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Old February 14th, 2009, 11:48 AM   #1

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Why Wouldn't Militia Invade Canada in 1812?


The War of 1812 is one of those events that I've always been interested in but don't have a very deep knowledge of. I'm currently reading 1812 by Walter Borneman to get a good overview and I plan on doing more specialized reading later on.

One thing that I don't understand about the war that isn't explained in the book (yet) is why several state militia refused to cross into Canada at Queenstown and during the Montreal "campaign." This doesn't make sense to me.

Both times the militia came from pro-war states and were volunteers. These guys joined to fight. The war was entirely cast as the conquest of Canada in the pro-war states, and so it's reasonable to assume that these militia men also supported the Conquest of Canada.

But for whatever reason, the militia at Queenstown left American soldiers out to dry and refused to cross, and the militia under Dearborn refused to invade Canada to begin with.

My question, then, is this: How did the militia expect to conquer Canada without ever entering it?

Was it cowardice once they arrived at the scene of battle? Or did they never intend to invade Canada at all? I don't think calling them provincial would work here, because as I've noted they'd already crossed state borders and volunteered for a war of conquest.

Anyone have any answers?
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Old February 14th, 2009, 12:40 PM   #2

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Re: Why Wouldn't Militia Invade Canada in 1812?


The Americans had less than double the number of men in all. They had 3500 regulars and militia against 2000 British and Iroquois, and the Americans were generally terrified of natives (eg Battle of Detroit), especially when they were under Brock's command - he knew how to use them. Less than 2:1 odds is not very good for an attacker (especially one making a river crossing), and it was Brock (very competent) vs Ressler (no military experience at all, not even as a soldier, let alone in command).

The militia were just not that dumb. They were not cowards, just better strategists than their commander.
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Old February 14th, 2009, 01:51 PM   #3

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Re: Why Wouldn't Militia Invade Canada in 1812?


I believe an awful lot more militia was supposed to turn up. The few thousand militia that arrived would have been under the impression there was going to be a lot more them when they got there. Seeing that three quaters had failed to show probably influenced their decision.
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Old February 14th, 2009, 07:04 PM   #4

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Re: Why Wouldn't Militia Invade Canada in 1812?


Quote:
Originally Posted by Edgewaters View Post
The Americans had less than double the number of men in all. They had 3500 regulars and militia against 2000 British and Iroquois, and the Americans were generally terrified of natives (eg Battle of Detroit), especially when they were under Brock's command - he knew how to use them. Less than 2:1 odds is not very good for an attacker (especially one making a river crossing), and it was Brock (very competent) vs Ressler (no military experience at all, not even as a soldier, let alone in command).

The militia were just not that dumb. They were not cowards, just better strategists than their commander.
I'm not so sure about that. Why didn't they proceed on the Montreal campaign, then?

Also, as bad a leader as Van Rensaeller seemed to be, at that point of the battle I would imagine the American spirit was at the peak. If I was on the battlefield and found out that the Americans had just pushed the Brits off the crest I wouldn't be refusing to fight, I'd be going up there to make sure we hold on.

I understand the fear of the natives, but did the Americans know Brock was even around? I know Brock rushed to the battle when he found out the attack was there for sure, but when the attack started he wasn't present. Would they have discovered he arrived during the battle?

It just seems a bit fishy to me and I can't quite put my finger on it.
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Old February 15th, 2009, 02:06 AM   #5

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Re: Why Wouldn't Militia Invade Canada in 1812?


Montreal was bad news, too. Montreal was heavily fortified, and it's on an island. Most of the river around the island is deep, and navigable for large ships all the way out to sea, so any large expedition would undoubtedly face a fleet and have to cross at another spot, the Lachine Rapids, which are today used by surfers! Even these could be covered by smaller gunboats. A succesful crossing would still face the difficulty of sieging Montreal, which was heavily fortified, and of course, attackers would be totally cut off from supply, not the defenders.

A larger expedition actually was later launched against Montreal under General Wilkinson, and ran into a whole bunch of other difficulties and became one of the worst fiascoes in the whole war. They didn't even get anywhere near Montreal before they got so badly smoked, by a much smaller Canadian force, at Crysler's Farm, that the entire American effort along the whole of the St. Lawrence was abandoned. And that was under Wilkinson who, for all his flaws, had four decades of military experience under his belt and had participated in numerous campaigns, including several sieges. What chance did a boob who had never held a rifle before stand?

Brock did not 'rush to the battle', or at least, not for more than a few miles - he was already there, down the road at Fort George. They knew he was there because he was negotiating with them, which happens to be part of the reason the Canadians didn't get caught with their pants down. An envoy arranging a prisoner exchange had gone over to the American side and became suspicious, and discovered several landing craft hidden in the bush. He returned and attempted to warn the officers, who laughed him out of the room. Brock, however, took him aside and spoke with him in private, and was convinced - the order to assemble the militia was then sent out.

As for the crest ... they heard that the crest had been captured, but they saw several boats being blown to smithereeens and a number of others that had turned back, plus, at one point, Van Renseller returned from the other side badly wounded (he had been shot six times) with a boat full of so many wounded that the craft nearly capsized. Finally, at the exact moment they were ordered to embark, 300 Mohawks fell on the men on the other side, and the cries could be heard clearly across the water. This was discouragement enough for many of them.

Keep in mind that they had a poor commander, the discipline of these forces was equally poor, and morale was very low. The crossing had originally been scheduled for the previous day. The militia arrived at the embarkation point during a bad storm, after a long trip down roads so muddy that they were forced to abandon their wagons and carry their supplies. They were then ordered to embark in drenching rain, but the order (much to their relief) was soon cancelled as it turned out the chief pilot in charge of the boats had rowed away with all the oars! So, if you were there, you would have been surrounded by an atmosphere of general incompetence and gloom, both in terms of the command and the men. It would seem like nobody actually knew what they were doing and the whole project was very amateur and very poorly thought out. Your suspicions would have been confirmed by what you saw on the actual day of the crossing - boats being blown out of the water, your inexperienced commander returning with six gunshot wounds, other boats turning back under heavy fire, and at the moment you were ordered to embark, the terrifying sounds of a Mohawk attack on the other side. So spirit was anything but at a peak.

Last edited by Edgewaters; February 15th, 2009 at 08:59 AM.
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Old February 15th, 2009, 05:01 PM   #6

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Re: Why Wouldn't Militia Invade Canada in 1812?


That's what I was looking for, I wasn't aware of a lot of those smaller details, and the timing of the events explains it all. Very excellent explanation.
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Old February 16th, 2009, 12:44 AM   #7
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Re: Why Wouldn't Militia Invade Canada in 1812?


Extreme historical naivety here, but I recall our Canadian English teacher telling us the Canadians once took Washington in battle - is that true?
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Old February 16th, 2009, 06:24 AM   #8

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Re: Why Wouldn't Militia Invade Canada in 1812?


Not exactly, the British landed and burned Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, but there wasn't any battle that I'm aware of, and they didn't occupy or anything.
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Old February 16th, 2009, 12:37 PM   #9

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Re: Why Wouldn't Militia Invade Canada in 1812?


Canadians had nothing to do with that. We only took part in the campaigns to defend our borders, along the St Lawrence and Great Lakes areas. And a little privateering out of Nova Scotia ... ok, more than a little! But in general Canadians had no desire to fight on American soil, and there weren't enough of us to spare for any front other than our own borders.

Keep in mind that there were no Canadian regulars at all, militia forces only (supplemented by British regulars brought from overseas). On the other hand many of the militiamen were veterans of the British army who had fought in other campaigns and were granted land in Canada ... chiefly Scots .... which was England's way of compensating crofters who had done military service. They resettled them in Canada rather than have a bunch of angry, homeless Scottish veterans wandering around during the Highland Clearances. Many had arrived during the so-called Year of the Sheep (1792).
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Old March 23rd, 2009, 07:31 AM   #10

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Re: Why Wouldn't Militia Invade Canada in 1812?


I haven't read the book, but I would suppose Hull was worried about his supply lines, Indian activity & Brock's arrival with with reinforcements. Also, as with any militia, some units perhaps, as with 200 from Ohio, refused to leave US territory.

Another good book on the war is: The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict by Donald R. Hickey
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