It was ugly, it was brutal. The War of 1812 began when the United States declared war on England on June 18th.
It was the first time the fledgling democracy had declared war on anybody. The stated reason was that the British Navy was interfering with US shipping to France, Britain's enemy, and impressing American sailors into the British Navy. The newly-independent democracy would not be humiliated by its former rulers.
Not having the resources to sail across the ocean and attack England directly, the US invaded Canada, a British colony right across the river. The rest, as is often said, is history.
• The War claimed at least 20,000 lives, 15,000 from disease. alone.
• The first Canadian national hero was Sir Isaac Brock who died early in the Battle of Queenston Heights, the first significant battle of the War. He had a reputation for bravery, but also for impulsiveness. Some historians said he wasn't especially fond of the Canadian colonists and thought he was forced to fight in a North American backwater when he really wanted to be in the Big One in Europe, fighting Napoleon.
• The commander in charge of federal troops in Buffalo, General Alexander Smyth, was untrained, inept, and so hated by his men that some took potshots at him
• Peter Porter of Black Rock and Niagara Falls was a wealthy businessman, officer and congressman. He was one of the biggest War Hawks, who stood up in Congress and demanded the annexation of Canada. He was also brave in battle and is considered a WNY hero. Porter fought a pistol duel with Smyth on Grand Island over a perceived insult. Both missed. Porter went on to become Secretary of War under President John Quincy Adams in 1828. Smyth left the War early and returned to his home in Virginia.
• Major John Norton was descended from a Cherokee father and Scottish mother, and deserted the British army to return to his roots with the Mohawk Indians. Still, he and his warriors sided with the British at Queenston Heights and were so fierce they scared many American militamen into not crossing the river to fight them. Some historians give great credit to the Indians, in addition to Brock, British troops and Canadian militias, for turning the tide against the American invaders.
• Canada's native warriors were fierce fighters. A letter in the Buffalo Central Library from an American soldier in 1812 tells how the Indians scalped and mutilated their opponents. In fact, there were atrocities on all sides. When the Americans killed the great native warrior Tecumseh in battle, many American reports say they cut him up for souvenirs.
• As the War dragged on, it became a war of retribution. The US burned the Upper Canada capital of York, later to become Toronto. The British and native warriors, in return, burned Lewiston, Black Rock and Buffalo. The British headed up Chesapeake Bay and burned the White House, the Capitol and the Library of Congress.
• Francis Scott Key wrote the Star Spangled Banner during the British assault on Ft. McHenry in Baltimore. It was later set to an English drinking song called "To Anacreon in Heaven."
• The British navy launched the Battle of New Orleans, not knowing that an agreement to end the War was reached over two weeks earlier. The battle was a final overwhelming victory for the Americans, despite being outnumbered.
Who won? The popular opinion is, nobody. But it seems clear that the Canadian colonists had the greatest claim to victory since they and their British and native allies drove the invaders out of their territory and saved their homes. The War also gave the Canadian people a sense of nationhood; there was no Canada at that time. They became a confederation in 1867.
The Americans started the war mainly because the British were restricting their trade on the high seas by seizing cargo and impressing American soldiers into the British navy. But England had already eased such practices shortly before the war began. And the US gained no territory and won no treasure. Still, the Americans claimed the victory of gaining global respect even though the young upstart nation was barely out of diapers.
The tragic losers, without a doubt, were the native peoples, the Indians. They sided with the British to prevent the Americans from pushing farther west and taking their land. Their dream died with the end of the War.
Finally, the English saw the war in North America as little more than a nuisance. They were focused on their European war against Napoleon's France. A common description of how the war ended goes something like this: The Americans say they won, the Canadians say they won, and the English weren't paying attention in the first place. To them, the War of 1812 was a sideshow to their real concern of Napolean trying to take over the world. And with the death of the Indian leader Tecumseh in the war, so died the dream of independence for North America's native peoples.
Win or lose, each side has become part of the story of who we are today, on both sides of the Niagara Frontier.