Wednesday, April 4, 2012

War of 1812 Wednesday, Part II, 1812 - The First Year

Continued from Part I

General William Hull
As soon as the war broke out the United States put their plans into effect for the long sought after goal of conquering Canada. The grand strategy consisted of a three-pronged invasion of Canada, one from Detroit, the other up the Niagara River and the third up Lake Champlain. The US generals envisioned Canadians rushing to embrace them and the major cities of Quebec and Montreal falling quickly, along with the capital Toronto (then called York). In all of these expectations the Americans were to be bitterly disappointed. Perhaps the biggest mistake was in the estimation of the Canadian populace. Many of the English-speaking settlers were American Loyalists who had fled the United States to escape the Revolution. These people, and their descendants, were fiercely loyal to King and country and the last thing they wanted was to be ruled by the revolutionary, republican United States they had only escaped from not so long ago. These settlers, along with the French Canadians, had also started to develop their own sense of Canadian pride and identity, and it was quite foolish to expect them to embrace anyone who would invade their country and force them to submit to a foreign government.

However, quite oblivious to these facts, General William Hull, a veteran of the American Revolution, set out from Detroit, Michigan and invaded Upper Canada (Ontario). His force of about 2,000 men, while seemingly small, was greater than anything that would oppose him. Yet, his invasion got off to a very inauspicious start. Hull crossed into Canada on July 12 and only five days later, British troops from St Joseph Island in Lake Huron surprised and captured the American post on Mackinac Island, part of the Michigan territory. Ideas of a welcome for US troops could not have been more incorrect. The Canadians and the native Indians were fiercely determined to resist the invasion and after battles at Brownstown and Monguagon Hull retreated back to Detroit to protect his vulnerable supply lines. Little did he know that what was probably the most humiliating defeat for the United States in the War of 1812 was well under way.

General Isaac Brock
Opposing Hull was a very talented British soldier, General Isaac Brock and the Indian Chief Tecumseh who the Americans were only too familiar with. Brock had only a small army consisting of a handful of British regulars and the bulk being Canadian militia and the allied Indian tribes. However, Brock had Hull more than outmatched when it came to military brilliance and sheer audacity. Brock decided on a bold gamble and pursued Hull to Detroit and besieged it. He also knew that General Hull was deathly afraid of the Indians, so he played a trick on the Americans and allowed them to capture some false correspondence which suggested that he had more than enough men to take Detroit and that 5,000 more Indians were on their way, along with a few remarks about how terrible the fate of the Americans would be at the hands of these Indians they had so recently humiliated and how unsure he was of his ability to control them. The charade worked perfectly and on August 16 General Hull surrendered Detroit and his entire army to Major General Brock, even though he had Brock grossly outnumbered, roughly 550 troops compared to 2,500 in the American army.

This was a humiliating blow to the United States. Even though the odds had been overwhelmingly in their favor, not only had the first prong of the invasion of Canada failed, but they had been beaten by a smaller army through sheer bluff and had lost control of virtually all of Michigan to the British forces. General Hull was ridiculed as an incompetent coward and was court-martialed and sentenced to death. In light of his service in the Revolution however, this sentence was commuted and he was dismissed from the army and replaced by General William Henry Harrison. The entire western frontier of the US was thrown into chaos by this victory and in early September Indian forces allied with Britain attacked Pigeon Roost Creek, Fort Harrison, Fort Madison and Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Battle of Queenston Heights
The Crown forces, however, had no time to rest on their laurels and had to move their meager forces rapidly to confront the two other American forces invading Canada. Brock left General Henry Proctor in command at Detroit and rushed east to meet the invading US forces under General Stephen Van Rensselaer moving up the Niagara River. The two sides met at the battle of Queenston Heights on October 13, 1812. Once again, the US had the Crown forces totally outmatched with 6,000 troops opposed by only 1,300 British and Canadian soldiers. This was to be a crucial battle; the Canadians who made up the majority of the Crown forces were fighting to defend their "home and native land" while the Americans and Van Rensselaer in particular were under extreme pressure to take revenge for the humiliation at Detroit with a victory on Canadian soil.

Once again, both commanders were also total opposites. General Van Rensselaer was a political soldier looking toward a career in government while Brock was a professional officer who believed that the best defense is a good offense. He meant to attack the Americans before they could attack him and gain upper New York with the same audacity with which he had won control of Michigan. However, his superior in Quebec, General Sir George Prevost, ordered him not to be so aggressive as he was even then trying to negotiate an armistice with the US forces. The battle opened at three o'clock in the morning as Van Rensselaer attacked across the Niagara River toward Queenston Heights. At the start of the engagement there were only 300 troops of the Crown Forces to oppose 6,000 Americans. Fortunately for the British and Canadians, the American attack was not well planned and troops could only be ferried across the river a few at a time and it was impossible to transport any artillery.

Colonel John E. Wool
The Crown Forces laid down a withering fire on the advancing Americans, killing many and forcing many more to turn back. But, there were other US troops already across the river and seeing the devastating effect the British guns were having on his countrymen, US Colonel John E. Wool led his men in a reckless charge up the heights to capture the British artillery. This proved crucial as the Americans pushed the British off the hill there quickly ensued a series of attacks and counter-attacks over control of the cannon. General Brock bravely led his men forward and was killed by an American sharpshooter at one in the afternoon. The Crown forces were pushed back and the American troops continued to advance. However, it was at this point that the American attack began to fall apart. US troops on the heights were stunned by a violent attack by Mohawk Indians fighting for the British and to make matters worse for Van Rensselaer, many of his militia refused to cross the river into Canada, despite seeing British reinforcements on their way to attack those already across. The General pleaded with them, but they refused to leave New York and the boatmen working the river would not evacuate those on the opposite shore. As the British troops under General Roger Sheaffe formed up for battle, and with Mohawk war cries filling the air, the US troops broke ranks and retreated in a panic. Those who did not, under Colonel Winfield Scott, quickly surrendered. The second arm of the invasion of Canada had ended in abject failure once again.

The third prong of the invasion was a pitiful anticlimax. The third US army under General Henry Dearborn was supposed to lead the attack up Lake Champlain, but the attack never materialized. With Hull and Van Rensselaer soundly defeated Dearborn was cowed and the army was demoralized and again, once they reached the Canadian border the bulk of US soldiers simply refused to cross. They marched sullenly back to Plattsburgh, New York where they had started, bringing to a close the opening act of the War of 1812. The situation could not have seemed worse. Full of so much boasting and dreams of easy conquest, the American invasion of Canada had ended in ignominious failure. The entire campaign was shamefully conducted on the American side, a long list of incompetent generals, armies beaten by an enemy they had vastly outnumbered, soldiers who refused to fight and to make matters worse aside from failing to gain southern Canada the US had lost control of Michigan. On the British side, things were different. The Canadians in particular were justly proud of themselves for defeating a much stronger enemy, the country was safe for the time being and the British generals could plan counter-attacks. The only sad note was the loss of the gallant general, Sir Isaac Brock, who had truly earned his title of the "Savior of Upper Canada".

Continued next week with Part III, 1813-The Second Year

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