The War of 1812: Setting the Stage - Page Banner

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Causes of the War

Letter The causes of the American declaration of war against Great Britain on June 18, 1812 related to events far removed from Upper Canada geographically. Geography, however, determined that Upper Canada would be the primary battleground of the war.

The long conflict between Britain and France from the French Revolution through the reign of Napoleon was fought to a great extent as an economic war. Britain and France attempted to interfere with the trade of neutrals, including the United States, that was deemed to benefit the enemy.

Britain issued Orders-in-Council which forbade trade through European ports under French control while France issued the Milan Decrees which outlawed trade with Britain.

The trade dispute with Britain was heightened by the policy of stopping American vessels and removing any crewmembers believed to be deserters from the Royal Navy. Further, there were several naval incidents in the decade before 1812 which brought the two countries near war.

Death of General Brock, 1960

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Death of General Brock, 1960
Roy Greenaway (1891-1972)
oil on canvas
Government of Ontario Art Collection, 623021

But there were also factors closer to home that contributed to the outbreak of hostilities:

  • The expansion of American settlement in the "Old North-west" (today's Ohio, Michigan, Illinois), frequently in violation of treaties with the First Nations, led to ongoing conflict.
  • The United States claimed that the Indian Agents at the British posts in the upper lakes were encouraging the resistance and supplying the means to carry it out.
  • Many American politicians saw war with Great Britain as an opportunity to expand northward through the conquest of Upper Canada.

The American declaration of war in June 1812 followed a long period of grievance against Great Britain, but had no one particular cause.

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The Protagonists

Letter The resources available to the two sides were unevenly matched. Great Britain had an overwhelming naval superiority but for the first year of the war much of that strength was focused on the blockade of European ports as part of the war against Napoleon.

To garrison and defend the area from Halifax to Fort St. Joseph on Lake Huron, there were only 6000 regular troops, approximately 1500 of them posted in Upper Canada. The population of Upper Canada did not exceed 100,000 with perhaps 500,000 in all of British North America.

The British army officers and enlisted men in the Canadas were professional soldiers with some combat experience. This provided them with an advantage in the early months of the war. The militia was potentially large, but poorly trained and ill-equipped.

Major General Isaac Brock had been in command in Upper Canada for nearly 10 years when the war began.

Blockhouse and Battery in Old Fort, Toronto, 1812, [ca. 1921]

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Blockhouse and Battery in Old Fort, Toronto,
1812, [ca. 1921]
C. W. Jefferys
Pen and ink drawing on paper
Government of Ontario Art Collection, 621228

Print: [Brock], [ca. 1800]

 

The population of Upper Canada consisted of loyalists and more recent arrivals from the United States with limited loyalty to the British Empire. Some of the political issues that were to erupt into the Rebellion of 1837 were already fostering unrest in the province and distrust of the government. All military stores and equipment had to be imported from Britain.

The economy of Upper Canada was agricultural and had difficulty producing the surpluses required to feed the population and increased military presence.

[Brock], [ca. 1800]
Engraver unknown
Ontario Legislative Library print collection
Print
Reference Code: RG 49-33-0-0-16
Archives of Ontario, I0009119

Map: Setting the Stage

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Letter The United States had a small regular army and navy, but a population in excess of 4 million and a more developed industrial base. Foundries capable of producing artillery and small arms were located relatively close to the border.

When the war began most of the senior officers in the U.S. army were veterans of the War of Independence 30 years earlier. General Hull and General Dearborn were good examples of this. It took time for younger, more energetic officers to advance to a position of command, and it took several years for American officers and men to achieve the professional level of their British counterparts.

During the conflict, the United States also faced First Nation uprisings stretching from Florida to the Upper Great Lakes . This tied down large numbers of militia and federal troops, dissipating the force that could be brought to bear against Upper Canada.


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Ki-On-Twog-Ky or Corn Plant. A Seneca Chief, 1836
F. W. Greenough, Philadelphia
Print
Reference Code: RG 2-344-0-0-13
Archives of Ontario, I0009149

 

Print: Ki-On-Twog-Ky or Corn Plant. A Seneca Chief, 1836
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