War of 1812

The War of 1812 (which lasted from 1812 to 1814) was a military conflict between the United States and Great Britain. As a colony of Great Britain, Canada was swept up in the War of 1812 and was invaded a number of times by the Americans. The war was fought in Upper Canada, Lower Canada, on the Great Lakes and the Atlantic, and in the United States. The peace treaty of Ghent, which ended the war, largely returned the status quo. However, in Canada, the war contributed to a growing sense of national identity, including the idea that civilian soldiers were largely responsible for repelling the American invaders. In contrast, the First Nations allies of the British and Canadian cause suffered much because of the war; not only had they lost many warriors (including the great Tecumseh), they also lost any hope of halting American expansion in the west, and their contributions were quickly forgotten by their British and Canadian allies. Similarly, Black volunteers, including those in the Coloured Corps, received little recognition or reward for their service.

This exhibit tells the story of Canada’s defenders during the War of 1812.

Sir Isaac Brock

During the War of 1812, British regulars played a decisive role in saving Upper Canada from American invasion. The best known British officer of the war is Sir Isaac Brock. Brock arrived in Canada in 1802 with the 49th Regiment and was promoted to major general in 1811. In 1810, he was given military command of Upper Canada and in 1811 appointed president of the executive council of Upper Canada. At the outset of the war, he took the bold initiative of ordering the capture of the American Fort Michilimackinac (captured July 1812). In August, he and Shawnee Chief Tecumseh led a combined force against American General William Hull, who had invaded Upper Canada. Hull surrendered Fort Detroit without a fight.

When the Americans invaded again at Queenston Heights on 13 October, Brock was awakened from sleep at Fort George and rode hastily to the village. Almost as soon as he arrived, the Americans seized a gun battery on the heights. Brock decided a direct attack was needed immediately without time to wait for reinforcements. His calculated risk proved to be rash, for as he led his troops he was hit in the chest by a shot from an American soldier. Brock died instantly without delivering any of the final words that have been attributed to him (such as “Push on brave York Volunteers”).

The memory of Brock, the saviour of Upper Canada, remains extraordinarily strong in Ontario history. His body, interred at Fort George, was moved in 1824 to the summit of Queenston Heights under an imposing monument, which was destroyed in 1840, but replaced in 1853. Today, the stately Brock’s Monument dominates the battlefield.

Indigenous Allies in the War of 1812

First Nations and Métis peoples played a significant role in the War of 1812. Most First Nations strategically allied with Great Britain, seeing the British as the lesser of two colonial evils and the group most interested in maintaining traditional territories and trade.

On 17 July 1812, shortly after the war began, the American Fort Michilimackinac was captured by a force under British captain Charles Roberts, comprising approximately 400 Indigenous warriors (300 Odawa and Ojibwe and 100 Sioux, Menominee and Winnebago), 200 voyageurs (including Métis) and 45 British troops. In August, Shawnee Chief Tecumseh and 600 Indigenous warriors (Shawnee, Ojibwa, Odawa, and Potawatomi) were instrumental in the surrender on 16 August of a superior American force at Detroit. Tecumseh and General Brock rode side-by-side into the fallen fort. The fall of Detroit spurred on the Six Nations and the Delaware who were an important factor in the American defeat at Queenston Heights on 13 October 1812 under the leadership of John Norton (Teyoninhokarawen) and John Brant (Ahyonwaeghs). Even after the death of Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames in October 1813, Indigenous warriors continued to fight alongside the British.

During negotiations for the Treaty of Ghent (1814) that ended the war, the British tried to bargain for the creation of an Indian Territory, but the American delegates refused to agree. For Indigenous peoples living in British North America, the War of 1812 marked the end of an era of self-reliance and self-determination. Soon they would become outnumbered by settlers in their own lands. Any social or political influence enjoyed before the war dissipated. Within a generation, the contributions of so many different peoples, working together with their British and Canadian allies against a common foe, would be all but forgotten.

Heritage Minutes: Queenston Heights

Laura Secord’s Trek

During the War of 1812, Laura Secord walked 30 km from Queenston to Beaver Dams, near Thorold, to warn James FitzGibbon that the Americans were planning to attack his outpost. The story of her trek has become legendary, and Secord herself mythologized in Canadian history.

Laura’s husband, James Secord, was a sergeant with the 1st Lincoln Militia who was wounded at the Battle of Queenston Heights; Laura rescued him from the battlefield and took him home to nurse him through his recuperation. In June 1813, with Queenston occupied by American troops and James still recuperating, the Secords were forced to billet some American officers in their home. In some way, Laura heard that the Americans were planning an attack on British forces at Beaver Dams. Since James was unable to make the journey to warn FitzGibbon, Laura set out on her own, taking a circuitous route through inhospitable terrain to avoid American sentries. Helped by a group of First Nations men she encountered along the way, she finally reached FitzGibbon’s headquarters.

The exact details of Laura Secord’s efforts to reach FitzGibbon and sound the alarm are uncertain, but have been made part of Canadian mythology and employed to foster Canadian nationalism. Secord has been memorialized in books, plays, music, chocolate and a postage stamp. In Flames Across the Border, historian Pierre Berton asserted that her story would be “used to underline the growing myth that the War of 1812 was won by true-blue Canadians.”

Heritage Minutes: Laura Secord

The Militia and the War of 1812

The idea that the militia won the War of 1812 had its origins in a sermon given by Reverend John Strachan, chaplain of the garrison at York during the War of 1812. When the war began, Strachan became an ardent British supporter and made populist speeches on Britain’s early success at Detroit. His sermon of November 1812 praised the regulars, but especially the militia:

the Province of Upper Canada, without the assistance of men or arms, except a handful of regular troops, repelled its invaders, slew or took them all prisoners, and captured from its enemies the greater part of the arms by which it was defended.… And never, surely, was greater activity shown in any country than our militia has exhibited, never greater valour, cooler resolution and more approved conduct; they have emulated the choicest veterans, and they have twice saved the country.

Such exaggerations were key to the myth that it was Canada’s militia, not its expensive professional soldiers, who won the War of 1812. In reality, the militia were primarily assigned to transport and labour duties, although some served alongside British professional regulars and fencible regiments.

Canadian Voltigeurs

Perhaps the most famous militia unit was the Canadian Voltigeurs, a volunteer corps raised and commanded by Charles-Michel d’Irumberry de Salaberry, a British army officer born in Beauport, Lower Canada. The Voltigeurs were initially assigned to defend the Eastern Townships . In November 1812, they faced American Major General Dearborn and his 6,000-strong force, who invaded the region from Plattsburgh. De Salaberry rushed with a company of Voltigeurs and 230 Kahnawake Mohawk warriors to staunch the invasion at Lacolle. While they could not halt the invasion, days of skirmishing increased the cost, and Dearborn retreated days later. The spring of 1813 saw the splitting of Voltigeur units, some of whom bolstered the defences at Kingston and others who participated in the failed assault on Sackets Harbor . But the Voltigeurs are best known for their service at the Battle of Châteauguay and the Battle of Crysler’s Farm.

Admiral Alexander Cochrane and the War at Sea

The War of 1812 was fought on sea as well as land, with naval engagements on the Great Lakes and the Atlantic. Control of the seas was of crucial importance to the British, who appointed Admiral Alexander Cochrane to lead the Royal Navy in North American waters. A career naval officer whose boldness, skill and success in many campaigns led him to the highest echelons of naval service, Cochrane is best remembered in Canada for his commanding presence during the War of 1812. He was made commander of the North American Station of the Royal Navy in early 1814, and brought to that post his aggressive and unique mindset. While his predecessors had been interested in securing an armistice with the Americans, Cochrane was adamant that the enemy needed a “complete drubbing” and initiated a blockade against New England.

Cochrane also issued a proclamation directed at Black slaves in the United States. He assured them that any slaves who wished to leave the US would find safe passage on Royal Navy vessels, so long as they were willing to serve in the British military or be received as “free settlers” to other colonies. The escape of many slaves to British ships angered and alarmed the southern American states, and many slaves entered British service when British ships arrived in the Chesapeake Bay on the Atlantic coast. Cochrane organized 600 of them as “Colonial Marines.” Many also escaped to Halifax. After the war, Cochrane returned to England, where he died in 1832, leaving behind an impressive and engaging, though not flawless, naval career.

The Coloured Corps: Black Volunteers in the War of 1812

While some Black men served in Admiral Cochrane’s Colonial Marines, others volunteered for service in the Canadian militia. The Coloured Corps (also known as Runchey's Company of Coloured Men, or Black Corps) was a militia company of Black men raised during the War of 1812. Created in Upper Canada, where enslavement had been limited in 1793, the corps was composed of free and enslaved Black men. Many were veterans of the American Revolution , in which they fought for the British (see Black Loyalists ). The Coloured Corps fought in the Battle of Queenston Heights and the Battle of Fort George before it was attached to the Royal Engineers as a construction company.

The company was disbanded on 24 March 1815, following the end of the war. In claiming rewards for their service, many faced adversity and discrimination. Sergeant William Thompson was informed he “must go and look for his pay himself,” while Richard Pierpoint, then in his 70s, was denied his request for passage home to Africa in lieu of a land grant. When grants were distributed in 1821, veterans of the Coloured Corps received only 100 acres, half that of their White counterparts. Many veterans did not settle the land they were granted because it was of poor quality. Despite these inequities, the Coloured Corps defended Canada honourably, setting the precedent for the formation of Black units in future.

A Coloured Corps was again raised in Niagara during the Rebellions of 1837–38, one of several Black or “Coloured” corps that volunteered for service — other units were raised in Toronto, Hamilton, Chatham, and Sandwich (Windsor).

Heritage Minutes: Richard Pierpoint