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Forged in war

Invasion Repulsed, 1812

In June 1812 the United States declared war on Great Britain and promptly invaded Upper Canada. The root of this war lay as much in the American-Indian conflict along the northwestern frontier as in American-British maritime rivalry in the previous decade. After three years of fighting British, Canadian, and Indian forces, the United States had lost territory along its east coast, in the west, and on the Pacific coast. Even the few American military and naval successes could not begin to outweigh the economic stranglehold of the British blockade. The weight of British sea power determined the outcome of the war, with the United States unable to achieve its war aims. Negotiations begun by President James Madison in 1812 ultimately concluded in 1814 with the restoration of the pre-war situation. In surviving the military might of the United States Canadians discovered the essentials of nationhood.

Lacking a navy, American strategy was based on a quick land war to be concluded before British reinforcements could cross the Atlantic. The Americans also expected that Canadians would not fight. The British, exhausted by their wars with Napoleon, relied entirely on defensive measures and a naval blockade. In order of priority the American objectives were Québec, Montréal, Kingston, and Niagara. Québec had never been taken without naval support, but Montréal was vulnerable through the well-trodden Champlain corridor. The Americans, lacking effective military leadership and hampered by reluctant New Englanders, failed to take Montréal, and simply wasted their strength in uncoordinated thrusts on the Canadian perimeter.

Military logistics determined victory or defeat as much as army manoeuvres and individual bravery. The Americans retained the advantage of internal (protected) transport and communications versus the long trans-Atlantic crossing for the British. British soldiers, supplies, and equipment, necessarily funnelled up the St Lawrence, were vulnerable to attack, especially between Montréal and Kingston. Throughout the war troops, munitions, and provisions were transported by water routes. In rainy or thaw periods roads became quagmires; winter travel over icy surfaces was easier. Meagre agricultural output in Canada made the United States the most important source of food, fodder, and military stores for the British. Three major smuggling routes were used: across the St Lawrence at Prescott, the back trails of the Champlain corridor, and by sea to Nova Scotia from New England.

The British blockade, loosely enforced in the north until Feb 1813, left New England open to ‘licensed’ neutral commerce. By 1814 the blockade was extended from Narragansett Bay to Spanish Florida. Meanwhile, the United States dotted the seas with privateers, its only effective response to the blockade. The eighteen naval sea-fights were single-ship actions of little consequence to the outcome of the war, but they did dispose the British towards a more liberal peace.


This piece exhibits a series of illustrations of the Battle of Queenston from 1812 to 1814. Each detailed image includes a corresponding descriptive caption.


On the next page:

World War I, 1914-1918

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Quiz :

When did Upper and Lower Canada become the Province of Canada?