Military Subjects:  War of 1812


The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 8: February 2008


The War of 1812 Revisited

By Chris Wattie

Reprinted with permission from the “National Post,” Toronto, Thursday, September 27, 2007

As early preparations for the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 get underway in Canada and the United States , organizers in Canada have run into an unexpected hitch: Their American counterparts seem to think they won.

The historical disconnect between American and Canadian interpretations of the war, during which tens of thousands of American troops invaded Canada - then still a British colony - and were repulsed by the outnumbered defenders, has left Canadian organizers of the bicentennial events shaking their heads in bemusement at their American colleagues' staunch insistence that the war was a victory for the then-young United States.

Sandra Shaul, the city administrator in charge of the bicentennial projects, said she was a little surprised to hear her counterparts on the U.S. side of the border discuss their view of the War of 1812 and see some of the plaques and presentations at historic sites such as Fort Niagara, in Lewiston, N.Y. or Sackets Harbor, N.Y., the base for the two attacks on Toronto in 1813.

"The Americans, well, they feel they won the war," Ms. Shaul says, choosing her words carefully. "They have their perspective and we have ours. It's a question of emphasis: They emphasize their version of the story ... and of course we emphasize ours."

Connie Barone, the site manager of Sackets Harbor state historical park in northern New York, sounds pretty unequivocal about the outcome of the three-year war: "Certainly we won. Because if we hadn't, we'd be using loonies and toonies instead of dollar bills, wouldn't we?"

In 2012, cities across Canada and the northeastern U.S. will begin marking the bicentennial of the three-year war, which was marked by bitter fighting between thousands of American, British and Canadian troops as well as native warriors, most of it taking place in what is now Ontario.

Although former American president Thomas Jefferson had boasted that conquering Upper Canada, as Ontario was known in 1812, was "a mere matter of marching," the invaders lost a series of crucial battles early in the war and were forced to beat an undignified retreat back across the border.

Although the U.S. army eventually managed to achieve some successes, including attacking and burning down the provincial capital of York (modern-day Toronto) in 1813, they were never again a serious threat to conquer Canada .

In 1814, British forces retaliated for the burning of York by attacking Washington and burning down the White House and Congress, but at the end of the fighting, the borders remained largely unchanged.

Officially, the Ontario government is taking no sides in the thorny two-centuries-old question of who won the war, although it has provided a total of about $50,000 in grants to local organizing committees planning the bicentennial.

"We are not celebrating or debating the winner. Rather, we are celebrating and commemorating a turning point in North American history," said Gary Wheeler, a spokesman for the Ontario tourism ministry which is coordinating plans for the 200th anniversary.

Plans for the bicentennial will centre on the regions in Ontario where most of the fighting took place: Toronto, Kingston, Windsor, the Niagara peninsula, Sault Ste. Marie and Georgian Bay. On the U.S. side of the border, the anniversary will be marked at historic sites across northern New York, Michigan, Ohio and Maryland, where a British naval bombardment of a U.S. fort in 1814 inspired the writing of the American national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner.

And while organizers on both sides have politely agreed to disagree over who won the war, they agree on the need to raise its profile among the general public. "It will be a challenge to get the public up to speed on the history of this era," said Ms. Barone. "It's a war that's not terribly well-known."

Ms. Shaul says the bicentennial is an opportunity to tell Toronto residents about the history of their city. "The events of 1812 to 1814 were hugely important to this city and the whole country. This is when we became a truly distinct country - after the war, Canada was clearly a different place, unique from the United States .

"If it hadn't been for the War of 1812, we'd all be part of New York state today."

David O'Hara, the museum administrator at Toronto's historic Fort York, said his staff at the tiny 1812-era fort are accustomed to re-educating American visitors about the war. "A lot of them are quite surprised to learn that they invaded Canada , not the other way round," he said with a chuckle. "They certainly leave the fort with a different view of what happened in the War of 1812 than they came here with."

In Toronto, the 20-member steering committee has already begun working on events to mark the war's anniversary, with particular emphasis on the two American raids in the spring and summer of 1813 that left almost no buildings in the city untouched.

There has been discussion of an NHL exhibition "grudge match" between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Washington Capitals, the two cities burned down during the war; some kind of linkage between events in Sackets Harbor and Toronto to mark the bicentennial; conferences of historians to discuss the war; a gathering of descendants of the soldiers who fought on both sides.

And organizers on both sides of the border insist that any disagreements over who won the War of 1812 are purely academic and definitely friendly.

"By the end of the war, not much had been gained on either side," said Ms. Barone, adding with a laugh:

"It's been 200 years: time to move on."

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