Campaigns of the war
With the fortress at Québec guarding the St. Lawrence and with Nova Scotia under the protection of the Royal Navy, the obvious target for American invasion in 1812 was Upper Canada. There were fewer than 9,000 regulars to defend all of Canada and only 1,700 to defend the long border between the United States and Upper Canada.
Although the British were badly outnumbered, they were not badly prepared. They had some reinforcements, and their small navy controlled Lake Ontario. They also had an effective leader in Sir Isaac Brock, who had strengthened Upper Canada’s defences and made valuable allies of the First Nations. When the war began, Brock initiated a bold military stroke by capturing Fort Michilimackinac on July 17, 1812, and a month later, with the great Shawnee Chief Tecumseh at his side, he persuaded the hapless American General William Hull to surrender Detroit without a fight.
Brock then rushed back to Fort George (Niagara-on-the-Lake) in anticipation of an American invasion across the Niagara River. In a hasty attempt to recapture some high ground, Brock lost his life at Queenston Heights on Oct. 13, 1812. Although in legend, Brock became the “saviour of Upper Canada,” dying a hero’s death on the battlefield, the battle was lost for the Americans only when British reinforcements arrived, John Norton’s Mohawks counterattacked and the American militia lost its nerve and discovered a constitutional reason to refuse to cross the river.
As the campaign of 1813 opened, the focus moved to western Lake Erie. A new American army was assembled under the confident future president William Henry Harrison. He moved his army north to attack Upper Canada but had made no effort to prepare his men for winter. In January, Harrison sent a force under Brigadier General James Winchester across the frozen Detroit River, where the British and First Nations attacked their camp at Frenchtown (Monroe, Michigan). Just under 300 Americans were killed, while 600 were taken prisoner. Harrison hunkered down at Fort Meigs, Ohio, where the British and First Nations failed to dislodge him. With the ensuing stalemate, it became clear to both sides that success or failure in this war in Upper Canada would likely depend on the naval control of Lakes Erie and Ontario.
On Lake Ontario, the Americans seized and briefly occupied York (Toronto) and Fort George (Niagara-on-the-Lake), at the mouth of the Niagara River. This period was the bleakest of the war for the British, but the Americans did not press their advantage, particularly when they did not keep Brigadier General John Vincent and his army on the run from Fort George. On the night of June 5/6, 1813, Vincent’s men turned on their pursuers at Stoney Creek. The Americans suffered another defeat three weeks later at Beaver Dams, where some 600 men were captured by a force of First Nations. Finally, worn down by sickness, desertion and the departure of short-term soldiers, the American command evacuated Fort George on Dec. 10, 1813, and quit Canada. Another invasion had been thwarted.
The Western Campaigns
The Americans fared better in the struggle for control of Lake Erie. Two rival fleets met on Sept. 10, 1813, at Put-in-Bay, Ohio, where Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry became the first man in history to capture an entire British fleet, occasioning his famous declaration, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”
The defeat on the lake panicked the British land forces in western Upper Canada. Against the wishes of Tecumseh, Major General Henry Procter decided to retreat eastward along the Thames River and was caught by the pursuing Americans at Moraviantown on Oct. 5, 1813. The British fled, and Tecumseh died making a stand with his warriors. Although the Americans were now in firm control of the western sector of the war, they were again unable to sustain or build on their victory. The deeper they got into Canadian territory, the longer and more vulnerable were their supply lines and the more homesick their men. General William Henry Harrison and his army headed back to Detroit.
To the First Nations, Procter’s retreat confirmed their worst fears about the lack of resolution and commitment by their long-time ally, King George III. Internally, their alliance would not survive the death of Tecumseh, whose leadership, skill and presence were critical to the First Nations’ coalition.
The Lower Canada Campaign
In 1813, the Americans finally tried to strike a mortal blow against Lower Canada, but their invading armies, which outnumbered the British and Canadians by 10 to 1, were ineptly led by Major General James Wilkinson and Brigadier General Wade Hampton. A miscellaneous force of British regulars, Voltigeurs Canadiens, militia and First Nations harassed the advancing Americans and turned the invasion back at Châteauguay, Que., under Lieutenant Colonel Charles-Michel d’Irumberry de Salaberry, and at Crysler’s Farm, near Morrisburg, Ont., on Nov. 11, under Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Wanton Morrison.
Last Invasion of Upper Canada, 1814
In 1814, the Americans crossed the Niagara River at Buffalo, this time with a more highly trained army and a more resolute leadership. They easily seized Fort Erie on July 3 and turned back a rash attack by the British, under Major General Phineas Riall, at Chippawa on July 5. The whole Niagara campaign came to a climax with the bitterest battle of the war, Lundy’s Lane, on July 25. Fought in the pitch-dark by fatigued troops who could not tell friend from foe, the Battle of Lundy’s Lane ended in a stalemate—which ultimately meant a victory for the defending British. The U.S. invasion was now effectively burned out. The Americans withdrew to Fort Erie, where they badly trounced the forces of the new British commander, Lieutenant General Sir Gordon Drummond, when he attempted a night attack on Aug. 14/15. With both sides exhausted, a three-month standoff followed. Finally, on Nov. 5, 1814, the Americans withdrew across the Niagara River, effectively ending the war in Upper Canada.
The 1814 Campaign in the East
On the Atlantic front, Nova Scotia Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Sherbrooke led a force from Halifax into Maine, capturing Castine on Sept. 3, 1814. By mid-month, British forces held much of the Maine coast, which was returned to the United States only with the signing of the peace treaty.
The most formidable effort by the British in 1814 was the invasion of northern New York, which Sir George Prevost, governor-in-chief of British North America, led to Plattsburgh, on Lake Champlain, with 11,000 of the Duke of Wellington’s veterans. However, Prevost was hesitant to attack—he was no Brock—and when American Commodore Thomas Macdonough defeated the hastily built British fleet in Plattsburgh Bay on Sept. 11, Prevost withdrew.
That single cautious action by Prevost had a drastic effect on the peace talks in Ghent, Belgium, forcing the British negotiators to lower their demands and accept the status quo. Had Prevost succeeded, much of upper New York State might be Canadian today. On the other hand, if the Americans had won the Battle of Stoney Creek or had taken Montréal, much of Ontario and Quebec—perhaps all—might now be flying the Stars and Stripes.
The Battle of New Orleans, on Jan. 8, 1815, is often cited as the last battle of the War of 1812, but that event was followed by an attack on Fort Bowyer, on Mobile Bay, Alabama, on Feb. 11, 1815, and by a number of naval encounters, including a battle between the American sloop USS Peacock and the East India cruiser Nautilus in the Indian Ocean on June 30, six months after the peace treaty was signed.
The Treaty of Ghent
With no progress being made on the military front and the United States deeply divided over the war effort and almost bankrupt, President James Madison eagerly accepted an offer of mediation from Russian Czar Alexander I. Commissioners from both sides met at Ghent, Belgium, in August, and on Christmas Eve in 1814, a treaty was signed. All conquests were to be restored, and disputes over the boundaries were deferred to joint commissions.
This interactive piece gives more details about the course of the War of 1812 and the various campaigns. Users can click to see a map and a chronological order of events detailing each campaign from 1812 to 1814.