A war for hemp, iron and timber: a response to John R. Grodzinski's "Remembering the War of 1812".

Author:Sweeny, Alastair

I wish to take issue with several of the points made by Major John R. Grodzinski ("Remembering the War of 1812," Inroads, Summer/Fall 2012, pp. 112-24) and, more generally, the standard interpretation put forward by historians of the war of 1812.

Major Grodzinski cites a soldier of the time who called it a "hot war and unnatural war between kindred people." However, it is inaccurate to describe it as a war between kindred people, a civil war if you will. It was a most uncivil war, in which frustrated U.S. troops and militia turned the farms and mills of western Upper Canada into charred ruins. It featured a small Loyalist community driven north from their homes having to fight all over again for their right to remain British.

In my view, the war is best understood as a conflict for strategic commodities, in particular hemp and iron from the Baltic and timber from Nova Scotia and Canada.

As the year 1812 began the Emperor Napoleon, nearing the end of his military career, was being seriously threatened by attacks on his army in Spain, now the property of his brother Joseph, King Jose I. His plans for the invasion of Britain had collapsed with the defeat of the French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar. Funds from the American purchase of Louisiana had kept his treasury afloat, but his armies were relying more and more on ravaging the countries they controlled.

Napoleon's only hope of victory was to cut off commodities to the Royal Navy, particularly hemp from Russia, which supplied 90 per cent of the navy's needs. Without a supply of hemp for sails and rope and oakum, Britain's navy would collapse in less than 18 months. At Tilsit, he had signed a treaty with Tsar Alexander to stop the British hemp trade, but the Russian nobility, whose serfs produced the bulk of the commodity, refused to go along with support for France. Furthermore, the Royal Navy completely controlled the Baltic and had coopted scores of "neutral" New England ships into the hemp trade to evade the letter of the treaty. In this context, Napoleon's invasion of Russia constituted a last desperate attempt to stop the hemp trade with Britain.

Where did the United States come in? First, Napoleon had withdrawn 20,000 troops from Spain, and desperately needed a western front. We know that in meetings in early 1812, he and his officials promised U.S. Ambassador Joel Barlow that if the Americans tied up the British in North America and made an effort to stop timber exports to the Royal...

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