War of 1812 bicentennial offers a wealth of historic sites to visit this year

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A line of British soldiers marches into battle during a War of 1812 re-enactment at Fanshawe Pioneer Village in London, Ontario, in October 2011. It's no understatement to say that the War of 1812 is every bit as important in Canada's history as the two World Wars. In fact, if the outcome had been different, there would probably be no country called Canada. (Geoff Robins/ Postmedia News)

 

Travellers interested in military history usually think of Europe as the place to visit battlefields, but Canada has its fair share of them and as this year marks the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, there is no better time to visit some of them.

The World Wars of last century are recent enough that they loom large in our memories, but it's no understatement to say that the War of 1812 is every bit as important in Canada's history as those great conflicts. In fact, if the outcome had been different, there would probably be no country called Canada.

The reasons for the war are diverse, but it was essentially an American effort to get rid of the British presence in North America. It began with an American invasion of Ontario and ended two years later soon after British soldiers burned down the White House and Capitol buildings in Washington, D.C.

While many of the war's battles took place in Ontario and Quebec, there were also forays into bordering American states such as New York, Illinois and Ohio. There were also naval engagements in the Great Lakes and on the high seas of the Atlantic. The war also saw lesser-known fights in areas around the Chesapeake Bay and even as far south as New Orleans.

Given the far-flung nature of the war, anyone who wants to investigate every outpost touched by the conflict would have to travel far and wide to see it all. If you stick to Canada only, there are lots of sites to see and Parks Canada and other local historical and tourism associations are pulling out all of the stops this year to help Canadians and foreign visitors learn more about this pivotal time in our history.

To help you plan your War of 1812 explorations in Canada, here is a list of some of the most important sites to visit:

Ontario:

Chippawa Battlefield, Niagara Parkway

Noted as being the most pristine battle site from the war, it resembles today very much what the original combatants would have seen 200 years ago. The 121 hectare-site is a mixture of forest and fields and features a monument to the 700 casualties and a series of plaques along a trail which explains the various phases of the battle which was an American victory over British forces.

niagaraparks.com/heritage-trail/chippawa-battlefield-park.html

Fort Erie

Located in the Niagara area, more than 3,000 soldiers were killed and wounded at this fort making it the bloodiest battleground on Canadian soil. The British fort was unfinished at the start of the War of 1812, but it was fought over numerous times as it changed hands back and forth as each side vied for control of the region. Today, several parts of the fort have been restored for visitors to see how soldiers lived during that period.

niagaraparks.com/old-fort-erie

Fort George, Niagara-on-the-Lake

This fort served as the headquarters of one of the British divisions during the war until it was captured by the Americans. After a seven-month occupation, it was recaptured by the British and remained in their hands until the end of the war. It is notable as being the base of operations for General Sir Isaac Brock, one of the most famous figures in the war's history. The fort is fully restored and offers tours and activities for visitors and features musical performances by the 41st Fife and Drum Corps which play music from the period.

pc.gc.ca/lhn-nhs/on/fortgeorge/index.aspx

Fort Malden, Amherstburg

This site commemorates two forts, Fort Amherstburg and Fort Malden. The first name was the one the British used for the fort which was ultimately burned and abandoned when they retreated. Malden is the name the Americans gave it after they occupied the site and it retained that name after the British returned and rebuilt it after the war. Today, it houses one of the most extensive collections of artifacts from the War of 1812.

pc.gc.ca/lhn-nhs/on/malden/index.aspx

Queenston Heights Battlefield, Queenston

One of the most famous battles of the war was a British victory, but it was tempered by the death of General Sir Isaac Brock. Visitors to the historic site can follow a trail with interpretive markers that help them understand how the battle transpired. In nearby Queenston, you can visit the Brock monument and the home to one of the war's most famous heroines, Laura Secord.

pc.gc.ca/lhn-nhs/on/queenston/index.aspx

Stoney Creek Battlefield, Hamilton

You'll want to visit this site on June 2 and 3, 2012, when there will be a re-enactment of the battle of Stoney Creek. The site features an impressive monument and Battlefield House, a home that has been meticulously restored to what it would have looked like during the war when it was occupied by American soldiers which used it as their headquarters during the invasion.

battlefieldhouse.ca

York Battlefield, Toronto

The largest concentration of buildings from the war sit right in the heart of Canada's most populous city, Toronto. They are found in Fort York Historic Site, a restored fortress which is operated by the city.

A new visitors' centre is slated to be opened in time for the bicentennial which will be a great addition to the site's numerous exhibits and activities that recreate the era for tourists.

toronto.ca/culture/museums/fort-york-history.htm

Quebec:

Battle of Lacolle Mills, Lacolle

The Americans had already failed in their bid to capture Montreal, but they tried to remove another British obstacle in the form of a blockhouse in this Quebec town. They were repulsed and today the blockhouse remains as a reminder to visitors of that battle.

ileauxnoix.com/eng/tourisme/blockhaus.html

Chateauguay Battlefield, Ormstown

Notable as a battle that was fought by Canadian troops and not British soldiers, this victory over an invading force made sure that Montreal would not be captured by Americans. There is an excellent visitors' centre which helps explain the events of that time. In August, the site features militiaman days when they recreate what life was like back then.

pc.gc.ca/lhn-nhs/qc/chateauguay/index.aspx

Maritimes:

Carleton Martello Tower, Saint John, New Brunswick

Halifax Defenses, Nova Scotia

St. Andrews Blockhouse, New Brunswick

Although they never saw any military action during the war, several strong points were built in Canada's Maritimes provinces by the British to defend against American attacks. The most notable sites are located in Saint John and St. Andrews, New Brunswick as well as Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Resources on the web:

The list above is by no means complete. There are excellent web resources to help you learn more about every known War of 1812 site, both in Canada and the United States. Here are some of them:

PBS produced an excellent TV special called The War of 1812 that explains the war. It also has an exceptional companion book called The War of 1812: A Guide to the Battlefields and Historic Sites by John Grant and Ray Jones. It is an indispensable guide for anyone interested in the war. It is well illustrated with paintings, engravings, photos and charts that explain the war as well as offering detailed information about historic sites on both sides of the border and what a visitor can expect to see. The book's website is equally informative and has lots of explanatory text as well as useful interactive maps that help you locate the battlefields today.

pbs.org/wned/war-of-1812/historic-sites

Parks Canada, The Royal Canadian Geographic Society and Historica Dominion Institute teamed together to create an elaborate website that puts the entire war into context and is useful to anyone interested in touring the battlefields and other historic sites. The site is comprehensive enough that it goes far beyond the most well-known sites to include even the most obscure skirmishes that are little more than historical footnotes in most books about the war.

eighteentwelve.ca

Parks Canada's own website is low on details for the visitor of today, but is a great resource for anyone who wants to learn more about the history of the war.

1812.gc.ca

Numerous events are being planned to mark the occasion of the war in communities throughout southwestern Ontario. An alliance of those communities has joined together to inform would-be visitors of those events via their website.

westerncorridor1812.com

 

Organizations: Parks Canada, World Wars, Battlefield House Royal Canadian Geographic Society Historica Dominion Institute

Geographic location: Canada, Ontario, Quebec Europe New York Niagara Parkway North America Washington, D.C. Illinois Ohio Great Lakes Chesapeake Bay New Orleans Queenston Fort Erie Stoney Creek Fort George Niagara-on-the-Lake New Brunswick Toronto Montreal Fort Malden Saint John Nova Scotia Fort York Historic Site United States

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  • ross
    March 26, 2012 - 19:19

    In reference to the Chateauguay Battlefield at Ormstown, it is noted in the above article that it was "a battle that was fought by Canadian troops and not British soldiers". I didn't know there was Canadian soldiers 55 years before there was a Canada.

    • Byron
      June 16, 2012 - 22:32

      Ross: I had to check the dates. Here is the info from wikipedia. In 1867, with the union of three British North American colonies through Confederation, Canada was formed as a federal dominion of four provinces Following several constitutional conferences, the 1867 Constitution Act officially proclaimed Canadian Confederation on July 1, 1867, initially with four provinces – Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canada

    • Byron
      June 16, 2012 - 22:35

      Ross: I had to check the dates. Here is the info from wikipedia. In 1867, with the union of three British North American colonies through Confederation, Canada was formed as a federal dominion of four provinces Following several constitutional conferences, the 1867 Constitution Act officially proclaimed Canadian Confederation on July 1, 1867, initially with four provinces – Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canada