The invasion of Canada 1812-1813

Pierre Berton's classic history of the Canadian-American war of 1812

The Invasion of Canada is an account of the first year of the North American War of 1812, between Canada and America.

At the start of the campaign the Americans were in a vastly superior position and confident of a swift victory. How could it all have gone so horribly and horrifically wrong?

By the end of the campaign of 1812 - 1813 three American armies had either surrendered or been killed. Scores of men had lost their lives and many families had lost their livelihoods.

In 1812 the Americans seemed to be in a hugely advantageous position. They had a vastly greater population and superior resources. Britain was already engaged in a desperate battle with Napoleon's armies and could provide little aid to the British Canadians. What is more, the small population of Canadians in 1812 lived in a land of strongly divided loyalties. They were a fledgling nation which had yet to develop its own patriotic spirit.

Pierre Berton drew on primary sources, such as memoirs, letters and official war correspondence, to produce this moving and fast paced description of the war of 1812, and how it affected the personal lives of the particpants.

Berton examines the lead up to the outbreak of hostilities. He points out that "this was a war that almost nobody wanted." However, there were factors, that eventually propelled the two sides into conflict. Essentially, Berton describes the North American war as an adjunct to Britain's wider conflict in the Napoleonic wars. The Americans reacted against the British policy of press ganging American sailors into the Royal Navy. Conflict also extended from Britain's policy of seizing American vessels that sailed into French ports. Eventually this, amongst a series of other factors, culminated in American frustration which resulted in the invasion of Canada.

Berton was interested in the individual's experiences of war. He attempts to provide us with a vision of what it would have been like to experience the conflict first hand. His script is flavoured with many individual stories of tragedies and heroics. It includes the story of Lieutenant Porter Hanks, the commander of an isolated American outpost. It includes the story of Major-General Stephen Van Rensselaer, a politician who ended up being thrust into a command he could not cope with. It includes the story of Mrs John Simmons, who, a prisoner of the Indians, carries her infant child along a nightmarish 600 mile trek to safety.

The role of Shawnee Chief Tecumseh

As Berton acknowledges, there is not much primary documentation about the Indians' direct experiences of the war. However, he does offer a portrait of the charismatic Indian leader Tecumseh, Chief of the Shawnee. At the time, Tecumseh saw his people's interests tied up with those of the British-Canadians. The Indians had a reputation for brutality. They inspired terror in the Americans and their participation prompted decisive military turning points, such as at the Battle for Fort Detroit.

A charismatic, handsome and intelligent "warrior", Tecumseh was able to unite vastly different groups of Indians, a task that appeared to be impossible. Berton examines how he did this, his motivations, and the effect of his leadership on the War.

Major General Sir Isaac Brock

The Hero of Upper Canada, Isaac Brock would have much preferred to have been on the European Continent fighting Napoleon. Instead he became Canada's first military hero when he died leading his men at the Battle of Queenston Heights, near Niagara Falls. Berton describes him with delicious irony as "the first Canadian War Hero, an Englishman who hated the provincial confines of the Canadas...who could hardly wait to shake the Canadian mud from his boots."

So how did this man become a Canadian hero?

Intelligent and brave Brock had the ability to inspire deep loyalty in his men. During the lead up to the war, Brock instituted careful defence strategies with "military prescience." He set up and trained a militia, and courted an alliance with Tecumseh and the Indian peoples. He masterminded a victory at Fort Detroit through a series of military manouveres which convinced his rival General Hull that he was outnumbered and facing a massacre by Tecumseh's Indians. It was largely thanks to Brock's generalship, teamed with a lack of decisive leadership on the American's part, that led to Canada's successful defence during the first year of the war.

Battles and massacres

Berton details the lead up, strategies and outcomes of the major battles of the first year of the war. However, it is apparent that this was also a war with the elements. Men were exposed to horrific conditions They battled freezing temperatures while dressed in rags, some with no shoes. At times these armies ran out of supplies and men died from disease and starvation. They went in constant terror of being scalped by the Indians. The Indians were an enigma to both sides. A sometime ally to the British-Canadians they were considered a ferocious, almost demonic force, by many.

This book is the first in Berton's two part series on the war of 1812. His second work in the series, Flames across the Border, picks up where this account finishes:

Very readable, this book is highly recommended. It will be particularly insightful for students or those looking for an easy introduction to the history of the war.

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Comments 4 comments

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

I've heard of these conflicts with Canada but I have not read about them to any degree. I always thought it a bit ironic.

angie ashbourne profile image

angie ashbourne 4 years ago

Hi! Well done, vote up. Angie

DynamicS profile image

DynamicS 4 years ago from Toronto, Canada

Bicentennial commemorations of the war of 1812 are being celebrated this year in Canada. It appears that due to the result of the war, mostly Canadians are choosing to remember it.

One thing I have to add to your post is the notion that Natives as well as black loyalists fought alongside white militia in this war. So Brock, Tecumseh and other military leaders could not have won the war without the efforts of the ordinary frontline militia like Richard Pierpoint.

Peter Geekie profile image

Peter Geekie 2 years ago from Sittingbourne

Dear Emma Beth

Thank you for an interesting insight into a less well known conflict.

Well written, voted up and interesting.

kind regards Peter

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