CHRONICLES OF CANADA Edited by George M. Wrong and H. H. Langton In thirty-two volumes
THE WAR WITH THE UNITED STATES A Chronicle of 1812
By WILLIAM WOOD TORONTO, 1915
I. OPPOSING CLAIMS II. OPPOSING FORCES III. 1812: OFF TO THE FRONT IV. 1812: BROCK AT DETROIT AND QUEENSTON HEIGHTS V. 1813: THE BEAVER DAMS, LAKE ERIE, AND CHATEAUGUAY VI. 1814: LUNDY'S LANE, PLATTSBURG, AND THE GREAT BLOCKADE BIBLIOGRAPHICAL NOTE
International disputes that end in war are not generally questions of absolute right and wrong. They may quite as well be questions of opposing rights. But, when there are rights on both sides; it is usually found that the side which takes the initiative is moved by its national desires as well as by its claims of right.
This could hardly be better exemplified than by the vexed questions which brought about the War of 1812. The British were fighting for life and liberty against Napoleon. Napoleon was fighting to master the whole of Europe. The United States wished to make as much as possible out of unrestricted trade with both belligerents. But Napoleon's Berlin Decree forbade all intercourse whatever with the British, while the British Orders-in-Council forbade all intercourse whatever with Napoleon and his allies, except on condition that the trade should first pass through British ports. Between two such desperate antagonists there was no safe place for an unarmed, independent, 'free-trading' neutral. Every one was forced to take sides. The British being overwhelmingly strong at sea, while the French were correspondingly strong on land, American shipping was bound to suffer more from the British than from the French. The French seized every American vessel that infringed the Berlin Decree whenever they could manage to do so. But the British seized so many more for infringing the Orders-in-Council that the Americans naturally began to take sides with the French.
Worse still, from the American point of view, was the British Right of Search, which meant the right of searching neutral merchant vessels either in British waters or on the high seas for deserters from the Royal Navy. Every other people whose navy could enforce it had always claimed a similar right. But other peoples' rights had never clashed with American interests in at all the same way. What really roused the American government was not the abstract Right of Search, but its enforcement at a time when so many hands aboard American vessels were British subjects evading service in their own Navy. The American theory was that the flag covered the crew wherever the ship might be. Such a theory might well have been made a question for friendly debate and settlement at any other time. But it was a new theory, advanced by a new nation, whose peculiar and most disturbing entrance on the international scene could not be suffered to upset the accepted state of things during the stress of a life-and-death war. Under existing circumstances the British could not possibly give up their long-established Right of Search without committing national suicide. Neither could they relax their own blockade so long as Napoleon maintained his. The Right of Search and the double blockade of Europe thus became two vexed questions which led straight to war.
But the American grievances about these two questions were not the only motives impelling the United States to take up arms. There were two deeply rooted national desires urging them on in the same direction. A good many Americans were ready to seize any chance of venting their anti-British feeling; and most Americans thought they would only be fulfilling their proper 'destiny' by wresting the whole of Canada from the British crown. These two national desires worked both ways for war—supporting the government case against the British Orders-in-Council and Right of Search on the one hand, while welcoming an alliance with Napoleon on the other. Americans were far from being unanimous; and the party in favour of peace was not slow to point out that Napoleon stood for tyranny, while the British stood for freedom. But the adherents of the war party reminded each other, as well as the British and the French, that Britain had wrested Canada from France, while France had helped to wrest the Thirteen Colonies from the British Empire.
As usual in all modern wars, there was much official verbiage about the national claims and only unofficial talk about the national desires. But, again as usual, the claims became the more insistent because of the desires, and the desires became the more patriotically respectable because of the claims of right. 'Free Trade and Sailors' Rights' was the popular catchword that best describes the two strong claims of the United States. 'Down with the British' and 'On to Canada' were the phrases that best reveal the two impelling national desires.
Both the claims and the desires seem quite simple in themselves. But, in their connection with American politics, international affairs, and opposing British claims, they are complex to the last degree. Their complexities, indeed, are so tortuous and so multitudinous that they baffle description within the limits of the present book. Yet, since nothing can be understood without some reference to its antecedents, we must take at least a bird's-eye view of the growing entanglement which finally resulted in the War of 1812.
The relations of the British Empire with the United States passed through four gradually darkening phases between 1783 and 1812—the phases of Accommodation, Unfriendliness, Hostility, and War. Accommodation lasted from the recognition of Independence till the end of the century. Unfriendliness then began with President Jefferson and the Democrats. Hostility followed in 1807, during Jefferson's second term, when Napoleon's Berlin Decree and the British. Orders-in-Council brought American foreign relations into the five-year crisis which ended with the three-year war.
William Pitt, for the British, and John Jay, the first chief justice of the United States, are the two principal figures in the Accommodation period. In 1783 Pitt, who, like his father, the great Earl of Chatham, was favourably disposed towards the Americans, introduced a temporary measure in the British House of Commons to regulate trade with what was now a foreign country 'on the most enlarged principles of reciprocal benefit' as well as 'on terms of most perfect amity with the United States of America.' This bill, which showed the influence of Adam Smith's principles on Pitt's receptive mind, favoured American more than any other foreign trade in the mother country, and favoured it to a still greater extent in the West Indies. Alone among foreigners the Americans were to be granted the privilege of trading between their own ports and the West Indies, in their own vessels and with their own goods, on exactly the same terms as the British themselves. The bill was rejected. But in 1794, when the French Revolution was running its course of wild excesses, and the British government was even less inclined to trust republics, Jay succeeded in negotiating a temporary treaty which improved the position of American sea-borne trade with the West Indies. His government urged him to get explicit statements of principle inserted, more especially anything that would make cargoes neutral when under neutral flags. This, however, was not possible, as Jay himself pointed out. 'That Britain,' he said, 'at this period, and involved in war, should not admit principles which would impeach the propriety of her conduct in seizing provisions bound to France, and enemy's property on board neutral vessels, does not appear to me extraordinary.' On the whole, Jay did very well to get any treaty through at such a time; and this mere fact shows that the general attitude of the mother country towards her independent children was far from being unfriendly.
Unfriendliness began with the new century, when Jefferson first came into power. He treated the British navigation laws as if they had been invented on purpose to wrong Americans, though they had been in force for a hundred and fifty years, and though they had been originally passed, at the zenith of Cromwell's career, by the only republican government that ever held sway in England. Jefferson said that British policy was so perverse, that when he wished to forecast the British line of action on any particular point he would first consider what it ought to be and then infer the opposite. His official opinion was written in the following words: 'It is not to the moderation or justice of others we are to trust for fair and equal access to market with our productions, or for our due share in the transportation of them; but to our own means of independence, and the firm will to use them.' On the subject of impressment, or 'Sailors' Rights,' he was clearer still: 'The simplest rule will be that the vessel being American shall be evidence that the seamen on board of her are such.' This would have prevented the impressment of British seamen, even in British harbours, if they were under the American merchant flag—a principle almost as preposterous, at that particular time, as Jefferson's suggestion that the whole Gulf Stream should be claimed 'as of our waters.'
If Jefferson had been backed by a united public, or if his actions had been suited to his words, war would have certainly broken out during his second presidential term, which lasted from 1805 to 1809. But he was a party man, with many political opponents, and without unquestioning support from all on his own side, and he cordially hated armies, navies, and even a mercantile marine. His idea of an American Utopia was a commonwealth with plenty of commerce, but no more shipping than could be helped:
I trust [he said] that the good sense of our country will see that its greatest prosperity depends on a due balance between agriculture, manufactures, and commerce; and not on this protuberant navigation, which has kept us in hot water since the commencement of our government... It is essentially necessary for us to have shipping and seamen enough to carry our surplus products to market, but beyond that I do not think we are bound to give it encouragement... This exuberant commerce brings us into collision with other Powers in every sea.
Notwithstanding such opinions, Jefferson stood firm on the question of 'Sailors' Rights.' He refused to approve a treaty that had been signed on the last day of 1806 by his four commissioners in London, chiefly because it provided no precise guarantee against impressment. The British ministers had offered, and had sincerely meant, to respect all American rights, to issue special instructions against molesting American citizens under any circumstances, and to redress every case of wrong. But, with a united nation behind them and an implacable enemy in front, they could not possibly give up the right to take British seamen from neutral vessels which were sailing the high seas. The Right of Search was the acknowledged law of nations all round the world; and surrender on this point meant death to the Empire they were bound to guard.
Their 'no surrender' on this vital point was, of course, anathema to Jefferson. Yet he would not go beyond verbal fulminations. In the following year, however, he was nearly forced to draw the sword by one of those incidents that will happen during strained relations. In June 1807 two French men-of-war were lying off Annapolis, a hundred miles up Chesapeake Bay. Far down the bay, in Hampton Roads, the American frigate Chesapeake was fitting out for sea. Twelve miles below her anchorage a small British squadron lay just within Cape Henry, waiting to follow the Frenchmen out beyond the three-mile limit. As Jefferson quite justly said, this squadron was 'enjoying the hospitality of the United States.' Presently the Chesapeake got under way; whereupon the British frigate Leopard made sail and cleared the land ahead of her. Ten miles out the Leopard hailed her, and sent an officer aboard to show the American commodore the orders from Admiral Berkeley at Halifax. These orders named certain British deserters as being among the Chesapeake's crew. The American commodore refused to allow a search; but submitted after a fight, during which he lost twenty-one men killed and wounded. Four men were then seized. One was hanged; another died; and the other two were subsequently returned with the apologies of the British government.
James Monroe, of Monroe Doctrine fame, was then American minister in London. Canning, the British foreign minister, who heard the news first, wrote an apology on the spot, and promised to make 'prompt and effectual reparation' if Berkeley had been wrong. Berkeley was wrong. The Right of Search did not include the right to search a foreign man-of-war, though, unlike the modern 'right of search,' which is confined to cargoes, it did include the right to search a neutral merchantman on the high seas for any 'national' who was 'wanted.' Canning, however, distinctly stated that the men's nationality would affect the consideration of restoring them or not. Monroe now had a good case. But he made the fatal mistake of writing officially to Canning before he knew the details, and, worse still, of diluting his argument with other complaints which had nothing to do with the affair itself. The result was a long and involved correspondence, a tardy and ungracious reparation, and much justifiable resentment on the American side.
Unfriendliness soon became Hostility after the Chesapeake affair had sharpened the sting of the Orders-in-Council, which had been issued at the beginning of the same year, 1807. These celebrated Orders simply meant that so long as Napoleon tried to blockade the British Isles by enforcing his Berlin Decree, just so long would the British Navy be employed in blockading him and his allies. Such decisive action, of course, brought neutral shipping more than ever under the power of the British Navy, which commanded all the seaways to the ports of Europe. It accentuated the differences between the American and British governments, and threw the shadow of the coming storm over the exposed colony of Canada.
Not having succeeded in his struggle for 'Sailors' Rights,' Jefferson now took up the cudgels for 'Free Trade'; but still without a resort to arms. His chosen means of warfare was an Embargo Act, forbidding the departure of vessels from United States ports. This, although nominally aimed against France as well, was designed to make Great Britain submit by cutting off both her and her colonies from all intercourse with the United States. But its actual effect was to hurt Americans, and even Jefferson's own party, far more than it hurt the British. The Yankee skipper already had two blockades against 'Free Trade.' The Embargo Act added a third. Of course it was evaded; and a good deal of shipping went from the United States and passed into Canadian ports under the Union Jack. Jefferson and his followers, however, persisted in taking their own way. So Canada gained from the embargo much of what the Americans were losing. Quebec and Halifax swarmed with contrabandists, who smuggled back return cargoes into the New England ports, which were Federalist in party allegiance, and only too ready to evade or defy the edicts of the Democratic administration. Jefferson had, it is true, the satisfaction of inflicting much temporary hardship on cotton-spinning Manchester. But the American cotton-growing South suffered even more.
The American claims of 'Free Trade and Sailors' Rights' were opposed by the British counter-claims of the Orders-in-Council and the Right of Search. But 'Down with the British' and 'On to Canada' were without exact equivalents on the other side. The British at home were a good deal irritated by so much unfriendliness and hostility behind them while they were engaged with Napoleon in front. Yet they could hardly be described as anti-American; and they certainly had no wish to fight, still less to conquer, the United States. Canada did contain an anti-American element in the United Empire Loyalists, whom the American Revolution had driven from their homes. But her general wish was to be left in peace. Failing that, she was prepared for defence.
Anti-British feeling probably animated at least two-thirds of the American people on every question that caused international friction; and the Jeffersonian Democrats, who were in power, were anti-British to a man. So strong was this feeling among them that they continued to side with France even when she was under the military despotism of Napoleon. He was the arch-enemy of England in Europe. They were the arch-enemy of England in America. This alone was enough to overcome their natural repugnance to his autocratic ways. Their position towards the British was such that they could not draw back from France, whose change of government had made her a more efficient anti-British friend. 'Let us unite with France and stand or fall together' was the cry the Democratic press repeated for years in different forms. It was strangely prophetic. Jefferson's Embargo Act of 1808 began its self-injurious career at the same time that the Peninsular War began to make the first injurious breach in Napoleon's Continental System. Madison's declaration of war in 1812 coincided with the opening of Napoleon's disastrous campaign in Russia.
The Federalists, the party in favour of peace with the British, included many of the men who had done most for Independence; and they were all, of course, above suspicion as patriotic Americans. But they were not unlike transatlantic, self-governing Englishmen. They had been alienated by the excesses of the French Revolution; and they could not condone the tyranny of Napoleon. They preferred American statesmen of the type of Washington and Hamilton to those of the type of Jefferson and Madison. And they were not inclined to be more anti-British than the occasion required. They were strongest in New England and New York. The Democrats were strongest throughout the South and in what was then the West. The Federalists had been in power during the Accommodation period. The Democrats began with Unfriendliness, continued with Hostility, and ended with War.
The Federalists did not hesitate to speak their mind. Their loss of power had sharpened their tongues; and they were often no more generous to the Democrats and to France than the Democrats were to them and to the British. But, on the whole, they made for goodwill on both sides; as well as for a better understanding of each other's rights and difficulties; and so they made for peace. The general current, however, was against them, even before the Chesapeake affair; and several additional incidents helped to quicken it afterwards. In 1808 the toast of the President of the United States was received with hisses at a great public dinner in London, given to the leaders of the Spanish revolt against Napoleon by British admirers. In 1811 the British sloop-of-war Little Belt was overhauled by the American frigate President fifty miles off-shore and forced to strike, after losing thirty-two men and being reduced to a mere battered hulk. The vessels came into range after dark; the British seem to have fired first; and the Americans had the further excuse that they were still smarting under the Chesapeake affair. Then, in 1812, an Irish adventurer called Henry, who had been doing some secret-service work in the United States at the instance of the Canadian governor-general, sold the duplicates of his correspondence to President Madison. These were of little real importance; but they added fuel to the Democratic fire in Congress just when anti-British feeling was at its worst.
The fourth cause of war, the desire to conquer Canada, was by far the oldest of all. It was older than Independence, older even than the British conquest of Canada. In 1689 Peter Schuyler, mayor of Albany, and the acknowledged leader of the frontier districts, had set forth his 'Glorious Enterprize' for the conquest and annexation of New France. Phips's American invasion next year, carried out in complete independence of the home government, had been an utter failure. So had the second American invasion, led by Montgomery and Arnold during the Revolutionary War, nearly a century later. But the Americans had not forgotten their long desire; and the prospect of another war at once revived their hopes. They honestly believed that Canada would be much better off as an integral part of the United States than as a British colony; and most of them believed that Canadians thought so too. The lesson of the invasion of the 'Fourteenth Colony' during the Revolution had not been learnt. The alacrity with which Canadians had stood to arms after the Chesapeake affair was little heeded. And both the nature and the strength of the union between the colony and the Empire were almost entirely misunderstood.
Henry Clay, one of the most warlike of the Democrats, said: 'It is absurd to suppose that we will not succeed in our enterprise against the enemy's Provinces. I am not for stopping at Quebec or anywhere else; but I would take the whole continent from them, and ask them no favours. I wish never to see peace till we do. God has given us the power and the means. We are to blame if we do not use them.' Eustis, the American Secretary of War, said: 'We can take Canada without soldiers. We have only to send officers into the Provinces, and the people, disaffected towards their own Government, will rally round our standard.' And Jefferson summed it all up by prophesying that 'the acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighbourhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching.' When the leaders talked like this, it was no wonder their followers thought that the long-cherished dream of a conquered Canada was at last about to come true.
An armed mob must be very big indeed before it has the slightest chance against a small but disciplined army.
So very obvious a statement might well be taken for granted in the history of any ordinary war. But '1812' was not an ordinary war. It was a sprawling and sporadic war; and it was waged over a vast territory by widely scattered and singularly heterogeneous forces on both sides. For this reason it is extremely difficult to view and understand as one connected whole. Partisan misrepresentation has never had a better chance. Americans have dwelt with justifiable pride on the frigate duels out at sea and the two flotilla battles on the Lakes. But they have usually forgotten that, though they won the naval battles, the British won the purely naval war. The mother-country British, on the other hand, have made too much of their one important victory at sea, have passed too lightly over the lessons of the other duels there, and have forgotten how long it took to sweep the Stars and Stripes away from the Atlantic. Canadians have, of course, devoted most attention to the British victories won in the frontier campaigns on land, which the other British have heeded too little and Americans have been only too anxious to forget. Finally, neither the Canadians, nor the mother-country British, nor yet the Americans, have often tried to take a comprehensive view of all the operations by land and sea together.
The character and numbers of the opposing forces have been even less considered and even more misunderstood. Militia victories have been freely claimed by both sides, in defiance of the fact that the regulars were the really decisive factor in every single victory won by either side, afloat or ashore. The popular notions about the numbers concerned are equally wrong. The totals were far greater than is generally known. Counting every man who ever appeared on either side, by land or sea, within the actual theatre of war, the united grand total reaches seven hundred thousand. This was most unevenly divided between the two opponents. The Americans had about 575,000, the British about 125,000. But such a striking difference in numbers was matched by an equally striking difference in discipline and training. The Americans had more than four times as many men. The British had more than four times as much discipline and training.
The forces on the American side were a small navy and a swarm of privateers, a small regular army, a few 'volunteers,' still fewer 'rangers,' and a vast conglomeration of raw militia. The British had a detachment from the greatest navy in the world, a very small 'Provincial Marine' on the Lakes and the St Lawrence, besides various little subsidiary services afloat, including privateers. Their army consisted of a very small but latterly much increased contingent of Imperial regulars, a few Canadian regulars, more Canadian militia, and a very few Indians. Let us pass all these forces in review.
The American Navy. During the Revolution the infant Navy had begun a career of brilliant promise; and Paul Jones had been a name to conjure with. British belittlement deprived him of his proper place in history; but he was really the founder of the regular Navy that fought so gallantly in '1812.' A tradition had been created and a service had been formed. Political opinion, however, discouraged proper growth. President Jefferson laid down the Democratic party's idea of naval policy in his first Inaugural. 'Beyond the small force which will probably be wanted for actual service in the Mediterranean, whatever annual sum you may think proper to appropriate to naval preparations would perhaps be better employed in providing those articles which may be kept without waste or consumption, and be in readiness when any exigence calls them into use. Progress has been made in providing materials for 74-gun ships.' [Footnote: A ship-of the-line, meaning a battleship or man-of war strong enough to take a position in the line of battle, was of a different minimum size at different periods. The tendency towards increase of size existed a century ago as well as to-day. 'Fourth-rates,' of 50 and 60 guns, dropped out of the line at the beginning of the Seven Years' War. In 1812 the 74-gun three-decker was the smallest man-of-war regularly used in the line of battle.] This 'progress' had been made in 1801. But in 1812, when Jefferson's disciple, Madison, formally declared war, not a single keel had been laid. Meanwhile, another idea of naval policy had been worked out into the ridiculous gunboat system. In 1807, during the crisis which followed the Berlin Decree, the Orders-in-Council, and the Chesapeake affair, Jefferson wrote to Thomas Paine: 'Believing, myself; that gunboats are the only water defence which can be useful to us, and protect us from the ruinous folly of a navy, I am pleased with everything which promises to improve them.' Whether 'improved' or not, these gunboats were found worse than useless as a substitute for 'the ruinous folly of a navy.' They failed egregiously to stop Jefferson's own countrymen from breaking his Embargo Act of 1808; and their weatherly qualities were so contemptible that they did not dare to lose sight of land without putting their guns in the hold. No wonder the practical men of the Navy called them 'Jeffs.'
When President Madison summoned Congress in 1811 war was the main topic of debate. Yet all he had to say about the Navy was contained in twenty-seven lukewarm words. Congress followed the presidential lead. The momentous naval vote of 1812 provided for an expenditure of six hundred thousand dollars, which was to be spread over three consecutive years and strictly limited to buying timber. Then, on the outbreak of war, the government, consistent to the last, decided to lay up the whole of their sea-going navy lest it should be captured by the British.
But this final indignity was more than the Navy could stand in silence. Some senior officers spoke their minds, and the party politicians gave way. The result was a series of victories which, of their own peculiar kind, have never been eclipsed. Not one American ship-of-the-line was ever afloat during the war; and only twenty-two frigates or smaller naval craft put out to sea. In addition, there were the three little flotillas on Lakes Erie, Ontario, and Champlain; and a few minor vessels elsewhere. All the crews together did not exceed ten thousand men, replacements included. Yet, even with these niggard means, the American Navy won the command of two lakes completely, held the command of the third in suspense, won every important duel out at sea, except the famous fight against the Shannon, inflicted serious loss on British sea-borne trade, and kept a greatly superior British naval force employed on constant and harassing duty.
The American Privateers. Besides the little Navy, there were 526 privately owned vessels which were officially authorized to prey on the enemy's trade. These were manned by forty thousand excellent seamen and had the chance of plundering the richest sea-borne commerce in the world. They certainly harassed British commerce, even in its own home waters; and during the course of the war they captured no less than 1344 prizes. But they did practically nothing towards reducing the British fighting force afloat; and even at their own work of commerce-destroying they did less than one-third as much as the Navy in proportion to their numbers.
The American Army. The Army had competed with the Navy for the lowest place in Jefferson's Inaugural of 1801. 'This is the only government where every man will meet invasions of the public order as his own personal concern... A well-disciplined militia is our best reliance for the first moments of war, till regulars may relieve them.' The Army was then reduced to three thousand men. 'Such were the results of Mr Jefferson's low estimate of, or rather contempt for, the military character,' said General Winfield Scott, the best officer the United States produced between '1812' and the Civil War. In 1808 'an additional military force' was authorized. In January 1812, after war had been virtually decided on, the establishment was raised to thirty-five thousand. But in June, when war had been declared, less than a quarter of this total could be called effectives, and more than half were still wanting to complete.' The grand total of all American regulars, including those present with the colours on the outbreak of hostilities as well as those raised during the war, amounted to fifty-six thousand. Yet no general had six thousand actually in the firing line of any one engagement.
The United States Volunteers. Ten thousand volunteers were raised, from first to last. They differed from the regulars in being enlisted for shorter terms of service and in being generally allowed to elect their own regimental officers. Theoretically they were furnished in fixed quotas by the different States, according to population. They resembled the regulars in other respects, especially in being directly under Federal, not State, authority.
The Rangers. Three thousand men with a real or supposed knowledge of backwoods life served in the war. They operated in groups and formed a very unequal force—good, bad, and indifferent. Some were under the Federal authority. Others belonged to the different States. As a distinct class they had no appreciable influence on the major results of the war.
The Militia. The vast bulk of the American forces, more than three-quarters of the grand total by land and sea, was made up of the militia belonging to the different States of the Union. These militiamen could not be moved outside of their respective States without State authority; and individual consent was also necessary to prolong a term of enlistment, even if the term should come to an end in the middle of a battle. Some enlisted for several months; others for no more than one. Very few had any military knowledge whatever; and most of the officers were no better trained than the men. The totals from all the different States amounted to 456,463. Not half of these ever got near the front; and not nearly half of those who did get there ever came into action at all. Except at New Orleans, where the conditions were quite abnormal, the militia never really helped to decide the issue of any battle, except, indeed, against their own army. 'The militia thereupon broke and fled' recurs with tiresome frequency in numberless dispatches. Yet the consequent charges of cowardice are nearly all unjust. The fellow-countrymen of those sailors who fought the American frigates so magnificently were no special kind of cowards. But, as a raw militia, they simply were to well-trained regulars what children are to men.
American Non-Combatant Services. There were more than fifty thousand deaths reported on the American side; yet not ten thousand men were killed or mortally wounded in all the battles put together. The medical department, like the commissariat and transport, was only organized at the very last minute, even among the regulars, and then in a most haphazard way. Among the militia these indispensable branches of the service were never really organized at all.
Such disastrous shortcomings were not caused by any lack of national resources. The population o the United States was about eight millions, as against eighteen millions in the British Isles. Prosperity was general; at all events, up to the time that it was checked by Jefferson's Embargo Act. The finances were also thought to be most satisfactory. On the very eve of war the Secretary of the Treasury reported that the national debt had been reduced by forty-six million dollars since his party had come into power. Had this 'war party' spent those millions on its Army and Navy, the war itself might have had an ending more satisfactory to the United States.
Let us now review the forces on the British side.
The eighteen million people in the British Isles were naturally anxious to avoid war with the eight millions in the United States. They had enough on their hands as it was. The British Navy was being kept at a greater strength than ever before; though it was none too strong for the vast amount of work it had to do. The British Army was waging its greatest Peninsular campaign. All the other naval and military services of what was already a world-wide empire had to be maintained. One of the most momentous crises in the world's history was fast approaching; for Napoleon, arch-enemy of England and mightiest of modern conquerors, was marching on Russia with five hundred thousand men. Nor was this all. There were troubles at home as well as dangers abroad. The king had gone mad the year before. The prime minister had recently been assassinated. The strain of nearly twenty years of war was telling severely on the nation. It was no time to take on a new enemy, eight millions strong, especially one who supplied so many staple products during peace and threatened both the sea flank of the mother country and the land flank of Canada during war.
Canada was then little more than a long, weak line of settlements on the northern frontier of the United States. Counting in the Maritime Provinces, the population hardly exceeded five hundred thousand—as many people, altogether, as there were soldiers in one of Napoleon's armies, or Americans enlisted for service in this very war. Nearly two-thirds of this half-million were French Canadians in Lower Canada, now the province of Quebec. They were loyal to the British cause, knowing they could not live a French-Canadian life except within the British Empire. The population of Upper Canada, now Ontario, was less than a hundred thousand. The Anglo-Canadians in it were of two kinds: British immigrants and United Empire Loyalists, with sons and grandsons of each. Both kinds were loyal. But the 'U.E.L.'s' were anti-American through and through, especially in regard to the war-and-Democratic party then in power. They could therefore be depended on to fight to the last against an enemy who, having driven them into exile once, was now coming to wrest their second New-World home from its allegiance to the British crown. They and their descendants in all parts of Canada numbered more than half the Anglo-Canadian population in 1812. The few thousand Indians near the scene of action naturally sided with the British, who treated them better and dispossessed them less than the Americans did. The only detrimental part of the population was the twenty-five thousand Americans, who simply used Canada as a good ground for exploitation, and who would have preferred to see it under the Stars and Stripes, provided that the change put no restriction on their business opportunities.
The British Navy. About thirty thousand men of the British Navy, only a fifth of the whole service, appeared within the American theatre of war from first to last. This oldest and greatest of all navies had recently emerged triumphant from an age-long struggle for the command of the sea. But, partly because of its very numbers and vast heritage of fame, it was suffering acutely from several forms of weakness. Almost twenty years of continuous war, with dull blockades during the last seven, was enough to make any service 'go stale.' Owing to the enormous losses recruiting had become exceedingly and increasingly difficult, even compulsory recruiting by press-gang. At the same time, Nelson's victories had filled the ordinary run of naval men with an over-weening confidence in their own invincibility; and this over-confidence had become more than usually dangerous because of neglected gunnery and defective shipbuilding. The Admiralty had cut down the supply of practice ammunition and had allowed British ships to lag far behind those of other nations in material and design. The general inferiority of British shipbuilding was such an unwelcome truth to the British people that they would not believe it till the American frigates drove it home with shattering broadsides. But it was a very old truth, for all that. Nelson's captains, and those of still earlier wars, had always competed eagerly for the command of the better built French prizes, which they managed to take only because the superiority of their crews was great enough to overcome the inferiority of their ships. There was a different tale to tell when inferior British vessels with 'run-down' crews met superior American vessels with first-rate crews. In those days training and discipline were better in the American mercantile marine than in the British; and the American Navy, of course, shared in the national efficiency at sea. Thus, with cheap materials, good designs, and excellent seamen, the Americans started with great advantages over the British for single-ship actions; and it was some time before their small collection of ships succumbed to the grinding pressure of the regularly organized British fleet.
The Provincial Marine. Canada had a little local navy on the Lakes called the Provincial Marine. It dated from the Conquest, and had done good service again during the Revolution, especially in Carleton's victory over Arnold on Lake Champlain in 1776. It had not, however, been kept up as a proper naval force, but had been placed under the quartermaster-general's department of the Army, where it had been mostly degraded into a mere branch of the transport service. At one time the effective force had been reduced to 132 men; though many more were hurriedly added just before the war. Most of its senior officers were too old; and none of the juniors had enjoyed any real training for combatant duties. Still, many of the ships and men did well in the war, though they never formed a single properly organized squadron.
British Privateers. Privateering was not a flourishing business in the mother country in 1812. Prime seamen were scarce, owing to the great number needed in the Navy and in the mercantile marine. Many, too, had deserted to get the higher wages paid in 'Yankees'—'dollars for shillings,' as the saying went. Besides, there was little foreign trade left to prey on. Canadian privateers did better. They were nearly all 'Bluenoses;' that is, they hailed from the Maritime Provinces. During the three campaigns the Court of Vice-Admiralty at Halifax issued letters of marque to forty-four privateers, which employed, including replacements, about three thousand men and reported over two hundred prizes.
British Commissariat and Transport. Transport, of course, went chiefly by water. Reinforcements and supplies from the mother country came out under convoy, mostly in summer, to Quebec, where bulk was broken, and whence both men and goods were sent to the front. There were plenty of experts in Canada to move goods west in ordinary times. The best of all were the French-Canadian voyageurs who manned the boats of the Hudson's Bay and North-West Companies. But there were not enough of them to carry on the work of peace and war together. Great and skilful efforts, however, were made. Schooners, bateaux, boats, and canoes were all turned to good account. But the inland line of communications was desperately long and difficult to work. It was more than twelve hundred miles from Quebec to Amherstburg on the river Detroit, even by the shortest route.
The British Army. The British Army, like the Navy, had to maintain an exacting world-wide service, besides large contingents in the field, on resources which had been severely strained by twenty years of war. It was represented in Canada by only a little over four thousand effective men when the war began. Reinforcements at first came slowly and in small numbers. In 1813 some foreign corps in British pay, like the Watteville and the Meuron regiments, came out. But in 1814 more than sixteen thousand men, mostly Peninsular veterans, arrived. Altogether, including every man present in any part of Canada during the whole war, there were over twenty-five thousand British regulars. In addition to these there were the troops invading the United States at Washington and Baltimore, with the reinforcements that joined them for the attack on New Orleans—in all, nearly nine thousand men. The grand total within the theatre of war was therefore about thirty-four thousand.
The Canadian Regulars. The Canadian regulars were about four thousand strong. Another two thousand took the place of men who were lost to the service, making the total six thousand, from first to last. There were six corps raised for permanent service: the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, the New Brunswick Regiment, the Canadian Fencibles, the Royal Veterans, the Canadian Voltigeurs, and the Glengarry Light Infantry. The Glengarries were mostly Highland Roman Catholics who had settled Glengarry county on the Ottawa, where Ontario marches with Quebec. The Voltigeurs were French Canadians under a French-Canadian officer in the Imperial Army. In the other corps there were many United Empire Loyalists from the different provinces, including a good stiffening of old soldiers and their sons.
The Canadian Embodied Militia. The Canadian militia by law comprised every able-bodied man except the few specially exempt, like the clergy and the judges. A hundred thousand adult males were liable for service. Various causes, however, combined to prevent half of these from getting under arms. Those who actually did duty were divided into 'Embodied' and 'Sedentary' corps. The embodied militia consisted of picked men, drafted for special service; and they often approximated so closely to the regulars in discipline and training that they may be classed, at the very least, as semi-regulars. Counting all those who passed into the special reserve during the war, as well as those who went to fill up the ranks after losses, there were nearly ten thousand of these highly trained, semi-regular militiamen engaged in the war.
The Canadian Sedentary Militia. The 'Sedentaries' comprised the rest of the militia. The number under arms fluctuated greatly; so did the length of time on duty. There were never ten thousand employed at any one time all over the country. As a rule, the 'Sedentaries' did duty at the base, thus releasing the better trained men for service at the front. Many had the blood of soldiers in their veins; and nearly all had the priceless advantage of being kept in constant touch with regulars. A passionate devotion to the cause also helped them to acquire, sooner than most other men, both military knowledge and that true spirit of discipline which, after all, is nothing but self-sacrifice in its finest patriotic form.
The Indians. Nearly all the Indians sided with the British or else remained neutral. They were, however, a very uncertain force; and the total number that actually served at the front throughout the war certainly fell short of five thousand.
This completes the estimate of the opposing forces-of the more than half a million Americans against the hundred and twenty-five thousand British; with these great odds entirely reversed whenever the comparison is made not between mere quantities of men but between their respective degrees of discipline and training.
But it does not complete the comparison between the available resources of the two opponents in one most important particular—finance. The Army Bill Act, passed at Quebec on August 1, 1812, was the greatest single financial event in the history of Canada. It was also full of political significance; for the parliament of Lower Canada was overwhelmingly French-Canadian. The million dollars authorized for issue, together with interest at six per cent, pledged that province to the equivalent of four years' revenue. The risk was no light one. But it was nobly run and well rewarded. These Army Bills were the first paper money in the whole New World that never lost face value for a day, that paid all their statutory interest, and that were finally redeemed at par. The denominations ran from one dollar up to four hundred dollars. Bills of one, two, three, and four dollars could always be cashed at the Army Bill Office in Quebec. After due notice the whole issue was redeemed in November 1816. A special feature well worth noting is the fact that Army Bills sometimes commanded a premium of five per cent over gold itself, because, being convertible into government bills of exchange on London, they were secure against any fluctuations in the price of bullion. A special comparison well worth making is that between their own remarkable stability and the equally remarkable instability of similar instruments of finance in the United States, where, after vainly trying to help the government through its difficulties, every bank outside of New England was forced to suspend specie payments in 1814, the year of the Great Blockade.
1812: OFF TO THE FRONT
President Madison sent his message to Congress on the 1st of June and signed the resultant 'war bill' on the 18th following. Congress was as much divided as the nation on the question of peace or war. The vote in the House of Representatives was seventy-nine to forty-nine, while in the Senate it was nineteen to thirteen. The government itself was 'solid.' But it did little enough to make up for the lack of national whole-heartedness by any efficiency of its own. Madison was less zealous about the war than most of his party. He was no Pitt or Lincoln to ride the storm, but a respectable lawyer-politician, whose forte was writing arguments, not wielding his country's sword. Nor had he in his Cabinet a single statesman with a genius for making war. His war secretary, William Eustis, never grasped the military situation at all, and had to be replaced by John Armstrong after the egregious failures of the first campaign. During the war debate in June, Eustis was asked to report to Congress how many of the 'additional' twenty-five thousand men authorized in January had already been enlisted. The best answer he could make was a purely 'unofficial opinion' that the number was believed to exceed five thousand.
The first move to the front was made by the Navy. Under very strong pressure the Cabinet had given up the original idea of putting the ships under a glass case; and four days after the declaration of war orders were sent to the senior naval officer, Commodore Rodgers, to 'protect our returning commerce' by scattering his ships about the American coast just where the British squadron at Halifax would be most likely to defeat them one by one. Happily for the United States, these orders were too late. Rodgers had already sailed. He was a man of action. His little squadron of three frigates, one sloop, and one brig lay in the port of New York, all ready waiting for the word. And when news of the declaration arrived, he sailed within the hour, and set out in pursuit of a British squadron that was convoying a fleet of merchantmen from the West Indies to England. He missed the convoy, which worked into Liverpool, Bristol, and London by getting to the north of him. But, for all that, his sudden dash into British waters with an active, concentrated squadron produced an excellent effect. The third day out the British frigate Belvidera met him and had to run for her life into Halifax. The news of this American squadron's being at large spread alarm all over the routes between Canada and the outside world. Rodgers turned south within a few hours' sail of the English Channel, turned west off Madeira, gave Halifax a wide berth, and reached Boston ten weeks out from Sandy Hook. 'We have been so completely occupied in looking out for Commodore Rodgers,' wrote a British naval officer, 'that we have taken very few prizes.' Even Madison was constrained to admit that this offensive move had had the defensive results he had hoped to reach in his own 'defensive' way. 'Our Trade has reached our ports, having been much favoured by a squadron under Commodore Rodgers.'
The policy of squadron cruising was continued throughout the autumn and winter of 1812. There were no squadron battles. But there was unity of purpose; and British convoys were harassed all over the Atlantic till well on into the next year. During this period there were five famous duels, which have made the Constitution and the United States, the Hornet and the Wasp, four names to conjure with wherever the Stars and Stripes are flown. The Constitution fought the first, when she took the Guerriere in August, due east of Boston and south of Newfoundland. The Wasp won the second in September, by taking the Frolic half-way between Halifax and Bermuda. The United States won the third in October, by defeating the Macedonian south-west of Madeira. The Constitution won the fourth in December, off Bahia in Brazil, by defeating the Java. And the Hornet won the fifth in February, by taking the Peacock, off Demerara, on the coast of British Guiana.
This closed the first period of the war at sea. The British government had been so anxious to avoid war, and to patch up peace again after war had broken out, that they purposely refrained from putting forth their full available naval strength till 1813. At the same time, they would naturally have preferred victory to defeat; and the fact that most of the British Navy was engaged elsewhere, and that what was available was partly held in leash, by no means dims the glory of those four men-of-war which the Americans fought with so much bravery and skill, and with such well-deserved success. No wonder Wellington said peace with the United States would be worth having at any honourable price, 'if we could only take some of their damned frigates!' Peace was not to come for another eighteen months. But though the Americans won a few more duels out at sea, besides two annihilating flotilla victories on the Lakes, their coast was blockaded as completely as Napoleon's, once the British Navy had begun its concerted movements on a comprehensive scale. From that time forward the British began to win the naval war, although they won no battles and only one duel that has lived in history. This dramatic duel, fought between the Shannon and the Chesapeake on June 1, 1813, was not itself a more decisive victory for the British than previous frigate duels had been for the Americans. But it serves better than any other special event to mark the change from the first period, when the Americans roved the sea as conquerors, to the second, when they were gradually blockaded into utter impotence.
Having now followed the thread of naval events to a point beyond the other limits of this chapter, we must return to the American movements against the Canadian frontier and the British counter-movements intended to checkmate them.
Quebec and Halifax, the two great Canadian seaports, were safe from immediate American attack; though Quebec was the ultimate objective of the Americans all through the war. But the frontier west of Quebec offered several tempting chances for a vigorous invasion, if the American naval and military forces could only be made to work together. The whole life of Canada there depended absolutely on her inland waterways. If the Americans could cut the line of the St Lawrence and Great Lakes at any critical point, the British would lose everything to the west of it; and there were several critical points of connection along this line. St Joseph's Island, commanding the straits between Lake Superior and Lake Huron, was a vital point of contact with all the Indians to the west. It was the British counterpoise to the American post at Michilimackinac, which commanded the straits between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. Detroit commanded the waterway between Lake Huron and Lake Erie; while the command of the Niagara peninsula ensured the connection between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. At the head of the St Lawrence, guarding the entrance to Lake Ontario, stood Kingston. Montreal was an important station midway between Kingston and Quebec, besides being an excellent base for an army thrown forward against the American frontier. Quebec was the general base from which all the British forces were directed and supplied.
Quick work, by water and land together, was essential for American success before the winter, even if the Canadians were really so anxious to change their own flag for the Stars and Stripes. But the American government put the cart before the horse—the Army before the Navy—and weakened the military forces of invasion by dividing them into two independent commands. General Henry Dearborn was appointed commander-in-chief, but only with control over the north-eastern country, that is, New England and New York. Thirty years earlier Dearborn had served in the War of Independence as a junior officer; and he had been Jefferson's Secretary of War. Yet he was not much better trained as a leader than his raw men were as followers, and he was now sixty-one. He established his headquarters at Greenbush, nearly opposite Albany, so that he could advance on Montreal by the line of the Hudson, Lake Champlain, and the Richelieu. The intended advance, however, did not take place this year. Greenbush was rather a recruiting depot and camp of instruction than the base of an army in the field; and the actual campaign had hardly begun before the troops went into winter quarters. The commander of the north-western army was General William Hull. And his headquarters were to be Detroit, from which Upper Canada was to be quickly overrun without troubling about the co-operation of the Navy. Like Dearborn, Hull had served in the War of Independence. But he had been a civilian ever since; he was now fifty-nine; and his only apparent qualification was his having been governor of Michigan for seven years. Not until September, after two defeats on land, was Commodore Chauncey ordered 'to assume command of the naval force on Lakes Erie and Ontario, and use every exertion to obtain control of them this fall.' Even then Lake Champlain, an essential link both in the frontier system and on Dearborn's proposed line of march, was totally forgotten.
To complete the dispersion of force, Eustis forgot all about the military detachments at the western forts. Fort Dearborn (now Chicago) and Michilimackinac, important as points of connection with the western tribes, were left to the devices of their own inadequate garrisons. In 1801 Dearborn himself, Eustis's predecessor as Secretary of War, had recommended a peace strength of two hundred men at Michilimackinac, usually known as 'Mackinaw.' In 1812 there were not so many at Mackinaw and Chicago put together.
It was not a promising outlook to an American military eye—the cart before the horse, the thick end of the wedge turned towards the enemy, three incompetent men giving disconnected orders on the northern frontier, and the western posts neglected. But Eustis was full of self-confidence. Hull was 'enthusing' his militiamen. And Dearborn was for the moment surpassing both, by proposing to 'operate, with effect, at the same moment, against Niagara, Kingston, and Montreal.'
From the Canadian side the outlook was also dark enough to the trained eye; though not for the same reasons. The menace here was from an enemy whose general resources exceeded those in Canada by almost twenty to one. The silver lining to the cloud was the ubiquitous British Navy and the superior training and discipline of the various little military forces immediately available for defence.
The Maritime Provinces formed a subordinate command, based on the strong naval station of Halifax, where a regular garrison was always maintained by the Imperial government. They were never invaded, or even seriously threatened. It was only in 1814 that they came directly into the scene of action, and then only as the base from which the invasion of Maine was carried out.
We must therefore turn to Quebec as the real centre of Canadian defence, which, indeed, it was best fitted to be, not only from its strategical situation, but from the fact that it was the seat of the governor-general and commander-in-chief, Sir George Prevost. Like Sir John Sherbrooke, the governor of Nova Scotia, Prevost was a professional soldier with an unblemished record in the Army. But, though naturally anxious to do well, and though very suavely diplomatic, he was not the man, as we shall often see, either to face a military crisis or to stop the Americans from stealing marches on him by negotiation. On the outbreak of war he was at headquarters in Quebec, dividing his time between his civil and military duties, greatly concerned with international diplomacy, and always full of caution.
At York (now Toronto) in Upper Canada a very different man was meanwhile preparing to checkmate Hull's 'north-western army' of Americans, which was threatening to invade the province. Isaac Brock was not only a soldier born and bred, but, alone among the leaders on either side, he had the priceless gift of genius. He was now forty-two, having been born in Guernsey on October 6, 1769, in the same year as Napoleon and Wellington. Like the Wolfes and the Montcalms, the Brocks had followed the noble profession of arms for many generations. Nor were the De Lisles, his mother's family, less distinguished for the number of soldiers and sailors they had been giving to England ever since the Norman Conquest. Brock himself, when only twenty-nine, had commanded the 49th Foot in Holland under Sir John Moore, the future hero of Corunna, and Sir Ralph Abercromby, who was so soon to fall victorious in Egypt. Two years after this he had stood beside another and still greater man at Copenhagen, 'mighty Nelson,' who there gave a striking instance of how a subordinate inspired by genius can win the day by disregarding the over-caution of a commonplace superior. We may be sure that when Nelson turned his blind eye on Parker's signal of recall the lesson was not thrown away on Brock.
For ten long years of inglorious peace Brock had now been serving on in Canada, while his comrades in arms were winning distinction on the battlefields of Europe. This was partly due to his own excellence: he was too good a man to be spared after his first five years were up in 1807; for the era of American hostility had then begun. He had always been observant. But after 1807 he had redoubled his efforts to 'learn Canada,' and learn her thoroughly. People and natural resources, products and means of transport, armed strength on both sides of the line and the best plan of defence, all were studied with unremitting zeal. In 1811 he became the acting lieutenant-governor and commander of the forces in Upper Canada, where he soon found out that the members of parliament returned by the 'American vote' were bent on thwarting every effort he could make to prepare the province against the impending storm. In 1812, on the very day he heard that war had been declared, he wished to strike the unready Americans hard and instantly at one of their three accessible points of assembly-Fort Niagara, at the upper end of Lake Ontario, opposite Fort George, which stood on the other side of the Niagara river; Sackett's Harbour, at the lower end of Lake Ontario, thirty-six miles from Kingston; and Ogdensburg, on the upper St Lawrence, opposite Fort Prescott. But Sir George Prevost, the governor-general, was averse from an open act of war against the Northern States, because they were hostile to Napoleon and in favour of maintaining peace with the British; while Brock himself was soon turned from this purpose by news of Hull's American invasion farther west, as well as by the necessity of assembling his own thwarting little parliament at York.
The nine days' session, from July 27 to August 5, yielded the indispensable supplies. But the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act, as a necessary war measure, was prevented by the disloyal minority, some of whom wished to see the British defeated and all of whom were ready to break their oath of allegiance whenever it suited them to do so. The patriotic majority, returned by the votes of United Empire Loyalists and all others who were British born and bred, issued an address that echoed the appeal made by Brock himself in the following words: 'We are engaged in an awful and eventful contest. By unanimity and despatch in our councils and by vigour in our operations we may teach the enemy this lesson: That a country defended by free men, enthusiastically devoted to the cause of their King and Constitution, can never be conquered.'
On August 5, being at last clear of his immediate duties as a civil governor, Brock threw himself ardently into the work of defeating Hull, who had crossed over into Canada from Detroit on July 11 and issued a proclamation at Sandwich the following day. This proclamation shows admirably the sort of impression which the invaders wished to produce on Canadians.
The United States are sufficiently powerful to afford you every security consistent with their rights and your expectations. I tender you the invaluable blessings of Civil, Political, and Religious Liberty... The arrival of an army of Friends must be hailed by you with a cordial welcome. You will be emancipated from Tyranny and Oppression and restored to the dignified station of Freemen... If, contrary to your own interest and the just expectation of my country, you should take part in the approaching contest, you will be considered and treated as enemies and the horrors and calamities of war will Stalk before you. If the barbarous and Savage policy of Great Britain be pursued, and the savages let loose to murder our Citizens and butcher our women and children, this war will be a war of extermination. The first stroke with the Tomahawk, the first attempt with the Scalping Knife, will be the Signal for one indiscriminate scene of desolation. No white man found fighting by the Side of an Indian will be taken prisoner. Instant destruction will be his Lot...
This was war with a vengeance. But Hull felt less confidence than his proclamation was intended to display. He knew that, while the American government had been warned in January about the necessity of securing the naval command of Lake Erie, no steps had yet been taken to secure it. Ever since the beginning of March, when he had written a report based on his seven years' experience as governor of Michigan, he had been gradually learning that Eustis was bent on acting in defiance of all sound military advice. In April he had accepted his new position very much against his will and better judgment. In May he had taken command of the assembling militiamen at Dayton in Ohio. In June he had been joined by a battalion of inexperienced regulars. And now, in July, he was already feeling the ill effects of having to carry on what should have been an amphibious campaign without the assistance of any proper force afloat; for on the 2nd ten days before he issued his proclamation at Sandwich, Lieutenant Rolette, an enterprising French-Canadian officer in the Provincial Marine, had cut his line of communication along the Detroit and had taken an American schooner which contained his official plan of campaign, besides a good deal of baggage and stores.
There were barely six hundred British on the line of the Detroit when Hull first crossed over to Sandwich with twenty-five hundred men. These six hundred comprised less than 150 regulars, about 300 militia, and some 150 Indians. Yet Hull made no decisive effort against the feeble little fort of Malden, which was the only defence of Amherstburg by land. The distance was nothing, only twelve miles south from Sandwich. He sent a sort of flying column against it. But this force went no farther than half-way, where the Americans were checked at the bridge over the swampy little Riviere aux Canards by the Indians under Tecumseh, the great War Chief of whom we shall soon hear more.
Hull's failure to take Fort Malden was one fatal mistake. His failure to secure his communications southward from Detroit was another. Apparently yielding to the prevalent American idea that a safe base could be created among friendly Canadians without the trouble of a regular campaign, he sent off raiding parties up the Thames. According to his own account, these parties 'penetrated sixty miles into the settled part of the province.' According to Brock, they 'ravaged the country as far as the Moravian Town.' But they gained no permanent foothold. By the beginning of August Hull's position had already become precarious. The Canadians had not proved friendly. The raid up the Thames and the advance towards Amherstburg had both failed. And the first British reinforcements had already begun to arrive. These were very small. But even a few good regulars helped to discourage Hull; and the new British commander, Colonel Procter of the 41st, was not yet to be faced by a task beyond his strength. Worse yet for the Americans, Brock might soon be expected from the east; the Provincial Marine still held the water line of communication from the south; and dire news had just come in from the west.
The moment Brock had heard of the declaration of war he had sent orders post-haste to Captain Roberts at St Joseph's Island, either to attack the Americans at Michilimackinac or stand on his own defence. Roberts received Brock's orders on the 15th of July. The very next day he started for Michilimackinac with 45 men of the Royal Veterans, 180 French-Canadian voyageurs, 400 Indians, and two 'unwieldy' iron six-pounders. Surprise was essential, to prevent the Americans from destroying their stores; and the distance was a good fifty miles. But 'by the almost unparalleled exertions of the Canadians who manned the boats, we arrived at the place of Rendezvous at 3 o'clock the following morning.' One of the iron six-pounders was then hauled up the heights, which rise to eight hundred feet, and trained on the dumbfounded Americans, while the whole British force took post for storming. The American commandant, Lieutenant Hanks, who had only fifty-seven effective men, thereupon surrendered without firing a shot.
The news of this bold stroke ran like wildfire through the whole North-West. The effect on the Indians was tremendous, immediate, and wholly in favour of the British. In the previous November Tecumseh's brother, known far and wide as the 'Prophet,' had been defeated on the banks of the Tippecanoe, a river of Indiana, by General Harrison, of whom we shall hear in the next campaign. This battle, though small in itself, was looked upon as the typical victory of the dispossessing Americans; so the British seizure of Michilimackinac was hailed with great joy as being a most effective counter-stroke. Nor was this the only reason for rejoicing. Michilimackinac and St Joseph's commanded the two lines of communication between the western wilds and the Great Lakes; so the possession of both by the British was more than a single victory, it was a promise of victories to come. No wonder Hull lamented this 'opening of the hive,' which 'let the swarms' loose all over the wilds on his inland flank and rear.
He would have felt more uneasy still if he had known what was to happen when Captain Heald received his orders at Fort Dearborn (Chicago) on August 9. Hull had ordered Heald to evacuate the fort as soon as possible and rejoin headquarters. Heald had only sixty-six men, not nearly enough to overawe the surrounding Indians. News of the approaching evacuation spread quickly during the six days of preparation. The Americans failed to destroy the strong drink in the fort. The Indians got hold of it, became ungovernably drunk, and killed half of Heald's men before they had gone a mile. The rest surrendered and were spared. Heald and his wife were then sent to Mackinaw, where Roberts treated them very kindly and sent them on to Pittsburg. The whole affair was one between Indians and Americans alone. But it was naturally used by the war party to inflame American feeling against all things British.
While Hull was writing to Fort Dearborn and hearing bad news from Michilimackinac, he was also getting more and more anxious about his own communications to the south. With no safe base in Canada, and no safe line of transport by water from Lake Erie to the village of Detroit, he decided to clear the road which ran north and south beside the Detroit river. But this was now no easy task for his undisciplined forces, as Colonel Procter was bent on blocking the same road by sending troops and Indians across the river. On August 5, the day Brock prorogued his parliament at York, Tecumseh ambushed Hull's first detachment of two hundred men at Brownstown, eighteen miles south of Detroit. On the 7th Hull began to withdraw his forces from the Canadian side. On the 8th he ordered six hundred men to make a second attempt to clear the southern road. But on the 9th these men were met at Maguaga, only fourteen miles south of Detroit, by a mixed force of British-regulars, militia, and Indians. The superior numbers of the Americans enabled them to press the British back at first. But, on the 10th, when the British showed a firm front in a new position, the Americans retired discouraged. Next day Hull withdrew the last of his men from Canadian soil, exactly one month after they had first set foot upon it. The following day was spent in consulting his staff and trying to reorganize his now unruly militia. On the evening of the 13th he made his final effort to clear the one line left, by sending out four hundred picked men under his two best colonels, McArthur and Cass, who were ordered to make an inland detour through the woods.
That same night Brock stepped ashore at Amherstburg.
1812: BROCK AT DETROIT AND QUEENSTON HEIGHTS
The prorogation which released Brock from his parliamentary duties on August 5 had been followed by eight days of the most strenuous military work, especially on the part of the little reinforcement which he was taking west to Amherstburg. The Upper Canada militiamen, drawn from the United Empire Loyalists and from the British-born, had responded with hearty goodwill, all the way from Glengarry to Niagara. But the population was so scattered and equipment so scarce that no attempt had been made to have whole battalions of 'Select Embodied Militia' ready for the beginning of the war, as in the more thickly peopled province of Lower Canada. The best that could be done was to embody the two flank companies—the Light and Grenadier companies—of the most urgently needed battalions. But as these companies contained all the picked men who were readiest for immediate service, and as the Americans were very slow in mobilizing their own still more unready army, Brock found that, for the time being, York could be left and Detroit attacked with nothing more than his handful of regulars, backed by the flank-company militiamen and the Provincial Marine.
Leaving York the very day he closed the House there, Brock sailed over to Burlington Bay, marched across the neck of the Niagara peninsula, and embarked at Long Point with every man the boats could carry—three hundred, all told, forty regulars of the 41st and two hundred and sixty flank-company militiamen. Then, for the next five days, he fought his way, inch by inch, along the north shore of Lake Erie against a persistent westerly storm. The news by the way was discouraging. Hull's invasion had unsettled the Indians as far east as the Niagara peninsula, which the local militia were consequently afraid to leave defenceless. But once Brock reached the scene of action, his insight showed him what bold skill could do to turn the tide of feeling all along the western frontier.
It was getting on for one o'clock in the morning of August 14 when Lieutenant Rolette challenged Brock's leading boat from aboard the Provincial Marine schooner General Hunter. As Brock stepped ashore he ordered all commanding officers to meet him within an hour. He then read Hull's dispatches, which had been taken by Rolette with the captured schooner and by Tecumseh at Brownstown. By two o'clock all the principal officers and Indian chiefs had assembled, not as a council of war, but simply to tell Brock everything they knew. Only Tecumseh and Colonel Nichol, the quartermaster of the little army, thought that Detroit itself could be attacked with any prospect of success. Brock listened attentively; made up his mind; told his officers to get ready for immediate attack; asked Tecumseh to assemble all the Indians at noon; and dismissed the meeting at four. Brock and Tecumseh read each other at a glance; and Tecumseh, turning to the tribal chiefs, said simply, 'This is a man,' a commendation approved by them all with laconic, deep 'Ho-ho's!'
Tecumseh was the last great leader of the Indian race and perhaps the finest embodiment of all its better qualities. Like Pontiac, fifty years before, but in a nobler way, he tried to unite the Indians against the exterminating American advance. He was apparently on the eve of forming his Indian alliance when he returned home to find that his brother the Prophet had just been defeated at Tippecanoe. The defeat itself was no great thing. But it came precisely at a time when it could exert most influence on the unstable Indian character and be most effective in breaking up the alliance of the tribes. Tecumseh, divining this at once, lost no time in vain regrets, but joined the British next year at Amherstburg. He came with only thirty followers. But stray warriors kept on arriving; and many of the bolder spirits joined him when war became imminent. At the time of Brock's arrival there were a thousand effective Indians under arms. Their arming was only authorized at the last minute; for Brock's dispatch to Prevost shows how strictly neutral the Canadian government had been throughout the recent troubles between the Indians and Americans. He mentions that the chiefs at Amherstburg had long been trying to obtain the muskets and ammunition 'which for years had been withheld, agreeably to the instructions received from Sir James Craig, and since repeated by Your Excellency.'
Precisely at noon Brock took his stand beneath a giant oak at Amherstburg surrounded by his officers. Before him sat Tecumseh. Behind Tecumseh sat the chiefs; and behind the chiefs a thousand Indians in their war-paint. Brock then stepped forward to address them. Erect, alert, broad-shouldered, and magnificently tall; blue-eyed, fair-haired, with frank and handsome countenance; he looked every inch the champion of a great and righteous cause. He said the Long Knives had come to take away the land from both the Indians and the British whites, and that now he would not be content merely to repulse them, but would follow and beat them on their own side of the Detroit. After the pause that was usual on grave occasions, Tecumseh rose and answered for all his followers. He stood there the ideal of an Indian chief: tall, stately, and commanding; yet tense, lithe, observant, and always ready for his spring. He the tiger, Brock the lion; and both unflinchingly at bay.
Next morning, August 15, an early start was made for Sandwich, some twelve miles north, where a five-gun battery was waiting to be unmasked against Detroit across the river. Arrived at Sandwich, Brock immediately sent across his aide-de-camp, Colonel Macdonell, with a letter summoning Hull to surrender. Hull wrote back to say he was prepared to stand his ground. Brock at once unmasked his battery and made ready to attack next day. With the men on detachment Hull still had a total of twenty-five hundred. Brock had only fifteen hundred, including the Provincial Marine. But Hull's men were losing what discipline they had and were becoming distrustful both of their leaders and of themselves; while Brock's men were gaining discipline, zeal, and inspiring confidence with every hour. Besides, the British were all effectives; while Hull had over five hundred absent from Detroit and as many more ineffective on the spot; which left him only fifteen hundred actual combatants. He also had a thousand non-combatants—men, women, and children—all cowering for shelter from the dangers of battle, and half dead with the far more terrifying apprehension of an Indian massacre.
Brock's five-gun battery made excellent practice during the afternoon without suffering any material damage in return. One chance shell produced a most dismaying effect in Detroit by killing Hanks, the late commandant of Mackinaw, and three other officers with him. At twilight the firing ceased on both sides.
Immediately after dark Tecumseh led six hundred eager followers down to their canoes a little way below Sandwich. These Indians were told off by tribes, as battalions are by companies. There, in silent, dusky groups, moving soft-foot on their moccasins through the gloom, were Shawnees and Miamis from Tecumseh's own lost home beside the Wabash, Foxes and Sacs from the Iowan valley, Ottawas and Wyandots, Chippewas and Potawatomis, some braves from the middle prairies between the Illinois and the Mississippi, and even Winnebagoes and Dakotahs from the far North-West. The flotilla of crowded canoes moved stealthily across the river, with no louder noise than the rippling current made. As secretly, the Indians crept ashore, stole inland through the quiet night, and, circling north, cut off Hull's army from the woods. Little did Hull's anxious sentries think that some of the familiar cries of night-birds round the fort were signals being passed along from scout to scout.
As the beautiful summer dawn began to break at four o'clock that fateful Sunday morning, the British force fell in, only seven hundred strong, and more than half militia. The thirty gunners who had served the Sandwich battery so well the day before also fell in, with five little field-pieces, in case Brock could force a battle in the open. Their places in the battery were ably filled by every man of the Provincial Marine whom Captain Hall could spare from the Queen Charlotte, the flagship of the tiny Canadian flotilla. Brock's men and his light artillery were soon afloat and making for Spring Wells, more than three miles below Detroit. Then, as the Queen Charlotte ran up her sunrise flag, she and the Sandwich battery roared out a challenge to which the Americans replied with random aim. Brock leaped ashore, formed front towards Hull, got into touch with Tecumseh's Indians on his left, and saw that the British land and water batteries were protecting his right, as prearranged with Captain Hall.
He had intended to wait in this position, hoping that Hull would march out to the attack. But, even before his men had finished taking post, the whole problem was suddenly changed by the arrival of an Indian to say that McArthur's four hundred picked men, whom Hull had sent south to bring in the convoy, were returning to Detroit at once. There was now only a moment to decide whether to retreat across the river, form front against McArthur, or rush Detroit immediately. But, within that fleeting moment, Brock divined the true solution and decided to march straight on. With Tecumseh riding a grey mustang by his side, he led the way in person. He wore his full-dress gold-and-scarlet uniform and rode his charger Alfred, the splendid grey which Governor Craig had given him the year before, with the recommendation that 'the whole continent of America could not furnish you with so safe and excellent a horse,' and for the good reason that 'I wish to secure for my old favourite a kind and careful master.'
The seven hundred redcoats made a gallant show, all the more imposing because the militia were wearing some spare uniforms borrowed from the regulars and because the confident appearance of the whole body led the discouraged Americans to think that these few could only be the vanguard of much greater numbers. So strong was this belief that Hull, in sudden panic, sent over to Sandwich to treat for terms, and was astounded to learn that Brock and Tecumseh were the two men on the big grey horses straight in front of him. While Hull's envoys were crossing the river and returning, the Indians were beginning to raise their war-whoops in the woods and Brock was reconnoitring within a mile of the fort. This looked formidable enough, if properly defended, as the ditch was six feet deep and twelve feet wide, the parapet rose twenty feet, the palisades were of twenty-inch cedar, and thirty-three guns were pointed through the embrasures. But Brock correctly estimated the human element inside, and was just on the point of advancing to the assault when Hull's white flag went up.
The terms were soon agreed upon. Hull's whole army, including all detachments, surrendered as prisoners of war, while the territory of Michigan passed into the military possession of King George. Abundance of food and military stores fell into British hands, together with the Adams, a fine new brig that had just been completed. She was soon rechristened the Detroit. The Americans sullenly trooped out. The British elatedly marched in. The Stars and Stripes came down defeated. The Union Jack went up victorious and was received with a royal salute from all the British ordnance, afloat and ashore. The Indians came out of the woods, yelling with delight and firing their muskets in the air. But, grouped by tribes, they remained outside the fort and settlement, and not a single outrage was committed. Tecumseh himself rode in with Brock; and the two great leaders stood out in front of the British line while the colours were being changed. Then Brock, in view of all his soldiers, presented his sash and pistols to Tecumseh. Tecumseh, in turn, gave his many-coloured Indian sash to Brock, who wore it till the day he died.
The effect of the British success at Detroit far exceeded that which had followed the capture of Mackinaw and the evacuation of Fort Dearborn. Those, however important to the West, were regarded as mainly Indian affairs. This was a white man's victory and a white man's defeat. Hull's proclamation thenceforth became a laughing-stock. The American invasion had proved a fiasco. The first American army to take the field had failed at every point. More significant still, the Americans were shown to be feeble in organization and egregiously mistaken in their expectations. Canada, on the other hand, had already found her champion and men quite fit to follow him.
Brock left Procter in charge of the West and hurried back to the Niagara frontier. Arrived at Fort Erie on August 23 he was dismayed to hear of a dangerously one-sided armistice that had been arranged with the enemy. This had been first proposed, on even terms, by Prevost, and then eagerly accepted by Dearborn, after being modified in favour of the Americans. In proposing an armistice Prevost had rightly interpreted the wishes of the Imperial government. It was wise to see whether further hostilities could not be averted altogether; for the obnoxious Orders-in-Council had been repealed. But Prevost was criminally weak in assenting to the condition that all movements of men and material should continue on the American side, when he knew that corresponding movements were impossible on the British side for lack of transport. Dearborn, the American commander-in-chief, was only a second-rate general. But he was more than a match for Prevost at making bargains.