Pop the Champlain

Russia retreat vasily vereshchagin
A Russian painter captures a grim scene as the retreating French army tries to camp for the night. Moral of the story, if called on to invade Russia, always pack an extra pair of long john’s. Also a good life insurance policy. Photo Credit: Vasily Verschagen

As 1813 rolled into 1814, the European world was beginning to change. Napoleon had fallen victim to one of the Classic Blunders, and of the 685,000 men he had marched into Russia in 1812, fewer than 50,000 had marched home again. The following year saw every major power that had been comfortably under the French thumb rise up against him. To his credit, Napoleon had managed to last another year fighting everyone, everywhere. But he couldn’t hold on forever. At the Battle of Leipzig in October 1813, his army was overwhelmed and pushed back west of the Rhine. By April 1814, it was all over. Signing the Treaty of Fontainebleau, Napoleon was exiled to the small island of Elba. While he would be back for his final hurrah at Waterloo, for now the British could finally turn their full attention to their former colonies and try their hand at offense.

Beginning in late 1813, more ships trickled in to boost the British blockade. By 1814, what had once been a loose cordon had become a stranglehold on the entire Atlantic seaboard. Exports plummeted from an estimated $45 million in 1811 to $7 million in 1814, and  many of the American privateers were ripped to pieces on the high seas by veteran crews from the English Channel. Ominously as well for the Americans, the Canadian Governor George Prevost received advance notice of incoming reinforcements. 11,000 veterans of the Napoleonic War were on their way to Canada, forming the first of three intended strikes into the United States in 1814.

fort mims massacer
An 1858 engraving of Fort Mim’s. While the Red Sticks spared all of the slaves they found, the majority of defenders, white settlers, and the Creek refugees they were sheltering were brutally slaughtered. Photo Credit: Alonzo Chappel

In the south as well there were troubling developments for the United States. By 1813 a Creek civil war had spilled into a full blown confrontation with the southern colonies. Facing the same frustrations that birthed Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa, the Creek were experiencing their own religious and cultural revival as a response to the encroaching settlers and increasing contact with the European world. Like the Shawnee brothers, one faction known as the Red Sticks[1] had turned to the British and Spanish for support in a war against the United States. Led by their prominent chief William Weatherford,[2] the Red Sticks had attacked several settlements, seized Fort Mims, north of Mobile, Alabama. Grisly stories of the massacre of 250 or so of the fort’s defenders and refugees spread the flames of a rapidly escalating war.

Yet ironically, 1814 also marked the year where the first peace overtures began to make headway. In spite of what many Federalists felt, James Madison had never been overly keen on the war himself. Pretty much since the beginning he had been pinging the British through backchannels, and now that any chance of offensively winning the war was disappearing the talks took on a new urgency. With Russian mediation, the two sides finally came to the table, agreeing to meet in Ghent as a neutral spot now that Napoleon was dispensed with. Still, it wouldn’t be until August that the British finally deigned to show up.

In the meantime, the British were out for blood. American conduct on the Canadian side of the border had been a little less than stellar. In addition to pillaging York, a failed attempt to sail up the St. Lawrence River had ended with American troops setting the community of Newark, Ontario[3] on fire before they had withdrawn, leaving the town’s inhabitants exposed and starving in the dead of winter. One of the first acts of the newly resurgent British was to set Buffalo, New York, on fire in revenge.

George Prevost
Prevost, seen through the eyes of a contemporary cartoonist. Both cautious and vain, his military record earned contempt from the Duke of Wellington. Photo Credit: Library of Toronto

By 1814 Prevost’s army marched southwards, following the same track that ill-fated General “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne had taken in 1777. While Prevost was at least a little better off than the ill-fated Party Train that ended at Saratoga, he had plenty of troubles of his own. Cautious by nature, Prevost quickly ran afoul of the veteran officers under his own command. He especially annoyed them by seeming to care far more about proper dress appearance than actually fighting a war.

While Prevost’s forces met better luck on land than Burgoyne’s, his hesitation cost them dearly. Accompanying Prevost was another naval squadron on Lake Champlain under the command of Captain George Downie. As with Lake Erie, the Americans and British had scrambled to scrape together some ramshackle fleets to secure the lakes when war became inevitable, and the two squadrons slammed into each other at the Battle of Plattsburgh in late September. While Downie had managed to assemble a better fleet this time, once again the Americans came out ahead. This wasn’t really Downie’s fault. Early in a fierce engagement with the American flagship he had been squashed by a literal loose cannon.  Having ordered the navy forward ahead of schedule, then held back and delayed himself, Prevost had effectively squandered his 3:1 advantage in manpower and decided he was going to take his ball and go home. Needless to say, he would quickly be recalled and fired for having done little to defend Canada, and less to attack the United States. While Britain’s northern adventure had fallen into the same bad general cesspit the Americans had located at Detroit, the flames rising from the Potomac would offer them some grim comfort.

[1] Sticks in this case meaning clubs. They had pledged to stain them with the blood of their enemies.

[2] Also known as Red Eagle. If “Weatherford” doesn’t sound like the most Creek of names, it really wasn’t. William’s father was a merchant of Franco-Scottish descent, but his mother was a princess of the Wind Clan. Proving that the Creek were well ahead of our own time, he had been accepted into the Clan’s leadership in spite of his mixed heritage, with nary a call for his birth certificate. Like Tecumseh, Weatherford was cast in the “Noble Savage” mold by later (white) American writers, one of whom decided that Red Eagle sounded more dramatic than his normal sobriquet.

[3] Not to be confused with Newark, New Jersey. It’s hard to see how most British would get offended at a burning of Newark, and also difficult to see how any Americans would notice it had happened.

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