Two hundred years ago today, we were poised – literally and figuratively – on the edge of war. Violence and bloodshed would engulf the Niagara Frontier as the young United States took on a world superpower, shaping the future of this continent in ways that are only now being fully understood.
The War of 1812, formally declared on June 18 of that year, was one of flames and heartbreak. And today, we stand poised to celebrate it – not for what it was, but for what its legacy became.
The bicentennial commemoration of America's Forgotten War is more than a resurrection of inconsequential memories. It is instead a lesson for the world, one that we have been living quietly here for most of those two centuries. The lesson is that enmity, no matter how bitter, can lead to deep and abiding friendship. And that's a lesson today's world badly needs.
There is more to the War of 1812 than that, of course. The war affirmed America's nationhood, and created Canada's. It doomed Native American hopes to stem the European flood of continental migration, opening the door to westward expansion. It saw the burning of Buffalo, Toronto and Washington, propelled two generals to the American presidency, created a long list of national icons on both sides of the border, marked a turning point for the U.S. Navy and ushered in an "Era of Good Feelings" that led to strong U.S., Canadian and British alliances for generations to come.
And then it was all but forgotten.
The Revolutionary War and the Civil War are burned into the American story. The War of 1812, America's "Second War of Independence," is not. Even in Canada, where Queenston-area Loyalist Laura Secord is a celebrated national hero and the war is regarded as the font of eventual Canadian nationhood, a poll ranked the war a distant second among factors that defined Canada – behind the provision of national health care.
The arrival of bicentennial celebrations, though, may change that – for a while.
"I don't think it will have a lasting legacy," laments Ralph E. Eshelman, a Maryland-based historian and author of several books, including "In Full Glory Reflected — Discovering the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake Bay," just published by the Maryland Historical Trust and Maryland Historical Society. "Once the bicentennial is over, it will again be America's Forgotten War."
But it is an important war, he adds.
"Before the war, most citizens didn't consider themselves citizens of a country," Eshelman said. "They were more affiliated with the states where they lived."
National icons emerged from the war, he points out, even though most Americans now forget their origins. Among them are the Francis Scott Key poem that became the lyrics of the national anthem, the star-spangled banner itself from Fort McHenry, the Albany-area symbol of "Uncle Sam," the Navy slogan "Don't Give Up the Ship" and the Naval battle report that "we have met the enemy and they are ours," the still-surviving frigate USS Constitution's enduring reputation as "Old Ironsides," the nickname of "Old Hickory" for Gen. Andrew Jackson (who, with Gen. William Henry Harrison, would reach the presidency) and the gray U.S. Military Academy cadet uniforms based on the hastily made uniforms for Gen. Winfield Scott's "thin gray line" of victorious Army regulars at the Battle of Chippawa.
The War of 1812 is probably America's most misunderstood war, even though it was a crucial turning point for the fledgling nation, Eshelman said. "Even though we did not win or lose this war, it had a profound effect on us," he added.
It had an even more profound effect on Canada.
Canada became a nation with its Articles of Confederation while the United States still was recovering from its Civil War, but the seeds were planted in 1812. Not only did Canada repulse several American attempts to invade and annex territory – a goal that President Thomas Jefferson famously had described as a mere "matter of marching" – but the immediate postwar feeling was that Canadian militia had done more than the British Army to ensure that. That view, instilled by the first Anglican bishop of Toronto after the war, is disputed by historians now, but it had a major impact just after a war that had united the British territories of Upper and Lower Canada in a common cause.
"As we look at it from a historical, nation-building perspective, really Canada became a nation at the end of the War of 1812. We did the paperwork in 1867," said Brian Merrett, the former head of Ontario's Parks Commission who now leads the binational War of 1812 Bicentennial Legacy Council. "From the American standpoint, it was the first test of the United States as a country. Both countries became strong. Canada evolved, and the U.S. became more of a power because of it," he added.
Here, there were especially bitter conflicts. Retreating American forces burned the Village of Newark, now Niagara-on-the-Lake, an inhumane attack on a civilian community in winter. The British retaliated by seizing Fort Niagara at bayonet point, then marching south to burn Lewiston and, on Dec. 30, 1813, Buffalo. Americans also had sacked Toronto (then named York), burning Parliament and a library, earlier that year. The following May, mills and homes were torched in Port Dover, Ont., a "final straw" that led a British commander in Bermuda to order the August attacks that led to the capture of Washington and the burning of the White House and other government buildings (Dolly Madison saved the iconic Stuart painting of George Washington and a young State Department clerk named Stephen Pleasonton saved the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence).
Some of the bloodiest battles of the war were fought right here – the Battle of Queenston Heights, the war's first major battle, in 1812 and the campaign of 1814 that included the Battle of Chippawa, the chaotic and bloody nighttime Battle of Lundy's Lane and the disastrous British attack on American-occupied Fort Erie.
Hundreds of soldiers died in those pitched battles. In the botched British attack on Fort Erie alone, there were 222 men killed, 309 wounded, 360 captured and 112 missing. Lundy's Lane was even bloodier, with an estimated 260 killed, 1,131 wounded, 248 captured and 83 missing on both sides.
"The most casualties in the war were right up there in Niagara Falls, Ont., at Lundy's Lane," noted Edward J. Patton, historian and former director of the Western New York Heritage Institute. "Nobody's ever been able to put an accurate figure on it."
America's escape from the war with a status-quo peace treaty was a narrow thing, he added.
"We were totally unprepared for the war, absolutely unprepared," he added. "We came very, very close to losing everything we gained in the Revolution."
There is a lesson in that, too, he said. American leaders had assumed the invasion of Canada would be a cakewalk, with Loyalists who had fled to Canada after the Revolution somehow siding with the invaders. Instead, many still harbored resentments.
The bitter lesson was the need to be ready for war before actually declaring it. After the Revolution, the United States had cut back its Navy and disbanded much of its regular Army in favor of poorly trained and poorly equipped state militias that would prove to be far less willing and able to fight the small force of British regulars in the two Canadas. And although the United States had reasons for war – the British impressment of American sailors on the high seas and other insults to national honor, British support for Indian raids on settlers and blockades that hindered American overseas trade, for example – the war was unpopular with many Americans, especially in the trading and population centers of New England.
Luckily for the largely inept military campaigns early in the war, the British were only lightly defending Canada. There were just 6,034 British soldiers in Canada at the start of the war, putting a huge burden on the Canadian militia, and the really experienced troops of the Peninsula War didn't reach the continent until Napoleon was defeated very late in the war here. And the initial British strategy was defensive, not aggressive. The early action in this region became known as the "Shipwright's War," in which both sides struggled to build enough warships from scratch to dominate Lakes Erie and Ontario – a struggle settled by the strategically vital American victory in the Battle of Lake Erie on one body of water, but never truly decided on Lake Ontario.
By war's end, both sides were better at combat, but both sides already had met their strategic goals with the end of impressment, the defense of Canada and the end of the larger Napoleonic Wars in British victory. So peace was reached in the Treaty of Ghent with the borders unchanged — a month before Jackson's celebrated victory at the Battle of New Orleans. News traveled slowly, in those days.
There's an old saying that Americans are happy with the War of 1812 because they think they won it, Canadians are happier because they know they won it and the British are happiest of all because they've never even heard of it. There's truth to that, especially on the British side, where the war here was simply a forgettable sideshow to the larger war against Napoleon.
But most historians now agree there was a clear loser – the Indians. For Native Americans and even for Canada's First Nations, the war was a disaster. Jackson's victory in the Battle of New Orleans, for example, broke native war-making power in the Southeast – and, as president, he would displace tribes to the far West.
Here, Shawnee leader Tecumseh's death at the Battle of the Thames in Ontario highlighted the downfall of the native coalition that had sided with the British. And that, historians now argue, gave the still-fledgling United States the opening it needed for westward expansion.
There was a lesser, and more beneficial, impact on African-Americans. As they had during the Revolution, the British offered freedom to escaping slaves. Some 3,000 escaped to Canada or ships during the War of 1812, and the government there settled many of them in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The numbers helped break the American myth of the "contented slave," even though arbitration proceedings under the czar of Russia would lead to a British compensation payment of $1.2 million to American slaveholders.
Still, much of that is long forgotten. Along the Niagara River border, relations – unless they involve conversations about hockey – long have been cordial. Canada and America are each other's largest trading partners, and farther afield British and American relations have been cemented by two world wars.
"All of these communities on both sides of the border were entwined because of family ties and trade," said Merrett, the binational commemoration commission leader. "They had to work through that right after the war, and look at what we have today. I think commerce drove a lot of that."
Which brings us to today's celebrations. Canada organized its War of 1812 Bicentennial Legacy Council in 2007, and funded it. The celebrations will be a matter of national pride for Canada; on the U.S. side, a U.S. Bicentennial Commission Act was defeated in Congress in 2006 and, in New York, governors vetoed the funding of War of 1812 commemoration commissions in 2009, 2010 and 2011. In 2012, the state budget finally included $450,000 for celebrations statewide.
Still, Merrett isn't fretting. He thinks the American side is fast gaining ground with local funding, despite the late start.
"I'm seeing all kinds of activity from local groups, small, medium and large," said the Canadian leader, who actually lives in Niagara County now and commutes to his job. "I think that awareness is starting to happen. The groups are pulling together in Erie County."
Tourism groups are working to promote local events to a larger regional and national market. The War of 1812 encampment and burial site in Delaware Park is being commemorated, and this weekend brings activities honoring American War of 1812 heroine Betsy Doyle at Old Fort Niagara as well as events at Fort George just across the river. There's also a New York State Public Historians' Conference at Niagara University, and a Scholars Symposium at Brock University.
Historians and organizers alike hope the bicentennial of the "Forgotten War" will not only raise awareness of the war's importance, especially among young people, but also have some lasting tourism and economic impacts here. They hope for better interpretation of the war, more scholarship (recent books already have nearly doubled the published work on this war, Eshelman said), and better preservation of surviving forts, battlefields and other remnants of the struggle.
The War of 1812 is, inarguably, a major part of our heritage on the Niagara Frontier. This region became a fiery crucible for the forging of a national identity in Canada and national pride in the United States. And then the region – even Buffalo, where only a couple of buildings survived the British torch just before New Year's Eve in 1813 – put the conflict behind it, and forged a lasting friendship instead.
That's worth remembering, and celebrating. From the ashes, came warmth. Except for that bit about the hockey.
Mike Vogel is a former editorial page editor of The Buffalo News.