When American Forces Burned Toronto

The War of 1812 gave America its national anthem.

Without this long, costly and bloody conflict—no matter how ultimately unsatisfying the outcome was—there wouldn’t have been any bombs bursting in air or rockets’ red glare to sing about.

History buffs might also be able to rattle off a list of other popular lore and trivia associated with the conflict: It was during this war that General Andrew Jackson won his historic triumph at the Battle of New Orleans and the thick, cannon ball-repulsing hide of the U.S.S. Constitution earned it the name “Old Ironsides.” The great Shawnee leader, Tecumseh, fought and died in the War of 1812—with him went the last, best hope of a unified Indian nation.

But as is quickly pointed out in the new documentary by Florence-based filmmakers Larry Hott and Diane Garey of Florentine Films/Hott Productions, “It’s the war that Americans have largely forgotten.” It doesn’t figure highly in the work of many British historians, either—by 1812, the Royal Navy had been fighting campaigns for nearly 20 years. To them, the more important event that year was Napoleon marching on Russia.

Hott’s and Garey’s two-hour epic fills in the blanks. The War of 1812 is a masterfully woven yarn of historic first-hand accounts, interviews with dozens of modern experts, artful animation and dramatic re-enactments. More than a catalog of battles and the commanders who fought them, the documentary tells in rich detail of an ambiguous war fought for questionable reasons by generals who were as often pitifully inept as they were spectacularly heroic. It’s a truly great story.

“Any one of the characters we included in this movie we could have done a full-length documentary on,” Larry Hott said in an interview with the Advocate last week.

“We also found some stories and angles other documentaries and films about the war hadn’t really touched on,” Garey added, “such as the role of African Americans in the war.”

After more than 30 years of making documentaries together, both as colleagues and as a married couple, this is Hott’s and Garey’s first to cover a war directly. While they’re not afraid of difficult topics—previous subjects have included a history of the American deaf experience, the treatment of tuberculosis, and a writer’s relationship with his mentally ill brother—until now their films didn’t include much in the way of bloodshed or armed conflict. Their honed skills in telling stories of profound personal drama give the film a very different feel than that of most blockbuster war movies.

While President James Madison and his wife Dolley are portrayed, along with a host of military leaders on all sides, the lives and perspectives that provide the backbone of the narrative are those of William Atherton, a volunteer sharpshooter from Kentucky, and Shadrach Byfield, a professional British soldier. Represented by readings from their memoirs and dramatic reenactments, both men were involved in a great many of the war’s battles (only once did they fight each other in the same conflict, though). The scope of their combined experience is so complete it’s sometimes difficult to believe their lives were fact, not fiction. As we learn what their lives were like and see the conflict through their experiences, the war waged almost 200 years ago begins to resonate with the wars being fought today.


Madison’s declaration of war listed three reasons for attacking Great Britain: the British navy was impressing sailors (forcing crew from other ships to serve on its vessels); Britain was interfering with American trade; and there was evidence that Britain had been supplying weaponry to the Indians to the northwest of the colonies.

While doubt remains about the accuracy of this last charge, the impressing of sailors and the disturbing of trade had been going on for decades. At no time before or during the war was the sovereignty of the U.S. government threatened. America’s first war was waged by choice, and it was one that many Americans did not choose. New Englanders, who enjoyed a healthy trade relationship with Britain, greeted the news by flying flags at half mast and closing stores. As the war progressed, there was even fear that the Northern states would leave the Union.

Righting these three wrongs may have been the stated goals of the war, but the subsequent military action indicated a different, perhaps less righteous objective: geographic expansion.

At the start of the war, America sent three armies to conquer Canada. With Britain already engaged in a protracted war with France, land to the north seemed like easy pickings. Many assumed that, like their former colonial cousins to the south, Canadians would welcome U.S. soldiers. As then president Thomas Jefferson famously wrote in the year the war began, “The acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching.”

He was wrong.

American war planners had badly misjudged the resistance they would face. It turned out it wasn’t just the British they were fighting. The French Canadians and the regional Indian tribes also took up arms to defend themselves.

Even worse, the Americans had overestimated their own abilities. Quickly, through a stunning show of ineptitude, America found itself on the defensive in the war it had declared.

The lieutenant in charge of the first American fort lost to the British had not yet been notified he was at war when the troops arrived; the second fort was surrendered after the drunk and terrified general in charge was fooled into believing the opposing force was much larger than his own. As stunning as America’s naval victories were, they were almost always in response to the British initiative. Instead of expanding through conquest, Americans found themselves backed into a corner.

Things got worse before they got better.

Before American troops found their footing again, they got desperate. Tactics and strategy disintegrated into terror. Instead of aiming at enemy soldiers, they began burning buildings. During the winter of 1813, soldiers burned the capital of Upper Canada, York—it would one day be renamed Toronto—setting off a chain of retaliation that left dozens of towns destitute, and which ended with British troops invading Washington and torching the White House.


Along with fascinating characters and fiery action, Hott and Garey found more than 30 experts on different aspects of the war and interviewed each at length. The team of historians provides running commentary, interspersed with the period accounts by Atherton and Byfield, throughout the film.

“One of the challenges we faced,” Hott said, “was that each expert we talked to was seriously convinced their corner of expertise about the war was the turning point, or the most significant event, and each of them could offer really compelling arguments why that was the case.”

The dimension these scholars add and the context they provide shines a stark light on the many myths that grew up around the war. “Don’t give up the ship,” for instance, might have been first uttered by Captain James Lawrence during this war, but Canadian naval historian Victor Suthren explains what happened next: “Not long after Lawrence urged his crewmen and his officers [not to] give up the ship, that’s exactly what they did. They had no choice. The British boarded the Chesapeake and the Americans had to surrender the ship.”

Rick Hill, an historian and expert on tribal history of New York State and Ontario, said that though Tecumseh is revered by even the non-native Americans as a hero—there is a statue of him at the Naval Academy in Annapolis—he lived and died fighting Americans.

Similarly, as tactically masterful and bravely fought as Andrew Jackson’s defense of New Orleans was, peace had already been signed between America and England two months earlier. The victory happened too late to have an effect on the war’s overall outcome, which was effectively a stalemate. Still, even at the time, politicians ignored the chronological discrepancy.

As King’s College Naval Historian Professor Andrew Lambert explained, even though the war had already ended, Jackson’s victory was used as “a great propaganda coup for the Republican Party. It helps to keep them in power for another election or two. And it will be told as the core story of the American victory in the War of 1812.”


The documentary has been in the works for over five years. The idea was initially presented to the filmmakers by the public television station that serves both Buffalo and Toronto, WNED, and it was produced by WNED and Florentine Films/Hott Productions in association with Washington, D.C.’s PBS station, WETA.

Mostly, Larry Hott takes on directorial responsibilities and Diane Garey is the editor for the films they work on. They share production responsibilities and each has a hand in writing the screenplay. Having spent most of their lives working in the region, they also have a tried-and-true team of local film experts —sound designers, associate editors and other technicians—with whom they regularly work.

Still, from the start, Hott and Garey realized that this production would stretch them, taking them beyond what they had done before. To provide gripping footage of warfare, they’d have to stage and film it themselves.

“A common mistake among people making historic documentaries for the first time,” Hott said, “is that to film a war scene, all you have to do is bring a few cameras to someone else’s reenactment, film some muskets being loaded and cannons firing, and you’re all set. That’s exactly what I thought, and pretty quickly I figured out it wasn’t going to work.”

Many reenactors are meticulous about historical accuracy as far as the details of their uniforms and weaponry go, but they’re also often an inclusive lot. As Hott panned his camera across a wall of infantry, the soldiers presenting arms were sometimes women, senior citizens, or someone belonging to an ethnicity unlikely to have appeared in the colonial ranks. Even when the body in the uniform was male, young and white, though, the fighting was often more tentative than cinematic.

To tell the stories of battles on land and at sea, Hott realized he couldn’t leave things to happenstance.

He turned to Peter Twist, who runs an historical military arms, uniform supply company, and who also consults on Hollywood blockbusters, such as the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Driving around for a week together, they scouted battle locations in Canada and upstate New York. Each conflict was planned and meticulously storyboarded. Twist worked with a team of hand-picked reenactors to hone their fighting and dramatic chops so that the war they waged seemed authentic on screen but was safe for the performers and crew.

When they needed to take the production to sea, Twist helped them locate and rent period ships, and when it was time to burn the villages, he could offer advice on which pyrotechnic to call. His advice on the film was so essential, he’s also interviewed as a period military expert.

The reenactors quickly earned Hott’s respect.

“They’d come prepared with all their own props, their own muskets and ammunition,” he said. “Often they had multiple uniforms, so they could fight on either side and be any one of several ranks.” He was impressed by the wealth of knowledge they drew from, and he also gained some important reenactment wisdom.

“If possible,” he said, “soldiers should try not to get killed early in the day, because it could get dull waiting for the battle to end, and if you had to die, you should try to do so in a shady spot, since it was no fun baking in a wool uniform.”


While little changed politically as a direct result of the war for its two main participants, the documentary argues that if there was a victor in the War of 1812, it was the Canadians who proved Jefferson’s predictions wrong.

“In our minds,” Canadian scholar Jim Hill explained, “the War of 1812 is where we [defended] our version of freedom and democracy.”

If there was any positive legacy to the conflict for the instigators, the documentary’s military experts agreed that the war offered America an impetus to professionalize and modernize its army and navy.

But as Garey pointed out, “The next war America fought was against itself.”

Much about the 1812 War set the stage for the Civil War. In addition to tensions between the North and South over policy issues, during the war British forces began raiding Southern cities, freeing over 4,000 American slaves. Many of the liberated joined the British ranks in fighting the Americans.

Working on the documentary, Garey said she also found it tempting to draw parallels between America’s first war and the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. While many specific parallels can be made—then and now, war was declared for reasons other than defense; troops entering Canada wrongly assumed they would be greeted as liberators; there were no clear plans beyond an initial occupation; the strategies the troops pursued did not seem to be in keeping with the original objectives—she thinks the more useful question to ponder is how our modern wars will be viewed by our descendants.

Will they be forgotten? Will the reason and context be filtered out gradually over time and replaced with more patriotic-sounding legends and myths? One can only hope there will be someone with the wisdom and artistry required to add dimension and meaning to the shadows that haunt our past.

In the near future, though, she’s fairly certain what the reaction from the experts will be to the film.

“Many war aficionados are going to say things like ‘They didn’t use the right burgie on the sailor’s uniform,'” she guessed. “And you know, they’re probably right.”

“But we tried our best,” Hott said.

The film will have its theatrical premiere on September 17 at Northampton’s Academy of Music (the event will be free and open to the public), and it will be broadcast on PBS nationally on October 10.

Author: Mark Roessler

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