At home the great Napoleon was fighting Britain. He was fighting her on many a bloody battlefield; he was fighting her in other ways, doing his best to ruin British trade and shipping. He forbade any country to trade with Britain, and his ships watched the seas, ready to attack any ship carrying goods to Britain.
King George replied by forbidding any nation to trade with France, and threatening to seize all ships carrying goods to French ports. Here was a state of things likely to ruin the trade of many lands. The United States did much trade with France, and the Americans were very angry with King George for his Orders in Council, as his decree was called. They quite forgot that Napoleon had begun the quarrel by forbidding people to trade with Britain.
Great Britain, being an island, needs a large navy to watch her shores. At this time it was difficult to find enough sailors to man her ships, and sometimes, too, the sailors would run away. So the British claimed the right to search all ships belonging to neutral lands (that is, all lands taking neither one side or the other, in the quarrel), in order to find runaway sailors. Countries at war have always had this right, but it made the Americans angry, and on 18th June 1812 they declared war against Britain once more.
But the Americans of course did not sail over to Britain to fight there. They had no thought of that. But they longed to possess another and much nearer land. They marched into Canada and fought there. The Canadians had really nothing to do with the quarrel, and it was hard that they had to suffer. The Americans thought, too, that Canada having been so lately conquered, would not want to fight for Britain. They were much mistaken.
If you look on the map, you will see that all across the continent of America the United States and Canada lie side by side. The line where one country touches another is called a frontier. Canada had seventeen thousand miles of frontier to defend, and not six thousand men with which to do it. And Great Britain fighting at home against Napoleon had few soldiers to spare.
But the people of Canada, both French and British, gathered to defend their homes. Many Indians too, well pleased with British rule, joined them, and the Americans found they had no easy task in front of them.
One of the great heroes of this war is Major-General Sir Isaac Brock. He was not a Canadian born, for he had been only about ten years in the country. But he was a true Canadian at heart. He was a gallant soldier and a wise general, and his men loved him, and were ready to follow him anywhere. Again and again he led his soldiers to victory, beating armies twice or three times more numerous than his own. But at last at the battle of Queenston Heights on the Niagara he was killed. "Don't mind me!" he cried, as he fell, "push on, boys!" And with a cry of "Revenge the general!" his men rushed on, scattering the enemy in flight. Swearing, cheering, sobbing, they pursued the fleeing foe till night fell. It was a victory indeed, but one dearly bought the life of their brave commander.
There were many other men who in this struggle won for themselves great and honourable names. But it was difficult to find another commander as brave and as clever as Brock. So back and forth the fortune of war swayed, now one side winning, now another. Many battles were fought, many brave deeds done, but I must tell of how a woman once saved the British from defeat. A British officer named Fitzgibbon had been sent to hold a post called Beaver Dams, about twelve miles from Niagara. He had only sixty men, half of whom were Red Indians. The post was important, and the Americans made up their minds to seize it. With great secrecy they made their preparations in order to take the post by surprise, for a few miles off, at a place called Twelve Mile Creek, lay another force of two hundred men. But the Americans hoped to surprise Fitzgibbon, so that he should have no time to get help.
The secret, however, leaked out. A Canadian named James Secord overheard their talk and learned their plans. But he was lying ill. He had fought with Brock at Queenston where he had been badly wounded, and he was still unable to move.
With five hundred men, fifty horse and two cannons, the Americans were marching upon the handful of men at Beaver Dams. Secord knew it, but could do nothing. To the helpless sick man the knowledge was torture. Only twenty miles away, his fellow-countrymen were awaiting certain death, and there was no means of warning them. There was no man he could send, for all the country was watched by American sentries. Even if any man had been willing to risk his life, Secord knew of none he could trust—none but his wife. And to her he whispered the thought that tormented him. "They must all die," he said, "for lack of a word of warning."
"But that shall not be," said Laura Secord, "I will go."
So as the sun rose on a still June morning, Laura Secord started on her long and dangerous walk. There was no sign of haste, nothing to show that she was setting out upon a journey. Slowly driving a cow before her, as if she were taking it home to be milked, she passed the American sentries. Slowly down the country road she passed. The birds were singing in the dawn, the air was sweet with the scent of wild flowers, and as Laura walked, her dress brushed the dew from the grass. But no eyes had she, or ears, for the beauty of the day. With beating heart, and breath that came and went sharply, she strolled along. At last the edge of the forest was reached. Under the shadow of the great trees passed the woman and the cow. Soon they were deep in the forest, shut from all eyes. Then there was no more need of pretence. Leaving her cow to find its way home as best it might, Laura ran. On and on she went, panting, breathless, gasping, now stopping a moment to rest, now hurrying on again, startled by a rustle in the bushes, trembling at the howl of some wild animal.
A walk of twenty miles along a level, well-made road may not seem a great task for a strong woman used to a country life. But to go twenty miles through pathless forest, over bridgeless streams, through mire and swamp, haunted every moment by the fear of discovery, needed all the strength and all the courage of a right brave woman.
"Driving a cow before her, Laura Secord passed the American sentries."
Hour by hour Laura walked, and ran, and scrambled onward. The sun rose high, and sank again, and the moon shone out ere she reached her journey's end. Then, just as she thought that her labour was over, Red Men rushed out upon her from behind a tree, and barred her path. For a moment it seemed to Laura that her pain and toil had been of no use, and that a death of torture was to be her fate. Then joyfully she saw that the Indians were friendly. In a few minutes she was led before Fitzgibbon.
Quickly Laura's story was told, and as the soldier listened, he bowed in reverence before the brave lady. Then with glowing words of thanks and praise ringing in her ears, Laura was led away to a farmhouse near to rest.
Quickly Fitzgibbon made his plans. First he sent a messenger hurrying towards Twelve Mile Creek to ask for help. Then he ordered his Indians to scatter through the wood, and watch for the approach of the enemy.
The night passed quietly, but as the day dawned, the gleam of steel was seen, the tramp of men heard. As the Americans came on, the Indians, yelling horribly, fired upon them from all sides. They made so much noise, they fired with such deadly sureness, keeping out of sight all the time, that the Americans believed that there were hundreds against them. For two hours the fight against an unseen foe lasted. Then the Americans began to waver. Their leader was uncertain what to do. Believing himself surrounded, he hesitated whether to go on or to go back. At this moment Fitzgibbon, at the head of his thirty redcoats, appeared bearing a flag of truce. The firing ceased, and after a few minutes' parley the American commander gave in.
Fitzgibbon had hardly expected to succeed so easily. Now he scarcely knew what to do. How could thirty soldiers and a few savages guard five hundred prisoners? But soon two hundred men arrived from Twelve Mile Creek, and his difficulties were at an end.
Canada did not forget Laura Secord and her brave deed. Nor did Britain forget her. Years later, when King Edward, then Prince of Wales, visited Canada, he found time, in the midst of balls and parties, to go to see an old woman, and hear from her own lips how, when she was young, she had carried a message through wood and wilderness to save her country from defeat.