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

History of War - - CONTENTS -

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.


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

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