NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ontario -- You can see the United States from here, over there across the raging Niagara River. But even if you couldn’t, you could be sure that hardly anyone over there is making much of this week’s bicentenary of an event that shattered this town, sowed bitterness that persisted for generations and shaped an entire continent.
Two centuries ago Tuesday, the American troops who had occupied this small community for seven months abandoned their snowy redoubt in a region then called Upper Canada, leaving the town — by that time occupied almost exclusively by women, the men having left to serve in the British army or in various militia — in flames and smoke. The War of 1812 produced several moments of unfettered brutality, none except perhaps for the burning of Washington, D.C., as piteous as this one.
On Dec. 10, 1813, the residents of this area — a Loyalist village, in American eyes — stood calf-deep in snow in a ruthless chill and watched their homes, shops, churches and schools lie smoldering in ruin, all their possessions, their clothes, their memories consumed by fire. It may have been this cruelty on the Niagara that prompted the British the following year to exercise no restraint in attacking Buffalo and other western New York communities, in filibustering throughout the American frontier and in burning the American capital.
At the distance of two centuries, confrontations like the War of 1812, itself a sideshow to the Napoleonic Wars, seem like quaint artifacts of another time, the hardships somehow more fabled than fearful, the human costs more anecdotal than actual.
Today, for Americans the burning of the White House in August 1814 is a mere curiosity, an aside during tours of the executive mansion, little more. As for the victims of the earlier torching in what we now call Ontario, they are a historical trifle, bit players in someone else’s story.
Not so, once you realize the importance of what happened here, in a country Americans mostly ignore, during a war Americans mostly have forgotten, in an episode Americans mostly have repressed.
We can’t cure American historical amnesia in a newspaper column, but we can fill in the human dimensions of a war whose North American combatants, in the phrase of the great Canadian historian Pierre Berton, “did not invite the war, did not care about the issues and did not want to fight.”
Like the French and Indian War a half-century earlier, this was a European struggle that — messily, maddeningly and, ultimately, murderously — lapped up upon the eastern shores of the New World. In so doing, it forced men to fight a war whose causes they barely understood even though the stakes could barely be larger — control of the wild, rich and mostly unexplored land mass of North America.
One lesson of the episode might be that great sweeping historical forces brush aside small groups of individuals — tragic figures of collateral damage during big shifts among great powers and even in small movements of military units like that commanded by Brig. Gen. George McClure, which laid waste a place that Michael Smith, an American visitor, described in 1812 as “a beautiful and prosperous place of much trade inhabited by a civil and industrious people.”
Capt. William Hamilton Merritt, who arrived in town a day after the fires were set, reported seeing “[n]othing but heaps of coals and the streets full of furniture that the inhabitants were fortunate enough to get out of their houses.” Only one house, maybe two, stood undamaged.
Some of these victims come to life in historical documents preserved by the Niagara Historical Society, pointedly located here on Castlereagh Street, named for the foreign minister in office in London at the time.
They are people like Elizabeth Campbell, whose husband died in 1812 and whose home was destroyed in the burning of Newark, as Niagara-on-the-Lake was known then. One contemporary letter describes Mrs. Campbell as having been “exposed for three days and nights upon the snow with only the canopy of Heaven for a covering, her house once the seat of hospitality and plenty, reduced to ashes before her face, a few valuables she had endeavored to save [torn] from her by a monster in human form and carried off and divided.”
In the historical archives are scores of handwritten war claims like Mrs. Campbell’s, which in script barely legible today lists a mare, a wash kettle, an iron oven, 15 glass tumblers, a barrel of pork (“ditto beef”), shovels, a tea tray — and more.
Or consider the record of loss prepared by Alexander Cameron, who filed his claim “in consequence of the Capture of that place by the Forces of the United States” and lists, among other items, a cariole (carriage), a harness, a side saddle, a cow and a mahogany dining table.
It is hard to suppress the suspicion that the physical items listed in these claims are not all that these colonists lost. Nor is it possible to suppress the notion that equal hardship was faced on the American side of the border
We Americans are paying almost no mind to any of this, but little of it is being ignored here, in Canada. The residents of this town — an art haven by virtue of its Shaw Festival theaters, an architectural attraction by virtue of its stately buildings, a tourist trap by virtue of its hokey bangers-and-mash Olde English air — are marking this historical moment with both commemoration and introspection.
The town is planning a torchlight cemetery procession, a candlelight service, a series of inspirational readings, musical performances, a commemorative bonfire, an outdoor flag ceremony — and, this being December, cups of hot cider. It is a moment of reflection and remembrance about a war of which so many have no memory.
McClure initiated the burning of Newark out of concern it could become a staging area for savage British attacks. Instead it became the pretext for savage British attacks. That is an irony of history, reminding us that in wars remembered as well as forgotten, there is nothing more ironic than history.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1890).