War of 1812 reinterpreted over the centuries

Commemorations 100, 150 and 200 years after the War of 1812 reveal as much about their own time as they do about the war. The anniversary this year may be the biggest ever.

Comparing commemorations 100, 150 and 200 years after the war

New recruits drill for tourists inside the walled compound of old Fort York in Toronto, June 12. (Evan Mitusi/CBC)

The 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 may be the biggest ever. Certainly it's much bigger than the sesquicentennial and probably the centennial commemorations.

There are events galore. Taxpayers at all levels are providing cash, with the federal government's tab pegged at about $28 million, with $11.5 million of that for regional and local projects.

Toronto, which was torched during the war, has been organizing their Bicentennial Commemoration for five years.

Sandra Shaul, who's co-ordinating the city's program, told CBC News that a number of events try to remind the public that people died during the war, something that often seems to get ignored in popular discussion of the War of 1812. As an example she points to an event called Finding the Fallen: The Battle of York Remembered, which identifies combatants on both sides killed during the battle.

Many people died, on both sides, and often had horrible deaths. Disease claimed many more members of the Canadian militia than musket fire or cannon balls.


Toronto's slogan is "200 years of peace make it easy to forget a war, how will you remember?"

Looked at together, the remembrances 100, 150 and 200 years after the war reveal as much about their own time as they do about the War of 1812.

Books, websites, re-enactments galore

Consider books. Already in 2012, 113 books about the War of 1812 have been published or distributed in the U.S., according to Bowker Books in Print, which tracks publishing metrics. The number of books being published about the war actually began to spike in 2009. Bowker lists another 278 War of 1812 books for 2009-2011. By the end of this year, perhaps close to half the books on the War of 1812 over the last 32 years will be from the last four years.

There are also websites, mementos, re-enactments, and so on.

Historian Alan Taylor, author of The Civil War of 1812, at Fort York in Toronto, June 12. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

That's as expected, American historian Alan Taylor told CBC News. Taylor, the author of The Civil War of 1812 — arguably the most important War of 1812 book from among those 400 published over the last four years — noted that the War of 1812 comes between the American Revolution and the 1861-65 Civil War, which both dramatically eclipse it in terms of historical importance for Americans. 

"The civil war was massively more deadly, and transformative within the United States than the War of 1812 had been," Taylor said. War of 1812 events in the U.S. are also competing for attention with Civil War sesquicentennial events.

Low key commemoration 50 years ago

In both countries, it's all a far cry from 1962.

"The sesquicentennial is difficult to celebrate enthusiastically," Brooks Atkinson wrote in the New York Times in 1962. For Atkinson, the celebrations lacked enthusiasm because 150 years earlier, the war had been "a colossal snafu."

CBC TV and the War of 1812

In October 1962, CBC TV presented a series of programs about the War of 1812 as part of the series, The Formative Years.

The programs are a bit like Mad Men meets the War of 1812, as the host — the late historian John Saywell — and actors, who appear both in and out of character, are dressed in 1962 suits and smoke cigarettes. The wardrobe decision was an attempt to communicate the timelessness of the issues, Eric Koch, the executive producer of the series, told CBC News.

However, the timing of the broadcasts were not at all connected to the 150th anniversary of the war, Koch said. Nor were they presented as anniversary programs.

One program, Judgment at Ancaster, looks at treason trials in Upper Canada, some of which ended in hangings during the war. Another looks at the reasons the U.S. declared war against Britain. A third program looks at the issue in Lower Canada at the start of the war surrounding whether the French population would remain loyal to the Crown.

At Fort Mackinac in northern Michigan in 1962, they were "celebrating the 150th anniversary of its capture by British forces," as described in a short news story in the Toronto Star. The capture happened before the soldiers at the fort were even aware the U.S. had declared war, so it was a quick surrender with no casualties, making it a curious event to celebrate.

Across the border, T.J. Allen wrote in the Canadian Weekly that both countries remember the war as "a series of glorious victories for its own forces" even though, according to Allen, it was just a series of skirmishes "by boobs, dodderers and bumblers."

"Even the blunders have become patriotic glory," Allen argued.

In Canada, there certainly were commemoration events in 1962, but nothing like this year.

If one thinks that's because views like those of Atkinson and Allen were dominant in 1962, it's easy to see why the war's sesquicentennial was low-key. However, they were writing to challenge the popular views. 

Toronto Star editorial writer Stuart Shaw, also writing in 1962, complained that "the celebrations are few and muted," the public and the federal government indifferent.

Shaw saw 1812 as the "most important war in their national history" because that was the only time Canada's "separate existence" had been directly threatened.

A 'deplorable state of affairs'

"In any other country but Canada, the War of 1812 would be a national epic."

Shaw then speculated on the reason for this "deplorable state of affairs."

"Is the country becoming so Americanized that the recollection of armed conflict with the United States is painful and embarrassing?" he asked. Then he warned: "Unless we remember what it cost to maintain Canada's independence in the past, we are not likely to maintain it in the future."

However, in 1812, Canada was not independent, but a British colony.

In 1962, Shaw lamented the "astonishing" loss of interest in the War of 1812. He noted that for the centennial, there had been enthusiastic celebrations and pointed to the commemoration of the Battle of Lundy's Lane, which took place on July 25, 1814.

Battle of Lundy's Lane commemorated

That event is the subject of the lead article in the current issue of the journal Ontario History. It's by Elaine Young of Guelph University, who's writing a PhD dissertation about War of 1812 battlefields in the Niagara region and how these sites have many different meanings for many different people.

The Lundy's Lane commemoration in 1914, which took place in Niagara Falls, Ont., the scene of the 1814 battle, had originally been planned as a Canadian celebration but evolved into an international one.

Crowd size estimates in press accounts ranged from 10,000 to 20,000. The Toronto World newspaper called it "one of the most noteworthy events in the history of the Niagara frontier."

In 1912 the Canadian Peace Centenary Association (CPCA) was created to commemorate 100 years of peace between Canada and the U.S. The major event was planned for February 1915, to mark the anniversary of the ratification of the Treaty of Ghent that ended the war. That's unlike 2012 and 1962, with their focus on the beginning of the war. The U.S. declared war against Great Britain on June 18, 1812.

There is a technical issue here. The treaty ending the war was signed in Ghent, Belgium, on Dec. 24, 1814, and getting people out to a commemoration event on that anniversary day in this part of the world will be tough.

The CPCA was funded by the Canadian government and had its official sympathy, Young writes. As it joined with the Lundy's Lane Historical Association in organizing the commemoration, the program took on more of an international and peace dimension.

British loyalty and anti-Americanism in 1914

At the time, Young writes, many local historical societies stressed "devotion to Britain, anti-Americanism, and conservatism as the basis of Canadian identity."

These societies "sought to create a national identity that emphasized loyalty to the Empire, and stressed that Canada's past (and future) lay with its imperial ties."

An event commemorating what had been one of the bloodiest battles was heading towards being a clash itself — a clash of ideas.

For the record, the U.S. had at least 743 total dead or wounded, the British at least 643. The battle is said to have been the war's longest, even though the fighting lasted less than a day, because of the ongoing argument over whether the British or the Americans won the battle.

Inspiring Lessons from the War of 1812

The Globe

"NIAGARA FALLS, Ont., July 25 (1914) —  Under circumstances of memorable local enthusiasm and international concord, the one hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Lundy's Lane was celebrated here today by a crowd estimated at ten thousand persons. Though designed originally as a mere anniversary of the battle, the event inevitably gained the aspect that is in everybody's mouth, and despite the scarcely suppressed protests of several national enthusiasts, it became a rousing demonstration in honor of the century of peace."

American and Canadian speakers at the 1914 commemoration gave two different interpretations of the war, both sides portraying it as necessary for their own survival. However, the speakers downplayed the historical debate about the war, which Young considers out of place, especially because "many speakers were local historians who clearly had a passion for history."

Near the end of the program, Chief Hill of the Iroquois Six Nations, one of 12 chiefs attending, spoke. According to The Globe's account of the event, even though his "race came in for warm thanks for their aid to the British in the war," Hill "added a pathetic note to the proceedings," by saying that "the Indians in Canada were unfairly treated."

The newspaper goes on to quote Chief Hill: "We are sorry to mingle complaints with this celebration," he said, "but it seems to be the only place that we can get a hearing."

A few weeks later the First World War had begun and the event's two contradictory themes — loyalty to the Empire and friendship with the U.S. — would both have their place in the myth-making that went along with the Great War. The plans for a big peace commemoration in 1915 faded away.

For 1812's sesquicentennial, joint Canadian-American commemorations also were significant, among the smaller number of events.

Did the War of 1812 make Canada?

Last year, when launching its commemoration of the War of 1812, the Harper government characterized the war as helping "establish our path toward becoming an independent and free country, united under the Crown with a respect for linguistic and ethnic diversity."

The Encampment, at Fort York in Toronto, features a different exhibit or story about the War of 1812 inside each tent. (Ryan Mallard/Luminato)

Heritage Minister James Moore described it as "[a] war that, in so many ways, made Canada the country it is today," and as "a defining chapter in our country’s history."

Young told CBC News that she has found in her research on commemorations that they "show a lot about what's going on in the society at the time."

During the war's centenary, "there wasn't a sense that this war made Canada, as there is today. There was a sense that it had preserved Canada for the British Empire, that it had fought off the republican hordes, that sort of thing."

One hundred years ago, she says "there was much more of an identity as a British nation and that has changed into creating the multinational Canada that we have now." But to connect that to the War of 1812 "doesn't make any sense."

Quebec400 and the War of 1812

Quebec City's 400th anniversary was celebrated in 2008. Back then the Harper government was saying that 1608 "was the year that we really began to become what we are today."

How will it be interpreted that the federal government contributed $110 million for programming and infrastructure projects for Quebec400, compared to $28 million to commemorate the War of 1812, their current "defining moment"?

As Young sees it, "We have this Canadian pre-occupation with finding our identity, looking to the past to find out who we are, then moulding it to fit who we are as a nation now." She adds that this angst leads Canadians to "always need to find some sort of defining moment and right now it's the War of 1812."

Sandra Shaul is concerned that "people are mixing up the perspective and the reasons of the federal government with the reasons why its important" to commemorate the war two centuries later.

She said the City of Toronto's "programming so often reflects upon the war of 1812 quite consciously from a contemporary view." Shaul adds that, "We don't deny it, or try to avoid it, we promote that."

Reinforcing people's patriotism

For Alan Taylor, "the popular history is a very simplified story, on both sides of the border, and the prime purpose of that simplified story is to reinforce people's patriotism."

North of the 49th Parallel, he notes that the story "emphasizes Canada's heroic defence as something that will contribute to the freedom of Canadians," but it's more complicated than that. For example, the British troops and British sailors were primarily raised in Ireland and often men who wanted no part of the war but "wanted to get out and escape to the United States and in many cases helped the United States to fight against the British Empire."

While those Irish soldiers and sailors fled to the U.S., black slaves were fleeing the U.S. to join the British.

It's that kind of complexity, Taylor added, that "makes history a whole lot more interesting than the story of one nation's goodness and the badness of its enemies."

For Taylor, Shaul and Young, it's not a question of whether or not to commemorate the War of 1812, but how to commemorate it.

"If in commemorating this war, we are commemorating the very long peace that has followed it and are reflecting upon the importance of this relationship for both countries, then it will be an entirely positive thing and we can't do too much of it," Taylor said.