The War of 1812 between Britain and the United States took place against the global backdrop of the long struggle between Britain, with a shifting series of European allies, and the French and European empire of Napoleon. In the first decade of the 1800s each side forbade neutral nations to trade with the other side, but only the British with the dominant Royal Navy could impose these restrictions upon a burgeoning American merchant marine which was beginning to trade worldwide. In addition to their search for contraband, the British stopped American ships to remove sailors whom they regarded as British subjects and, always desperate for trained manpower in the long wars with France, pressed them into service in the Royal Navy. Some British captains were not careful to ensure that these seamen were in fact British rather than American citizens.
The United States and Britain came to the brink of war in 1807 when the British ship HMS Leopard stopped the American frigate USS Chesapeake just outside American territorial waters. When the American vessel refused to be inspected, the British fired into the frigate, boarded it and removed four seamen whom the British captain claimed to be deserters. Although the British apologized, they did not end their stop and search practices.
During the same years the Americans came increasingly into conflict with both the British and the Native people living in the "Old Northwest" of the Ohio and upper Mississippi watersheds. Britain did not initially surrender such western posts as Fort Niagara, Detroit and Fort Michilimackinac to the Americans as required by the Treaty of Paris in 1783, which ended the American Revolution. First Nations in this region, who regularly gathered at these posts to trade, looked to the British to assist them to stem the encroaching tide of American settlement, but substantive help was not forthcoming. Nevertheless, expansionist "War Hawks" in the U.S. Congress accused the British of aiding the Native people. In June 1812, President James Madison declared war, convinced that this was the only way to bring pressure upon the British to address the Americans' maritime grievances and to appease the "War Hawks." Nothing happened for a month, until American Brigadier General William Hull crossed the Detroit River to occupy the far western Upper Canada outpost village of Sandwich.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century British North America was a collection of separate colonies or provinces -- Upper and Lower Canada, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, St. John's Island (Prince Edward Island) and Newfoundland -- united only by having a single governor general. With the exception of funds voted by the colonial legislatures for local defence, foreign relations and defence were British responsibilities. The Governor-in-Chief of British North America, Lieutenant-General Sir George Prevost, and the colonial lieutenant-governors were the effective military commanders and makers of local strategy. A shortage of British regular soldiers and the need for maritime control of the Great Lakes meant that British North American commanders had to adopt a primarily defensive strategy for the first two years of the war. Napoleon's defeat and abdication in early 1814 allowed Britain to transfer more of its troops from Europe to North America. While negotiations to end the war continued, both sides launched offensives that, while unsuccessful for both, involved the heaviest fighting of the war.
The war affected the various regions of British North America quite differently. Because the New England states generally opposed the war, the Maritimes quickly reached a peaceful arrangement with the Americans. The British colonies served chiefly as bases for the Royal Navy's blockade of the American seaboard and for privateering voyages against American merchant shipping.
In Lower Canada, present-day Quebec, the canadien population was by 1812 reconciled to British rule and turned out for militia service when ordered to do so. British North American Governor-in-Chief Prevost recognized that Lower Canada, especially Québec city, was key to a successful defence. In the end, however, the Americans launched only one major attack against the colony, which was thwarted by a mixture of British fencibles (regular troops recruited for local defence only) and canadien militia at the battle of Châteauguay in 1813.
Upper Canada was the scene of many of the military operations of the war. At the outset, support for the British administration was not easily forthcoming. Much of the colony had been only recently settled, largely from the United States, and many of these settlers could only be charitably described as "late Loyalists." There was sympathy for the American cause both in the colonial legislature and in the countryside. Determined to rally support for the British North American side, Major-General Isaac Brock, commander in Upper Canada, launched a pre-emptive strike on Detroit. His victories there and at Queenston Heights persuaded many colonists that the province could be held and that they must do their duties as militiamen in the fighting which continued over two and a half years.
Even within Upper Canada different areas were affected differently by the war. The eastern part of the colony faced a long open frontier with the Americans. Each side raided the other throughout the war but the Americans made only one real offensive here. In the autumn of 1813 an advance toward Montréal was thwarted at Crysler's Farm, near present-day Morrisburg. The Americans made more serious invasion attempts throughout the war along the Niagara frontier, where much of the heavy fighting took place. Brock's early advantage in taking Detroit was lost in 1813 by Major-General Henry Procter, who abandoned the western end of the colony after the defeat of the British squadron on Lake Erie. Although Procter was decisively defeated and his Shawnee ally Tecumseh killed by Major General William Henry Harrison, a future American president, at Moraviantown on the Thames River, the Americans did not pursue their advantage but withdrew to their Detroit base.
Peace negotiations began in the summer of 1814. Britain had invaded France and Napoleon had abdicated, permitting the transfer of British troops from Europe to North America. While peace talks continued, an expedition raided and burned Washington, D.C. The American negotiators in turn were heartened by the news that Lieutenant-General Prevost had abandoned his expedition against Plattsburg, N.Y., in September 1814 after his small naval squadron on Lake Champlain was destroyed. The Treaty of Ghent, signed on Christmas Eve, 1814, returned all territorial conquests made by either side but forced the British to abandon their tribal allies in the Northwest. The Treaty did not address the maritime causes of the war after all: with Napoleon's downfall they were no longer an issue.
Andrew Jackson, another future American president, defeated a last British expedition that landed at the mouth of the Mississippi and attempted to take New Orleans, on January 8, 1815, before news of the peace treaty reached America. As this expedition had no connection with Canada, nor any effect on the outcome of the war, it is not considered further in this readers' guide.
This pathfinder is by no means an exhaustive bibliography of the war. It only attempts to introduce the reader to the major questions and interpretations involved and to provide a reference to some of the more recent, as well as some of the earliest, literature. Juvenile literature on the war, which could be a whole separate category, is not included.
The authors have included the English edition of works if they are available in both French and English. Items marked with an asterisk (*) are known to be available in French. Most titles included in this guide are held by Library and Archives Canada, and many are available for interlibrary loan, both within Canada and abroad.