The Race to Save Canada: The Laura Secord Story
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An attack on Canada, however, would require a tremendous logistical effort to supply armies in an area of primitive communications. Worse still, most of the regular American army was deployed in Louisiana and remained there throughout the war. As a result, the U. Ironically, British North America was actually better prepared for war than its neighbour and, more importantly, it was defended by professional soldiers and sailors.
If there is one lesson for modern Canadians to draw from the War of , it is that proclaiming sovereignty is not enough; a nation must be prepared to defend it and to do so requires professional armed forces. Fortunately competent British leadership was present and there were almost as many British regular troops in Canada as there were in the U. General Sir George Prevost, governor-general and commander-in-chief, planned to give up no territory easily but fiercely defend only Montreal and points east.
His subordinate in Upper Canada the modern province of Ontario , Gen. In July , American Gen. While he prepared to engage this thrust, Brock struck in the Upper Great Lakes.
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On his orders, a small British force traversed Lake Huron and forced the surrender of the American post on Mackinac Island, a success that convinced many of the aboriginal nations, who had remained neutral, to join the British side. Shortly afterwards, Hull withdrew to Detroit, but it was not long before Brock, having gathered every regular, militiaman and warrior that he could, arrived and prepared to attack.
Brock could do this because, at the outset of the war, only Britain possessed a navy on the Great Lakes, which granted him the advantage of mobility, and Brock made good use of it. These early victories on land were unfortunately balanced by defeats at sea. In the years since Trafalgar the RN had become overconfident, convinced that its ships could defeat any possible opponent. British sailors failed to realize that the U. Navy, although very small, possessed excellent warships and seamen.
The Race to Save Canada
The result was that American sailors won an impressive series of single-ship encounters. Britain had not suffered such a series of defeats at sea for more than a century. This did much to restore morale in the U. In the autumn of , the enemy made another invasion attempt. On the night of Oct. Brock, who was at Fort George outside Newark modern Niagara-on-the-Lake , proceeded to Queenston with all available troops. Realizing that the key to the American position was the high ground behind the village, he led an assault against it, only to be killed.
More regular troops arrived and pushed the invaders, now surrounded and with no means of escape, to the edge of the Niagara River. Realizing it was hopeless, the enemy commander surrendered, and more than Americans became prisoners of war. The victory at Queenston Heights had a dramatic effect on British North America and morale was high when the onset of winter brought an end to active military operations.
Two major invasions had been repelled and there was confidence the war would be brought to a victorious end. Canadian optimism disappeared in the spring. An intensive building program during the winter gave the U. Pushing a far weaker British, Canadian and aboriginal force before them, the invaders were approaching the town when the ammunition magazine in the military depot at York was ignited to prevent its contents from being captured.
This was the beginning of a renewed American offensive against British North America. On May 27, , an invading force crossed the Niagara and captured Fort George. Badly outnumbered, British and Canadian troops withdrew to the area of the modern city of Hamilton, but were pursued by an American force commanded by generals John Chandler and William Winder.
In the early morning of June 6, , it was attacked at Stoney Creek by a smaller British force and during a hard fought but confusing night action, the Americans managed to beat off the assault, but both Chandler and Winder were taken prisoner. This expedition also came to an inglorious end, however, on June 24 when, forewarned by a housewife named Laura Secord, a force of warriors surrounded the Americans and forced them to surrender in what was later called the battle of Beaver Dams.
After this, the invaders did not venture in strength beyond their lines at Fort George and the war in the Niagara became a stalemate. The same Sunday, June 6, , which witnessed the American defeat at Stoney Creek was also the occasion of a glorious event in Halifax. The evening service at St. The RN now began to exert its far superior strength by blockading the U. The most successful of these sea raiders was the schooner Liverpool Packet which took 50 prizes valued at nearly a million dollars before being herself captured. Other notable maritime privateers such as the brig Sir John Sherbrooke, and the schooner Retaliation took fewer prizes, but helped to depredate the American coastal trade; disrupting communications and, inevitably, causing higher prices on all types of goods.
To the west, the war came to life again in the autumn of , following an American victory at the naval battle of Lake Erie fought on Sept. It resulted in the capture of the entire British squadron on that body of water. British Major-General Henry Procter decided he could no longer maintain his position on the Detroit River and ordered his army to retreat east. Tecumseh was killed while leading his men, but his followers managed to spirit his body away and bury it in a secret location.
The disaster on the Thames, however, spelled the end of British ambitions in the American northwest. At about the same time, U. Secretary of War John Armstrong came north to re-invigorate the American war effort.
…except not really. More like bits and pieces.
He planned a two-pronged offensive against Montreal with one army to move against that city from Lake Champlain, while another larger force would move down the St. Lawrence in an armada of small boats. These plans went awry when the army from Lake Champlain was defeated at the battle of the Chateauguay, a few miles south of Montreal, on Oct. This victory was earned by entirely francophone troops under Lieutenant-Colonel Charles de Salaberry.
The waterborne prong of the U. Annoyed by this irritant snapping at its heels, the enemy turned and attacked on Nov. The British and Canadian troops were deployed on good defensive ground near the farm of John Crysler, but the approach of the much larger American force caused some trepidation in the ranks. When the campaign season of opened, there was reason for optimism in British North America. In April, Britain and her allies managed to topple Bonaparte from his throne and send him into exile.
Spotlight: Laura Secord – All About Canadian History
In all, one cavalry regiment, 10 artillery companies and 33 infantry battalions—roughly 28, men—were sent. On orders from London, Prevost immediately drew up plans for an offensive across the border.
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The first major move of , however, was made by the U. On the night of July 3, a force under Gen. Jacob Brown crossed the Niagara River near Fort Erie and forced the surrender of that post to begin the longest and most hard-fought campaign of the war. Gordon Drummond, British commander in Upper Canada, shifted his headquarters to the Niagara peninsula and reinforced the forces there. Brown, meanwhile, advanced to Lake Ontario, expecting to find the American naval squadron on that body of water ready to support him in attacking Fort George. There were no friendly sails in view, however, as the RN had gained momentary superiority on the lake and, in frustration, Brown withdrew back to Chippawa to resupply.
Image from the commemorative Laura Secord Stamp. Laura Secord was a wartime heroine whose story became mythologized and engrained in Canadian history, yet to this day many of the details are still quite murky. Most can recall the basic premise of her story; she overheard an American plot to ambush a British outpost and made a seriously long trek through the woods to warn them of the impending surprise attack. But specific aspects about her journey have suffered from misinformation over the past two centuries. Who was Laura and how did she hear about the plot?
How long was the walk? Did she bring a cow with her to trick American soldiers? Or did she trick them with chocolates? Did she really do it barefoot? Did her trek even matter? What happened to her after the war? Her mother died when she was only eight and her father remarried twice afterwards. It was there that she met James Secord, the youngest son of a loyalist officer and who worked as a merchant in Queenston. They married in and went on to have seven children. She searched through the bloody battlefield and found James close to death; he had been shot through the shoulder and one of his knees had been shattered by a musket ball.
Laura carried him home and spent the winter and spring helping him recover, whilst still managing to run their farm and take care of their seven kids. Epic multitasking skills or what? Laura searches for James after the Battle of Queenston Heights. By the summer of , the Americans had control over Queenston and so the Secords were forced to billet provide living quarters for American soldiers. The three who lived there must have gotten too comfortable around Laura because while she was making dinner for them, she overheard Colonel Charles Boerstler boasting about how he was going to finish off Lieutenant James FitzGibbon and his garrison via a surprise attack on their headquarters near Beaver Dams.
Laura knew that FitzGibbon needed to be warned immediately, otherwise the Americans would take over the whole Niagara peninsula. The direct road to the British outpost was 12 miles away, but fearing that the Americans would catch her she chose to go through the winding wilderness, extending her trek to miles kilometres. As such, she endured eighteen hours of trekking in the humidity across frontier bush, down ravines, and through mosquito-infested swamps. Please click the image for a larger resolution.
Elizabeth became exhausted around the time they reached St. Catherines, so Laura continued on alone. The distance and nature of the walk call three aspects of the Laura Secord myth into question: With the first story, Laura supposedly brought along one of her cows for the journey and milked it when she encountered some American troops—because that would not have looked suspicious at all—and then later set the cow free.
With the final tale, Laura was in such a hurry to talk to FitzGibbon that she ran out the door in the morning without putting on any shoes. Feet of steel, perhaps? First, the journey by a human alone would have been difficult, but having to drag along a cow?
Also, the Secords were not rich and Laura would not just get rid of a cow at whim. The second tale sounds like something people came up to try to explain why a popular chocolate retailer would name itself after her. Historians generally agree that these stories are dramatic embellishments added to make the story more exciting, and probably to make the Americans sound really dumb , to stir up Canadian nationalism.
Laura never needed to trick American soldiers because she made the decision at the beginning of her journey to stay away from them by not taking the direct route. If Laura had been caught, she would have been charged as spy and met her end at the hands of a firing squad. Eighteen hours in, Laura came across an Aboriginal encampment and found herself surrounded.
Laura explained to the chief about the impending American attack and asked to be taken to FitzGibbon. The Iroquois granted her request and brought her to the home of Captain John Decou, where Fitzgibbon was and Laura told him the whole story. By Lorne Kidd Smith, c. FitzGibbon had Caughnawaga and Mohawk warriors surround the Americans.