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Apr. 8, 2020 | Wednesday
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History Unveiled: Who really won the War of 1812?
Re-enactors show what officers’ dinners would have looked like in the War of 1812 for the people in the upper class. (Dariya Baiguzhiyeva/File photo)

On Dec. 24, 1814, the newspaper headlines around the country might have read, “The War is Over – Peace Finally.” 

Here in Niagara-on-the-Lake, however, there were no such headlines. The town had been devastated by the retreat of the American forces a year previously and there were no newspapers to make any proclamation of peace.

Just who won the War of 1812 in North America has been an ongoing debate since the Treaty of Ghent was signed on Christmas Eve in 1814 in Belgium.

There are numerous articles and papers written to support all sides. Some say the Americans won, some say the Canadians/British won, while it is generally agreed that the Indigenous allies definitely lost. In Europe, there were many aspects of the Napoleonic Wars that spilled into North America, but it is generally agreed that France lost.

I decided to ask Ron Dale, an acclaimed historian of the War of 1812, what the end result of this particular war was. Dale says one has to look at what the war aims of each side were and decide if they were achieved. Here is how he explained to me who won the war of 1812.

The war in Europe had been ongoing for almost seven years with Napoleon in power since 1799 as the First Consul of France. There was an uneasy peace throughout Europe with unresolved disputes over land boundaries and economies.

Napoleon was trying to enforce his idea of a European Union under the name of the Continental Trade System. Many countries were given no choice but to accept this new system while others balked at being governed in trade by France.

In May of 1803, Britain declared war on France and was soon bolstering the armies of countries that stood against the French. From 1803 to 1806, there were battles throughout Europe; Prussia, Sweden, Saxony, Russia and England were the main players against France.

Napoleon had even considered invading England but he needed to take control over the seas. The Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 saw a decisive sea victory with England defeating France and Spain, thus guaranteeing full control of the seas. This fact alone is one of the precursors to the War of 1812 in North America.

With Britain now in full control of the seas, it set up blockades of all French ports with a plan to starve France into surrender. While the blockade continued, France engaged in several land battles with Prussia, Russia and Austria and France was victorious in all.

In 1812, France tried to invade Russia but was defeated. This defeat emboldened several other countries to engage France again and in 1813 Prussia, Austria and Russia defeated France in several battles.

Now let’s bring the War of 1812 to North America. Britain was blockading all French ports. France’s largest trading partner was the new republic of the United States.

The U.S. needed to keep France as a trading partner to help recover from its revolutionary war against Britain. With the Royal Navy blockading all French and American ports, no goods from the United States were reaching France.

Next the Royal Navy, needing a continuous supply of sailors, was boarding U.S. vessels and impressing any seaman they thought was English.

The final proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s (American’s) back” was the continuous support given by Britain to the Indigenous Nations who were loyal to the British crown. They were promised that for their loyalty to Britain, they would be given sovereignty of their land. This promise would stop the westward expansion of the United States.

In May of 1812, the United States declared war on Britain and invaded British North America (Canada).

Now, back to Ron Dale’s very clear explanation as to who won the War of 1812.

Britain’s prime goals were to defeat Napoleon, to preserve British North America and to once again bring the United States to the negotiating table. The end result was: Napoleon was defeated; the Americans were at the negotiations; and British North America remained intact.

Britain was a winner.

British North America/Canadian goals were to defend their homes against American invaders; to remain loyal to the British crown and to thwart annexation by the Americans. Although a few thousand lives were lost and houses, farms and mills burned by the Americans, the Maritimes as well as Upper and Lower Canada successfully resisted American invasions in 1812, 1813 and 1814.

Canada was a winner.

The goals of the Haudenosaunee and the Seven Nations of Canada were to defend their homes in Upper and Lower Canada, as well as to retain their independence and sovereignty. These allies of Britain were successful in defending their homes but gradually lost much of their power, influence and independence in the two decades after the war.

For the War of 1812, at least, they were winners.

Western Indigenous Nations were also allies of Britain. Their goals were to defend their territory from westward expansion by the United States and to establish their own sovereign native territory that would be acknowledged and respected by both Britain and the United States. While they fought hard to achieve their aims, the Treaty of Ghent left the Western Indigenous Nations’ lands in control of the United States and Britain resolved not to interfere in American dealings with the Indigenous people. This led to the loss of their lands.

The Western Indigenous Nations were not winners.

The leaders of the United States of America had several goals in mind when they declared war on Britain: To force Britain to rescind the Orders in Council (an order forbidding all trade by any nation with France); to halt the impressment of American citizens into the Royal Navy; to stop the British from supporting the Western Indigenous Nations to thwart U.S. plans for western expansion; to force Britain to accept American sovereignty and, finally, to capture all of Canada and drive Britain out of North America.

The outcome for the United States is quite different than one might expect.

The British had rescinded the Orders in Council on June 23, 1812, before learning of the American declaration of war against them. The Americans did not achieve this goal in the War of 1812.

Impressment of American sailors continued until France and Napoleon were defeated in 1815. The Royal Navy was then reduced in size and there was no longer a need to impress sailors. Note: this impressment issue was not even mentioned in the Treaty of Ghent. So this American goal was not achieved by the Americans through the War of 1812.

As for the Western Indigenous Nations, contrary to popular belief, the British were actually trying to prevent them from declaring war on the United States. It could be considered an American “win” when the British determined to not interfere after the war in any Indigenous issues in the Ohio Valley.

The British did recognize American sovereignty before the war but violated it in their war against the French. Once again, the war had no impact on this sovereignty issue.

The Americans suffered embarrassing defeats in 1812, 1813 and 1814 and failed to annex Upper and Lower Canada or the Maritimes.

The British were not driven from North America.

Final conclusion: the United States was not a winner in the War of 1812.

The headlines in a newspaper after the Treaty of Ghent was signed could have read, The War is Over, Canada Won!

Many thanks to Ron Dale for providing clarity in resolving the question of who won the War of 1812.

More Niagara’s History Unveiled articles about the past of Niagara-on-the-Lake are available at: www.niagaranow.com

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