My mom has been pestering me to read Pierre Berton’s books for many years. Starting with the book of her choice, The Invasion of Canada: 1812-1813, I can see why he is a favorite among Canadians and history lovers in general. He strung together dozens of sources and put them in a narrative that reads fast, casts many historical characters big and small, and shows a ground-level perspective that allows for an intimate understanding of the underlying events behind the North American War of 1812.
Unlike my American history classes (I grew up in the U.S.), I will remember the stories within this book whether it is General Brock’s gutsy strategy at Fort Detroit, the living conditions for the poorly prepared American soldiers, General Hull who surrendered to spare lives but was tried for treason for it, or the named individuals who were captured by the Natives–some returned as ransom, others chose to stay.
Much of the book follows the American perspective and all the blunders that came from enthusiasm and no discipline, no planning, and leadership based on popularity (generals reliving their revolutionary glory days) instead of professionalism and skill. The most horrendous events that year they did to themselves.
Modern Canada exists thanks to the War of 1812. Before this conflict there was no effective border between Upper Canada and the United States. Most Canadians were also Americans, but lived in a more dispersed region. Most Canadians had no interest in war. Americans thought it would be easy to annex Canada and irk back the British for blocking trade with continental Europe i.e. Napoleon.
In her interest to be left alone to mostly farm instead of being the neutral battle ground for two powerful nations, Canada had the chance to look at herself and look at her two most associated countries: how was Canada different? What traits from either country did Canada admire or identify with? For a Canadian, what was loyalty and patriotism? In the prelude years and the first year of this ill-thought out war, one can see how Canadians always had a more peaceful mindset than their southern cousins. As for choosing a future, Canada briefly had a hero, the superior British leadership of Isaac Brock, as Berton asserted on page 313 (second to last page):
He came to represent Canadian order as opposed to American anarchy – ‘peace, order and good government’ rather than the more hedonistic ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ Had not Upper Canada been saved from the invader by appointed leaders who ruled autocratically? In America, the politicians became generals; in British North American, the opposite held true.
However, I do benefit from not only forgetting what I learned in school, but having little of the War covered in class: this book ends on a cliffhanger. I just vaguely know my American patriot 5th grade teacher claimed American’s have won every war, my Canadian mom said Americans lost the War of 1812, I told my teacher that Americans have lost “a war” and she corrected herself and said Americans technically didn’t win Vietnam…and this was a conversation before I knew about the Korean war….
The point is you can’t really know history by assigning a winner and a loser because that is often subjective. Besides, we get excited to watch a sports event and not only the final score, and we experience a whole novel instead of only the last few pages.
To be continued: Flames Across the Border: 1813-1814
- Feature image of the death of General Brock at the Battle of Queenston Heights by John David Kelly (1862 – 1958) published 1896