foreword | Historical Narratives | Resources | Links | Contact



History is the rigorous search for truth but whose truth?

History enlightens but it can also deceive because it is always someone's version of history. Everyone listens to their own voices and while these illuminate they may also distort. They may even invent accounts that are rich in patriotic propaganda, accounts of a country that fancy their soldiers "possess the prowess of demi-gods." Historical writing of this nature tends more to magnify individuals and nurse national passions than uncover facts and reveal truth.

Much of the early and not a little of the later writing about the War of 1812 is history of this nature. Some call it history hunting for heroes. Knowledge of a nation's heroic past acts as patriotic cement which helps to bind a country together. For this reason both sides in this conflict sought to enhance national pride by exaggerating their valour and their victories - the headline version of history.

The accounts of battles fought written afterwards by some historians represented not just distortion but actual invention. An example of this distortion was written in connection with the Battle of Queenston Heights. The Americans were beaten badly at this battle and surrendered unconditionally. Despite this one historian's account stated, "Both sides mutually resorted to the bayonet and after a bloody conflict the members of the famous British regiment, the 49th, yielded to the superior energy of the Americans although we were far inferior in numbers." An American officer is reported as saying, "Our whole force under arms at the time was less than 300 with but one piece of artillery, yet I am well persuaded a retreat much less a surrender was not thought of and that the troops were in as high spirits as if we had been superior." In fact, shortly after the "high spirits," these same soldiers broke and fled frantically down the heights, many dashed to death on the rocks below as they fell pell mell down the steep slope.

At the time of this war the two societies were at different stages of development. The Americans, no matter how important their states and regions were, thought of themselves first and foremost as Americans, people of a new nation. British North America comprised a set of small, separate colonial dependencies. Americans focussed on their nation. British North Americans' pride was more local in outlook. The citizens of Upper Canada celebrated not so much a country as a community. With no nation to acclaim Canadians were left to laud the monarchy and the British Empire. Until well after Confederation popular historial literature tended to be regional and local in outlook. Americans were enraptured by their nation's patriotic past. They had only recently created a new country which they celebrated as the wonder of the world. For this reason according to one American historian, they were better at boasting because they never tired of eulogizing their new nation and its leaders.

The last battle of the War of 1812 was the Battle of New Orleans. While it was clearly won by the Americans it had no bearing whatsoever on the Treaty of Ghent, whose terms had already been agreed to much to the relief of both the Canadians and the Americans.

The treaty had been signed but not ratified by the warring parties. American leaders were more than happy to settle for status quo ante bellum, terms which required that each country give up its conquests and retire to the boundary as it was before the war. This provision was a real triumph for the Americans. While they had to relinquish their sole foothold in Canada -the outpost at Amherstburg on the Detroit River - the British and Canadians had to relinquish control of the whole of the eastern part of Maine, Fort Niagara, Fort Mackinac, posts in the Illinois country, the Grand Portage at the head of Lake Superior and ultimately their exclusive possession of Oregon. This meant despite Americans having lost their war of conflict, Britain was expected to yield it military acquisitions. The conclusion was that the war had been fought for nothing.

While the United States settled none of the major conditions President Madison vowed to rectify by going to war, American historians persisted in hailing their victory at New Orleans as convincing proof that they had won the war. In so doing, said Winston Churchill, they created the "evil legend that the struggle had been a second War of Independence against British tyranny." This is exactly what the Americans considered it to be: a war to rid the continent of Britain's colony, Canada, and so ensure America's eagle-screaming declaration that it was their destiny to own North America.

"In wartime people only want to hear two things: good of themselves and evil of the enemy." It is commonplace for both countries to claim that they won the War of 1812. The United States loudly proclaimed supremacy because it won several land battles and had a number of single-vessel victories. American officers were skilful at producing under tense and testing conditions apt and memorable phrases, sometimes referred to as "golden statements." Examples of these are: "Don't give up the ship;" "We have met the enemy and they are ours;" and "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes." These statements over time inspire because they are eagerly quoted and re-quoted by reporters until the public adopts them and they become a revered part of the nation's history. They are great gifts to American historians.

Canada's claim to have won the war was more muted and much simpler. The Americans attempted to conquer Canada. We fought, they failed therefore we won the war. Canadian bravado leaps from the pages of an early Ontario elementary school textbook which contains this stirring statement of our military prowess. "The land of the maple leaf had to fight her own battles and nobly indeed did she do so."

For Canada the war was a struggle for survival. The young, loosely-knit nation rose to the occasion, pulled together and fought off American attempts to take it. For Britain the conflict was a marginal struggle in a distant colony of which the British public knew little and cared less. While the British seldom mention this war, Britain's troops loomed large in every battle and really determined its outcome.

The Americans considered the British "were all rascals" the continent should be rid of and they vowed to accomplish this by quickly conquering Canada. Thomas Jefferson boasted, "The capture of Canada is a mere matter of marching." A few Kentuckians claimed they could take Canada without any difficulty.

Historical education has traditionally possessed a strong nationalistic flavour. History teaching was recruited to the service of patriotism and became a recital of the nation's heroes and their victories. Therefore, given the pride invested by Canadians and Americans in this war it is informative to read the differing accounts of the battles during it by historians of both countries. The following statements were selected at random from articles written by American and Canadian writers about three important events in the War of 1812: (a) the Battle of Fort Erie, (b) the Battle of Chippewa, and (c) the Battle of Lundy's Lane.

In some of the assertions bias is blatant. In others it is more subtle. It is well to remember that prejudice and partiality are revealled not only in what writers have chosen to mention, but also in what they have decided to omit.

"When I put the book away on the table,
And start contemplating what I've been reading,
I'm not necessarily thinking about what's written in it
But rather what's not mentioned,
For it too is part of the story."

(A) American Writers on the Battle of Fort Erie

1. " 'It is victories we want,' said President Madison and General Jacob Brown gave him one: he smashed Fort Erie."

2. "Brown's forces easily overpowered the garrison without loss of life on either side."

3. "Brown, eager to fight the British, led his army to recapture Fort Erie."

4. "Brown opened the campaign by recapturing Fort Erie following which he bragged, 'I do not doubt my ability to meet the enemy in the field and march in any direction over his country.' [a golden statement.]

5. "General Brown landed his men on both sides of the British post at Fort Erie whose 170 men surrendered tamely on the first cannonade. His dispatch stated: 'Fort Erie did not detain me a single day.'

(A) Canadian Writers on the Battle of Fort Erie

1. "Brown aimed his attack at the defenders' weakest point, Fort Erie, and with a force of 3500 men forced its garrison of less than 150 men to surrender."

2. "The Fort being incapable of actual defence both from the nature of the fortifications and the smallness of its garrison was at once surrendered."

3. "The best American army to take the field during the war crossed the river easily taking Fort Erie."

(B) American Writers on the Battle of Chippewa

1. "At Chippewa Creek, the British fell on Scott's parading troops like lions on their prey. It was an historic battle. The British broke and ran."

2. "Scott's 1500-man column formed flawlessly into line of battle. He noticed the British regiments were handled unevenly. His charge broke the British cohesion and pushed their unit back towards the bridge."

3. "Scott's Dispatch: 'Riall charged us at five. Before six his line was broken and his force defeated. He was closely pressed and would have been utterly ruined but for the proximity of his works thither he fled.'"

4. "The British unable to stand the murderous cross fire fell back in semi-disorder to safety."

5. "Scott led 1300 regulars against 2100 Canadians and Indians. Scott's training and crisp control produced a classic victory."

(B) Canadian Writers on the Battle of Chippewa

1. "The British suffered heavy losses and had to withdraw across the river."

2. "Riall's Dispatch: 'They (his soldiers) I was obliged to withdraw them, finding their further efforts against the superior numbers of the enemy would be unavailing.'"

"Riall led his men on a reckless attack against a larger American army whose regulars on this occasion proved equal to the British forcing Riall's men back who advanced with the greatest gallantry under most destructive fire I am sorry to say."

(C) American Writers on the Battle of Lundy's Lane

1. "But in the end General Riall had to surrender his sword. It was a major American victory. It was tremendous."

2. "There were 2100 Americans and 3000 British but the American performance was such that Drummond thought their strength at 5000."

3. "Both sides took a beating and both claimed a victory; it was actually a draw."

4. "The Americans fell back in good order from Lundy's Land and entrenched themselves in and around Fort Erie."

(C) Canadian Writers on the Battle of Lundy's Lane

1. "Neither side can said to have won the battle. Brown claimed he did but it was the Americans who retreated like a beaten force."

2. "Drummond's Dispatch: 'The enemy suffered so severely from superior steadiness and discipline that he gave up the contest and retreated in great disorder.'"

3. "The honours of war were evenly divided but by midnight the Americans were too exhausted to make another attack and fell back leaving Drummond in possession of the field."

4. "The Americans were withdrawing in exhaustion, the battle ultimately to be a British victory."

5. "Under a thin moon through a nightmare of glare and gunsmoke the British regulars and Canadian militia charged again and again . Muskets and pistols blasted at point-blank range. At midnight the Americans finally fell back and the knoll was retaken. And there in the bloodiest battle of all was where the invasion of Canada really ended."

Sir Winston Churchill

The last diplomatically decisive word on the Battle of Lundy's Lane shall be Winston Churchill's.
In His Own Words
"The American advance was checked by a savage, drawn battle."

National bias will only disappear when historians and educators cease to regard history as a vehicle for state politics.

"A historian among his books should forget his nationality."

"The first casualty of war is the truth."

Previous / Review / Next

Copyright © 2013 Website Administrator