The War of 1812 is relatively unknown in Britain, but it saw several years of battles between US and British/ Canadian forces, as the Americans carried out a series of unsuccessful invasions of Canada in an attempt to conquer the area. This book looks at three battles on the Canadian front of the war, starting with two British victories that demonstrate the early advantages held by the regular British army, and ending with an American victory that showed how much the US Army had improved after two years of setbacks and defeats.
It doesn’t start well – the introduction gives us the contemporary American view of the causes of the war, which inevitably put all of the blame on the British, and ignore the American desire for a war and while the imperialist designs on Canada are mentioned, they aren’t portrayed as one of the reasons for the war. The reasons why the native Americans attacked American farms and settlements is also ignored, skipping over the constant expansion into native American lands and breaches of agreements. We also get the often repeated claim that the British army of 1812 was ‘one of the world’s best armies’, something that an examination of its record during the long Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars quickly disproves (apart from when Wellington was in charge). There is at least an acknowledgement that the scale of these battles were tiny compared to the major European battles of the period, and that Britain was never able to focus her attention on this conflict.
Thankfully things improve once we reach the section on the opposing forces. The strengths and weaknesses of the two officer corps are examined, as are the differences between the two side’s regular infantry (mainly coming down to the British use of a single drill book, which gave then an initial advantage). The focus on a single theatre means that the three battles are more directly comparable than if different areas had been chosen, and the choice of one battle per year is good.
We start with the battle of Queenston Heights of 1812, a failed American attempt to start an invasion of Canada, but one marked by mistakes on both sides, and by the death of General Isaac Brock on the British side. The battle seems to have been one by the first side to find a competent commander!
Next comes Crysler’s Farm of 1813, another failed American attempt to invade Canada. This time the British won a fairly easy victory, but that appears to have been more to do with a series of ill advised American attacks on the British line rather than any intrinsic superiority of the individual British infantrymen.
The final battle, Chippawa of 1814, came after the Americans had replaced many of their senior commanders with more competent men who had proved themselves in the war. In addition the US infantry had been subjected to a proper training regime for the first time (at least according to the man memoirs of the man responsible, Winfield Scott). As a result the American regulars were able to hold their own in a stand-up fight against an equal number of British redcoats. It helped that the militia had largely been withdrawn from the front line, where they were more often a weakness than a help. Once again this invasion of Canada ended in failure, but this time without a major battlefield defeat for the US.
Overall this is a useful study of the fighting on the Canadian front of the war of 1812, a campaign that ended as something of a draw, but that did see the US army demonstrate an impressive ability to learn from its defeats, ending the war as a much more effective force than it had been at the start.
The Opposing Sides
Queenston Heights, October 13 1812
Crysler’s Farm, November 11, 1813
Chippawa, July 5, 1814
Orders of Battle
Author: Gregg Adams