Navies and nations
Although the War of 1812 had little impact on Britain, the conflict increased national pride in the United States and a fledgling Canada
US pride and a sense of Canadian national identity were lasting consequences of the war
The war was a mixed affair for the USA. Although there were famous land victories, such as the battles of the Thames and New Orleans, their importance was inflated to compensate for the defeats the US Army suffered at the hands of the British. Repeated attempts to conquer Canada failed, and Washington, DC itself was occupied and burned. For a nation that had successfully thrown off British rule only a generation before, the inability of the Americans to defend their own capital was humiliating. However, the performance of the US Navy during the war was very different and noticeably successful.
Ascendency of the US Navy
In 1812 the Royal Navy was the most powerful in the world, with over 500 active warships – 85 of which were already operating in American waters when the war broke out. The Royal Navy’s prestige was at its zenith thanks to the stunning victories of Horatio Nelson.
By contrast, the US Navy was only 18 years old with merely a dozen ships. Nevertheless, the Americans were well trained and the USA
had a proud mercantile maritime tradition. American ships were also well built. For example, the frigate USS Constitution had 44 guns and a thick hull of live oak, which greatly aided it during its legendary duel with HMS Guerriere on 19 August 1812. Commanded by the aptly named Isaac Hull, the Constitution bested the Guerriere by pounding it with cannon fire and destroying its masts. This fight was only one of several US frigate victories against the British and demonstrated to the world that American sailors were formidable fighters.
The freshwater battles of the Great Lakes were also important for the US Navy. There was a shipbuilding arms race of light warships on Lake Erie, which culminated in an American victory in September 1813. Their success was not just down to their fighting spirit but also because the British struggled to receive supplies and reinforcements and therefore built a smaller inland fleet.
The war was the first real test of the US
Navy, and the Americans were certainly not found wanting. The British still retained total command of the oceans, but the conflict was a triumph for America’s naval reputation and created a lasting sense of national pride. From 1816, Congress financed more warships to be built, and the USA was on the way to becoming a significant military power.
The emergence of Canada
Despite the US Navy’s successes, the fact remained that the Americans’ military goal of conquering Canada was a notable failure. It was widely recognised that much of the fighting would be fought on Canadian soil, and many US settlers west of the Appalachians wanted to seize more land from Native Americans and punish the British for supporting their resistance. Former president Thomas Jefferson even predicted that conquering Canada would be “a mere matter of marching”, and many believed that the result would be “the final expulsion of England from the American continent”.
In 1812, ‘British Canada’ consisted of two colonies, called Upper and Lower Canada. Collectively known as ‘The Canadas’, these provinces only covered parts of modern Ontario, Labrador, Quebec and Newfoundland. Regular British troops, Native American allies and local militiamen vigorously pushed the American invasions back. Several key victories, such as Queenston Heights and Stoney Creek, could not have been won without all three working together, and the stakes for the local colonists were high.
The burning of the city of Washington by the British was largely a revenge attack for the Americans capturing and burning York (Toronto) and Newark (Niagara-on-the-lake). Meanwhile, Tecumseh’s death in battle meant that Native Americans would now struggle to fight against the ever-expanding American settlers across the continent.
The war had a profound effect on the peoples of Canada. The British ruled over a mixed group of settlers that included not just United Empire Loyalists (who had fled from the American Revolution) and British colonists, but also Native Americans, US economic migrants and French Québécois. The latter three groups had no real allegiance to the British Empire, but they had all collectively fought against the American invaders who had ravaged their lands. This eventually unified a perception of themselves as ‘Canadians’, with a distinct identify separate to their southern neighbours. This is why the War of 1812 should not be merely considered an irrelevant footnote, but an important conflict that underpinned the national identities of two huge countries that eventually
coexisted in North America.
“TECUMSEH’S DEATH IN BATTLE MEANT THAT NATIVE AMERICANS WOULD NOW STRUGGLE TO FIGHT AGAINST THE EVER-EXPANDING AMERICAN SETTLERS ACROSS THE CONTINENT”
USS Constitution’s famous battle with HMS Guerriere ended when the British captain, James Richard Dacres, declared, “Our mizzen mast is gone, our main mast is gone and, upon the whole, you may say we have struck our flag”
The War of 1812 Monument at Parliament Hill, Ottawa, commemorates the forging of Canadian national identity, with seven figures that reflect the different peoples who successfully defended Canada from invasion USS Constitution was preserved for the nation and is the world’s oldest commissioned naval vessel still afloat. It owes its present existence to American pride in its fighting achievements during the War of 1812