War of 1812 Essay
That water was recognized as strategic as early as the French and Indian War. It has been a highway not just for exploration and trade, but has served as a military flash-point. In 1758 and again in 1759, the British and French tussled over French Fort Carillon. Once taken by the British, it was renamed Fort Ticonderoga.
Down Lake Champlain, the British chased the French to the conquest of Canada. Later, one prong of Benedict Arnold’s adventure in 1775 went down Lake Champlain to Montreal and met him in Quebec. After holding on to his perch in Montreal that winter, he was chased up the lake only to return by fall and meet Governor Caralton at the Battle of Valcour. His superior naval tactics bought time and delayed the conquest of New York and Vermont.
A year later General Johnny Burgoyne retraced his steps and got as far as Saratoga near Albany, over half the distance to his target of New York City. He reasoned that, if he could control the water link between Canada and the British strong-hold of New York City, the revolution could be strangled.
When the American War of 1812 began, no one in England was thinking about military adventure in the new United States. They were decisively engaged in Europe with the Napoleonic conflicts. But the leadership in America saw an opportunity to garner Canada while the King’s back was turned. Jefferson, the former president goaded James Madison and the Congress into declaring war on England and assured them: ‘The taking of Canada this year is a mere matter of marching.’ He firmly believed that the French-speaking citizens of Quebec were eager to leave British colonial control and would welcome the military intervention of the Americans, coming over to join the enterprise in droves.
Thomas Jefferson’s mistake cost the newly outfitted and ill-led American Army many lives between the first incursion at Detroit in the spring of 1812 and the last border crossing at La Colle Mill in March of 1814. England could not afford offensive action during that period and just held on with a scattering of regular Army and staunch Canadian fensibles, voltigeurs and chasseurs.
That spring everything changed. Napoleon abdicated and the victorious British Army occupied France. The Duke of Wellington, now ambassador to Royal France, attended the Congress of Vienna, which was dividing up the spoils. He believed that he detected a movement by Russia and Prussia to construct a new alliance, which intended to form an eastern centre of gravity and exclude Britain from interests on the Continent. If he was correct, England would need that victorious veteran army that was drinking its way toward the Channel coast, one vineyard at a time.
Wellington recognized that with the defeat of the ‘ogre’, his nation would not sustain his army while the threatening alliance and plots developed over the next year. When he needed it again, it would not be available. As our modern times confirm, NATO began to shelve its expensive war machine shortly after the Berlin Wall came crashing down. Soon it was required again in so many places.
Wellington came up with a cunning plan. He convinced his old friend Earl Bathurst, the Colonial Secretary, to use the Army to end the pesky war with the United States that summer and fall of 1814 and bring it home in time to engage the new threat in central Europe. Of course, the great Duke was wrong and right. He was mistaken to think he would fight his old allies–they were needed at his side once again. He was right to foresee the need for the trained army with which he would meet Napoleon at Waterloo in the spring of 1815.
Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost, Bt, was the Governor of Canada. A career soldier, he was born in Hackensack New Jersey in 1767 to Augustine Prevost, a Swiss mercenary and commander of a light infantry battalion. Educated in England and France, Sir George was picked because of his French-speaking background and was expected to bring stability to Canada.
An accomplished diplomat, he integrated French speakers into his Government over the objections of the anglophiles who were, in some cases, dispossessed. But following the wishes of his king, he was successful in unifying the colony. His staunch defence over the past two years was rewarded when he received a written order in the spring of 1814.
On the folded cover of the parchment, tied with a red ribbon, the order read: ‘Reinforcements allotted for North America and the operations contemplated for the employment of them.’It was signed by Bathurst. The plan covered not only Canada but also an entire campaign.
A very modern blueprint, it outlined the composition of the force in great detail, even down to the number of men in each of the veteran regiments deployed. It went on to explain that the majority of the troops, a block of 10,000, would be allocated to his charge. They were to be used not only to secure the southern border of Canada, but also to insure future security of the colony. It clearly described operations on the southern shore of the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain.
A small portion, a Highland brigade, would be sent to re-inforce General Sherbrooke in his conquest of Maine. Yet, ‘if necessary’, that force could be added to those needed under his control, since General Prevost’s campaign was the main attack of the game plan. In addition, it stated that a diversionary force was to be embarked to harass the eastern seaboard of the United States intent on disrupting, distracting, diverting and disorienting the interests of the people and government.
The plan was labelled ‘Secret’ and so it remained until 1922 when it was found in the Public Record Office in London. As a result, the full implications of the effort which would include raids on Washington, DC, Baltimore and much later, New Orleans, were not fully understood by historians.
My wife Carol and I could not find the document at Kew Gardens in 1995 but located copy number II in the home of Sir Christopher and Lady Prevost in Albufeira, Portugal. There, the family papers revealed the thoughts of General Prevost in the words of his 18-year-old daughter’s diary written from notes sent to her by her father on campaign. Ann Prevost writes after being cautioned by her mother of the danger in war: ‘Precious as was my Father’s life, still I was so true a Soldier’s daughter, I valued his renown even more.’