200th anniversary of War of 1812 hits full stride in June

The uniform of General Isaac Brock. Brock was knighted for leading his Upper Canada troops to victory in the Battle of Detroit. He was shot and killed in this uniform at the Battle of Queenston Heights, another British victory. The uniform is on display at the Canadian War Museum. Photo: Library Playgound via Flickr.

To begin with a digression: the Jan-Feb 2012 issue of Canadian Geographic had what I thought was a fine article on a recent re-enactment of the Battle of Crysler’s Farm. Apparently, vendors at that event sold bumper stickers “War of 1812: been there, won that” – in Canadian and US versions. The actual battlefield was inundated in 1958, prior to the opening of the Seaway the following year. A substitute site exists nearby, adjacent to Upper Canada Village in Morrisburg, Ontario.

Interpretation, commemoration and flat-out marketing of war is nothing new. This frequently generates strong objections from those who despise the glorification of martial activity – like my activist mother. (I hear you, Mom. But for me, it’s not really about war, it’s the larger and fascinating topic of history!)

Philosophical attitudes aside, it’s a fact that 200 years ago in June a young and beleaguered United States declared war on Great Britain – and Canada (by extension).

While the question of “who won?” remains subject to interpretation, In Box readers live in the thick of where much of that war was contested.

Indeed, it’s almost certain Canada would have a different capital if not for that war. (Ottawa only became a contender thanks to the Rideau Canal. The canal was only built to remedy the vulnerability of sharing the St. Lawrence with the belligerent U.S.A.) It’s entirely possible Canada would have been swallowed up by the U.S. had things turned out differently. The outcome at modest little Crysler’s farm was crucial, according to reenactor Matt Liness, quoted in the Canadian Geographic article:

“The whole mindset of being a Canadian really starts here, because this is where we push back the guys from the States. At the time, this was Stalingrad, because there was nothing between here and Montréal.”

Or, in another good quip with yet another reenactor:

“Who won the War of 1812?” …

“Canada did. We’re still here, and we’ve got health care.”

The Canadian government has an official story line on the war, and it pretty much says it’s the event that gave birth to Canada as we know it, to wit “the fight for Canada”.

I knew this anniversary was coming. I had good intentions of studying for it, reading a few scholarly books and generally smartening up. Well, somehow it’s already here and I do not feel fully prepared! It’s not too late, though. A good way to remedy general ignorance, or commemorate an event of deep regional significance, would be to take in current events and displays.

Starting June 13th (and running through January) the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa opens its main display on that conflict: 1812: One War, Four Perspectives.

Why four? Because the players break down as follows: Britain, British North America (which became the Dominion of Canada in 1867), the United States of America and the Native peoples of the region.

Writing about the exhibit in the Ottawa Citizen, reporter Michelle Zilio put it this way, while interviewing pre-Confederation historian Peter MacLeod, curator for this event:

After the U.S. declared war on Britain in June 1812, the conflict developed into one of the most inconclusive historic events in modern history. For the Canadians, the war was about defending against an American invasion.

For the Americans, however, the focus was on defeating the British Empire. For the British, it’s a commonly forgotten conflict, overshadowed by the Napoleonic Wars raging at the same time in Europe. Finally, for the Native Americans, whose participation in the war is often forgotten, it was a fight to maintain territory as chaos wreaked havoc across their lands.

But who won? That’s something even MacLeod cannot answer.

“For Canadians, it’s obvious. We’re in the Canadian War Museum, there’s a Canadian flag outside, so obviously we won,” MacLeod says. “Except the Americans claim they won, too. … They see it as a war across the Atlantic world against the British Empire.”

Writing about the same exhibit in Maclean’s Magazine, the most-forgotten perspective is explored:

For Native Americans, it was an existential fight. “Here is a chance presented to us,” the Shawnee leader Tecumseh said, “a chance such as will never occur again, for us Indians of North America to form ourselves into a great combination and cast our lot with the British in this war.”

Tecumseh’s coalition of Native American tribes believed that by aligning themselves with the British, they might stop American expansionism. “This is the last war where they have a serious chance to roll back the American frontier,” says MacLeod. “And it’s the last war where they have a European ally on their side. After this they’re facing the United States on their own, and the Americans basically roll straight to the Pacific.”

How do you think this war should be viewed or remembered?

What’s happening to commemorate this anniversary in your area?

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12 Comments on “200th anniversary of War of 1812 hits full stride in June”

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  1. Anita says:

    I enjoyed this post, Lucy. I am very underinformed at the beginning of this anniversary, so thank you for a quick introduction to the issues that were involved in the conflict, and how the outcome of the war shaped future events.

    Russell, NY was the site of an important arsenal during the War of 1812, and a group of volunteers are putting together a Russell Arsenal Heritage Weekend September 21-23, 2012. There will be an encampment by Forsyth’s Rifles, historical displays, Dinner with the Troops, an 1812 Fashion Show, and Breakfast with the Civilians.

  2. Lucy Martin says:

    The Russell event sounds fun, thanks for sharing that Anita!

    For those who are interested, click here for a good website that details a whole host of 1812-themed events & activities along the St Lawrence River corridor.

    June 18th (the date war was officially declared by the U.S.) will be marked with a number of events on the Ontario shore, as described here.

  3. Paul says:

    I was at Ft. McHenry in Baltimore this past winter and they have some great things planned to commemorate the occasion. In the museum there they have a presentation where they tell the story of the Battle for Baltimore and then describe the inspiration for writing of the star spangled banner. And then as the presentation ends the big screen rises and behind it is a huge window that looks out over a HUGE American flag flying over the fort. If you can get down there it is very fun experience. If there is too much wind they have to use the less huge flag that is still pretty big. I am talking BIG FLAG here….

  4. Peter Hahn says:

    Seems to me, the public schools here in the US (California at least) teach the war of 1812 as a war we (the USA) didn’t lose. The implication is that we did if fact lose. Maybe we’d have health care if we won.

  5. Newt says:

    Canada won because, as Lucy cited, it continued to exist as a separate nation, instead of being absorbed into the U.S.
    The U.S. had several war goals, the major one, end impressment of American seamen into the Royal Navy, was achieved before the war began (that should have told somebody something about the wisdom of the war).
    A second goal, annexing Canada, was, per above.
    A third goal was the destruction and eventual removal of Ohio Valley Indian tribes to open the region for American settlement, was a big success.

    A some unanticipated consequences for the U.S were the development of an effective professional army as a reaction to othe dozens of military defeats, routs, and humiliations our militia armies received at the hands of the mostly-outnumbered Brits and Canadians.
    -A growth in national unity (for a while) resulting from the few victories we did gain.
    -Posssibly most important, the takefoff of American industrial growth, resulting the necessity of developing our ownindustries in when the British blockade shut off imports of manufactured goods from there and from Europe.

  6. Newt says:

    Lucy, that’s two reasons you’ve given my spouse and I to visit Ottawa soon, Van Gogh and this. (well, the 1812 Exhibit at the War Museum not so much for her, but she’ll figure out something to do while I go.).

    I visited the War Museum last a couple of years ago (first time since it moved, great enlarged) and it is really great if you like that sort of (military/war-related history) thing. I was surprised because there is lots and lots and lots and lots about Canada in the two World Wars, but only a small area covering Canada’s very “existential” role in the War of 1812. Even more so when you think that Canada’s history is very meager, war-wise, compared to ours. Your equivalent to the Civil War lasted about twelve minutes (Battle of the Windmill or something), and resulted in more people hanged and deported to Australia than KIA, as I recall. And no cool Indian wars at all, at least after U.S. Independence. Sarah Vowell, in one of her books, pointed out that when the government of Canada started having trouble with the natives, they would send a couple Mounties, not the 7th Cavalry, to restore peace between the settlers and the aboriginals, often with reasonable justice for all. What a strange, wonderful, peaceful-but -not-to-be-messed-with country!

  7. oa says:

    Battle of Plattsburgh celebrations, every Sept. 11. The decisive battle of the war, despite what those Baltimoreans and New Orleanians say.

  8. Pete Klein says:

    Thank God for Jean Lafitte, Davy Crockett and Andrew Jackson, and the Battle of New Orleans.
    The dumb Brits need to be told twice to stay the hell out of the USA.

  9. Lucy Martin says:

    Not that winning or losing are the only important aspects of that conflict, but in my view the “winners” in the whole muddle (if any) were Canada AND the U.S.

    As Pete says, the U.S. proved it could stand up to a world power and not be cowed.

    As others have said, Canadians stood up to the U.S. and said “go home and stay there!” They may have done so as loyal British subjects, but a sense of territorial integrity as Canada – its own place on this side of the Atlantic – was hugely advanced. That war did make modern Canada possible. But I think that can only be said in hindsight. (It was not on people’s minds as a war aim back then.)

    A minor quibble: saying it’s obvious that Canada won because the Canadian flag is flying outside the Canadian War Museum ignores the fact that countries like Germany and Japan absolutely lost WW II – yet they still exist, still fly their flags and have their own museums telling their side of history. (Sometimes I don’t think the U.S. gets enough credit for being somewhat magnanimous when it could have callrd the shots anyway it wanted.)

    But those are different situations.

    Back to the War of 1812. The familiar term “manifest destiny” emerged later on, around the Mexican-American War in the 1840’s. But clearly the U.S. has a long history of factions eager to absorb as much as possible of North America. (Just ask the War of 1812’s real losers, the native tribes.)

    I don’t think the Brits feel like they lost either, since job one was to defeat Napoleon. (Which they did.) What’s a few skirmishes with the pesky U.S. – compared to the bigger picture for them, hey?

  10. Pete Klein says:

    I totally agree, Nancy, and France hasn’t had a decent leader since Napoleon.

  11. Anita Prather Harvell says:

    Great comments Lucy – totally agree.

    Sackets Harbor, one of the key locations in the War of 1812 is hosting quite a few events.

    Our annual War of 1812 weekend is August 3rd – August 5th.


    We kick off our bicentennial events this Saturday at the Sackets Battlefield State Historical site.


  12. Lucy Martin says:

    That’s a nice website (Sackets Harbor Battlefield Alliance).

    Pursing the articles there, Dr. Gary M. Gibson enlightened me about an early rapid fire weapon known as “swivels”.

    “Each swivel had seven barrels, looking not unlike a Civil War Gatling gun. Each barrel was loaded with 25 bullets and powder charges.”

    The article goes on to say they weren’t used/proven in battle at that time. Still, I had no idea anything like that had been developed so early.

    Again, not trying to glorify war or the technology of destruction! I just enjoy learning about what got invented when. Or maybe I am simply procrastinating…I need to mow the lawn this afternoon!
    (It should be cool enough to go do that now.)

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