The U.S. Invasions of Canada

The Battle of the Windmill was a battle fought in November 1838 in the aftermath of the Upper Canada Rebellion.

BY: Lenka Walldroff
Oh, Canada: our friendly, good natured neighbor to the north. Home of good beer, hockey, poutine, maple syrup, Tim Horton’s coffee, and duty free shopping. How do we thank you for all of your contributions to civilization; those many comforts that make life much more bearable? 

    We tease you mercilessly.

    You have suffered at the hands of South Park whose creators famously serenade you with “Blame Canada.” They also honor you with a full length movie that includes a battle between our two nations  incited by Canadian pop culture (no, not Justin Bieber- at least not this time.)  The film Canadian Bacon portrays a group of Americans led by actor John Candy (who was, ironically, one of your own) invading you. On this side of the silver screen, during the years preceding the onset of the second World War, United States military strategists did, in actuality, develop a plan for just such an occasion (which they believed would be spurred by trade conflicts): it was called “War Plan Red.” So, not overly neighborly.

    South Park and John Candy aside, the truth of the matter is, that America did actually invade you, dear Canada- a few times. OK, maybe four-ish times, to be exact? And some of them were staged in Northern New York. We’re sorry. But if it’s any small consolation, none of those attempts were particularly successful.

So, then, in no particular order, a list of our rather un-neighborly transgressions:

  1. In 1775, at the opening of the American Revolution, the revolutionaries thought that by annexing a part of Canada, they could weaken the British position. Americans occupied Montreal and attacked the city of Quebec. We were defeated, but not before inciting sympathizers in Nova Scotia to rebellion against the crown. So that one was rather a draw.
  2. The Fenian Raids of 1866-1871. The English invaded Ireland in the 12th century and things have been rather touchy between the two nations ever since. Fast forward 700 years. The American Civil War broke out in 1861 and one hundred seventy thousand Irish immigrants enlisted. After war’s end, about ten thousand of those hardened combat veterans joined the Irish nationalist group called the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood (commonly referred to as the “Fenians”.) On June 1, 1866 the Fenians invaded Canada at Fort Erie (just across the water from Buffalo) under the pretext of holding it- that is, the entire nation of Canada- hostage until the English Crown gave Ireland its independence. The United States government confiscated the Fenians’ weapons and the group was mostly disbanded. A few more invasions (on a smaller scale) were executed- one even included an early prototype of a submarine- but most didn’t make it out of the planning stages. The movement eventually fizzled out. Ireland continued under Crown rule.
  3. The War of 1812. As part of a three-pronged campaign to capture Canada, General William Hull crossed the Detroit River into Canada on July 12, 1812. Upon his arrival, he issued a written proclamation to the inhabitants that they would finally “be emancipated from tyranny and oppression.” He was laughed at before being chased back across the river by British Commander Isaac Brock, who then proceeded to launch cannon fire at the American-held Fort Detroit.

    At the same time, General Henry Dearborn marched his troops and a smattering of militiamen to Plattsburgh, N.Y. with the goal of capturing Montreal. That, too, ended badly for us when the militiamen refused to leave American territory, and in the confusion of night, American troops accidentally fired upon one another. The campaign to “liberate Canada” was coined as “nothing but disaster, defeat, disgrace, and ruin, and death” said one Vermont newspaper. The military powers that be must have agreed, as the entire thing was abandoned. At least for that year.

    Americans tried again in 1813, capturing Toronto and burning it to the ground. Not to be outdone, the British repaid the favor by burning Washington D.C., before taking back what was left of Toronto and routing American troops out of Canada altogether.

  1. The Patriot War of 1838. The Patriot War has been given precious little coverage in the textbooks of American history- which is really rather a shame, given our topic. The Patriot War was a response to the Canadian rebellions of 1837. In 1837, Canada was still under colonial rule and divided into Lower and Upper Canada- basically, modern Ontario and Quebec. Due to economics and growing interest in political equality, rebellions began in Canada against the British Crown (represented by a young Queen Victoria at the time) and colonial governments. In August of that year, militias formed under the leadership of Louis-Joseph Papineau in Quebec, and William Lyon Mackenzie in Ontario. Both were eventually suppressed by the British.

    The Canadian leaders of what became known as the Patriot Movement escaped to the United States where they were quite popular. Riding the wave of popularity, they began to recruit American volunteers to help expel the British from Canada.  On December 13 of 1837, Mackenzie occupied Navy Island (near Niagara Falls) and declared himself President of the newly founded Republic of Canada.  Within two weeks,  500 men joined Mackenzie on his island, but the British decided that enough was enough. British troops set out to confiscate (a nicer word than “steal”, no?) a steamship called the Caroline anchored at Navy Island. On December 29, the British burned the Caroline and sent her over Niagara Falls in flames of glory, accidentally killing an American in the process. This was an act that the north country’s very own pirate, Bill Johnston, retaliated against in 1838 when he sank the steamer Sir Robert Peel off the coast of Wellesley Island. It is worthy to note that as Pirate Bill and his men watched the Sir Robert Peel burn and sink, they chanted: “Remember the Caroline!” In any case, the Caroline skirmish incited an American fury that threatened war. President Martin Van Buren dispatched a military unit to Buffalo to defuse the crisis, which it did, until the whole thing blew up again in November of 1838 when 400 American volunteers crossed the Canadian border in another makeshift invasion. Thirty of these men were killed, 160 were captured. 

    The war did end in December of 1838, and brought with it important political reforms that eventually gave Canada its autonomy. So you see, dear Canadians, there was a silver lining to our, at times, inhospitable behavior. The Patriot War also served as a platform for dialogues between the British and the Americans that settled longstanding border disputes between Canada and America- like sharing the Great Lakes (until then, they were controlled by the British Navy.) The Patriot War was fought across the Great Lakes basin, but Northern New York contributed numerous volunteers to the effort. We do know the fate of a few of these men. The Jefferson County Historical Society has in its archives a collection of pardons granted by agents of the British Crown to Americans captured during the Patriot War. Many of those captured had their death sentences commuted into life imprisonment and were sent off to Australia (which was then a British penal colony) to serve out their sentences.