Friday, May 18, 2007

The United States Invades Canada

Most Americans today think of Canada as a "friendly neighbor" to the north. The idea of Canada and the United States at war with each other seems preposterous. And yet, not long after gaining independence following the Revolutionary War, the United States invaded Canada and burned her capital!

Of all the major wars in which the U.S. has fought, the War of 1812 is probably the least known and least understood. In June of 1812, President James Madison declared a state of war with the United Kingdom. The U.S. claimed to be upset with Britain over trade restrictions with Europe, as well as impressment of American sailors, and violations of American waters by British ships. However, some historians believe that the prospect of conquering British-controlled Canada was a major factor in the decision to go to war. Indeed, shortly after war was declared, Thomas Jefferson boasted that America need only march north to easily take Quebec.

Canada, at the time of the war, might better be described as "British North America." There were still seven "independent" British colonies, as they would not come together to form a federation for another fifty years. These included Upper Canada, along the Great Lakes, with its capital, York (present-day Toronto). Early in the war, the U.S. hoped to force a victory by targeting Upper Canada.

After a series of defeats, in April of 1813, the United States launched an assault on York, and successfully took the city. However, in their retreat, the British ignited a huge powder magazine, and the blast and flying debris killed famed American General Zebulon Pike and many other soldiers. In retaliation, U.S. soldiers looted the city and burned several buildings, including Parliament.

Although the Battle of York had the effect of restricting supplies to the British on Lake Erie, and contributed to later successes in the American campaign there, the plunder and arson of the city were to have devastating results in the United States.

In August of 1814, the British marched on Washington, D.C., as part of a campaign around the Chesapeake Bay. They easily took the city, as it was mostly abandoned, and American militia troops quickly retreated. Then, the British burned most of the public buildings, including the Capitol buildings (housing the Senate, House of Representatives, and Library of Congress) and the White House. Most historians agree that this was a direct retaliation for the U.S. invasion of York.

The day after Washington fell, the British left for their ships in the Chesapeake, possibly due to a severe storm. Although they had only occupied the capital for just over a day, it took decades to complete reconstruction. It remains one of the most embarrassing U.S. losses in history.

This pattern of attacks followed by reprisals is emblematic of the war as a whole. Largely considered a stalemate by 1814, the Treaty of Ghent, ratified in early 1815, ended the war. Although some American scholars continue to claim victory, the real winner was neither the United States nor Britain, but rather Canada. Successfully resisting U.S. invasion laid the groundwork for its future sovereignty.

Visitors to Toronto's Fort York, the site of the U.S. invasion, can view a large collection of original War of 1812 buildings, as well as musket and drill demonstrations.


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Randy said...

Arguably the other inciting incident to the burning of Washington was the burning of Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario). Earlier in the war, American troops captured Fort George on the Canadian side of the Niagara River. When they decided to abandon the occupation in December 1813, for reasons unknown, they left the fort intact but burned the town. British forces retaliated by crossing to the US side of the river & burning homes. I would also argue that the other more important motivation for the war was to gain access to Indian lands in the Ohio Valley. Canada was a winner in the sense that it remained out of American hands, but the clear losers were the Indians.

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