The Magazine

On to Canada?

The other side’s view of ‘the struggle for mastery in North America.’

Jul 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 40 • By NELSON D. LANKFORD
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In Stagg’s retelling, the United States suffered woefully in military capacity. Budget cuts from the Jefferson years bore ugly fruit. The pool of potential army officers was shallow, as recommendations for commission often bore out. One sarcastic letter proposed “Crazy Bob” Livingston of New York as excellent officer material, “if throwing Decanters and glasses were to be the weapons used.” Recruiting officers fought an unequal battle against lawyers brandishing writs for “wrongful enlistment.” Madison, repeatedly frustrated by a lack of financial firepower, called Congress “unhinged” for the nation’s lack of preparedness. As a result, “a largely untrained and haphazardly organized army, led by too many manifestly inadequate generals” was completely mismatched with Madison’s goal of grasping Canadian soil to barter for recognition of neutral rights. The first year of conflict “brought only capture, defeat, and sickness to the forces, [and] the regiments were left as hollowed-out shells of what they should have become.” 

By the beginning of 1813, the war had lost what popularity it enjoyed. Anemic public response greeted the Treasury’s attempts to float loans. The secretary warned Madison that the government had barely a month’s reserves left to operate. Another American surrender in June stymied efforts to seize Canadian territory across the Niagara River. The tide turned in July when Oliver (“we have met the enemy and they are ours”) Hazard Perry defeated British ships on Lake Erie. Perry then transported William Henry Harrison’s army across to Canada, where it defeated a British-Indian force at the Battle of the Thames. With the death of their leader Tecumseh, Stagg writes, “the power of the confederated Indians in the Northwest was broken, forever.” 

The secretary of war, John Armstrong, chose James Wilkinson to lead the advance on Montreal in 1813. He could hardly have made a poorer choice. Wilkinson, the Army’s ranking general, had no experience of battle command and bore the taint of the murky Burr conspiracy. The other American commander, Wade Hampton, loathed him, and their two armies failed to coordinate in the autumn campaign. In the advance on Montreal, desultory efforts by both commanders failed. As they withdrew to winter quarters, “all that remained were the recriminations.” 

With the advent of 1814, international conditions shifted against America, and the initiative passed to the British. Beset by financial woes, the United States wished to curtail the fighting, but Britain did not. The Niagara campaign achieved some modest American gains but ended without a foothold on Canadian soil. In the meantime, the British advanced along the Chesapeake, pillaging freely. In August, they swept aside the force arrayed against them at Bladensburg, Maryland, entered Washington, D. C., and proceeded to burn the White House and most other public buildings. Confidence in Madison’s administration collapsed. Nothing could stop the British until they stumbled at Baltimore. After failing to reduce Fort McHenry, which guarded the harbor, they withdrew. The nation exhaled, spared further depredations along the eastern seaboard. The administration still faced a scarcely less menacing peril in the failure of Congress to fund continuation of the war.

As Stagg points out, intermittent attempts to end the war began almost at the outset. Eventually, the two sides sent diplomats to negotiate in Ghent, Belgium, during the last months of 1814. In the meantime, Madison’s supporters feared growing disloyalty in Federalist-dominated New England—even secession and a separate peace with Britain. News of agreement at Ghent reached Washington in early 1815, too late to prevent the Battle of New Orleans, which had no effect on the outcome of the war. 

Because Congress failed to fund the war effort adequately, it is doubtful the United States could have resisted if the British had decided to prolong the struggle. The prospect of victory in Europe by Britain and its allies over Napoleon in 1814 persuaded the Madison administration to relinquish its stand on impressment, one of its chief grievances. “Thirty months of conflict,” Stagg concludes, “had weakened the capacities of the federal government more than it had strengthened them.” A decidedly different outcome would follow most subsequent American wars.