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Fort George National Historic Site

The Onset of War - The 1812 Campaign.

Throughout 1811 political tension mounted in Washington. The maritime states complained of British abuses at sea. The British Royal Navy (dominant since the battle of Trafalgar) controlled maritime commerce and the British Parliament passed several acts to restrict American access to Europe (France particularly). England demanded that vessels passing through the English Channel had to carry exclusive documents if shipping to their ports, and the boarding and confiscation of vessels and impressment of sailors (whose nationality American/British was in question) were commonplace activities of the British Navy.

In the south-western states, politicians (Warhawks) were concerned with their ability to expand westward (because of conflicts with the Western Tribes on the frontiers of Ohio, Tennessee and Kentucky). For the Western Tribes, American expansion west meant the destruction of their lands and people. The ultimately successful American armies that had been sent into Indian Territory' in Ohio (1790's) had made that point clear. The Republican Warhawks' controlled by President Madison wanted to raise armies to assist in their expansion to the west either by direct attack or by eliminating British support for Natives and their alliances. The British support stemmed from the British desire to create a Native buffer state between the Americans and the settlers in Upper Canada. If successful, the Americans would have to contend with the Natives any time they wanted to attack the British and American expansion to the North would be difficult.

For the Americans, war with British North America was an issue of political opportunity and convenience. Napoleon's armies marched with confidence across the continent and it became clear that the British would have to seriously increase their efforts in Europe to prevent French dominance. The British even feared the possibility of a French invasion of the United Kingdom. The minor problems in North America would have to be put on the backburner.

Military and Naval Establishments on the Great Lakes
Military and Naval Establishments on the Great Lakes.
©Parks Canada / Gavin Watt

Defending Upper Canada The ½ million settlers who sparsely occupied Canada from the east coast to the western frontiers of the Great Lakes, heard the rumblings from the over 7 million residents to the south. Spread out, vulnerable throughout the transportation chain, hopelessly outnumbered (14-1) and without the hope of real aid from Britain, the defence of the Canadas seemed grim indeed. Sir George Prevost, Governor of the Canadas, realised that he had insufficient troops to protect them (5,600) and decided that Upper Canada was too vulnerable to attack with a long U.S. border and too disaffected (by Late Loyalists) to risk sending out large numbers of troops to defend it. His strategy was to ensure that strongholds like Quebec and Halifax (places that had been successfully defended before) did not fall into American hands and so he concentrated the British regiments that he had in these locations. The few he sent into Upper Canada (1,400) were to be a token defence that, if obviously outnumbered or at risk of capture, would retreat towards the safety of Lower Canada.

The British soldiers were spread along the Great Lakes system, protecting (for the most part) the places where the water narrowed, and countering the American positions to the south. The system of forts protected a waterway over 1500 kilometres long.

Map of Aboriginal Nations that fought in 1812
Aboriginal Nations which took part in the War of 1812.
©Parks Canada / Gavin Watt

Natives. Not surprisingly, the Natives who had settled around the Grand River were reluctant to join into another European style' conflict. Their support of the British during the American Revolution had cost them their lands in the Mohawk valley when the borders were redefined at the end of the war. Newly established in Canada, the Grand River Natives were worried that participation on the British side would give license to American invaders to destroy them and take their properties. This threat was very real and when Hull's Army invaded Amherstburg in 1812, he distributed proclamations threatening the execution of natives, militia and soldiers serving with natives, for the British cause. For the Western Tribes who were struggling for survival against an expanding American population, the American campaigns against the Western Tribes in the 1790's, had only elicited passive British support. The Western Tribes fought to keep possession of their lands before and during the War of 1812. Participation on either side of the 1812 conflict could be disastrous if they supported the losing cause. In a wise move most natives remained neutral until they determined the chances of success for both sides. Brock's decision to move quickly and decisively at the beginning of the conflict helped sway neutral Indians to the British cause and their participation at Mackinac, Detroit and Queenston Heights were key to those British victories.

Black Soldiers on the Niagara frontier.
Before the outbreak of war, Richard Pierpoint, a Black veteran of Butler's Rangers suggested raising a corps of coloured men to protect the Niagara Frontier. The Black population was estimated (in the 1790's) at 500 in Upper Canada, with 300 living in the Niagara region. Although Pierpoint's request was denied, in August 1812, a Captain Robert Runchey ( a white Niagara tavern owner) was put in charge of a small corps of free coloured men raised for defence on the Niagara frontier. When the Coloured corps was raised, several black men shifted from the York Militia to join Runchey's corps. In all, the Corps totalled about 50 men, a substantial percentage of the free male black population. The corps garrisoned Fort George and saw constant service throughout the War of 1812, including participation at the battle of Queenston Heights.

Militia and Fencibles To increase the available manpower, Fencible regiments were raised and the militia was evaluated. Militia service was compulsory for men ages 16-60 but when called out, the militia were considered unreliable due to a lack of firearms, minimal training and dubious loyalty. The vocal Late Loyalist population made the American government believe that to take Canada would be a mere matter of marching. because the American Army would be so well received in Upper Canada. To minimize the risk of arming a disaffected populace the best and most loyal Upper Canadian militiamen were formed into smaller Flank Companies. (2,000 of a possible 11,000 militiamen) In addition to the militia, the British formed Fencible regiments. The Fencibles were colonials (Loyalists and settlers); armed, equipped and trained as regular British soldiers, they enlisted for 2 years and were not required to serve beyond the borders of the Canadas.

For the most part the militia swayed with the tides of war, losing enthusiasm when Hull crossed at Amherstburg and regaining it with Brock's victory at Detroit. The militia was poorly paid, housed, fed and equipped. Seasonal restrictions (most notably harvest time) saw the militia desert (returning home) in droves to avoid personal ruin. Their contributions, particularly at Detroit and Queenston Heights, led to a sense of pride in the Canadian militia and helped to build an emerging Canadian identity (The Canadian beaver symbol was used for the first time during the War of 1812) The sense of pride also led to greater surveillance of and discomfort for, the Late Loyalist population.

Niagara. The town of Niagara (Newark) had grown significantly from the small Loyalist settlement, to the provincial capital, to the legal and administrative hub of the Niagara Peninsula. The merchants in town prospered greatly from the presence of the British garrison and the local Indian Department. With the declaration of war in 1812, the amicable ties between the towns of Newark and Youngstown, and the garrisons at Fort George and Fort Niagara came to a halt.

In the Center Division Headquarters at Fort George, Brock, the civil and military administrator for the province disagreed with Prevost's defensive strategy for Upper Canada. Brock felt that passivity would be viewed as acceptance of the inevitability of American invasion and that the best hope of extinguishing the American war effort was to attack the western front immediately upon the declaration of war. Brock understood that while the Americans wanted to annex Upper Canada they didn't have the logistical, political or monetary support to effectively do so. Any chance to make this war less popular (through military defeat) or costly for the Americans, had to be taken to swing political pressure to stop the war. Brock desired quick and decisive action immediately following the declaration of war and his strategy proved very effective in 1812.

Fort George prepares for war. The Fort George complex needed to be changed to be serviceable for the war ahead. Plans were drafted up to reduce the Fort in size to create a stronger defensible works incorporating the north half of the Fort (or section closest to Fort Niagara). The rather temporary and makeshift nature of the original complex was ill suited to meet a crisis. As the 2 countries shared a lengthy border along the Niagara River, the forts at both ends of the river were critical to the flow of supplies and troops. Like the eastern end of the lake (at Kingston) American control in Niagara would prove fatal to the posts further inland (although the Americans realised this they chose to ignore the wisdom of this strategy as Kingston was a well defended port) .

The complex at Fort George was responsible for a vast area. From Two Mile Creek (2 miles beyond the mouth of the Niagara River) to Queenston Heights (11 km up river) was the military responsibility of Fort George. The Fort George area was manned by 200 regular soldiers and 300 militiamen and at Queenston 100 regulars and 200 militiamen served. A short distance beyond that, troops watched the Chippawa area (100 regulars and 200 militiamen) and another small contingent was stationed at Fort Erie (200 regulars and 200 militiamen). In all, roughly 600 regular soldiers and 900 militiamen protected the lengthy Niagara frontier.

Every available piece of artillery was dragged out and placed at strategic points along the river to support the main fortifications but there were very few cannons available. Troops patrolled the length of the river and dispatch riders and semaphore telegraphs passed communications throughout the line. A system of bonfires was established which were to be ignited to warn of invasion and call out the militia. Paralleling the British efforts, forts, batteries and soldiers lined the length of the American side as well. The enemy was dangerously close and an attack could come at any time.

In October, in conjunction with the crossing at Queenston and the battle at Queenston Heights Forts George and Niagara exchanged artillery fire. Both the town and the garrison sustained serious damage from the exchange.

Fort George 1816
Fort George 1816.
©Public Archives of Canada / 1816
American spy map of Fort George
American spy map of Fort George.
©The National Archives, Washington D.C / Drawn in September or October of 1812

On the right, an American spy map circa 1812 (Titled Plan of the English Fort GEORGE) shows the interior layout of the Fort at its reduced size. To the left, to illustrate the division, detail of an 1816 map shows the outlines of the first Fort with the reduced complex at roughly the same size and orientation as the American version.

The Declaration of War

President Madison and the Warhawks were anxious for war while Britain was so obviously engaged with Napoleon. On June 1st President Madison presented a bill of reasons for officially declaring war on Britain. The bill cited 4 British maritime offences and British support of the hostile western tribes as the primary reasons for war, and was passed on June 18th, 1812. The war was not universally popular. Representing the 17 States, the House of Representatives voted (June 4, 1812) 79 - 49 in favour of the bill and the Senate voted (June 17, 1812) 19 -13 in favour of war. Within a week, news of the declaration of war had reached Quebec, Montreal, York and Newark.

The American attack was to focus in three areas: the Detroit area, the Niagara region, and Montreal. Command of the assault on Canada was given to Major General Henry Dearborn who set up headquarters at Albany, New York. Dearborn tried desperately to co-ordinate his 3 armies to attack simultaneously to overwhelm Upper Canada, but was politically thwarted (lack of state government support for troops) from achieving this goal. Co-ordination of the American militia and regular soldiers was almost impossible and Dearborn and his Brigadier Generals, Hull, Van Rensselaer and Smyth would all meet with individual defeat in the first year of the war.