American President James Madison signed a declaration of war against Great Britain on June 18, 1812. What would later become known as the War of 1812 was the boiling point of mounting tensions between Great Britain and the United States, whose growing trade with Europe was being threatened by the actions and regulations of the British at their ports.
In retrospect, some historians would say the War of 1812 was unlikely and unnecessary. Great Britain and the United States had more reasons to be allies than to be enemies. A cross-Atlantic war could never be more than an annoying side battle to the British, who had been locked in a life-and-death struggle with Napoleon for almost 20 years. Nevertheless, once hostilities began with Madison’s declaration of war, the British were not inclined to let the upstart Americans take what remained of their North American empire. Canada was an important source of timber for the Royal Navy and the largest outpost of the British Empire. Nor were the British prepared to moderate their arrogant attitude at sea, which so aggravated the Americans.
The War of 1812 has been called “The Incredible War,” “The Forgotten War,” “A Truly Pointless War,” “The Second War of American Independence” and “The War That Both Sides Won (or Lost).” Slowly through the 19th century, this war became commonly referred to for its year of commencement, even though it lasted into 1815.
While the war was a matter of pride and ambition for the Americans and just a peripheral event for the British, it was of critical importance to Canadians. It was nothing less than a question of whether or not Canada would remain part of the British Empire or would be annexed to the United States, since the war was destined to be waged on Canadian soil. For the First Nations, the war posed some desperate choices. American expansionism was inexorably stripping them of their land, but they had been let down before by siding with the British. Iroquois leader John Norton expressed it well when he said, “The British neglect us except when they need us.” In Shawnee Chief Tecumseh, the First Nations produced the noblest character in the war, who was, in the end, a tragic figure.
The War of 1812 was fought on a smaller scale than the great Napoleonic battles of the day, but it was, nevertheless, fought in earnest and to the death, when necessary. Its battlefields ranged from northern Michigan to Niagara, York (Toronto), Lake Champlain, Maine, the Canary Islands, New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and even the Indian Ocean. In a military sense, it was inconclusive, but in a political sense, its repercussions last until this day.