Been there, won that: Inglorious battles of 1812

Missing from history lessons on the Canada-U.S. war: Treason, revenge and guerrilla combat.

Inglorious battles

Painting by Ken Riley

Two hundred years ago this week, on June 1, 1812, United States president James Madison delivered a stirring war message to U.S. Congress. “Such is the spectacle of injuries and indignities which have been heaped on our country,” he declared, that the only option was war against Great Britain and her North American colonies.

By June 18, after the House of Representatives and Senate voted narrowly to accept Madison’s advice, Canada and the U.S. were at war for the first and only time.

The bicentennial of the War of 1812 is being lavished with attention by Ottawa as a momentous event in Canadian history. Among the major events planned this summer by the federal government are a host of colourful historical re-enactments at newly refurbished forts and battlefields from Newfoundland to Lake Huron. October 2012 has been designated an “official month of commemoration.” And sometime later a new monument to the war will be unveiled on Parliament Hill, prominently situated in front of the East Block.

Amidst all this pomp and circumstance, Canadians can expect to hear quite a bit about the famous names of the war: Maj.-Gen. Sir Isaac Brock, perhaps the greatest military hero in Canada’s history, who captured Detroit in 1812 and was killed a few months later at Queenston Heights repelling an American invasion; Shawnee war chief Tecumseh, who allied himself with Brock in hopes of creating a permanent native homeland in North America and died on an Ontario battlefield; and Lt.-Col. Charles-Michel d’Irumberry de Salaberry, the French-Canadian militia leader and hero of the battle of Chateauguay.

Certainly forts, period-costume re-enactments and tales of heroic leaders go a long way to telling the story of the War of 1812. During Brock’s funeral, for example, his defeated American counterpart ordered a sunset cannon salute to his fallen opponent from across the Niagara River. But there’s much more to this conflict than generals being gallant and soldiers in scarlet and blue. “The standard view of the war is that it was a conventional war fought by professional armies and led by generals,” says Alan Taylor, author of the 2010 re-examination of the conflict The Civil War of 1812. “But that’s incomplete. There is a much fuller story to be told here.”

In fact, the War of 1812 was a very unconventional war, marked by brutal guerilla combat and attacks on civilians. It was a war in which neighbours and relatives fought against each other. A war of shocking acts of treason and revenge that saw entire towns put to the torch as payback for personal slights. Lawlessness reigned in many parts of the country and economic predation in others. This was no gentleman’s war of honour and duty. This was total war.

Long before Louis Riel muddied the distinction between patriot and traitor, Joseph Willcocks established for himself a dual reputation as “the most hated man in Canada” and a heroic freedom fighter. As such, he represents one of the most fascinating, if little-known, stories of the war.

Born in Ireland, Willcocks emigrated as a young man to Upper Canada, where he opened a newspaper, sought out political connections and got himself elected to the provincial legislature. There he positioned himself as an outspoken opponent of government. “I am flattered to be ranked among the enemies of the king’s servants,” he once boasted. Willcocks was instrumental in foiling Brock’s attempt to impose martial law in the colony prior to war. His natural abrasiveness, however, made many enemies.

Once war was declared, Willcocks proved sufficiently loyal that he fought against the Americans at Queenston Heights. By 1813, however, the U.S. had managed a string of successful attacks at York (now Toronto) and along the Niagara Peninsula. The prospect of a possible American victory, and the ascension of his adversaries in Upper Canadian politics, produced a change of heart for Willcocks. He defected to the U.S. and promptly established a rebel cavalry unit called the Canadian Volunteers. Designated a “police officer” by the American army, Willcocks and his band of marauders traversed the Niagara Peninsula in aid of the invaders: raiding farms for supplies, keeping track of British troop movements and settling old scores.

“This was nasty, personal, predatory warfare,” says Donald Hickey, a historian at Wayne State University in Nebraska and author of Don’t Give Up the Ship: Myths of the War of 1812. “Willcocks was an opportunist and he used his raids to get even with people he didn’t like.” By the authority given to him by the invaders, he arrested loyal Canadians at will. In the winter of 1813 Willcocks burnt Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., to the ground and his lawless gang was responsible for other mass burnings as well. His brutal approach unleashed a string of tit-for-tat retaliatory strikes on both sides of the border that culminated in the British army torching the White House in 1814.

Willcocks was eventually killed skirmishing with British troops outside Fort Erie in 1814 and given a hero’s burial by his American comrades. Today he provides grist for a lively historical debate. While conventional wisdom regards him a clear-cut traitor, a few see Willcocks as a precursor to Riel or William Lyon Mackenzie: democrats raging against an unjust government. “Of course he was a freedom fighter,” argues Bill Darfler, a Brantford, Ont., historian, pointing to Willcocks’s pre-war opposition to Brock’s plans for martial law. “Remember, he was fighting against a military dictatorship.” Taylor is a bit more circumspect. “He’s neither pure hero nor pure villain,” he says. “I think he’s a lot more interesting than that.”

There’s less controversy regarding how Canadians ought to see U.S. Brig.- Gen. Duncan McArthur. He’s all bad.

In another little-known episode from the war, McArthur led 700 Kentucky cavalrymen on a raid across southwestern Ontario late in 1814 with the goal of burning all the mills and food stores in the area. Just so there was no confusion about his mission, the governor of Michigan Territory told him to create “a desert between us and them.”

For McArthur, the raid was also highly personal. He’d been part of the American force at Detroit when it fell to Brock early in the war. Upon hearing that his commanding officer had surrendered without a fight, McArthur broke his own sword and tore off his own epaulettes in frustration. After his release from a British prison, he spent the rest of the war seeking revenge for the humiliation. And civilians were his most frequent target. McArthur even had plans to burn out the Michigan side of the border as well, because it was full of French-Canadian settlers whose loyalties he distrusted. His superiors sensibly ordered him to spare his own countrymen.

“They rode at great speed across the province and with the goal of turning the entire area from Detroit to Niagara into a wasteland,” says Darfler, the historical researcher for a three-part documentary on the McArthur raid to be completed next year. Of seven mills in the region, McArthur and his men found and burned five during their three-week rampage, causing considerable hardship during the winter that followed. “From the Canadian perspective, McArthur is certainly a great villain,” notes U.S. historian Taylor.

And while native warriors fighting for the British side during the war earned a fearsome reputation in the American press for savagery, Darfler figures McArthur’s Kentuckians deserve equal recognition for their own brand of violence and debauchery. “These guys were nuts,” he explains. “They were tattooed and pierced, always drunk, pillaging.”

The raid met with little opposition and, after trouncing a militia force at Malcolm’s Mill, near Brantford, and scalping and mutilating the bodies of two dead defenders, McArthur turned for home. It was the last battle of the war fought on Canadian soil.

The effect of McArthur’s incursion, as well as earlier U.S. attacks on southwestern Ontario, was to turn the entire region into a no-man’s land. With neither side firmly in control, lawlessness and hunger reigned, further precipitating a flood of refugees from the hinterland to what is now Hamilton. In an attempt to impose order on the area, the British found it prudent to hang eight locals for high treason after they were caught raiding farmhouses in the company of Americans. Darfler recounts another tale in which a group of white farmers near Hamilton murdered three travelling natives who were simply eating a dinner of squirrels they had caught. Crimes of opportunity abounded in the chaos.

Of course the War of 1812 extended far beyond the forests and fields of Ontario and Quebec. And it was an equally unconventional war on water as on land.

Madison’s war message was almost entirely preoccupied with maritime matters—specifically the British practice of stopping American ships on the Atlantic to enforce a blockade of Napoleonic Europe and to search for deserters from the Royal Navy. With sea trade as the primary cause of the war, it also figured prominently in the war itself.

“Atlantic Canada didn’t witness any of the big land battles or legendary characters such as Brock or Tecumseh,” admits Dan Conlin, curator of marine history at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax. “But this was a critical zone for the war because it was the main supply route.”

In its effort to blockade the American economy, the Royal Navy turned to Canadian ship owners to create a fleet of 50 privateers—“privately owned ships licensed by government to attack and capture enemy shipping,” explains Conlin. Canada’s civilian navy captured approximately 250 U.S. ships during the war and brought inter-coastal U.S. traffic to a near standstill.

Among the ships involved, none exceeded the famed Liverpool Packet, based in Liverpool, N.S. “She was really a schooner no bigger than a harbour tour boat today,” says Conlin. Armed with just five cannons, the Packet captured 50 American ships, many of them much larger than her.

“Privateering is all about speed, getting close and looking menacing,” recounts Conlin. More often than not, the mere sight of a fierce boarding crew was enough to convince opposing captains to give up their ship. The Liverpool Packet and her crew were so good at this routine that they earned a reputation far beyond reality. “U.S. newspapers were full of exaggerated and often paranoid reports of the Liverpool Packet’s movements and achievements,” says Conlin, pointing out the Packet was credited at one point with more prizes than all Canadian privateers returned during the entire war.

The Packet was captured herself once, by a much bigger U.S. ship; Packet captain Joseph Barss Jr., was kept in chains in Portsmouth, N.H., for almost a year for fear he might escape to wreak additional havoc. The Americans renamed the ship Young Teaser’s Ghost but failed to bring home a single prize. She was quickly recaptured by the British, un-renamed and, with a new captain, continued ravaging the Atlantic seaboard for the rest of the war. She was the last of her kind. The War of 1812 marked the final hurrah for civilian navies around the world, as the practice of privateering was later outlawed by international agreement.

Today, the War of 1812 has been reborn and repackaged as a symbol of conventional patriotism, historical pride and military achievement. There is certainly truth in all that. But 200 years ago the war—marked by treachery, devastation and lawlessness—meant something quite different. That’s also worth remembering.

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