Prepping for War on Both Sides of the Border

Leading up to the War of 1812, the American strategy focused on two major pieces. One, the U.S. Army would invade and conquer Canada, and two, the U.S. Navy would harass British shipping. Bolstering this strategy, Madison’s War Department (now the Department of the Army) and, to some degree, the Navy Department thought that the British would be focused on Napoleon and would be unable to reinforce and support the British Army in Canada.

Madison wanted the U.S. Army to invade Canada by the best route from the northern tip of Lake Champlain down the Richelieu River to the St. Lawrence. From here, the American Army could take either Montreal or Trois Rivières or both. This would cut British Canada in two and prevent the British Army from reinforcing its units in the Great Lakes.

While this strategy looked sound in Washington, D.C., the reality was quite different. First, the 7,000 men in the U.S. Army were scattered throughout the Northwest Territories, attempting to protect U.S. settlers who had moved there with the encouragement of the Federal government. Redeploying the Army to Vermont would take about a year and was not practical. Second, the Federalists’ political base was still in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island. Even though they had been out of power since 1800, the Federalists opposed the war on economic grounds.

New England merchants depended heavily on trade with the United Kingdom and Europe. Despite English policies that attempted to restrict trade by U.S. businesses with other countries in Europe and the Royal Navy’s continued impressment of U.S. seamen, the Napoleonic Wars were good for them and the whole U.S. economy.

War in Europe created a demand for food, lumber, and other raw materials which the U.S. had in abundance and was a source of new citizens. U.S. Census data showed that the U.S. population grew by almost 27%, from 5.3 million in 1800 to 7.2 million in 1810.

The Madison administration realized there would be little support for a call-up of the New England state militias for an invasion of Canada. As a result, Madison, allowed the invasion strategy to change based on the advice of General Henry Dearborn.

Instead of one thrust toward Montreal, Dearborn would have the U.S. Army attack via three different routes. From the west, the U.S. Army would take on British Army units in the Upper Great Lakes. The central offensive would advance from modern-day Buffalo into Ontario. And the eastern invasion would take Montreal.

The British suspected their policies might provoke a war with the U.S. The Governor of Canada General Lieutenant General Sir George Provost, and Major General Isaac Brock had been preparing for a fight with the Americans since 1810.

Provost’s strategy concentrated on ensuring that the British maintained control of the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River to enable him to move men, equipment, and supplies at will. To facilitate this, he built ships designed to operate in the waterways he controlled.

When Brock arrived in 1802, he found a poorly equipped army that suffered from low morale. Over the next 10 years, Brock re-invigorated the British Army in Canada and the local militia forces. In the process, he became thoroughly familiar with the people and the terrain. When the war began, the British Army under Brock had 10,000 well-trained and equipped men under his command. It could count on several more thousand from the local militia.

The British were also allied with the Shawnee Indians and a confederacy of other Indian nations in the Northwest Territories. If the Americans were defeated, the British promised they would create an independent state for the confederacy that would stop any additional American settlers from moving into the Northwest Territory.

When Congress gave President Madison his declaration of war on June 18th, 1812, the U.S. was, 29 years after gaining independence, again going to fight the most powerful and wealthiest nation in the world.

Chart shows the per capita growth of U.S. GDP from 1810 – 1815.


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