Of all the wars fought by the English-speaking peoples, this was one of the strangest—a war entered into blindly and fought (also blindly) by men out of touch not only with reality but also with their own forces.
To America’s leaders in 1812, an invasion of Canada seemed to be “a mere matter of marching,” as Thomas Jefferson confidently predicted. How could a nation of eight million fail to subdue a struggling colony of three hundred thousand? Yet, when the campaign ended, the only Americans left on Canadian soil were prisoners of war. Three American armies had been forced to surrender, and the British were in control of all of Michigan Territory and much of Indiana and Ohio.
In this remarkable account of the War of 1812’s first year and the events that led up to it, Pierre Berton transforms history into an engrossing narrative that reads like a fast-paced novel. Drawing on personal memoirs and diaries as well as official dispatches, the author gets inside the characters of the men who fought the war—the common soldiers as well as the generals, the bureaucrats and the profiteers, the traitors and the loyalists.
“A popular history as it should be written.” —The New York Times
“A catalogue of ironies and follies—dramatized through dispatches from each of the warring camps—which leaves hardly a legend intact.” —Kirkus Reviews
“A wonderful historical work . . . a book of love, ambition, guile, heroism, tragedy and cowardice.” —The Detroit News
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PRELUDE TO INVASION: 1807 — 1811
The Road to Tippecanoe
See our western brothers bleed! British gold has done the deed. Child and Mother, Son and Sire, Beneath the tomahawk expire.
— On the Battle of Tippecanoe, National Intelligencer, July 11, 1812.
ABOARD THE BRITISH FRIGATE Melampus, lying off Hampton Roads, Chesapeake Bay, Virginia, February, 1807.
The decks are clear of officers, for an entertainment is in progress. Music. Laughter. The tinkling of glass and silver. Leaning over the rail is an oddly assorted trio of impressed American seamen. One, William Ware, is an Indian from Pipe Creek, Maryland, a one-time wagoner who had served aboard the U.S. frigate Chesapeake until he was impressed, fifteen months ago, by a British boarding party in the Bay of Biscay. Another, Daniel Martin, is a Negro from Westport, Massachusetts, impressed at the same time as Ware. The third is a white man, John Strachan, also from Maryland, pressed on board Melampus off Cape Finisterre in 1805.
For two years Strachan has been waiting for a chance to escape, and now it has come. Because of the festivities, every boat except the captain's gig has been hoisted in. There is no chance of pursuit. Strachan and his companions leap into the gig and cast off. Somebody hails them: where do they think they're going? They shout back that they are going ashore, and as they pull for land, a hail of musket balls rains upon them. Unharmed, they reach Lowell's Point, haul the boat onto the beach, carefully place the oars on the seats, give three hearty cheers, and dash away to freedom.
It is short lived. At Hampton Roads, the three sign up for service in the American navy aboard Chesapeake and soon find themselves at the centre of the "Chesapeake incident," which brings America to the very brink of war with Britain.
The date is June 22, 1807. The American frigate is a few hours out of Hampton Roads, bound for the Mediterranean. As she passes a British squadron anchored in American waters, a fifty-gun man-of-war, Leopard, the flagship of Vice-Admiral George Berkeley, detaches itself and slips off in, pursuit. James Barron, Chesapeake's captain, knows exactly what is happening: the British dander is up; the captain of Melampus wants his men back. On the streets and quays of Hampton Roads, where British and American sailors and officers mingle, the presence of known deserters has not gone unnoticed. The Royal Navy has been especially infuriated by one Jenkin Ratford, a British deserter intemperate enough to shout gibes and insults at his former officers. In vain the British have asked for Ratford; the Americans have refused to give him up. Nor will they return the three men who stole the captain's gig from Melampus. Now, all four men have thumbed their noses at the British and are safely aboard Chesapeake, which is heading out to sea, its lower decks apparently crowded with other British deserters, all well known to the captain but concealed under assumed names. This is too much for Vice- Admiral Berkeley. Off goes an order to every British vessel to stop Chesapeake at sea and take the deserters by force. As it happens, Berkeley's own flagship is the one that will essay the task.
Stopped by Leopard, Captain Barron cannot believe the British will attack and so makes no attempt to clear Chesapeake's decks for action. A young lieutenant comes aboard, demands the return of the four men-the only ones he can identify since the Melampus deserters have not taken false names and Ratford, who is now called Wilson, is easily recognizable from his earlier intemperate encounters. Barron, who has all four hidden below, feigns ignorance. After some fruitless talk, the Englishman leaves. Leopard's captain continues the discussion through a loud hailer. When Barron refuses his demands. Leopard fires a shot across Chesapeake's bow. No reply.
It is too late now for the British to back down. Leopard opens fire with her port guns, and a ten-minute cannonade follows. Twenty-one cannonballs tear into Chesapeake's starboard hull. Another shatters her mizzen-mast. Her mainmast topples, her sails are shredded, shrouds cut away, spars splintered. By the time Barron strikes his colours, three of his men are dead and eighteen, including himself, are wounded. The British board the battered frigate but refuse to accept it as a prize. All they want are the three deserters from Melampus and the wretched Ratford, whom they will proceed to hang at Halifax to their own great satisfaction and the fury of the American public.
The Americans are in a ferment. The man on the street finds it intolerable that British boarding parties can seize sailors from American ships on the pretext that they are Royal Navy deserters, then force them to serve in the' hell hole of a British man-of-war. There is some doubt that the Melampus trio were impressed (the British insist they volunteered, and certainly two are thoroughgoing rogues), but that evidence is kept secret. To the Americans it is a flagrant attack on national sovereignty. In the words of John Quincy Adams, "No nation can be Independent which suffers her Citizens to be stolen from her at the discretion of the Naval or military officers of another."
But to Britain, impressment is a necessity. Her navy has trebled in size since the war with France began. She cannot man her ships with volunteers. Worse, thousands of British sailors are deserting to American merchantmen, lured by better conditions and better pay-four times as much. Who can blame the British for recapturing bona fide deserters in time of war? Certainly not the British public; they applaud it.
But who is a bona fide deserter? Americans and British speak the same language, look alike, dress alike. British boarding parties, hungry for men, do not always bother with the niceties. They grab whom they can. No one knows how many American seamen have been pressed into British service (the figures run between three and seven thousand), but it takes only a few publicized cases to enrage the American public. Even when a case of mistaken identity is proved and admitted, months elapse before the seaman is returned. Service in the British Navy is like a prison sentence or worse, for as Samuel. Johnson once remarked, "no man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into jail; for being in a ship is being in jail, with the chance of being drowned." Some American seamen have been known to cut off their hands to avoid impressment; some who refuse to serve are flogged unmercifully by the British; and a few, including the three escapees from Melampus, are prepared to risk death to get away.
Their recapture from Chesapeake touches off an international incident. Riots break out in New York, where a mob does its best to dismantle a British ship. The British consul is forced to seek police protection while an English diplomat on a tour of the Union finds it prudent to assume an incognito. Public meetings throughout the land denounce the perfidious British. In Quebec, Lieutenant-Colonel Isaac Brock notes that "every American newspaper teems with violent and hostile resolutions against England, and associations are forming in every town for the ostensible purpose of attacking these Provinces."
The future general is right: the country is emotionally ready for war, more so, in fact, than it will be in 1812. But its leaders are not ready. The President, Thomas Jefferson, threatens war but does not mean it-a dangerous posture. "If the English do not give us the satisfaction we demand, we will take Canada which wants to enter the Union," he tells the French minister to Washington. The Frenchman takes these bellicose remarks languidly and reports to Paris that he does not believe that either Jefferson or his foreign secretary, James Madison, wants war. Jefferson bans British warships from American waters, enforces an embargo preventing all ships from sailing out of U.S. ports for foreign destinations, and hopes that these threats will force the British to abandon impressment. But the British do not yield and the embargo is a failure. The public's ardour for war cools quickly. The crisis passes.
But there is one group of Americans whose ardour does not cool In the oak and hickory forests of Ohio, in the cornfields along the Maumee and the Wabash, on the banks of the Au Glaize and on the Tippecanoe in Indiana Territory, there is a quickening of the blood, a stirring of old and painful memories of the defeat at Fallen Timbers and the surrender of hunting grounds at Greenville. The war fever, filtering through to the tribes of the Old Northwest, revives the dying hopes of the native Americans for a new conflict in which they will fight side by side with the British against the Long Knives. The Northwest has been at peace since General Anthony Wayne's decisive victory in 1794. But the Chesapeake incident acts as a catalyst to animate the tribes and shatter the calm that has prevailed north of the Ohio for more than a decade.
Among the British, the incident produces two oddly contrary reactions. On the one hand it convinces them that America will continue to bluff rather than fight, a conclusion that will lead to calamitous results in 1812. On the other hand they are encouraged to strengthen their defences in Canada against possible invasion. This is Isaac Brock's doing. "It is impossible to view the late hostile measures of the American government towards England, without considering a rupture between the two countries as probable to happen," the young lieutenant-colonel writes, and as the crisis smoulders, he goes on to press for a better trained and expanded militia and for repairs to the fortress of Quebec. He does not easily get his way, but from this time on the prospect of an American invasion is never far from that determined and agile mind. When and if the Americans come, Isaac Brock intends to be ready.
VINCENNES, INDIANA TERRITORY, August 17, 1807. William Henry Harrison is delivering his gubernatorial message to the legislature.
"The blood rises to my cheek," he cries, "when I reflect on the humiliating, the disgraceful scene, of the crew of an American ship of war mustered on its own deck by a British lieutenant for the purpose of selecting the innocent victims of their own tyranny!"
Harrison's cheeks are sallow, but the blood must rise to them with fair frequency. It rises again as he contemplates the malefactions of British Indian agents, who he is convinced are goading the Indians to violence and murder on the frontier, "for who does not know that the tomahawk and scalping knife of the savage are always employed as instruments of British vengeance. At this moment, fellow citizens, as I sincerely believe, their agents are organizing a combination amongst the Indians within our limits, for the purpose of assassination and murder...."
By British agents Harrison means certain members of the British Indian Department in Upper Canada, especially Thomas McKee, Simon Girty (the "White Indian"), and, worst of all, Matthew Elliott, the Pennsylvania Irishman who defected to the British during the Revolutionary War and led Indian ambushes that wiped out American detachments. The American frontiersmen will not soon forget that Elliott and Girty watched while the Delaware slowly tortured and burned to death Colonel William Crawford, after wiping out most of his men. So great is the hatred of Elliott in Detroit, it is said, that he hesitates to cross the river from his palatial home in Amherstburg for fear of being tarred and feathered. He has been one of the key members of the British Indian Department; no white man has so much influence with the tribes, especially the Shawnee. At the moment he is under a cloud, dismissed for financial irregularities. Nonetheless he remains a force and will soon be back in the good graces of the British.
But the Governor of Indiana cannot get it into his head that it is not so much British conniving that has caused the Indians to rise up sporadically in defence of their lands as his own policies and those of his political superiors in Washington. Harrison is not a mean or wicked man. His sense of justice is outraged when white juries refuse to convict one of their own for killing a native. The Governor's problem is that he wants to turn the Indians into farmers in order to deprive them of their hunting-grounds. That is official government policy, laid down by Thomas Jefferson, who is not a mean or wicked man either but who, in a private letter to Harrison outlining that policy, sounds very much like a hypocrite:
"Our system is to live in perpetual peace with the Indians, to cultivate an affectionate attachment from them by everything just and liberal which we can do for them within the bounds of reason...."
So far so good, despite the qualification. But then:
"When they withdraw themselves to the culture of a small piece of land, they will perceive how useless to them are the extensive forests, and will be willing to pare them off ... in exchange for necessaries for their farms and families. To promote this ... we shall push our trading houses, and be glad to see the good and influential individuals among them in debt, because we observe that when these debts go beyond what the individuals can pay, they become willing to lop them off by a cession of lands...."
To this machiavellian scheme Jefferson appends a chilling warning. Should any tribe refuse the proffered hand and take up the hatchet, he says, it will be driven across the Mississippi and the whole of its lands confiscated.
It all fits neatly with Harrison's own ambitions, which include statehood for Indiana. To become a state the territory needs a population of at least sixty thousand, and there are fewer than half that number living in small settlements connected by trails cut through the jungle of the forest. To attract more people, Harrison requires the lure of cheap land. The Indians have the land. The Governor must secure it for the settlers, one way or another.
The blood rises to Harrison's cheek once more when he recalls how he has been bested by that one-eyed savage known as the Shawnee Prophet. The Prophet has sprung from nowhere and in two years has become more notorious than any other Indian. He seems to have invented a new religion, one tenet of which is the heresy, to the whites, that all Indian lands are held in common and cannot be divided, sold, or bartered away. The ritual includes much mumbo-jumbo-shaking, jerking, and dancing about (derived perhaps from the white sect known as the Shakers, who have helped spark a religious revival on the frontier). It is not confined to any particular tribe-indeed, it has split some tribes- but appears to attract the younger braves who are acting in defiance of their elders. To Harrison, this so-called Prophet is an imposter and a fool who "speaks not the words of the Great Spirit but those of the devil and of the British agents." Harrison sees British agents everywhere, in every wigwam, behind every bush, plotting and conniving.
Yet even Harrison must concede that the Prophet is not quite a fool, for on one memorable occasion he has fooled Harrison, who thought to discredit him by demanding that he produce a miracle.
"Who is this pretended prophet who dares to speak in the name of the Great Creator?" the Governor asked, in a message to the Delaware. "Examine him. ... Demand of him some proof ... some miracles. ... If he is really a prophet, ask him to cause the sun to stand still, the moon to alter its course, the rivers to cease to flow ... No longer be imposed on by the arts of an imposter...."
To which the Prophet replied, blandly, that he would accept the challenge and cause the sun to darken. He even named the date and the time — 11:32 in the forenoon of June 16, 1806.
The story is told and retold. How the Prophet sent word to Indians for leagues around to assemble on June 16; how the day dawned clear; and how, an hour before the appointed time, the Prophet, gowned in flowing robes, stepped from his wigwam into the circle of onlookers and at exactly 11:32 pointed his finger at the sun.
Slowly the sky darkens; the dark shadow of the moon crosses the solar face; a murmur rises from the assembly. The Prophet waits, then calls out to the Great Spirit to remove his hand from the source of all light. The call is heeded. Pandemonium!
It is too much. Harrison, the soldier-scholar-statesman, outsmarted by an aborigine who managed to learn in advance the date of a solar eclipse! The long, moody features grow moodier. He will continue to call the Prophet a fool, but he knows that he is up against a force beyond his power to control. "This business must be stopped," he tells the head men of the Shawnee. "I will no longer suffer it." But he will have to suffer it, for the chiefs themselves cannot control the Prophet; he has put some of them in fear of their lives. When several of the older Delaware chiefs refused to go along with the new religion, the Prophet had them murdered. His messengers have carried his words to all tribes within a radius of six hundred miles, and the message is always the same: follow me; rid yourself of your old leaders; and (this is Harrison's real concern) don't give up the land.
Excerpted from "The American Invasion of Canada"
Copyright © 2011 Pierre Berton.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Cast of Characters,
PREVIEW: Porter Hanks's War,
The War of 1812,
PRELUDE TO INVASION: 1807-1811,
1 The Road to Tippecanoe,
PRELUDE TO INVASION: 1812,
2 Marching As to War,
3 The Bloodless Victory,
4 The Disintegration of William Hull,
5 Horror on Lake Michigan,
6 The End of Isaac Brock,
7 Opera Bouffe on the Niagara,
8 Massacre at the River Raisin,
The New War,
CODA: William Atherton's War,
Sources and Acknowledgements,