A History of Nova Scotia Page

Book #2: Settlement, Revolution & War. TOC
Part 5, "The War Of 1812: Eastern Theatre." TOC
Ch. 1 - Introduction.

Much in America had been decided during the last quarter of the 18th century. With the end of the French rule in 1763 the English colonists gave full vent to their desire to be an independent nation. After humbling military defeats in America and humbling political defeats back home the British cut away the colonies they had long supported. While the Americans became free and independent men, they were hemmed in and pressed up together in the relatively short eastern slope of the Appalachians. This was not to last long. Late in the eighteenth and early in the nineteenth century the Americans burst through into the Ohio valley. From there they spilled out into the Mississippi valley. As the century wore on they pressed into the whole of the great west, no longer caring much about English and Spanish claims and not a thought to the rights of the native occupiers.

As for that wide territory to the north, Canada -- well, the Americans thought, early on, that that part would fall in and become part of the United States with less difficulty than it took to move into the valleys of the Ohio and the Mississippi. I turn to Paul Johnson:

"Madison1 and Jefferson2 believed that the French-speaking Canadians were an oppressed and occupied people, who identified with Britain's enemy, France, and would welcome the Americans as liberators. Nothing could have been more mistaken. The French Canadians were ultra-conservative Roman Catholics, who regarded the French Republic as atheism incarnate, Bonaparte as a usurper and Anti-Christ, and who wanted a Bourbon restoration, one of the prime aims of British war-policy. The Quebec Act of 1774 had given the French community wide cultural, political, and religious privileges and was seen as a masterpiece of liberal statesmanship. They thought that, if the invasion turned Lower Canada into a member-state of the United States, they would be republicanized and Protestantized. In Upper Canada, it is true, were only 4,500 British troops and a great many recent American settlers. The British Commander-in-Chief, Sir Isaac Brock, thought many of them were disloyal and that his only course was to 'speak loud and think big.' In fact the majority of the English-speaking Canadians were old Tories, anti-republicans, or their sons and grandsons. Canada had resisted the blandishments of American republicanism even in the 1770s; reinforced since then by 100,000 loyalists and their teeming descendants, and by many recent arrivals from Britain, they had no wish to change their allegiance."3
Johnson wrote in another of his books:
"It [Quebec Act of 1774] gave the French community wide cultural, religious and political privileges, enabling them to maintain their Frenchness. They knew that as a state within the union, they could not hope for such a deal from the U.S. Federal government. In fact they saw America as an ideologically committed state, wedded to Republicanism and militant Protestantism, both of which they detested. The war had actually strengthened their links to the British, and they viewed an American invasion with dread."4
The Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia drew up a constitution for the new nation of the United States in 1787. Nova Scotia remained loyal to the mother country. The years passed and the passions and the positions of Nova Scotians, and for the Canadians, did not change. It was the same in 1812 as it was in 1776.5

The Revolution in France blossomed in 1792 when a Parisian mob, led by the rhetoric of Danton, stormed the Tuileries and took the royal family as prisoners. On January 21st, 1793, Louis XVI was beheaded and all the monarchies of Europe looked on in horror. On February 1st, France declared war on England. With but the briefest of intermissions, the war lasted through to 1815. All of this should be familiar to the reader. These events contain some of the seeds of The War of 1812.

This war was one between the fledgling United States and Great Britain. It was for Britain but a side war. Britain had been well exercised, especially its naval forces, because of the long war with France. During The War of 1812, which lasted for three years, the embryonic United States Navy had bested the Royal Navy which up to that point and for many previous decades was considered invincible. The Americans did not win every naval battle, but for those who were so proud of the Royal Navy, they won too many. The British soldiers had no fighting to do in Nova Scotia. They fought and fought well in Canada such that Canada was to remain completely in the hands of the British. If the American land-army had done a better job of it, then it may well be that Canada today would be but just a couple of northern states belonging to the larger American republic. As well and as bravely the British soldier fought, many were wounded and killed. It was certainly so in the Battle of New Orleans. Though fought two weeks after peace was proclaimed, it was the biggest land battle of the war. There on January 8th, 1815, 6,000 British infantry, who had been landed from the sea, were thoroughly beaten by Andrew Jackson and his 6,000 backwoodsmen.

In The War of 1812, the Americans were not all of the same mind. The New England states were not so much anti-British as they were anti-French, indeed, New Englanders rather favoured the British. On the other hand, those in the south and west were keen on war with Britain. These war-hawks saw the war as an opportunity to add to their growing empire, Florida to the south and Canada to the north. If the war had continued or the negotiations to end it had gone differently, then the young United States might have lost important territory. By the end of the war the British were occupying a large part of Maine and had shifted the far western border south to such an extent that the Canadian settlers were optimistic about getting access to the Mississippi.

During The War of 1812 there were many exciting engagements in and around the Great Lakes, of which there are numerous accounts. What is more difficult to find are accounts of the sea-battles off the North American seacoast. To appreciate the nature of these battles, some of which we shall outline, it is necessary to understand that these were the days of sailing ships. Men from Nova Scotia knew how to build sailing ships and how to sail them great distances. Out of Nova Scotia these "iron men" sailed their "wooden boats" down the American east coast and into the West Indies. Most were in pursuit of trade. Some in pursuit of booty, especially in times of war.


[NEXT: Bk. 2, Pt. 5, Ch. 2 - "Privateers, No. 1."]

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