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Off to the Front, 1812

President Madison sent his message to Congress on the 1st of June and signed the resultant 'war bill' on the 18th following. Congress was as much divided as the nation on the question of peace or war. The vote in the House of Representatives was seventy-nine to forty-nine, while in the Senate it was nineteen to thirteen. The government itself was 'solid.' But it did little enough to make up for the lack of national whole-heartedness by any efficiency of its own. Madison was less zealous about the war than most of his party. He was no Pitt or Lincoln to ride the storm, but a respectable lawyer-politician, whose forte was writing arguments, not wielding his country's sword. Nor had he in his Cabinet a single statesman with a genius for making war. His war secretary, William Eustis, never grasped the military situation at all, and had to be replaced by John Armstrong after the egregious failures of the first campaign. During the war debate in June, Eustis was asked to report to Congress how many of the 'additional' twenty-five thousand men authorized in January had already been enlisted. The best answer he could make was a purely 'unofficial opinion' that the number was believed to exceed five thousand.

The first move to the front was made by the Navy. Under very strong pressure the Cabinet had given up the original idea of putting the ships under a glass case; and four days after the declaration of war orders were sent to the senior naval officer, Commodore Rodgers, to 'protect our returning commerce' by scattering his ships about the American coast just where the British squadron at Halifax would be most likely to defeat them one by one. Happily for the United States, these orders were too late. Rodgers had already sailed. He was a man of action. His little squadron of three frigates, one sloop, and one brig lay in the port of New York, all ready waiting for the word. And when news of the declaration arrived, he sailed within the hour, and set out in pursuit of a British squadron that was convoying a fleet of merchantmen from the West Indies to England. He missed the convoy, which worked into Liverpool, Bristol, and London by getting to the north of him. But, for all that, his sudden dash into British waters with an active, concentrated squadron produced an excellent effect. The third day out the British frigate Belvidera met him and had to run for her life into Halifax. The news of this American squadron's being at large spread alarm all over the routes between Canada and the outside world. Rodgers turned south within a few hours' sail of the English Channel, turned west off Madeira, gave Halifax a wide berth, and reached Boston ten weeks out from Sandy Hook. 'We have been so completely occupied in looking out for Commodore Rodgers,' wrote a British naval officer, 'that we have taken very few prizes.' Even Madison was constrained to admit that this offensive move had had the defensive results he had hoped to reach in his own 'defensive' way. 'Our Trade has reached our ports, having been much favored by a squadron under Commodore Rodgers.'

The policy of squadron cruising was continued throughout the autumn and winter of 1812. There were no squadron battles. But there was unity of purpose; and British convoys were harassed all over the Atlantic till well on into the next year. During this period there were five famous duels, which have made the Constitution and the United States, the Hornet and the Wasp, four names to conjure with wherever the Stars and Stripes are flown. The Constitution fought the first, when she took the Guerriere in August, due east of Boston and south of Newfoundland. The Wasp won the second in September, by taking the Frolic half-way between Halifax and Bermuda. The United States won the third in October, by defeating the Macedonian south-west of Madeira. The Constitution won the fourth in December, off Bahia in Brazil, by defeating the Java. And the Hornet won the fifth in February, by taking the Peacock, off Demerara, on the coast of British Guiana.

This closed the first period of the war at sea. The British government had been so anxious to avoid war, and to patch up peace again after war had broken out, that they purposely refrained from putting forth their full available naval strength till 1813. At the same time, they would naturally have preferred victory to defeat; and the fact that most of the British Navy was engaged elsewhere, and that what was available was partly held in leash, by no means dims the glory of those four men-of-war which the Americans fought with so much bravery and skill, and with such well-deserved success. No wonder Wellington said peace with the United States would be worth having at any honorable price, 'if we could only take some of their damned frigates!' Peace was not to come for another eighteen months. But though the Americans won a few more duels out at sea, besides two annihilating flotilla victories on the Lakes, their coast was blockaded as completely as Napoleon's, once the British Navy had begun its concerted movements on a comprehensive scale. From that time forward the British began to win the naval war, although they won no battles and only one duel that has lived in history. This dramatic duel, fought between the Shannon and the Chesapeake on June 1, 1813, was not itself a more decisive victory for the British than previous frigate duels had been for the Americans. But it serves better than any other special event to mark the change from the first period, when the Americans roved the sea as conquerors, to the second, when they were gradually blockaded into utter impotence.

Having now followed the thread of naval events to a point beyond the other limits of this chapter, we must return to the American movements against the Canadian frontier and the British counter-movements intended to checkmate them.

Quebec and Halifax, the two great Canadian seaports, were safe from immediate American attack; though Quebec was the ultimate objective of the Americans all through the war. But the frontier west of Quebec offered several tempting chances for a vigorous invasion, if the American naval and military forces could only be made to work together. The whole life of Canada there depended absolutely on her inland waterways. If the Americans could cut the line of the St Lawrence and Great Lakes at any critical point, the British would lose everything to the west of it; and there were several critical points of connection along this line. St Joseph's Island, commanding the straits between Lake Superior and Lake Huron, was a vital point of contact with all the Indians to the west. It was the British counterpoise to the American post at Michilimackinac, which commanded the straits between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. Detroit commanded the waterway between Lake Huron and Lake Erie; while the command of the Niagara peninsula ensured the connection between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. At the head of the St Lawrence, guarding the entrance to Lake Ontario, stood Kingston. Montreal was an important station midway between Kingston and Quebec, besides being an excellent base for an army thrown forward against the American frontier. Quebec was the general base from which all the British forces were directed and supplied.

Quick work, by water and land together, was essential for American success before the winter, even if the Canadians were really so anxious to change their own flag for the Stars and Stripes. But the American government put the cart before the horse--the Army before the Navy--and weakened the military forces of invasion by dividing them into two independent commands. General Henry Dearborn was appointed commander-in-chief, but only with control over the north-eastern country, that is, New England and New York. Thirty years earlier Dearborn had served in the War of Independence as a junior officer; and he had been Jefferson's Secretary of War. Yet he was not much better trained as a leader than his raw men were as followers, and he was now sixty-one. He established his headquarters at Greenbush, nearly opposite Albany, so that he could advance on Montreal by the line of the Hudson, Lake Champlain, and the Richelieu. The intended advance, however, did not take place this year. Greenbush was rather a recruiting depot and camp of instruction than the base of an army in the field; and the actual campaign had hardly begun before the troops went into winter quarters. The commander of the north-western army was General William Hull. And his headquarters were to be Detroit, from which Upper Canada was to be quickly overrun without troubling about the co-operation of the Navy. Like Dearborn, Hull had served in the War of Independence. But he had been a civilian ever since; he was now fifty-nine; and his only apparent qualification was his having been governor of Michigan for seven years. Not until September, after two defeats on land, was Commodore Chauncey ordered 'to assume command of the naval force on Lakes Erie and Ontario, and use every exertion to obtain control of them this fall.' Even then Lake Champlain, an essential link both in the frontier system and on Dearborn's proposed line of march, was totally forgotten.

To complete the dispersion of force, Eustis forgot all about the military detachments at the western forts. Fort Dearborn (now Chicago) and Michilimackinac, important as points of connection with the western tribes, were left to the devices of their own inadequate garrisons. In 1801 Dearborn himself, Eustis's predecessor as Secretary of War, had recommended a peace strength of two hundred men at Michilimackinac, usually known as 'Mackinaw.' In 1812 there were not so many at Mackinaw and Chicago put together.

It was not a promising outlook to an American military eye--the cart before the horse, the thick end of the wedge turned towards the enemy, three incompetent men giving disconnected orders on the northern frontier, and the western posts neglected. But Eustis was full of self-confidence. Hull was 'enthusing' his militiamen. And Dearborn was for the moment surpassing both, by proposing to 'operate, with effect, at the same moment, against Niagara, Kingston, and Montreal.'

From the Canadian side the outlook was also dark enough to the trained eye; though not for the same reasons. The menace here was from an enemy whose general resources exceeded those in Canada by almost twenty to one. The silver lining to the cloud was the ubiquitous British Navy and the superior training and discipline of the various little military forces immediately available for defense.

The Maritime Provinces formed a subordinate command, based on the strong naval station of Halifax, where a regular garrison was always maintained by the Imperial government. They were never invaded, or even seriously threatened. It was only in 1814 that they came directly into the scene of action, and then only as the base from which the invasion of Maine was carried out.

We must therefore turn to Quebec as the real centre of Canadian defense, which, indeed, it was best fitted to be, not only from its strategical situation, but from the fact that it was the seat of the governor-general and commander-in-chief, Sir George Prevost. Like Sir John Sherbrooke, the governor of Nova Scotia, Prevost was a professional soldier with an unblemished record in the Army. But, though naturally anxious to do well, and though very suavely diplomatic, he was not the man, as we shall often see, either to face a military crisis or to stop the Americans from stealing marches on him by negotiation. On the outbreak of war he was at headquarters in Quebec, dividing his time between his civil and military duties, greatly concerned with international diplomacy, and always full of caution.

At York (now Toronto) in Upper Canada a very different man was meanwhile preparing to checkmate Hull's 'north-western army' of Americans, which was threatening to invade the province. Isaac Brock was not only a soldier born and bred, but, alone among the leaders on either side, he had the priceless gift of genius. He was now forty-two, having been born in Guernsey on October 6, 1769, in the same year as Napoleon and Wellington. Like the Wolfes and the Montcalms, the Brocks had followed the noble profession of arms for many generations. Nor were the De Lisles, his mother's family, less distinguished for the number of soldiers and sailors they had been giving to England ever since the Norman Conquest. Brock himself, when only twenty-nine, had commanded the 49th Foot in Holland under Sir John Moore, the future hero of Corunna, and Sir Ralph Abercromby, who was so soon to fall victorious in Egypt. Two years after this he had stood beside another and still greater man at Copenhagen, 'mighty Nelson,' who there gave a striking instance of how a subordinate inspired by genius can win the day by disregarding the over-caution of a commonplace superior. We may be sure that when Nelson turned his blind eye on Parker's signal of recall the lesson was not thrown away on Brock.

For ten long years of inglorious peace Brock had now been serving on in Canada, while his comrades in arms were winning distinction on the battlefields of Europe. This was partly due to his own excellence: he was too good a man to be spared after his first five years were up in 1807; for the era of American hostility had then begun. He had always been observant. But after 1807 he had redoubled his efforts to 'learn Canada,' and learn her thoroughly. People and natural resources, products and means of transport, armed strength on both sides of the line and the best plan of defense, all were studied with unremitting zeal. In 1811 he became the acting lieutenant-governor and commander of the forces in Upper Canada, where he soon found out that the members of parliament returned by the 'American vote' were bent on thwarting every effort he could make to prepare the province against the impending storm. In 1812, on the very day he heard that war had been declared, he wished to strike the unready Americans hard and instantly at one of their three accessible points of assembly-Fort Niagara, at the upper end of Lake Ontario, opposite Fort George, which stood on the other side of the Niagara river; Sackett's Harbour, at the lower end of Lake Ontario, thirty-six miles from Kingston; and Ogdensburg, on the upper St Lawrence, opposite Fort Prescott. But Sir George Prevost, the governor-general, was averse from an open act of war against the Northern States, because they were hostile to Napoleon and in favor of maintaining peace with the British; while Brock himself was soon turned from this purpose by news of Hull's American invasion farther west, as well as by the necessity of assembling his own thwarting little parliament at York.

The nine days' session, from July 27 to August 5, yielded the indispensable supplies. But the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act, as a necessary war measure, was prevented by the disloyal minority, some of whom wished to see the British defeated and all of whom were ready to break their oath of allegiance whenever it suited them to do so. The patriotic majority, returned by the votes of United Empire Loyalists and all others who were British born and bred, issued an address that echoed the appeal made by Brock himself in the following words: 'We are engaged in an awful and eventful contest. By unanimity and dispatch in our councils and by vigor in our operations we may teach the enemy this lesson: That a country defended by free men, enthusiastically devoted to the cause of their King and Constitution, can never be conquered.'

On August 5, being at last clear of his immediate duties as a civil governor, Brock threw himself ardently into the work of defeating Hull, who had crossed over into Canada from Detroit on July 11 and issued a proclamation at Sandwich the following day. This proclamation shows admirably the sort of impression which the invaders wished to produce on Canadians.

The United States are sufficiently powerful to afford you every security consistent with their rights and your expectations. I tender you the invaluable blessings of Civil, Political, and Religious Liberty... The arrival of an army of Friends must be hailed by you with a cordial welcome. You will be emancipated from Tyranny and Oppression and restored to the dignified station of Freemen... If, contrary to your own interest and the just expectation of my country, you should take part in the approaching contest, you will be considered and treated as enemies and the horrors and calamities of war will Stalk before you. If the barbarous and Savage policy of Great Britain be pursued, and the savages let loose to murder our Citizens and butcher our women and children, this war will be a war of extermination. The first stroke with the Tomahawk, the first attempt with the Scalping Knife, will be the Signal for one indiscriminate scene of desolation. No white man found fighting by the Side of an Indian will be taken prisoner. Instant destruction will be his Lot...

This was war with a vengeance. But Hull felt less confidence than his proclamation was intended to display. He knew that, while the American government had been warned in January about the necessity of securing the naval command of Lake Erie, no steps had yet been taken to secure it. Ever since the beginning of March, when he had written a report based on his seven years' experience as governor of Michigan, he had been gradually learning that Eustis was bent on acting in defiance of all sound military advice. In April he had accepted his new position very much against his will and better judgment. In May he had taken command of the assembling militiamen at Dayton in Ohio. In June he had been joined by a battalion of inexperienced regulars. And now, in July, he was already feeling the ill effects of having to carry on what should have been an amphibious campaign without the assistance of any proper force afloat; for on the 2nd ten days before he issued his proclamation at Sandwich, Lieutenant Rolette, an enterprising French-Canadian officer in the Provincial Marine, had cut his line of communication along the Detroit and had taken an American schooner which contained his official plan of campaign, besides a good deal of baggage and stores.

There were barely six hundred British on the line of the Detroit when Hull first crossed over to Sandwich with twenty-five hundred men. These six hundred comprised less than 150 regulars, about 300 militia, and some 150 Indians. Yet Hull made no decisive effort against the feeble little fort of Malden, which was the only defense of Amherstburg by land. The distance was nothing, only twelve miles south from Sandwich. He sent a sort of flying column against it. But this force went no farther than half-way, where the Americans were checked at the bridge over the swampy little Riviere aux Canards by the Indians under Tecumseh, the great War Chief of whom we shall soon hear more.

Hull's failure to take Fort Malden was one fatal mistake. His failure to secure his communications southward from Detroit was another. Apparently yielding to the prevalent American idea that a safe base could be created among friendly Canadians without the trouble of a regular campaign, he sent off raiding parties up the Thames. According to his own account, these parties 'penetrated sixty miles into the settled part of the province.' According to Brock, they 'ravaged the country as far as the Moravian Town.' But they gained no permanent foothold. By the beginning of August Hull's position had already become precarious. The Canadians had not proved friendly. The raid up the Thames and the advance towards Amherstburg had both failed. And the first British reinforcements had already begun to arrive. These were very small. But even a few good regulars helped to discourage Hull; and the new British commander, Colonel Procter of the 41st, was not yet to be faced by a task beyond his strength. Worse yet for the Americans, Brock might soon be expected from the east; the Provincial Marine still held the water line of communication from the south; and dire news had just come in from the west.

The moment Brock had heard of the declaration of war he had sent orders post-haste to Captain Roberts at St Joseph's Island, either to attack the Americans at Michilimackinac or stand on his own defense. Roberts received Brock's orders on the 15th of July. The very next day he started for Michilimackinac with 45 men of the Royal Veterans, 180 French-Canadian voyageurs, 400 Indians, and two 'unwieldy' iron six-pounders. Surprise was essential, to prevent the Americans from destroying their stores; and the distance was a good fifty miles. But 'by the almost unparalleled exertions of the Canadians who manned the boats, we arrived at the place of Rendezvous at 3 o'clock the following morning.' One of the iron six-pounders was then hauled up the heights, which rise to eight hundred feet, and trained on the dumbfounded Americans, while the whole British force took post for storming. The American commandant, Lieutenant Hanks, who had only fifty-seven effective men, thereupon surrendered without firing a shot.

The news of this bold stroke ran like wildfire through the whole North-West. The effect on the Indians was tremendous, immediate, and wholly in favor of the British. In the previous November Tecumseh's brother, known far and wide as the 'Prophet,' had been defeated on the banks of the Tippecanoe, a river of Indiana, by General Harrison, of whom we shall hear in the next campaign. This battle, though small in itself, was looked upon as the typical victory of the dispossessing Americans; so the British seizure of Michilimackinac was hailed with great joy as being a most effective counter-stroke. Nor was this the only reason for rejoicing. Michilimackinac and St Joseph's commanded the two lines of communication between the western wilds and the Great Lakes; so the possession of both by the British was more than a single victory, it was a promise of victories to come. No wonder Hull lamented this 'opening of the hive,' which 'let the swarms' loose all over the wilds on his inland flank and rear.

He would have felt more uneasy still if he had known what was to happen when Captain Heald received his orders at Fort Dearborn (Chicago) on August 9. Hull had ordered Heald to evacuate the fort as soon as possible and rejoin headquarters. Heald had only sixty-six men, not nearly enough to overawe the surrounding Indians. News of the approaching evacuation spread quickly during the six days of preparation. The Americans failed to destroy the strong drink in the fort. The Indians got hold of it, became ungovernably drunk, and killed half of Heald's men before they had gone a mile. The rest surrendered and were spared. Heald and his wife were then sent to Mackinaw, where Roberts treated them very kindly and sent them on to Pittsburg. The whole affair was one between Indians and Americans alone. But it was naturally used by the war party to inflame American feeling against all things British.

While Hull was writing to Fort Dearborn and hearing bad news from Michilimackinac, he was also getting more and more anxious about his own communications to the south. With no safe base in Canada, and no safe line of transport by water from Lake Erie to the village of Detroit, he decided to clear the road which ran north and south beside the Detroit river. But this was now no easy task for his undisciplined forces, as Colonel Procter was bent on blocking the same road by sending troops and Indians across the river. On August 5, the day Brock prorogued his parliament at York, Tecumseh ambushed Hull's first detachment of two hundred men at Brownstown, eighteen miles south of Detroit. On the 7th Hull began to withdraw his forces from the Canadian side. On the 8th he ordered six hundred men to make a second attempt to clear the southern road. But on the 9th these men were met at Maguaga, only fourteen miles south of Detroit, by a mixed force of British-regulars, militia, and Indians. The superior numbers of the Americans enabled them to press the British back at first. But, on the 10th, when the British showed a firm front in a new position, the Americans retired discouraged. Next day Hull withdrew the last of his men from Canadian soil, exactly one month after they had first set foot upon it. The following day was spent in consulting his staff and trying to reorganize his now unruly militia. On the evening of the 13th he made his final effort to clear the one line left, by sending out four hundred picked men under his two best colonels, McArthur and Cass, who were ordered to make an inland detour through the woods.

That same night Brock stepped ashore at Amherstburg.


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

 

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