The War of 1812 was fought over a far-flung geographical area. Although the British did cross haphazardly into American territory, most of the battles took place on Canadian soil. In a military sense, the war played out much like a chess match, with the Americans probing on several different fronts and the British and Canadians parrying, regrouping and counterattacking. There was no single, definitive military turning point in the war. Despite the mythology, the victory at Queenston Heights was not the saving of Upper Canada for all time, though it was the defeat of the first invasion and a huge boost to the confidence of the colony. Many of these turning points were more like returning to the way things were, but each offered a major opportunity, usually squandered owing to poor leadership, lack of supplies or lack of will.
Aug. 16, 1812
American General William Hull turned over Detroit to Sir Isaac Brock and Tecumseh without a fight, marking an early turning point in the war. Brock’s decisiveness and cunning reassured Tecumseh and ensured that the First Nations would support the British. In addition, the British and First Nations captured 33 cannons, stores and equipment, horses and a new sailing ship.
Oct. 13, 1812
When Lieutenant Colonel Winfield Scott waved a white handkerchief to signal the Americans’ surrender, almost 1,000 of his men had been taken prisoner, with 300 killed or wounded. If this victory did not “save” Upper Canada, it certainly marked the defeat of the first American invasion. Unfortunately, of the 28 defenders killed, one was irreplaceable: the bold and effective Sir Isaac Brock. His death and the British victory had a fortifying effect on the people of Upper Canada, dispelling their doubts of surviving the war with the Americans.
Sept. 10, 1813
The battle for control of Lake Erie at Put-in-Bay was conducted by two newly built fleets. American Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry overcame determined resistance by Robert Barclay of the Royal Navy. The entire British fleet was forced to surrender, giving rise to Perry’s famous declaration: “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” The Americans controlled Lake Erie for the rest of the war.
Battle of the Thames (Moraviantown)
Oct. 5, 1813
After a slow and disorderly retreat along the Thames River, Major General Henry Procter was persuaded by his First Nations allies to take a stand near Moraviantown. As the dispirited British surrendered or fled, the American soldiers confronted the First Nations warriors in the swamp, meeting stiff resistance. As the battle waged, Tecumseh was killed. Procter and some 246 British soldiers escaped, leaving behind 606 dead or taken prisoner. The battle was a turning point, not because of the American victory—as usual, the Americans were unable to sustain it—but because of the death of Tecumseh. To the First Nations, Procter’s actions confirmed their worst fears about the lack of resolution and commitment by their long-time ally, King George III. Internally, their coalition would not survive the death of Tecumseh.
Oct. 26, 1813
The battle fought along Rivière Châteauguay, about 50 kilometres south of Montréal, turned back a major American invasion of Lower Canada. Through innovative tactics, including blowing horns in the woods to suggest a large force of defenders, the Canadians, led by Lieutenant Colonel Charles-Michel d’Irumberry de Salaberry, confused the Americans, who became overly cautious and soon retreated. Neither Montréal nor the vulnerable St. Lawrence supply route was seriously threatened for the remainder of the war.
Nov. 11, 1813
The Battle of Crysler’s Farm was fought in a farmer’s field on the banks of the St. Lawrence River near Morrisburg, Ont. It turned back the second prong of the American invasion of Lower Canada.
Under the command of Major General James Wilkinson, an American force sailed down the St. Lawrence River with plans to capture Montréal. While the Canadian militia and Mohawk warriors guarded the woods on either side of John Crysler’s field, the British regulars were drawn up in two lines to await the assault. The Americans attacked British lines without success and, after suffering severe losses, were forced to retreat from the battlefield.
July 25, 1814
Defeat or draw, the last decisive battle on the Niagara frontier led to a retreat of the Americans. The battle took place on a sultry evening, almost within sight of Niagara Falls. American Brigadier General Winfield Scott led his brigade, about 1,000 strong, toward the intersection of Lundy’s Lane. The British, not knowing the Americans’ position, advanced along the same road and set up their guns on high ground. They were flanked by First Nations allies under John Norton. Upon seeing the British forces, Scott halted within range of their guns, which began to inflict casualties among his men. Thus, shortly after 7 p.m., began the bloodiest land battle of the war.
Darkness fell on bitter hand-to-hand fighting. Regulars fired their muskets at close range and used bayonets. The commanding generals on both sides were wounded. The Americans succeeded in capturing the British guns, but around midnight, exhausted, they withdrew southward to Chippawa and failed to take away the guns.
Following the encounter, close to 900 men on each side had been killed or were wounded or missing. Lundy’s Lane was one of the most important battles of the war, for it finally stopped the Americans’ advance into Upper Canada.
Plattsburgh (Lake Champlain)
Sept. 11, 1814
The Battle of Plattsburgh (a.k.a. the Battle of Lake Champlain) was a joint land and naval invasion of upper New York State conducted by Sir George Prevost, governor-in-chief of British North America. Prevost had a substantial number of troops at his command for a large and perhaps decisive assault. However, he ordered the British lake fleet into action prematurely, and it was defeated. Prevost then cancelled the land assault. This order astonished his subordinates, all veterans of European warfare, and Prevost suffered severe criticism for his conduct of the campaign. His failure of nerve severely weakened Great Britain’s hand in the peace negotiations.
This piece offers users information about four National Historic Sites of Canada, each commemorating a major turning-point battle in the War of 1812. Users can click on each historic site to hear a description and view detailed maps and modern day photography.