Why Canada cares much more about the War of 1812


The capture and burning of Washington by the British on Aug. 24, 1814, is depicted during the War of 1812. This is a wood engraving published in 1876. The depiction is not accurate because the Capitol had no center building in 1814. (By Richard Miller Devens from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Over the weekend, there was a bit of a hubbub over a Tweet from the British Embassy in Washington, marking the 200th anniversary of the British sack of Washington and razing of the White House during the War of 1812.

The tongue-in-cheek post led to some social media grumbling and an abashed apology, as Post Politics documents here.

This small episode is, if nothing else, a reminder of the strange place that the War of 1812 occupies in the historical memory of the United States.

We're now in the third year of official commemorations of the War of 1812, a distant conflict between the British Empire and the young, upstart American republic that lasted through 1814 and was distinguished by the bumbling, hapless leadership of many of the commanders involved. It is remembered, if at all in the U.S., through isolated episodes: the burning of Washington; the death of Native American war chief Tecumseh; the naval bombardment of Fort McHenry, which led to the penning of the "Star Spangled Banner." (I wrote at length about the origins of the war, which was deeply divisive within the U.S., and the historiography about it, here.)

But it matters a lot more in Canada where, some Americans may be surprised to know, much of the war took place. Indeed, the real story of the conflict centers on the failed invasion of what's now Canada by a disorganized and ill-prepared U.S. Army. American warhawks at the time had been confident: Thomas Jefferson believed that the capture of Upper Canada (now the province of Ontario) from the British would be "simply a matter of marching." Instead, the British forces and their indigenous allies repulsed the American incursions in battles that gave rise to some of Canada's earliest nationalist heroes, as this official Canadian government video celebrates:

The war played out in fits and starts along the shores of the Great Lakes, with soldiers succumbing to disease, hunger and the bitter cold almost as much as the bullets and bayonets of the enemy. Battles and skirmishes were chaotic and brutal. The infamous sack of Washington carried out by the British in 1814 was later justified as retribution for American "burnings" in various parts of Upper Canada, including the American pillaging of the city of York, now Toronto, in April 1813.

Here's Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Alan Taylor's account of the looting, from his book The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels & Indian Allies:

York’s leading militia officer, William Allan, reported, “Few houses in the town escaped a minute search by two or three parties, under the pretext of looking for public property. Many have been pillaged and some have had everything taken.” The sheriff John Beikie noted, “Those who abandoned their Houses found nothing but the bare walls at their return.” The looters also hit Strachan’s Anglican church and the town’s subscription library, and they hauled off the town’s fire engines and destroyed the local printing press, casting the type into the harbor.

At an event last year commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Battle of York, Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper said the war's events "helped give shape to the Canada we know today." Harper's conservative government has invested millions in memorial activities and other War of 1812 paraphernalia, as I reported two years ago:

The Canadian government is minting special coins, issuing stamps, erecting new monuments, revamping museum exhibits, paying for dozens of historical reenactments and even launching its own War of 1812 smart-phone app. While historians applaud Harper for his interest in Canada’s heritage, some see a political agenda. “They wish to have Canadians identify with the military and conservative values,” says Terry Copp, director of the Laurier Centre for Military and Strategic Disarmament Studies and a leading Canadian military historian.

Whatever the resonance now, it probably doesn't involve continued animosity toward those south of the border.

That wasn't the case a year after American troops raided modern-day Toronto. A week before the storming of Washington, a British naval commander informed then-U.S. Secretary of State James Monroe of Britain's intent to "effect measures of retaliation against the inhabitants of the United States for the wanton destruction committed by their army in Upper Canada." The Canadian blogger Fernando Souza, who has been running a War of 1812 Twitter account and maintains a blog of primary documents, published the missive in full here. Its formality may amuse modern readers:

I had hoped that this contest would have terminated without my being obliged to resort to severities which are contrary to the usage of civilized warfare, and as it has been with extreme reluctance and concern that I have found myself compelled to adopt this system of devastation, I shall be equally gratified if the conduct of the Executive of the United States will authorize my staying such proceedings, by making reparation to the suffering inhabitants of Upper Canada.

Clearly, no such apologies or reparations were made in time and Dolley Madison had a painting to save.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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