The conventions of warfare have changed since 1812

At a presentation on May 16, 2012, Denise Harris spoke of the role of Etobicoke residents in the War of 1812.

In a previous blog post, I spoke of a recent lecture by Denise Harris about the War of 1812.

Along with changes in the technology of warfare, as discussed in the previous blog, the conventions of warfare have also changed since 1812.

Denise Harris noted, in her lecture on May 16, 2012, for example, that the soldiers of the Etobicoke militia who faught in the War of 1812 were at times able to return to their homes to assist with farming.

At other times, the women and children who remained on farms worked desperately to keep the farms operating and in that way save them, under exceedingly difficult conditions.

The wives of the militia members could travel outside of Etobicoke to live with their husbands, where they were stationed, when the latter were not on the battlefields.

An additional feature of warfare at that time was that, if a soldier was taken prisoner, he could be ‘paroled,’ a less expensive procedure than keeping a prisoner of war housed and fed.

Under parole, a soldier gave an oath indicating he would not fight again for the duration of the war, except in circumstances (if I understand correctly) involving the exchange of prisoners.

As a result, stories occasionally emerged of Etobicoke militia appearing to go out of ther way to be captured by American troops, so they would be paroled. A paroled soldier could return to work on his farm, and no longer had to risk his life on a battlefield.

Stories also occasionally emerged, according to Denise Harris, of one or two Etobicoke militia being apprehended, during the American attack on York in 1813, in circumstances suggesting they may have been on their way to join American soldiers in the looting of York.

Sometimes rules of warfare are applied; sometimes they are not in evidence

Some other conventions of warfare, particular to these times, come to mind. In reading about the military career of John Graves Simcoe, for example, I learned that during the time of the American Revolutionary War, or possibly in an earlier military engagement, Simcoe had on one occasion warned an officer of the opposing side that one of the opposing sentries was out of position.

The message was that the sentry should get back on the proper side of a line of engagement, or risk being shot by Simcoe’s troops.

Such rules of warfare did not apply, however, in all circumstances of colonial warfare. With regard to the treatment of prisoners at the end of a war, whatever rules were in place, if there were such rules, were not uniformly applied. At the surrender of British troops after the Battle of Yorktown, for example, about twenty members of the Queen’s Rangers were executed by the American side, according to historian Alan Taylor.

As well, the rules of warfare did not apply in still other circumstances.

In warfare involving indigenous peoples, colonial empires, including the British empire, were prone to consider those they conquered as less than human. The killing of noncombatant men, woman, and children was a frequent occurrence in the course of such warfare in North America and elsewhere.

As well, it may be noted that Eric Wolf (1982) has argued that colonial powers stripped those cultures they intended to exploit of heritage, pride, and self-identity.

Another thought that comes to mind is that what is called the American way of war had its origin, according to some military historians, in the wars that the United States fought against Canada.

Although the conventions and technology of warfare have changed, the underlying definition remains the same. War involves the strategic management of organized violence in the pursuit of political goals.

In the instance of the organized violence that occurred in the War of 1812, the outcome was that the American object of the conquest of Canada was unmet. The British demonstrated good military discipline, a key factor in the eventual outcome.

A sense of national identity, of loyalty to one’s homeland, emerged from the conflict. As Canadians, we owe thanks to each person who fought on the British side in the War of 1812.

Just War Theory

Just War Theory as a philosophical concept is discussed at this webpage.


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