“Everywhere I saw devastation”: Civilian life on the front line during the War of 1812

National Post

James Careless, Postmedia News | Oct 27, 2012

Everywhere Thomas-René-Verchères Boucher de Boucherville looked in 1815, “I saw devastation, homes in ashes, fields trampled and laid waste, forts demolished, forests burned and blackened, truly a most pitiful sight.” The Canadian militiaman, who had fought with Sir Isaac Brock during the 1812 British capture of Detroit, was writing about the War of 1812′s horrific toll on the Niagara peninsula.

Civilians on both sides of the border suffered during the War of 1812, primarily in the battleground region in what is now southwestern Ontario and upper New York state. But few suffered more than the inhabitants of Niagara (now Niagara-on-the-Lake), Ont.

On a blustery cold Dec. 10, 1813, retreating American troops who had occupied Niagara since May burned virtually all of its buildings to the ground. Residents of Niagara were given minutes to leave their homes, clutching what few possessions they could grab. The townspeople watched in horror, standing in deep snow, while their world was consumed by flames.

“A number of letters in the Niagara Historical Society Museum collection describe the distress of Elizabeth, widow of Fort Major Campbell,” says Sarah Maloney, managing director of the Niagara Historical Society & Museum in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Quoting from one letter, Maloney reads, “‘Driven from her house with her three infants without the possibility of saving her own or their clothes,’ she was, with Mrs. Charlotte Dickson, ‘exposed for three days and nights upon the snow with only the canopy of heaven for covering.’”

Charlotte Dickson fared just as badly. Although her fine brick house had been home to three “self-invited American houseguests, Generals McClure and Brown and Colonel Seal,” Dickson’s home was also put to the torch, Maloney said. Meanwhile, “Andrew Heron’s wife, with her newborn daughter, was carried in her bed from her home on Prideaux Street and unceremoniously left in the snow.”

Niagara’s residents survived by huddling in root cellars, propping fallen timbers around still-standing chimneys to create lean-tos, or evacuating to undamaged farmhouses outside of town. But the town was gone. Only after the war had ended did people start to rebuild. The destruction of Niagara – and the torching of public buildings in York (Toronto) by American invaders – united British North Americans in anger. In revenge, the British burned the White House after raiding Washington, D.C. in 1814. Scorch marks from the fire have been preserved in parts of the building.

“There were tit-for-tat burnings on both sides of the border,” says Richard Gerrard, Toronto’s historian for the bicentennial of the War of 1812. “As time wore on, the conflict became much uglier and more brutal for everyone involved.”

For civilians in Upper Canada – particularly on the Niagara peninsula front line – the war involved everyone in one way or another. All males between 16 and 60, for instance, had to serve in the militia.

“These men did fight, but mainly they did the behind-the-scenes work, like building fortifications or hauling supplies,” said Peter Macleod, pre-Confederation historian and curator of the 1812 exhibit at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

“The problem was that the fighting season was farming season – and these men were needed at home, planting crops on their subsistence farms.” Militia desertions peaked for this reason during seeding and harvest times.

Civilian women had their hands full keeping their families alive. They didn’t have free time to take up where their missing men had left off, although they tried. And when their family property was looted and their homes destroyed by invading troops, “all they could do was stand there and watch,” says Canadian historian Wesley Turner. “There was nothing they could do to stop it.”

The war’s abuse of citizens can be traced to the United States’ army’s poor supply lines, according to Maria Moncur, a Ph.D candidate at Queen’s University. “The Americans had initially promised to respect Upper Canadians’ property,” she says. “But when the U.S troops ran short of supplies, they took them where they could find them — namely from Upper Canadian farms.”

Faced with having their vitally important food stocks stolen, the Upper Canadians fought back. The unexpected resistance insulted and infuriated the Americans, and the spiral of violence began.
To make matters worse, some Upper Canadian settlers changed sides and joined the invaders. Among the most notorious was Joseph Willcocks. A member of the Upper Canadian legislature who fought with Brock, Willcocks revolted against the British wartime restrictions of civil liberties and became a U.S. major in 1813.
As the leader of a corps of ‘turncoats’ known as the Canadian Volunteers, it was Willcocks who urged the Americans to burn Niagara. “Willcocks and his men resented Niagara’s pro-British residents, who saw the Canadian Volunteers as traitors,” Maloney says. “Torching Niagara – ostensibly to deny shelter to the advancing British – was Willcocks’ way of getting back at them.”

It took decades for the bitterness engendered by the War of 1812 to fade on both sides of the border. “When it did, people who had previously given little thought to their allegiance now clearly defined themselves either as British or American,” said Gerrard. “Even today, Canadians’ conviction that we are markedly different than Americans can be traced back to what happened during the War of 1812, and what civilians went through then. ”

The Niagara Historical Society & Museum (www.niagarahistorical.museum) is staging a series of exhibitions related to the War of 1812, including the burning of Niagara, which will be on view in 2013. The current exhibition, Niagara on the Eve of War, runs until Dec. 31. On Dec. 7, 2013, an outdoor sound-and-light show in Niagara-on-the-Lake will mark the burning of Niagara.

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