NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ontario — You can see the United States from here, over there across the raging Niagara River. But even if you couldn’t, you could be sure that hardly anyone over there is making much of this week’s bicentenary of an event that shattered this town, sowed bitterness that persisted for generations and shaped an entire continent.
Two centuries ago Tuesday, the American troops who had occupied this small community for seven months abandoned their snowy redoubt in a region then called Upper Canada, leaving the town — by that time occupied almost exclusively by women, the men having left to serve in the British army or in various militia — in flames and smoke. The War of 1812 produced several moments of unfettered brutality, none except perhaps for the burning of Washington, D.C., as piteous as this one.
On Dec. 10, 1813, the residents of this area — a Loyalist village, in American eyes — stood calf-deep in snow in a ruthless chill and watched their homes, shops, churches and schools lie smoldering in ruin, all their possessions, their clothes, their memories consumed by fire. It may have been this cruelty on the Niagara that prompted the British the following year to exercise no restraint in attacking Buffalo and other western New York communities, in filibustering throughout the American frontier and in burning the American capital.
At the distance of two centuries, confrontations like the War of 1812, itself a sideshow to the Napoleonic Wars, seem like quaint artifacts of another time, the hardships somehow more fabled than fearful, the human costs more anecdotal than actual.
Today, for Americans, the burning of the White House in August 1814 is a mere curiosity, an aside during tours of the executive mansion, little more. As for the victims of the earlier torching in what we now call Ontario, they are a historical trifle, bit players in someone else’s story.