Being a nation so largely unimportant to the world at large, Canada celebrates whatever moments of national glory it can. One that we hold in high esteem is the War of 1812, the conflict in which the many settlers, natives and redcoats pushed back an invasion by the United States. In doing this, we planted the seeds of a new nation and became the first to defeat our “undefeatable” southern neighbor.
Some disagreement on this subject has risen between the Yanks and us though. The United States, now more confident after years of military success, have come back to this war claiming that they won instead. It is unsurprising that America’s all-or-nothing attitude would lead them to keep struggling for victory, even in a war that ended almost 200 years ago, but the claim is not without merit.
Anyone willing to study the war fully will see that America’s naval campaign was just as successful as our land victories. Not to mention these victories there were more in line with the reason the United States had gone to war in the first place: British blockades of American trade ships (although it still does not excuse it’s failure-sprinkled land campaign). However, there is something that must be said.
Both of the sides share a David vs. Goliath tone in the description of their “victory” in the war. With us, it was a small group of Canadians that became one of the only two forces in the world to successfully stand up to the great military power of America. With the Americans, it was a small group of ships that successfully squared off against the mightiest naval power in the 19th century, the Royal Navy. Although these victories are both impossible to deny, the rationale that is usually put behind it seems highly nationalistic. They both simply relish the thought that little ol’ Canada/America could claim such a miraculous victory over such a strong military beast.
The truth is, the victories and overall outcomes of the battles have been rather exaggerated. For one, most of Canada’s greatest victories in the war can be attributed largely to the British army that was stationed in Canada under British General Isaac Brock, and though the Militia fought well when it did, they were not always the total victories that modern history plays it up to be. For example, the raid on Gananoque has been considered a victory won by the Canadian Militia under Colonel Joel Stone. But after the raid they had nothing left to defend but empty stores and the ashes of a government depot, because the Americans raided them and burned the depot to the ground. The exaggerations of victory can be applied to the Americans as well, to say nothing of their “mere matter of marching.” To defeat such a force as the royal navy is indeed impressive, but the British, unfortunately, have an excuse. American ships, though few in number, were more powerful than British ships in that they had superior quantities of guns on their frigates and a crew more experienced then the ones on the British ships. As well, the British Naval strategy was largely defensive in nature, focusing mainly on protecting their merchant ships and occupying American waters. Furthermore, much of the Royal Navy was already focused on a much greater war, the Napoleonic war. If the American Navy did crush a military giant, what they crushed was its foot. Were the British not distracted by Napoleon, the American Navy may have had a much harder time. Towns on both sides were sacked and burned, and both sides had their fair share of controversial victories and defeats. Despite all of this, when the war finally ended, things were pretty much the same, geography-wise, as they were before the war
Therefore, the war of 1812 can ultimately be summed up as nothing more than a three year long skirmish; a simple exchange of blows between two nations.
To try and prove whoever was victorious is pointless and futile, except maybe for the historical sites preserving the war’s history because patriotism sells. History is a very important matter, and should be celebrated whenever and wherever it can, but there is more to it than war. The war, though inconclusive, brought definite benefits to both sides. For Canada, it was a war that gave us a sense of unity and paved the way for confederation, and the birth of the country we live in now. For the United States, the war showed Britain and the world that this rising nation was not to be taken lightly, and also gave them a sobering taste of true war with another nation. It was a rare kind of war that ended up benefiting both participating nations. Rather than victory, we should be celebrating benefit, the effect this time in history had on the nations’ people and their future. That is what celebrating history is all about: if there is nothing to learn or take from this war, there is nothing to this war, period.
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