later this month, Moore will unveil a new federal secretariat to oversee an $11.5-million War of 1812 commemoration fund.

“This war leads directly to Confederation in 1867,” Moore explains, ascribing the most basic characteristics of Canada—a constitutional monarchy, the preservation of a French-speaking Quebec, an accommodating native policy and our healthy economic and political relationship with the Americans—to the successful defence of Canada’s borders. “We were invaded and we repulsed that invasion. Because of the War of 1812 we grew up to be uniquely Canadian.”

Putting the heroes and storylines of the War of 1812 up on a national stage scratches a great many Conservative itches as well. It plays up the resurrected importance of the military in everyday Canadian life, emphasizes our ties to the British Crown and, according to Moore, strikes a blow against efforts of previous Liberal governments to define Canada as a series of modern Liberal accomplishments such as medicare and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. “There is this leftist mythology that Canadian history began with the election of Pierre Trudeau and was solidified in 1982 with the signing of the Charter,” he gripes. “That’s utterly irresponsible. There is a Canadian identity that goes back much farther and we should be very proud of it.”

The War of 1812 had its origins in a maritime conflict between America and Britain. The British practice of intercepting American shipping to enforce a blockade against Napoleon Bonaparte’s Europe irked American pride and pushed Congress to declare war in June 1812. Britain was keen to avoid such a war, however, and immediately offered to rescind the practice. No matter, U.S. president James Madison authorized multiple invasions of Canada as the means to punish Britain. The main battle zone was to be Ontario, then called Upper Canada.

At the time war was declared, a majority of the 75,000 inhabitants in Upper Canada were recent American immigrants, lured across the border by cheap land and low taxes. Expecting to be greeted as compatriots and liberators, most Americans figured the conquest of Canada would be, to use former president Thomas Jefferson’s memorable phrase, “a mere matter of marching.”

Getting in the way of this walking holiday was the charismatic and energetic Gen. Brock. Facing invasion by a nation of 7.5 million, Brock had just 1,200 British troops and whatever help he could muster from natives and Canadian settlers to defend Upper Canada.

Despite these odds, Brock pulled off three stunning victories within the first few months of the war. He ordered the capture of the U.S. army outpost Fort Mackinac, at the strategic junction of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, before that garrison even knew war had been declared. Then he stunned the continent by bluffing a nervous U.S. Gen. William Hull into surrendering his entire army at Detroit without firing a shot. Two months later he died on the battlefield at Queenston Heights, near Niagara Falls, in the process of repelling another American force. Brock’s boldness embarrassed the Americans, encouraged Britain’s native allies to join the fight and rallied the population to the Union Jack.

The final two years of war proved much less invigorating, perhaps because Brock was no longer around. Each side traded victories and defeats in what became an increasingly bitter struggle. American forces burned Toronto, then called York, as well as Niagara-on-the-Lake. The British torched Buffalo, N.Y., and Washington, pillaged the width and breadth of Chesapeake Bay, and blockaded most of the eastern seaboard.

Significantly, though, every attempted incursion into Canada along the crucial St. Lawrence valley was turned aside, as much due to incompetent U.S. leadership and indifferent troops as to Canadian military prowess. Still, in 1813 a small force of Canadian-born soldiers under the command of Quebecer Charles de Salaberry defeated a far larger American army at Châteauguay, Que. This has become a signature moment in Canadian military mythology; Moore describes it as his favourite moment of the war.

By 1814, both sides were eager for peace. And yet the Treaty of Ghent, crafted on Christmas Eve 1814, was a curious agreement. All borders were left as they were prior to the war. And the original reason for the conflict, maritime law, wasn’t mentioned. It was as if the war never happened. To underline the oddity of it all, the biggest and bloodiest battle of the war, the Battle of New Orleans, occurred after the peace treaty had been signed.

This absence of a conclusive end to the war had its advantages for Canada. If Britain had kept northern Maine or the other bits of American territory it had captured by 1814, festering American resentment could have easily led to another war. Alternatively, if the War of 1812 had never happened, it’s possible Canada might have been overrun by American settlers in the same manner the U.S. grabbed California from Mexico. As it was, the war solidified the existing border, Canadians began to think of themselves as different from their neighbours, and the two countries learned to get along. “Only once the war was over did the settlers really start to consider themselves as Canadian,” remarks Alan Taylor, author of the recent political history of the conflict The Civil War of 1812.

This lack of a declared winner, however, has allowed the former combatants considerable licence in interpreting the war however they wish. History has always been subject to lively revision and prejudice, but the War of 1812 seems extraordinary in its diversity of interpretations.

Canadians, with the assistance of Ottawa, quite rightly tell themselves a story of how a few plucky British and Canadian soldiers fought off a massive American invasion and created for themselves a nation. It’s David versus Goliath in the woods of Ontario and Quebec.

That’s not a story likely to stir much interest south of the border. As aggressors who failed repeatedly in their attempts to conquer Canada, the war has always presented a dilemma for practised American mythmakers. “The land war has never played well in the U.S.,” observes Taylor. “So it has been shunted to the side and ignored. For Americans, the ‘real war’ was fought on the high seas.”

In declaring war on Britain, the U.S. put its six frigates up against the mighty 1,000-ship Royal Navy. And in the first few months of the war, this handful of ships scored several surprising one-on-one victories over British frigates. While these victories mattered little from a strategic point of view, they provided a competing David versus Goliath tale that has since allowed the U.S. to remember the entire conflict as a victory.

Stephen Budiansky is the author of last year’s Perilous Fight: America’s Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 1812-1815, and typical of a long line of American writers who have picked up on this naval underdog narrative. The U.S. navy was the “unambiguous victor of the war,” Budiansky writes. He further claims the Americans achieved everything they wanted in the war, evidence of the peace treaty be damned. “We stood up to the mightiest sea power on earth. And after it was over, the British never again tried to mess with American ships,” he says in an interview. He then makes a rather bizarre analogy between the Vietnam War and the War of 1812, in which the Americans play the role of the Viet Cong. Whatever it takes to create a winner.

Of course, as Taylor notes, turning the War of 1812 into an American victory at sea requires ignoring everything that happened along the Canadian border. The origins of this national amnesia can be traced back to Theodore Roosevelt. Before he became president in 1901, Roosevelt wrote a celebrated history of the war that focused exclusively on those few American naval victories. Discussing the legendary Canadian defence at Châteauguay, for example, Roosevelt sniffed that “This affair . . . has been, absurdly enough, designated a ‘battle’ by most British and Canadian historians.” Rather, he explained, it barely rated a “small skirmish.” Defeat at Châteauguay? Never happened!

“The Americans have been getting away with this nonsense for two centuries,” grouses Canadian historian Donald Graves, one of Canada’s most prolific writers on the War of 1812. “In their version of the war, the fact that they got defeated doesn’t even rate a mention.”

This imperative to turn the War of 1812 into a victory for American audiences has carried through to upcoming bicentennial commemorations as well. Maryland has seized on the War of 1812 as a way to sell itself to tourists as the birthplace of the national anthem. Shortly after burning Washington, a British force attempted to take Baltimore, too. But after bombarding a nearby fort with a spectacular, but entirely ineffective, rocket attack, the British gave up. It was during this attack that poet Francis Scott Key wrote the words to the Star-Spangled Banner. A new Maryland promotional video claims this is the moment that “helps America win the war.”

That claim proves something of an awkward moment for Bill Pencek, executive director of the Maryland War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission. “Did the U.S. really win the war? Not really,” he admits when pressed. “It was more of a draw.” Nonetheless, money must be raised and tourists attracted. And no one wants to celebrate a loser.

The same goes at New Orleans, where the 1815 battle is remembered today by the U.S. National Parks Service as proof of “American democracy triumphing over the old European ideas of aristocracy and entitlement.”

And as might be expected, the U.S. Navy is also planning a big splash with the War of 1812, on par with its efforts in 1976 recognizing the American bicentennial. “Two hundred years ago we fought for free trade and sailors’ rights,” says Capt. Patrick Burns, director of the Office of Navy Commemorations. “And we are still doing that today.” Capt. Burns emphasizes that both the Canadian and British navies are getting friendly invitations to attend the American ceremonies, although he adds with obvious enthusiasm: “That a six-frigate navy could take on the world’s largest superpower at the time is just amazing.”

Donald Hickey of Wayne State College in Nebraska is one of the few American historians to call the war a loss for the U.S. Nonetheless, he considers the conflict to be an opiate of history. “Everybody’s happy with the outcome of the War of 1812,” Hickey notes wryly. “Americans are happy because they think they won. Canadians are happier because they know they won. And the British are happiest of all because they’ve forgotten all about it.”

In fact, British historians have recently risen to defend their national honour. In How Britain Won the War of 1812, author Brian Arthur argues that the British naval blockade strangled the American economy (no pennies were minted in 1815 because the country had ran out of copper) and forced Washington to sue for peace. “Britain won the war because the Americans simply ran out of money,” he says. Of course this version also ignores the Canadian land war.

Against these entrenched positions, Canada does have one advantage. Of the three former combatant nations, only Canada’s federal government is investing heavily to commemorate the war. Maryland is rare among states in giving it major play. Many historic sites in the former battle zones of New York and Michigan are facing budget cuts and layoffs due to financial stresses. And despite the efforts of the U.S. Navy, there is no U.S. federal office to recognize the war as there is in Canada. This gives us a rare opportunity to finally out-point our neighbours on North American history. “You already won the war once,” quips Hickey. “Now you get to win it all over again.”

Not that the Canadian government intends to rub it in. While promising to “make the most of this moment in Canadian history,” Heritage Minister Moore promises to avoid gloating for fear of antagonizing our sensitive southern neighbours. “This is not a competition,” he says of the upcoming commemorations. “One of the great outcomes of the war is the very healthy relationship we’ve had with the U.S. ever since it ended.” Indeed, every press release from Ottawa regarding the War of 1812 includes at least one boilerplate reference “celebrating two centuries of peaceful coexistence with the United States.”

Then again, if the Americans insist on imaginatively claiming they won the war, Canadians aren’t above a little creative mythologizing of our own. Consider once more Col. Stone, recently honoured with a park by the federal government for “successfully defending” Gananoque from attack early in the war. The fact is, that’s not exactly what happened on Sept. 21, 1812.

When American invaders waded ashore that night, Col. Stone was nowhere to be found. His leaderless militia fired one volley at the American raiders and then scampered into the woods, after which Capt. Forsyth’s men set fire to the government storehouse, shot up Col. Stone’s house (wounding Mrs. Stone, who was at home) and absconded with all the loot they could carry—30 barrels of flour, 12 prisoners, 41 muskets and a large supply of Stone’s personal belongings. “They plundered the place pretty thoroughly,” notes historian Taylor.

For the rest of the war, however, Col. Stone and his militia did keep the vital St. Lawrence supply route open for the most part. If his decidedly unsuccessful defence of Gananoque on Sept. 21, 1812 is remembered today by Ottawa as a triumph worth celebrating, it must be because history is written by the victors.

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