“We won. Any questions?”
That was the humorous beginning to eminent military historian John Grodzinski’s speech before a full room of Fitzroy Historical Society members at their annual dinner on Oct. 19, at the Kinburn Community Centre. He was speaking about the controversial War of 1812 - this year commemorating the 200th anniversary – that both Canada and the U.S. claim to have won.
Grodzinski, a major and assistant professor at the Royal Military College, talked of various battles and personalities that dominated the war, which ended in 1815. Many had humorous aspects, such as the pursuit that took place on sled, which ended only when the U.S. aggressors stopped to pick up booze unloaded by the retreating Canadian militia.
He opened with an anecdote of current Defence Minister Peter MacKay, who through aids asked for information about the war that he could work into a speech while in the States. Grodzinski was asked to add a joke related to the War of 1812.
“So I thought of the largest battle of the war, the attack at York in 1813,” he said. “I said the Americans were looking for the Stanley Cup; then they realized they were in Toronto. How could it be there?”
Along with entertaining the crowd, Grodzinski enlightened by noting that the War of 1812 and the larger Napoleonic Wars was known, prior to the First World War, as “The Great War”. One in five Western men wore a uniform. The casualty count was the same, only the former was spread over more years.
“The Napoleonic Wars of the late 18th and early 19th century, of which the War of 1812 was caught up in, was truly a world war,” he said. “Great Britain led the coalition to get Napoleon.”
Trouble was, the Americans were claiming a neutral position and selling goods to both sides. How can a country claim neutrality if it was selling food and other commodities to countries with active armies? That didn’t sit well with the British, who were still looking sideways at the rising power.
“The British and French were trying to destroy each other’s economy by high seas fighting,” he said. “The British cleared the seas; the French and Spanish navies were reduced. That left the U.S. to jump in to fill the void. They had a large merchant fleet and were selling grain to many European countries.”
However, the British were stopping U.S. ships and claiming some crew members as deserters. Tariffs were also running high against U.S. mercantile companies. That’s when the Americans declared war.
Many of the better known battles took place in Southern Ontario and on both sides of the St. Lawrence Seaway.
In many ways it was a tragic war, Grodzinski said. Towns and villages were burned to the ground using vicious gorilla-warfare tactics. But it wasn’t always trained U.S. troops versus British, in well-polished garb following time-honoured rules of war. It was militias from both sides, comprised of farmers with instruments of their trade.
Often family and friends from one side of the river were forced to fight family and friends on the other side, all to please far-away politicians.
Most people on both sides assumed it would be a quick win for the U.S. It was a nation of six million people with a growing military industrial complex. There were 600,000 people in all of Canada. Few British troops were available in the early part of the war. The U.S. figured it would cut off the supply line somewhere along the river, choking towns and villages into surrender.
It would prove “a mere matter of marching,” according to Thomas Jefferson.
But the U.S. troops were ill-trained and made serious strategically errors early on, buying time for the British to send reinforcements. The embolden underdogs began to believe victory was possible; and with that, they even began to care who won.
Before the war, Canadians were basically indifferent to whether their taxes went to London or Washington. But as the pillaging and crimes from U.S. militia members mounted, and unexpected victories for Canada climbed, opinions changed. Nationalism and patriotism grew.
Canada was borne out of the War of 1812.
Victories in Detroit, with the help of native warriors who stood side by side with the British throughout the war, and the sacking of the White House and other government building in D.C., remain points of pride among Canadians.
And yet the nation nearly died in infancy. The U.S. scored numerous victories, Grodzinski noted, nearly winning the war in 1813. But the British held on. It was because the U.S. scored victories over British invasions in New York, Baltimore (described in its national anthem), and New Orleans, that many Americans claim to have won the war. The latter took place after a peace treaty was signed, but before anyone on this side of the Atlantic found out.
The Americans hold pride in having repulsed the world’s largest navy, and the country they defeated in the War of Independence. Hence the debate over who won the war continues.
Many legendary figures emerged from the war: General Isaac Brock, Laura Secord, Tecumseh, to name a few. Grodzinski sprinkled their names throughout his lively speech, bringing history alive to those in the hall.