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Opposing Forces

An armed mob must be very big indeed before it has the slightest chance against a small but disciplined army.

So very obvious a statement might well be taken for granted in the history of any ordinary war. But '1812' was not an ordinary war. It was a sprawling and sporadic war; and it was waged over a vast territory by widely scattered and singularly heterogeneous forces on both sides. For this reason it is extremely difficult to view and understand as one connected whole. Partisan misrepresentation has never had a better chance. Americans have dwelt with justifiable pride on the frigate duels out at sea and the two flotilla battles on the Lakes. But they have usually forgotten that, though they won the naval battles, the British won the purely naval war. The mother-country British, on the other hand, have made too much of their one important victory at sea, have passed too lightly over the lessons of the other duels there, and have forgotten how long it took to sweep the Stars and Stripes away from the Atlantic. Canadians have, of course, devoted most attention to the British victories won in the frontier campaigns on land, which the other British have heeded too little and Americans have been only too anxious to forget. Finally, neither the Canadians, nor the mother-country British, nor yet the Americans, have often tried to take a comprehensive view of all the operations by land and sea together.

The character and numbers of the opposing forces have been even less considered and even more misunderstood. Militia victories have been freely claimed by both sides, in defiance of the fact that the regulars were the really decisive factor in every single victory won by either side, afloat or ashore. The popular notions about the numbers concerned are equally wrong. The totals were far greater than is generally known. Counting every man who ever appeared on either side, by land or sea, within the actual theatre of war, the united grand total reaches seven hundred thousand. This was most unevenly divided between the two opponents. The Americans had about 575,000, the British about 125,000. But such a striking difference in numbers was matched by an equally striking difference in discipline and training. The Americans had more than four times as many men. The British had more than four times as much discipline and training.

The forces on the American side were a small navy and a swarm of privateers, a small regular army, a few 'volunteers,' still fewer 'rangers,' and a vast conglomeration of raw militia. The British had a detachment from the greatest navy in the world, a very small 'Provincial Marine' on the Lakes and the St Lawrence, besides various little subsidiary services afloat, including privateers. Their army consisted of a very small but latterly much increased contingent of Imperial regulars, a few Canadian regulars, more Canadian militia, and a very few Indians. Let us pass all these forces in review.

The American Navy. During the Revolution the infant Navy had begun a career of brilliant promise; and Paul Jones had been a name to conjure with. British belittlement deprived him of his proper place in history; but he was really the founder of the regular Navy that fought so gallantly in '1812.' A tradition had been created and a service had been formed. Political opinion, however, discouraged proper growth. President Jefferson laid down the Democratic party's idea of naval policy in his first Inaugural. 'Beyond the small force which will probably be wanted for actual service in the Mediterranean, whatever annual sum you may think proper to appropriate to naval preparations would perhaps be better employed in providing those articles which may be kept without waste or consumption, and be in readiness when any exigence calls them into use. Progress has been made in providing materials for 74-gun ships.' [Footnote: A ship-of the-line, meaning a battleship or man-of war strong enough to take a position in the line of battle, was of a different minimum size at different periods. The tendency towards increase of size existed a century ago as well as to-day. 'Fourth-rates,' of 50 and 60 guns, dropped out of the line at the beginning of the Seven Years' War. In 1812 the 74-gun three-decker was the smallest man-of-war regularly used in the line of battle.] This 'progress' had been made in 1801. But in 1812, when Jefferson's disciple, Madison, formally declared war, not a single keel had been laid. Meanwhile, another idea of naval policy had been worked out into the ridiculous gunboat system. In 1807, during the crisis which followed the Berlin Decree, the Orders-in-Council, and the Chesapeake affair, Jefferson wrote to Thomas Paine: 'Believing, myself; that gunboats are the only water defense which can be useful to us, and protect us from the ruinous folly of a navy, I am pleased with everything which promises to improve them.' Whether 'improved' or not, these gunboats were found worse than useless as a substitute for 'the ruinous folly of a navy.' They failed egregiously to stop Jefferson's own countrymen from breaking his Embargo Act of 1808; and their weatherly qualities were so contemptible that they did not dare to lose sight of land without putting their guns in the hold. No wonder the practical men of the Navy called them 'Jeffs.'

When President Madison summoned Congress in 1811 war was the main topic of debate. Yet all he had to say about the Navy was contained in twenty-seven lukewarm words. Congress followed the presidential lead. The momentous naval vote of 1812 provided for an expenditure of six hundred thousand dollars, which was to be spread over three consecutive years and strictly limited to buying timber. Then, on the outbreak of war, the government, consistent to the last, decided to lay up the whole of their sea-going navy lest it should be captured by the British.

But this final indignity was more than the Navy could stand in silence. Some senior officers spoke their minds, and the party politicians gave way. The result was a series of victories which, of their own peculiar kind, have never been eclipsed. Not one American ship-of-the-line was ever afloat during the war; and only twenty-two frigates or smaller naval craft put out to sea. In addition, there were the three little flotillas on Lakes Erie, Ontario, and Champlain; and a few minor vessels elsewhere. All the crews together did not exceed ten thousand men, replacements included. Yet, even with these niggard means, the American Navy won the command of two lakes completely, held the command of the third in suspense, won every important duel out at sea, except the famous fight against the _Shannon_, inflicted serious loss on British sea-borne trade, and kept a greatly superior British naval force employed on constant and harassing duty.

The American Privateers. Besides the little Navy, there were 526 privately owned vessels which were officially authorized to prey on the enemy's trade. These were manned by forty thousand excellent seamen and had the chance of plundering the richest sea-borne commerce in the world. They certainly harassed British commerce, even in its own home waters; and during the course of the war they captured no less than 1344 prizes. But they did practically nothing towards reducing the British fighting force afloat; and even at their own work of commerce-destroying they did less than one-third as much as the Navy in proportion to their numbers.

The American Army. The Army had competed with the Navy for the lowest place in Jefferson's Inaugural of 1801. 'This is the only government where every man will meet invasions of the public order as his own personal concern... A well-disciplined militia is our best reliance for the first moments of war, till regulars may relieve them.' The Army was then reduced to three thousand men. 'Such were the results of Mr Jefferson's low estimate of, or rather contempt for, the military character,' said General Winfield Scott, the best officer the United States produced between '1812' and the Civil War. In 1808 'an additional military force' was authorized. In January 1812, after war had been virtually decided on, the establishment was raised to thirty-five thousand. But in June, when war had been declared, less than a quarter of this total could be called effectives, and more than half were still wanting to complete.' The grand total of all American regulars, including those present with the colors on the outbreak of hostilities as well as those raised during the war, amounted to fifty-six thousand. Yet no general had six thousand actually in the firing line of any one engagement.

The United States Volunteers. Ten thousand volunteers were raised, from first to last. They differed from the regulars in being enlisted for shorter terms of service and in being generally allowed to elect their own regimental officers. Theoretically they were furnished in fixed quotas by the different States, according to population. They resembled the regulars in other respects, especially in being directly under Federal, not State, authority.

The Rangers. Three thousand men with a real or supposed knowledge of backwoods life served in the war. They operated in groups and formed a very unequal force--good, bad, and indifferent. Some were under the Federal authority. Others belonged to the different States. As a distinct class they had no appreciable influence on the major results of the war.

The Militia. The vast bulk of the American forces, more than three-quarters of the grand total by land and sea, was made up of the militia belonging to the different States of the Union. These militiamen could not be moved outside of their respective States without State authority; and individual consent was also necessary to prolong a term of enlistment, even if the term should come to an end in the middle of a battle. Some enlisted for several months; others for no more than one. Very few had any military knowledge whatever; and most of the officers were no better trained than the men. The totals from all the different States amounted to 456,463. Not half of these ever got near the front; and not nearly half of those who did get there ever came into action at all. Except at New Orleans, where the conditions were quite abnormal, the militia never really helped to decide the issue of any battle, except, indeed, against their own army. 'The militia thereupon broke and fled' recurs with tiresome frequency in numberless dispatches. Yet the consequent charges of cowardice are nearly all unjust. The fellow-countrymen of those sailors who fought the American frigates so magnificently were no special kind of cowards. But, as a raw militia, they simply were to well-trained regulars what children are to men.

American Non-Combatant Services. There were more than fifty thousand deaths reported on the American side; yet not ten thousand men were killed or mortally wounded in all the battles put together. The medical department, like the commissariat and transport, was only organized at the very last minute, even among the regulars, and then in a most haphazard way. Among the militia these indispensable branches of the service were never really organized at all.

Such disastrous shortcomings were not caused by any lack of national resources. The population o the United States was about eight millions, as against eighteen millions in the British Isles. Prosperity was general; at all events, up to the time that it was checked by Jefferson's Embargo Act. The finances were also thought to be most satisfactory. On the very eve of war the Secretary of the Treasury reported that the national debt had been reduced by forty-six million dollars since his party had come into power. Had this 'war party' spent those millions on its Army and Navy, the war itself might have had an ending more satisfactory to the United States.

Let us now review the forces on the British side.

The eighteen million people in the British Isles were naturally anxious to avoid war with the eight millions in the United States. They had enough on their hands as it was. The British Navy was being kept at a greater strength than ever before; though it was none too strong for the vast amount of work it had to do. The British Army was waging its greatest Peninsular campaign. All the other naval and military services of what was already a world-wide empire had to be maintained. One of the most momentous crises in the world's history was fast approaching; for Napoleon, arch-enemy of England and mightiest of modern conquerors, was marching on Russia with five hundred thousand men. Nor was this all. There were troubles at home as well as dangers abroad. The king had gone mad the year before. The prime minister had recently been assassinated. The strain of nearly twenty years of war was telling severely on the nation. It was no time to take on a new enemy, eight millions strong, especially one who supplied so many staple products during peace and threatened both the sea flank of the mother country and the land flank of Canada during war.

Canada was then little more than a long, weak line of settlements on the northern frontier of the United States. Counting in the Maritime Provinces, the population hardly exceeded five hundred thousand--as many people, altogether, as there were soldiers in one of Napoleon's armies, or Americans enlisted for service in this very war. Nearly two-thirds of this half-million were French Canadians in Lower Canada, now the province of Quebec. They were loyal to the British cause, knowing they could not live a French-Canadian life except within the British Empire. The population of Upper Canada, now Ontario, was less than a hundred thousand. The Anglo-Canadians in it were of two kinds: British immigrants and United Empire Loyalists, with sons and grandsons of each. Both kinds were loyal. But the 'U.E.L.'s' were anti-American through and through, especially in regard to the war-and-Democratic party then in power. They could therefore be depended on to fight to the last against an enemy who, having driven them into exile once, was now coming to wrest their second New-World home from its allegiance to the British crown. They and their descendants in all parts of Canada numbered more than half the Anglo-Canadian population in 1812. The few thousand Indians near the scene of action naturally sided with the British, who treated them better and dispossessed them less than the Americans did. The only detrimental part of the population was the twenty-five thousand Americans, who simply used Canada as a good ground for exploitation, and who would have preferred to see it under the Stars and Stripes, provided that the change put no restriction on their business opportunities.

The British Navy. About thirty thousand men of the British Navy, only a fifth of the whole service, appeared within the American theatre of war from first to last. This oldest and greatest of all navies had recently emerged triumphant from an age-long struggle for the command of the sea. But, partly because of its very numbers and vast heritage of fame, it was suffering acutely from several forms of weakness. Almost twenty years of continuous war, with dull blockades during the last seven, was enough to make any service 'go stale.' Owing to the enormous losses recruiting had become exceedingly and increasingly difficult, even compulsory recruiting by press-gang. At the same time, Nelson's victories had filled the ordinary run of naval men with an over-weening confidence in their own invincibility; and this over-confidence had become more than usually dangerous because of neglected gunnery and defective shipbuilding. The Admiralty had cut down the supply of practice ammunition and had allowed British ships to lag far behind those of other nations in material and design. The general inferiority of British shipbuilding was such an unwelcome truth to the British people that they would not believe it till the American frigates drove it home with shattering broadsides. But it was a very old truth, for all that. Nelson's captains, and those of still earlier wars, had always competed eagerly for the command of the better built French prizes, which they managed to take only because the superiority of their crews was great enough to overcome the inferiority of their ships. There was a different tale to tell when inferior British vessels with 'run-down' crews met superior American vessels with first-rate crews. In those days training and discipline were better in the American mercantile marine than in the British; and the American Navy, of course, shared in the national efficiency at sea. Thus, with cheap materials, good designs, and excellent seamen, the Americans started with great advantages over the British for single-ship actions; and it was some time before their small collection of ships succumbed to the grinding pressure of the regularly organized British fleet.

The Provincial Marine. Canada had a little local navy on the Lakes called the Provincial Marine. It dated from the Conquest, and had done good service again during the Revolution, especially in Carleton's victory over Arnold on Lake Champlain in 1776. It had not, however, been kept up as a proper naval force, but had been placed under the quartermaster-general's department of the Army, where it had been mostly degraded into a mere branch of the transport service. At one time the effective force had been reduced to 132 men; though many more were hurriedly added just before the war. Most of its senior officers were too old; and none of the juniors had enjoyed any real training for combatant duties. Still, many of the ships and men did well in the war, though they never formed a single properly organized squadron.

British Privateers. Privateering was not a flourishing business in the mother country in 1812. Prime seamen were scarce, owing to the great number needed in the Navy and in the mercantile marine. Many, too, had deserted to get the higher wages paid in 'Yankees'--'dollars for shillings,' as the saying went. Besides, there was little foreign trade left to prey on. Canadian privateers did better. They were nearly all 'Bluenoses;' that is, they hailed from the Maritime Provinces. During the three campaigns the Court of Vice-Admiralty at Halifax issued letters of marque to forty-four privateers, which employed, including replacements, about three thousand men and reported over two hundred prizes.

British Commissariat and Transport. Transport, of course, went chiefly by water. Reinforcements and supplies from the mother country came out under convoy, mostly in summer, to Quebec, where bulk was broken, and whence both men and goods were sent to the front. There were plenty of experts in Canada to move goods west in ordinary times. The best of all were the French-Canadian voyageurs who manned the boats of the Hudson's Bay and North-West Companies. But there were not enough of them to carry on the work of peace and war together. Great and skilful efforts, however, were made. Schooners, bateaux, boats, and canoes were all turned to good account. But the inland line of communications was desperately long and difficult to work. It was more than twelve hundred miles from Quebec to Amherstburg on the river Detroit, even by the shortest route.

The British Army. The British Army, like the Navy, had to maintain an exacting world-wide service, besides large contingents in the field, on resources which had been severely strained by twenty years of war. It was represented in Canada by only a little over four thousand effective men when the war began. Reinforcements at first came slowly and in small numbers. In 1813 some foreign corps in British pay, like the Watteville and the Meuron regiments, came out. But in 1814 more than sixteen thousand men, mostly Peninsular veterans, arrived. Altogether, including every man present in any part of Canada during the whole war, there were over twenty-five thousand British regulars. In addition to these there were the troops invading the United States at Washington and Baltimore, with the reinforcements that joined them for the attack on New Orleans--in all, nearly nine thousand men. The grand total within the theatre of war was therefore about thirty-four thousand.

The Canadian Regulars. The Canadian regulars were about four thousand strong. Another two thousand took the place of men who were lost to the service, making the total six thousand, from first to last. There were six corps raised for permanent service: the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, the New Brunswick Regiment, the Canadian Fencibles, the Royal Veterans, the Canadian Voltigeurs, and the Glengarry Light Infantry. The Glengarries were mostly Highland Roman Catholics who had settled Glengarry county on the Ottawa, where Ontario marches with Quebec. The Voltigeurs were French Canadians under a French-Canadian officer in the Imperial Army. In the other corps there were many United Empire Loyalists from the different provinces, including a good stiffening of old soldiers and their sons.

The Canadian Embodied Militia. The Canadian militia by law comprised every able-bodied man except the few specially exempt, like the clergy and the judges. A hundred thousand adult males were liable for service. Various causes, however, combined to prevent half of these from getting under arms. Those who actually did duty were divided into 'Embodied' and 'Sedentary' corps. The embodied militia consisted of picked men, drafted for special service; and they often approximated so closely to the regulars in discipline and training that they may be classed, at the very least, as semi-regulars. Counting all those who passed into the special reserve during the war, as well as those who went to fill up the ranks after losses, there were nearly ten thousand of these highly trained, semi-regular militiamen engaged in the war.

The Canadian Sedentary Militia. The 'Sedentaries' comprised the rest of the militia. The number under arms fluctuated greatly; so did the length of time on duty. There were never ten thousand employed at any one time all over the country. As a rule, the 'Sedentaries' did duty at the base, thus releasing the better trained men for service at the front. Many had the blood of soldiers in their veins; and nearly all had the priceless advantage of being kept in constant touch with regulars. A passionate devotion to the cause also helped them to acquire, sooner than most other men, both military knowledge and that true spirit of discipline which, after all, is nothing but self-sacrifice in its finest patriotic form.

The Indians. Nearly all the Indians sided with the British or else remained neutral. They were, however, a very uncertain force; and the total number that actually served at the front throughout the war certainly fell short of five thousand.

This completes the estimate of the opposing forces-of the more than half a million Americans against the hundred and twenty-five thousand British; with these great odds entirely reversed whenever the comparison is made not between mere quantities of men but between their respective degrees of discipline and training.

But it does not complete the comparison between the available resources of the two opponents in one most important particular--finance. The Army Bill Act, passed at Quebec on August 1, 1812, was the greatest single financial event in the history of Canada. It was also full of political significance; for the parliament of Lower Canada was overwhelmingly French-Canadian. The million dollars authorized for issue, together with interest at six per cent, pledged that province to the equivalent of four years' revenue. The risk was no light one. But it was nobly run and well rewarded. These Army Bills were the first paper money in the whole New World that never lost face value for a day, that paid all their statutory interest, and that were finally redeemed at par. The denominations ran from one dollar up to four hundred dollars. Bills of one, two, three, and four dollars could always be cashed at the Army Bill Office in Quebec. After due notice the whole issue was redeemed in November 1816. A special feature well worth noting is the fact that Army Bills sometimes commanded a premium of five per cent over gold itself, because, being convertible into government bills of exchange on London, they were secure against any fluctuations in the price of bullion. A special comparison well worth making is that between their own remarkable stability and the equally remarkable instability of similar instruments of finance in the United States, where, after vainly trying to help the government through its difficulties, every bank outside of New England was forced to suspend specie payments in 1814, the year of the Great Blockade.


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Chronicles of Canada, The War With The United States, A Chronicle of 1812, 1915

 

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