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Decent Overview of an Oft-Forgotten Conflict

Niagara 1814: America Invades Canada - Richard V. Barbuto

As it is, the War of 1812 is a barely-remembered chapter of American history. If it is recalled at all, the most prominent images are the British burning of Washington DC (including the White House), and the battle of Ft McHenry, as memorialized by the Star Spangled Banner. 

 

But there was an entire other theatre in that war: the Western theatre, which in those early days of the Republic referred to the Great Lakes region. War hawks in Congress dreamt of glory, and imagined a campaign in which the US could wrest all of Canada from British hands, more than doubling our nation's land area. This book is dedicated to examining that fight.

 

One might be forgiven for thinking this book was written in present day, and that it contains thinly-veiled commentary on U.S. adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of the ingredients are there: war-hawk Congressmen who had themselves never fought in the military, yet were eager to gamble the lives of their fellow countrymen;  an ill-conceived war of aggression on foreign soil; and an American public who gradually became less enthusiastic as the conflict ground on.  ...But no, this book was written in 1999 by a thoughtful and apparently impartial retired Army former Lt.Col, (Richard Barbuto) who presents the material in a meticulous and dispassionate style.

 

 

 

What I enjoyed most was Barbuto's thorough discussion of how the conflict was shaped by geographical factors. 

 

 

British forces were supplied solely through their one unassailable North American port, in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Troops, munitions, and food were shipped down the St. Lawrence seaway to strongholds in Quebec City and Montreal (the real prizes American warhawks coveted). There were very few roads west of Montreal at that time, so further projection of power depended on shipping on the Great Lakes- which was disputed by the American Great Lakes fleet, ably (for the most part) led by Issac Chauncey. As one proceeded Westward, British supply routes became more and more tenuous. 

 

American forces were much more diffuse, and better developed in the West. Thus, the US faced no such limitations. This advantage decided the battle of Ft Erie, and kept the Great Lakes west of Buffalo NY firmly under American primacy (with the temporary embarrassing exception of a needless surrender of the American fort in Detroit, 1811).

 

A few factors helped balance the equation in favor of the British:

 

1) American forces comprised a much smaller percentage of "regulars" (i.e. full-time active duty soldiers). Most soldiers were short-term (usually from 6 months to 2 years) volunteers with no former battle experience.   In contrast, the British North American army was composed nearly entirely of full-time professional soldiers, who had been unified, disciplined, and battle hardened in the recent ongoing Napoleonic Wars.

 

2) For reasons not entirely explained in this book, the British seemed to have much better relations with the local Native Americans, who fought on the British side in much larger numbers than they did for the U.S.  Indian guides with their knowledge of local geography, flora, and fauna provided priceless advice to British commanders traveling overland, along the northern shore of Lake Ontario.

 

3) American leaders- particularly those aforementioned Congressional war hawks- failed to take into account  the attitudes of the Canadian populace. After the Revolutionary War (only 35 years prior) British loyalists moved en masse to Canada. Thus, the larger portion of Canadians ranged from indifferent to rabidly hostile toward American invaders. When (U.S.) Gen. Jacob Brown landed his forces on the Niagara peninsula, the opposing (British) Gen. Gordon Drummond had little need of spies to assess the Americans' numbers and movements; average Canadian citizens were willing and able to report these to him.

 

This is probably the largest strategic flaw behind the American attempt to conquer Canada:  whereas it may have been reasonable to imagine that the U.S. could conquer Canada (e.g. -if only the Napoleonic Wars had lasted a little longer, tying up the bulk of British military power in the European theatre), it was completely unreasonable to imagine that America could ever HOLD Canada.  It was simply too large a landmass for our nascent military to occupy, indefinitely, in the face of Canada's openly-hostile population.

 

 

Having said that, American forces- particularly the U.S. Navy, acquitted themselves admirably, throughout most of the war. The U.S. Navy completely dominated the British in Lake Erie, and fought on par with the British on Lake Ontario, even in the face of superior firepower, when the giant warship St Lawrence  was completed at the Kingston shipworks, towards the end of the war.

 

The American Army didn't do quite as well, on the lower Niagara peninsula- where most of the Canadian campaign took place. Part of this is due to the failure of the U.S. Army and Navy to work together. Chauncy failed to support Brown's defense of Ft. Niagara or Ft. George, and so both were lost to the British.

 

A lot of tactical blow-by-blow narration describes the Battles of Lundy's Lane and the defense of Ft. Erie. It's a bit too detailed for my tastes, but you may be into that sort of thing.

 

The end of the war contains several cliffhangers:  As soon as Napoleon concedes Waterloo, a massive British force (over 10,000 shock troops) file into Canada, and poise to take the Adirondak region of northern New York State.  It is only through a tactical blunder that British forces on Lake Champlain face the American Navy before the Plattsburgh navy base falls under ground attack. In a devastating route, American Navy vessels obtain a complete surrender of all British forces on the Lake, before turning to support Plattsburgh's defense with shipfire. (British) Major General George Prevost got a courts-martial for that little incident, which saw the massive British force running back over the Canadian border to reconsider strategies.

 

This stunning turn of events severely altered the peace negotiations: to that point, the British were demanding a revision of the US/Canadian border further southwards; a change that would have made Maine a Canadian province, along with much of northern New York State and Vermont.

 

Barbuto touches on actions along the Atlantic coast, to include the burning of Washington, and the defense of Ft. McHenry- significant events which caused the United States to reconsider it's founding beliefs that the Republic could be adequately defended by volunteer citizen-soldiers, instead of a standing professional army. That's interesting to think about but I am happy to report that the book remains solidly focused on the campaign for Canada.

 

 

I particularly recommend this work, if you are native to Buffalo, NY, as a lot of familiar places show up, and some place names have their origins in this era. The town of Ft. Erie is mostly known today for having the region's largest strip club, but was the site of a hard-fought battle which was unexpectedly decided by the explosion of an American gunpowder reserve, just as the British were capturing it. The massive explosion killed over 900 British soldiers in one swift blow- a slap which Drummond's army never completely recovered from. 

 

Lundy's Lane today is mostly known for garish Niagara Falls souvenir stores:

 

 

but was the site of the largest conflict of the 1814 campaign- an unsatisfying affair which counted as a technical victory for the Americans (having captured more guns, taken a strategically-important hilltop, and having killed more enemy soldiers), but a strategic victory for the British (causing American General Winfield Scott to overextend himself before General Brown's support units could arrive- resulting in the Americans being unable to hold their hard-fought gains, and ultimately driving them back to refuge in Ft. Erie). 

 

 

 

Porter Road in Buffalo is named after warhawk Peter Porter, who asserted that the capture of Canada would take "no substantial effort". 

 

Williamsville, NY- the upscale area where people with money in Buffalo live  today- was the site of the area's largest military hospital.

 

Overall, this is an, if sometimes dry, account of the Niagara campaign.  3.5 stars because the order-of-battle stuff about Lundy's Lane just goes on forever, and is just a bit too detailed.