On June 18, 1812, the United States declared war on Britain and what was to that point a major European conflict now crossed to North America. There were several reasons but for the Atlantic Americans, the underlying cause was Britain’s war with France that had continued on and off since 1793. In response to Napoleon’s trade blockade of European ports under French control, Britain closed the same ports to American vessels unless licensed by the Crown. British war ships began stopping U.S. vessels to search for “contraband” (anything to aid Napoleon) and to reclaim deserters from the Royal Navy. The last straw came when they began seizing American nationals to put them in service on British vessels. Tensions rose during the spring of 1812.
President James Madison was urged to declare war by the ‘War Hawks’, a group of Congressmen from the South and West who felt that British Canada would be easy pickings. The British were believed to be supporting the Native Americans in their resistance to the attempts by the supporters of the War Hawks to take their land. With Britain in a life and death struggle with Napoleon, it seemed a likely avenue. Relying on a poorly trained militia, American attacks along the frontier in the summer months resulted in a collective bloody nose thanks to superior leadership through British General Isaac Brock and Shawnee Chief Tecumseh. After Brock’s victory (and death) at the Battle of Queenston Heights in October, British and Canadian strategy became one of wait and see. All knew that the Americans would be back in the spring.
In New Brunswick, peace prevailed along the border with Maine and trade continued between the province and neighbouring states. The Americans needed British manufactured goods and New Brunswick could not feed itself so English woolens and American flour crisscrossed the border to the benefit of all . However, steps were taken to defend the Bay of Fundy from American privateers. Even though Britain had not declared war on the United States and wouldn’t until October, the Lieutenant-Governor, George Stacey Smyth authorized the sloop Brunswicker to sail out of Saint John ‘in the service of the province.’ For the only time in its history, New Brunswick had a one-boat navy. Acting together with a Royal Navy brig, H.M.S. Plumper, they attacked American raiders.
After Britain declared war, New Brunswick vessels were issued ‘letters of marque’ which permitted their taking prizes from U.S. shipping. New Brunswickers carried the sea war to the Americans with much success and ranged as far south as Boston. Meanwhile, war preparations made by British engineers at the ports of St. Andrews, Saint John and the crucial St. John River system stood the colony well. Magazines, redoubts, blockhouses and eventually the Martello Tower on the coast, along with an inland navy of flat bottomed boats to patrol the river, kept the essential winter road to Canada open. This became the route the famed 104th Regiment of Foot followed in the winter and early spring of 1813.