Two hundred years ago today the United States of America declared war on Upper Canada in what would become the conflict that defined Canada. Technically neither side “won” the war; at the end of it the borders remained exactly the same as before the war started. What we got out of it, though, was a new sense of identity. The Americans got a new national anthem to replace the original one, “Chester”, which I think was a much nicer one. All in all, I think we came out ahead.
I’m ashamed to admit that my knowledge of the War of 1812 is not what it should be, something I’m hoping to rectify through a lot of reading and attending 1812 events over the next few years. As a historical re-enactor, I should know more about this war than I do, and the excuse of “well, it’s not my time period” – I re-enact the American Revolutionary War period – just doesn’t cut it.
What I do know is this. Before the War of 1812, people who lived in Upper Canada didn’t refer to themselves as Canadians. In fact, a lot of them called themselves Americans. Others called them “Late Loyalists” as they were Americans who came to Upper Canada in the years following the Revolutionary War (or War of Independence, as the U.S. calls it) tempted by the promise of free land. All they had to do was swear allegiance to the Crown. When the War of 1812 started, a lot of them were on the fence about which side to support. The U.S. was counting on this – they figured that they would be welcomed as liberators, and that the “Late Loyalists” would switch their allegiance back to the American side.
It might have worked, too, if it hadn’t been for the Battle of York. In 1813, the Americans attacked York, now known as Toronto, with ships and men. They came off Lake Ontario and landed west of the town. The Americans were successful in driving the British forces out of Fort York, but before they retreated the British blew up the powder magazine. The resulting debris and shockwave killed 38 American soldiers including their leader, Brigadier General Zebulon Pike. The Americans considered this to be a treacherous act, and retaliated by pillaging, looting and burning York without any care as to whose houses they were attacking. This, more than anything else, turned the “Late Loyalists” against their former countrymen. And, of course, we got some measure of revenge ourselves when we returned the favour and burned down the White House in 1814!
After the War of 1812 ended, Canadians had a new sense of pride in themselves. It was after this war that they started calling themselves Canadians, and started looking at themselves as separate from the U.S.
A lot of the above comes from watching History Channel’s excellent show, Explosion 1812. I’m looking forward to being able to expand that knowledge as I read more. If you’re interested in learning more, stick around for the ride – as I learn, so shall you! In the meantime, though, if you’re interested in learning more about Canada’s history, check out my friend Michael’s blog, History’s Lessons. Michael’s been a re-enactor for 30+ years and knows more about history than possibly anyone I know. I’ve learned a lot about Canadian history just sitting around the campfire at re-enactments listening to him talk, which is also a wonderful way to learn.