A Local and Global Conflagration: Looking In and Beyond Canada to Understand the War of 1812 by James Tyler Robertson

by | Jan 29, 2014 | LCSC, War and Society | 1 comment

The War of 1812 was not a Canadian war for two reasons. The first is that, despite the popular beliefs present today, there was no nation of Canada at that time to define or defend. The second is that while most battles took place in Upper and Lower Canada, the war can, and arguably should, also be understood in a much larger, global context. While it might seem counter-intuitive, this article will make the argument that Canadians can gain a better understanding of what this war means for us by looking beyond our own borders. At the risk of self-indulgence, I will argue for that point based on my own academic experiences speaking on the topic of this war throughout the past couple of years. I have not only presented throughout Canada but also in America, England, and even Ireland; each society was interested in exploring what the war meant for their national predecessors and what it still means today.

In the fall of 2013 I found myself in Rostrevor, Northern Ireland as part of an international panel of experts on various aspects of the war. Included were BBC reporter Peter Snow and Washington Post reporter Stephen Vogel, both of whom had written books on the burning of the White House by the army of Major General Robert Ross (the namesake of the region the conference was located in) as well as numerous other scholars from America, England, France, and one lowly Canadian. The conference was hosted ably by local resident and historian, Dr. John McCavitt—who is publishing a biography on General Ross in the near future—and was funded by the Peace III initiative. In addition to scholarship related to the war and Robert Ross, the Peace III initiative also used Ross’ identities as both an Irishman and a British soldier to engender conversation around the topics of political identities and the use of history in present national memory and narratives.[1] From my perspective, the issue seemed to be related to how the citizens of Ross’ native land understand and incorporate the man’s multiple identities in ways that were both accurate to him but also sensitive to the cultural realities of Northern Ireland today.

It was a strange place for me to be in ideologically because, as a Canadian, I am woefully unqualified to offer any positive contribution into the tensions that have been part of Northern Ireland’s story for centuries. However, I was also struck by the fact that in the popular imagination of many Canadians, myself included, Ross has always been a Canadian hero due to his efforts and accomplishments in the war; I honestly wonder how many of my fellow citizens would know that he was Irish. He is someone that we celebrate as responsible for the time when quiet, polite, and humble Canada bested the war machine that is America. He is immortalized in the annals of military and national history as the guy who burned the White House, one of the great symbols of American democracy and strength. Add to that the fact that Robert Ross is buried in a cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia and it becomes clear to see that he is as much a part of our historical landscape as he is part of our physical one.

What that Irish-born British soldier who was killed in America and buried in Canada displays is the complex multi-national identities that make the War of 1812 so interesting, perplexing, and important. That conference in Rostrevor reminded me poignantly that one of the most celebrated Canadian stories from the war is not Canadian at all: it is an Irish story.

That is an important lesson for historians and enthusiasts of Canada’s military legacy to embrace as we begin a new season of national remembrance. Seeing the War of 1812 as a “Canadian” war in which we beat the Americans may seem like a harmless nationalist myth but the continued perpetuation of such stories undermines what men like Ross and others did for this land and threatens to make caricatures out of these mothers’ sons who died in defense of the land that I now call home. If we view 1812 as integral to our national identity then we owe a debt of gratitude to nations like Ireland because, without this son of Erin, the war would have had a much different outcome. This war reminds us that, even before we were a nation, we were connected to lands right next door and an ocean away. As we take time now to examine the 100th anniversary of Canada’s role in the Great War and Canada’s increased influence over the global stage, I would like us to pause, look back 100 years earlier, and remember the global stage’s influence over us. Without men like Ross, without transatlantic connections to Europe and the United Kingdom, and even without industrious American immigrants, the Canada we know today would not exist. Since the landing of French Jesuit missionaries in the seventeenth century up to this very moment we are, and have been, a global village. I hope that humble awareness makes it into our centenary celebrations. Long before we sent our sons to fight on foreign soil for ideas we believed in, other nations did the same here.

To conclude, Robert Ross has become many things over the past 200 years, but we must never forget that he, like all soldiers, was also just a man.[2] He had a family and a home and he was concerned about his wife and wrote as much as he departed from the front of the Napoleonic Wars to take command of what was supposed to be a short command suppressing the American incursion into the British territory of North America.[3] Sadly for him and his family, Ross would never again set foot on his own native soil and was destined to remain at rest in the colony he was attempting to rescue. His continued presence here should remind us Canadians of the very important fact that “our” success was due to the help of other nations. Recognizing where Ross came from can remind us that the War of 1812 was not just a local war but should also be understood as a global conflagration.

[1] Rachael Penman’s description of her work on the Smithsonian’s exhibit “1812: A Nation Emerges,” that included pieces such as an original oil painting of Ross and an impressive statue of the fallen Native warrior Tecumseh, conveyed how this war does indeed resonate within certain circles of the American national memory as well.
[2] I am eager for the publication of Dr. McCavitt’s work on Ross because, based on his talks during the conference, it will yield a treasure trove of personal information and anecdotes that will liberate the man from the realms of myth and present readers with a much more interesting and complex human.
[3] Kenton White’s informative and surprisingly personal paper on troop movements across the Atlantic during that time detailed just how brutal such transportation actually was and added another, much needed, human element to the war.