** American history -- War of 1812

War of 1812 (1812-15)

Figure 1.--This is a modern recreation of the British burning the White House in 1814. The artist has pictured slaves watching the burning from the Octagon House. The whole affair was for years depicted as wanton British destruction. Actually the burning was retaliation for the earlier American burning of government buildings in York, Ontario, now part of Toronto. The British only burned public buildings in Washington like the Capitol and White House. Artist: Peter Wadell.

The War of 1812 is the war between America and Britain during 1812-15. The War of 1812 to most Europeans meant the invasion of Russia by Napoleon's Grand Army. To Americans it means the war with Britain, but the unminity ends there. Some see as awar whch settled nothing. Others see it as America's second war of independence. The War was indeed influenced by the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. The War of 1812, however, was primarily the outgrowth of domestic issues. The primary international issue was the impressment of American sailors by the Royal Navy. Both the British and French impressed American saiolors, The impressments grew out of the war between France and England than act aimed at the Americans. After Trafalgur (1805), it was the Royal Navy that was primarily responsible. President Jefferson hoped the Embargo Act (1807) would end this, but the Act adversely affected the American economy and had little impact on the British. While impressment was important, it was probably British actions on the frontier, especially the North west Territory that was the major cause of the War. Amerucans moving west wamted land. This could only be obtained from the Indians. And the British were supporting Indian tribes as part of a policy to hold Amerucans in check. The War Hawks and moderates debated war and finally the War Hawks gained the upperhand in Congress. President Madison asked Congress to declare war. Congress declared war (June 1812). The principal American action was an effort to seize Canada. The British adopred a three front strategy. In studying the situation, the Duke of Wellington advised operations along the coast that could be supported by the Royal Navy or at least along waterways. Welingtom was mindful that Britain during the Revolution lost two field armies when they were cut off from the Royal Navy.

Treaty of Paris (1783)

Cornwallis' surrebder at Yorktown ended the military phase of the Revolutionary War (October 1781). Britain had lost two entire field armies and was unwilling to continue the War. Just what the political settlement would be and the boundaries would be, however, was still unsettled. The western boundary in particular was at issue because they had never been clearly drawn even before the Revolution. The British at first wanted a settlement that would have provided a degree of autonomy, but left the colonies within the Empire. This could have prevented the colonists, but after the Revolutionary War was no longer acceptable. The British made a secret offer of autonomy to Benjamin Franklin in Paris (April 1782). Franklin rejected the British peace feelers insisting that Britain fully recognize American independence. Franlkin also rejected the idea of a separate peace. America had not fought the British alone. The French and Spanish had joined America and the French in particular had played a major role in the War. The Continental Congress appointed John Adams and John Jay as peace commissioners to assist Franlkin in the neogtiations. Formal negotiations with all beligerant countries opened in Paris (September 27). The final treaty was very favorable to the Ameeicans. They did not acquire Canada, but they got all the formerly British territory west to the Mississpi River. This proved to be a nobe of contention after the War because the British were not anxious ro turn over forts in the Northwest Territory.

Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815)

France after the Revolution (1789) found itself at war with much of Europe. The Revolutionary Wars merged in to the Napoleonic Wars. Much of the land fighting had Austria and Russia at it core. Napoleon's victories over time forced these powers to seek peace with Napoleon. Protected by the Channel, Britain was the one country Napoleon could not come to grips with. From 1793 with only a brief interlude, Britain and France were at war until 1815. The Napoleonic Wars included naval wars between Britain and France. Both countries struggled for supremecy and one aspect of this was the difficulty in recruting men to man the ships. The British resorted to bress gangs at home, Both countries impressed American silors from merchant vessels stopped at sea. After Trafalgur (1805), the Channel became an unsurmountable obstacle for Napoleon.

French North American Objectives

Napoleon never had a clearly conveived objective. Most of the Napoleonic Wars were declared by the other European powers, not by Napoleon. He was a French patriot and one objective was to recover the French Empire lost in the Seven Years War (1756-63) to Britain. This meant North America. After invading Spain, he was able to regain Louisana which had been ceeded to Spain (1763). The first step was to dispath an army to Haiti and defeat a slave rebellion there. Next the army would be moved to Louisiana. It is not clear what Napoleon would have done with an army there. Both the United States British Canada would have been potential targets. Napoleons plans, whatever they had been were undone in Haiti. A combination of the Haitian rebels and tropical diseases decimated the sizeable French army. This caused Napoleon to reconsider his Americams plans. One factor on his mind was that the Royal Navy might be able to seize New Orleans and with it all of Louisiana. French jurisdiction over Louisana was unsettling in America. The Federalists were especially concerned with Frech radicals, but even for the more French orinented Republicans led by Jefferson who won the presidency (1800), French control of Louisiana was disturbing. A militarized France dominant in Europe was itself a threat. And if France was deefeated, the British might acquire Louisana in the peace settlement as they acquired Canada. Either alternative was a threat. President Jefferson was especially interested in gaining control of New Orleans which could have blocked the production of America's western territories from reavhing marlets. In need of cash for his constant wars, the purchase offer of the United States proved very tempting. And Louisana without New Orleans was worthless to Napoleon. Not since King Charles the second of England had signed the Charter of Hudson's Bay Company had such a huge territory changed hands in North America by peaceful means. For the price of fifteen million dollars, the Americans bought a territory stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada, from the Mississippi to the Rockies. Here was a land area, approximately one third the size of the present United States, which in time was to be divided into new vigorous states. In 1803, the purchase of the Louisiana Territory actually doubled the size of the United States.

Louisiana Purchase (1803)

Some historians argue that the Louisana Purchase was the single modst important event in American history. [Kukla] The Lousiana Purchase alone would have made Thomas Jefferson one of the great American presidents. Fremch and American diplomats signed the Louisiana Purchase Treaty (April 12, 1803). Jefferson, by a stoke of the pen, he doubled the size of the country, made America a tans-connitental power, and radically changed the economics of the West by providing an outlet for the ecomic production of Western farmers. The price was relatively modest, abour $24 million. Spain in an effort to restrict American expansion had closed the Missisippi River to Americans. This effectively closed the only realistic route for Western farmers to market their produce--an huge economic limitation. Once France acquited Louisana, America sought to buy New Orleans. French control of the interior was infeasible without New Orleans and thus Napoleon decided to sell all of Louisana. The Frnch may have had larger designs, but the French suffered such loses in Haiti fighting Toussaint l'Overture that the resources were not available for Louisiana. Napoleon was not sure he could hold Louisana if the British attacked and needed monet for his operatioins against the British. America was concerned about the long border with a powerful European country. Purchase removed the potential danger. Jefferson'd purchase forvere changed America. The United States entered the 19th century surrounded by the great European powers, England, France, and Spain. Americans still clung precariously to the Eastern seaboard. Very few Americans had crossed the Alleganies into the West. Ohio, Illonois, and Indiana were still contolled by Native Americans, secretly supported by the Briish. Other Native American tribes still controlled much of Alababa and Mississppi. Jefferson by purchasing Louisana removed a major impediment to American expansion and changed a struggling republic which few Euopeand even thought would survivre into a potential new world power. [Kukla]

British American Relations

The United States and Great Britain were at peave after the Revolutionary War (1775-83). That does not mean that relations were friendly. It was widely believed in Britain that monarchy was the only workable gverment for a large country. The British believed that the when the end of the Revolutionary War, the american colonies would separate and that most if not all would eventully see the wisdom of union with Britain. For a while under the Articles of Confederation, it looked like this might happen. Many Americans for their part continued to resent the Britih. Some believed that all of British North America should have been included in the new Republic and still hoped to add Canada to the United States. Other Americans resented British support of Native Americans on the Western frontier. Some British officials hoped to hem in the United States by supporting Native Americans. This impaired the American movement west which was a primary concern of the American nation in the early 19th century. Some Americans were also disturbed by Britain's seeming unwillingness to sign acceptable commercial agreements.

Strategic Assessment

Americans at the time were intent on free commerce and acquiring Canada. These two issues dominted the American debate on declafing war. The Royal Navy was seen as a threat. Americans seem titally uncomcerned about what a French victory woukd have mdant in the Napoleonic War. French domination of the Continent of course woukd have meant that France woukd have had the power to project power actoss the Atlantic. But this seems gti have escaped Americans at the time.


The War of 1812 is the war between America and Britain during 1812-15. The War of 1812 to most Europeans meant the invasion of Russia by Napoleon's Grand Army. To Americans it means the war with Britain, a kind of second revolutionary war. The War was indeed influenced by the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. The War of 1812, however, was primarily the outgrowth of domestic issues. The principal international issue was the impressment of American sailors by the Royal Navy and related trade restictions. Both the British and French impressed American sailors. In fact American came close to war with France over the impressment issue. The impressments grew out of the war between France and England rather than an act aimed at the Americans. After Trafalgur (1805), it was the Royal Navy that was primarily responsible. The British war measure "The Orders in Council" authorized the Royal Navy to stop foreign vessels to search for deserters. When seamen suspected of being deserters were found, they were pressed into British service. There were British deserters on American vessels. Many British sailors were press-ganged into service and working conditions were brutal. Both pay and working conditions were much better on American ships. Thus many British sailors deserted to work on American ships. The British saw this as a necessary act of war. The Americans as an affront to the country and a lawless act akin to enslavement. As the British badly needed men, there is no doubt that Americans who had never served in the Royal Navy were impressed. Public outrage culminated in the Chesapeake affair (1807). nt. The Royal Navy frigate Leopard fired on the American warship Chesapeake which refused commands to stop. The British raked her decks with broadsides, killing 3 men and wounding 18 more. The British then boarded Chesapeake and seized 5 men who they claimed were deserters. It was later determined that only one of the men was a Royal Navy deserter. The Chesapeake Affair came close to war, but Jefferson resisted thec calls for war. Napoleon after Trafalgur sought to attack the British with a trade blockade--the Continental System. The British responded with a naval blockade. Napoleon's Continental System required Russia, Prussia, Austria, and other Europeans under Napoleons control or influence to cease trading with Britain. The loss of European trade adversely affected the United States. This varied regionally. The northeastern states werecable to accept the situation because of the valuable trade with Britain. The southern states were more adversely affected. President Jefferson hoped the Embargo Act (1807) would end both trade issuyes and continued impressment incidents. The Act prohibiting any ship from leaving American ports for any foreign destination. It soon became apparent, however, that the Act adversely affected the American economy and had little impact on the British. American trade was devestated. Some tried to evade it by prtending to sail to other American ports and then meet British ships at sea and transboard the cargo. In some cases entire ships were handed over. The Act was so unpopular un Anerica that Congress repealed it (1809). While impressment was important, it was probably British actions on the frontier, especially the North west Territory that was the major cause of the War. Americans moving west wamted land. This could only be obtained from the Indians. And the British were suppirting Indian tribes as part of a policy to hold Americans in check.

Madison and the The War Hawks

James Madison was elected president (1808). While respected, he did not have the prestige of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson. He was perhaps the most contemplative of Amrican presidents and pressured by the War Hawks to declare war, he would be the first president to seek a declaration of war. [Howard] The election of 1808 ushered in an era of Cogressional government that dominated the 19th century, with two noticeanle excetions (Jackson and Lincoln). The Congressional election of 1810 was a substantial shift in generations. Several older Comgressmen of the Revolutionary era were replaced by younger more nationalistic and less cautious men. Western representation was becoming more important. Many of these new Congressmen wre outraged with British actions on the highseas as well as support for native Americans on the Western and southern frontier. Many also thought that Canada by rights should be part of the United States. This new generation became known as the War Hawks and became the dominant faction in Congress. They would dominate American affairs until the Civil War. Their leaders included Henry Clay (Kentucky) and and John C. Calhoun (South Carolina). And they made it clear that Madison to achieve a second term, he would have to support their war policies.

Native Americans

America and Britain were not the only two nations involved in the War of 1812. Native Americans were also involved, although there was no unity among the different tribes. Native Americans had been among the groups more adversely affected by the American victory in the Revolution. Americans had during and immediately following the Revolutionary War driven Native Americans out of Kentucky and across the Ohio River into the Ohio Territory. In the early 19th century Americans began moving down the Ohio River into Ohio itself. Here they came into conflict with Native Americas resisting ebcroachmebts on their lands. A series of generally localized incidents occurred involving quarrels, kidnappings, murders, scalpings, thefts, and raids. Native Americans had some fire arms. American settlers were convinced that they were being armed by the British in Canada. Here I am not sure of the British policies and the extent to which they back the tribes. The British were slow to withdraw from American territory along the Great Lakes as required by the Treaty of Paris. Some British officials saw Native Americans as a way of impeding America's westward expansion. Most historians believe that the settler charges of British support for Native American tribes were widely exagerated. The Americans by the 1810s had dricen Native Americans out of the Ohio Territory and into Indian Territory (Indiana). There is no doubt that Native Americans understandably desired to defend their land. And they did obtain some firearms through trade from the British. And one of the great Native American leaders rose at this time who attempted to unify the tribes--Tecumseh. He was a Shawnee chief and he attempted to form a condederation to resist the American settlement. Tecumseh traveled widely in the Mississippi valley as far south as Tennessee. He argued, pleaded, exorted, and demanded support in fighting the Americans. He was a gifted orator, but his goal of unifying tribes that were more acustomed to fighting than cooperating with each other was a challenging task. Another problem was that tribes not yet challengedby settlers were often unwilling to go to war to support the tibes that were challenged. Tecumseh's half brother was not an imposing warrior, but he gained a considerable following as a medicine man and became known as the Prophet. He taught that Native Amercans should reject white customs and return to their traditional ways. Tecumseh and the Prophet became a powerful force on the western frontier. The conflict came to a head it what was known as Indian Territory--modern Indiana. Settlers claimed to have purchased 3 million acres in Undian Territory. There were a number of instances like this when small sums were paid to Native Americans who usually did not have authority to see land held by a tribe and not individual Native Americans. Tecumseh demanded the labd be returned, "These lands are ours, and no one has the right to remove us, because we were the first land owners; the Great Spirit above has appointed this place for us on which to light fires, and here we will remain. As to the boundaries, the Great Spirit above knows no boundaries, nor will his red people know any ... If my great father, the President of the Seventeen Fires, has anything more to say to me, he must send a man of note as his messenger ..." Warrior from many tribes gathered at Prophet's town on the Tippecanoe River. Governor William Henry Harrison of the Indiana Territory became concerned with Tecumseh's growing strength and several ugly incidents. He assembled a force of militiamen and called for Federal troops. He marched 1,000 mn toward the Prophet's town (1811). Upon pproachin the town, arrangements were made for a council. The Prophet decided to attack Harrison's force at night, hpoing to catch them sleeping. The resulting battle came to be known as the Battle of Tippecanoe and earned Harrison the nickname 'Tippicanoe' and reputation as an Indian fighter. Despite the surprise attack, the Americans decisively defeated the Prophet. The surviving Native Americans fled and Harison torched the town. Tecumseh was in the south and was shockked when he learned what happened. He was not only angry with the Americans, but with his brother for such an illconceived attack. The American victory made it difficult to convince wavering tribes to join the confederation and the warriors who had joined were now dispersed. Tecumseh with a small group of followers, left the Indiana territory and crossed the Detroit River to the Canadian side and joined the British at Amherstburg (June 1812). This was hardly the army that he had hoped to assessmble for war with the Americans. Further west, the British-armed Sauk and Fox Meskwaki warriors represented the principal military threat to the American settlements in the Missouri and Illinois Territories.

Movement Toward War

The War Hawks became a powerful force in Congress and came to dominate the national debate. They soon were demandung war with Britain and an invasion of Canada (Fall 1811). Henry Clay became a strident spokesman for war. Setting the issues aside, it seems difficult to understand how men like Clay with no real military knowledge could just assume that America would prevail with little difficulty against a major world power like Britain. We are not sure why Clay and the War Hawks were so sure of Amrica's military prowess. His statements t the time seem to us today as nothing short of reckless, "Clay was so confident of an easy victory in a strike across the border that he said, "I trust I shall not be presumptuous when I state that I verily believe that the militia of Kentucky alone are competent to place Montreal and Upper Canada at your feet." He estimated that it would take the American troops no more than four weeks to overrun and hold the important regions of British North America." Apparently the War Hawks were basingbtheir assessments on the small British force in Canada. Britain's involvement in Europe may have also been a factor. The potenial importance of the Royal Navy seems to have been discounted.

Opposition to War

The War Hawks generated considerable enthusiasm for the War. The United States was not, however, a united nation on the subject of war. Ironically, there was considerable opposition to the war in New England. New England, especially Massachusetts, had been the seedbed of the Revolution and independence. Yet only a few decades later, New Englanders wanted no part of another war with Britain. Here the issue of western expansion was of less interest and the economy relied heavily on trade with Britain. Few volunteers would come from New England and there was opposition to expenditures for the War. And some merchants even sold supplies to the British. One of the most prominent voices on Congress oposing the war was Senator Daniel Webster. Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin worked to prevent war.

Opposing Forces

Neither side was prepared for war. The United States did not have a substanbtil army or one that was well armed and with bsttle experience. Congress ordered the creation of a volunteer army of 50,000 men (Februry 1812). Conress did not, however, pass the funding to properly equip and maintain this army. Not only was the army poorly armed, but despite plans to invade Canada, the army was not properly supplied with winter uniforms. At the time the United States declared war the country had a regular army of about 7,000 men. Not only was the Army small, but the officer corps was probably the most incompetent in American history. Senior officers tended to be old and junior officers had little or no experiece. Not only did Congress fail to properly equip the Army, but it actually rejected a bill to expand the Navy despite voting for a war pitting the pitifully small American Navy (21 ships) with the Royal Navy--the world's most formidable naval power. The British in sharp contrast to the Amerucans had aubstabtial military with a great deal of battle experience. In cotrast to a pitifully small navy and amateuyr army, the British had one of the stroingest most professional military in the world. Only it was in Europe and occupied with fighing Napoleon. The British at the time the United States declared war had only a small force in Canada with limited military stores. The British had 4,450 men to defend the 1,000 mile border between Canada and the United States. The British did have, however, a competent commander, General Isaac Brock. The British had been fighting the French since 1793. Thus the old, incompetent officers had for the most part been weeded out and both men and officers had a great deal of experience. And the British had a very large, experienced army in Europe. The question became how quickly the British could spare the men from the fighting with Napoleon and where they would be deployed. Canada also had a very small population and a much smaller economy to support a war effort. The British at the onset of war were also unsure about the loyalty of French Canadians. The principal local support came from Native Americans.

Battlefield Conditions

The War of 1812 was fought all over the United States. Roads even in settled areas were very poor. In frontier areas they were virtually non-existeant. As a result, rivers and lakes played a major role in defining the battlefield. Along the coast, naval support became critical and of course here Britain with its emense Royal Navy had an unsurmoutable advantage. The Basic problem for the British was a lack of suitable targets. War in America was very different from a conventional European war. America as in the Revolutionary War was a very rural area. Most people lived on largely self-suficent farms. The British could seize and burn the capital, which they did, but it woukd have little impact on the population/ The one target that would have a major impact was New Orleans, but irinically the British did not get around attacking New Orleans until after the War was over.

British Repeal of the Orders in Council (June 1812)

American diplomats strongly protested British actions against American shipping and the impresment of Ameican and other sailors authorized by the Orders in Council (1807). The British finally decided to end the practice. Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Lord Castlereagh told parliament that the Orders in Council would be Suspsanded (June 16, 1812). News of the announcement would take weeks to reach the United States. Lord Liverpool who headed a new British Government formallly repreived the Orders in Council (June 23). Lord Liverpool did not learn until weeks later that the United States had declared war (July 29).

American Declaration of War (June 1812)

The impetus for war came from Congress, not President Madison. Congress repealed The Embargo Act (1809), before Madison was inagurated. The Act had severely damaged the American economy. Congress tried a novel response to Nritish and French actions against american shipping. Congress authorized trade with both Britain and France, but authorized the President, if either would accept America's neutral rights, to prohibit trade with the other (May 1810). Napoleon with a weak navy had little to lose. He pretended to accept American views in neutral rights. Thus President Madison proclaimed non-intercourse with Britain (late 1810). The War Hawks (Clay, Calhoun, and others) demanded the President persue a more forceful foreign policy. Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin attempted to use tariff policy to prevent war preparations. The War Hawks and moderates debated war and finally the War Hawks gained the upperhand in Congress. Madison who was not enthusiatic about war with Britain finally gave in to Congressional pressure. Clay threatened to work against the President's second nomination. Congress in the 19th century was with few exceptions the dominant branch of government. Presidents Washington, Adams, and Jefferson had all opposed cries for war against Britain and France. Madison finally gave into the demands for war, despite the danger to the fledgling nation. Madison asked Congress to declare war (June 1, 1982). (Under the Consitution, Congress has the power to declare war, but only after receiving a presidential request.) Congress after heated debate passed the war resolution (June 18, 1812). Ironically, Britain revoked the restrictions on American commerce (June 23). This had been one of the issues that led to war, but the British action came too late to prevent war.

Presidential Election of 1812 (November 1812)

The 1812 presidential election was tied up with the War of 1812. Leading Democratic-Republicahs in Congress were demanding war with Britain. They became known as the War Hawks. They made it clear to Presidebt Madison that his reenomination would require submitting a war message to Congress. It was America's first war time presidential election. The election began the tradition of reelecting presidents in time of war, although some presidents have been forced not to run for reelection (Truman and Johnson). The weakened Federalist Party decided to support a disident Democratic-Republican--Mayor Dewitt Clinton of New York City. Clinton criticiaed Madison for both declaring war and for not fighting the war hard enough. He also raised the regional issue of another term for a Virginian president. The Federalists achieved their best showing since the "1800 Revolution", but President Madison easily won reelection. And while Clinton carried some major states (New York and New Jersey), Madison carried all of the West and South as well the developing mid-West, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Clinton carried the Northeast. He ammased 128 electoral votes as opposed to Clinton's 89. The Federalists picked up some Congressional seats, most from the northeat which was adversely affected by the war after even a few months.

President Madison

Of all of America's war presidents, Madison was surely the most reluctant. It was the War Hawks in Congress that pressed for war, not President Madison. Madison was not the first president to wage war. He was the first president to ask Congress for an official declaration of war. President Washington fought the French in the French and Indian War and the British in the Revolutinary War. This of course was before he was president. President Adams waged war on the French in the Quasi War. President Jefferson waged war on the Barbary Pirates. Ironically, it ws the Frigates the Federalist has insisted on building and the Democrati-Republicans opposed that both Jefferson and Madison would use to fight their wars. Madison was a brilliant scholar who gave much to the fledgling United States. War leadership would not prove to be his strong suit. Rather the President looked to advisers and commnanders, many of whom were equally unpreapared for war leadership. Many proived to be simply incompetent syncophants, Others prived to be reckless. Firtunarely a few commanders rose to the fore. [Fitz-Enz] The American armies that went into battle were not well prepared or equipped. It was the Federalist Frifgates that were America's stringest weapons. Part of the reason for this ws the Democratic-Republicans were fearful of standing armies. They beieved that a democratic republic should rely on a citizen's militia to fight its wars.

Madison's War Strategu

At first glance, war with briatin seemed like a Quitoxic venture. Brtitain had a huge, pwerful navuy and am experinced trained army. Amrerica had only a handful of naval vessels and an incredably small, poorly equipped army. The realiamce was on a citizen militia. Madison was not an idiot, although he did have the rebulican bias against a large standing, professional army. He did gave a rational war plan. First and more imprtantly, he knew that Napoleion was assemnbling a huge army and preparing to invade Russia. And he thought like much of the rest of Europoe that he would succeed. And this would mean that Britain could not afford to deploy a major army in North Ametica. Second, the British had a very small force in Canada, leaving it largely undefended. Third, while Madison did not expect much from the small, fledging U.S. Navy, he di think privateers would wrek havoc with British commerce. The obvious flaw In this thinking was that if Nzpoldeon did succeed in Russia, hust what was going to protect America from Napoleon. It was nmot understood that Napoleon before selling Lousiana to America (1803), was planning to create a North American Empire.

Initial British Response

The initial British action was restrained. They were not sure if this was a protest or if America actually had decided to fight a war. The Government was suprised that a small, militarily weak country, with a miniscule navy would attack Britain. The British were focused on the War with Napoleon and the need to crew their vessels and did not take the americands seriously. The first British response was meerly to order its ships to sail in convoy and prevent American ships in British ports from leaving (July 31). It took even longer for President Madison to learn of the British repeal of the Orders in Council. He learned (August 12). He could have asked Comgress to halt hostilities, but declined to do so, primarily because of the strident support for the War in Congress. Also he had no information on how the British were going to respond to the declaration of war. [Vogel, pp. 20-32.]

Military Engagements

The British had no interest in a war with America at the time beiung heavily engafed in Europe in operations against Napoleon. The War Hawks were very much intent on fighting a war and had no idea how unprepared they were to fight a country yjat had been waging war for 20 years. The War of 1812 was fought from June 1812 to the spring of 1815, although the Treaty of Ghent ending the war was signed before the final battle in New Orleans (December 1814). The main land fighting of the war occurred along the Canadian border, in the Chesapeake Bay region, and along the Gulf of Mexico. There were a widec trange of small actions in various locationd. There was also extensive actions at sea.

American Invasion of Canada (1812-13)

The principal American land action of the War was an effort to seize Canada. As during the Revolutionary War, Americans labored under the impression that the Canadians were anxious to throw off British rule. This was the initial campaign of the War, the campaign the War Hawks were anxious to launch. At the time the British Army was in Europe fighting Napoleon. Only a small force was deployed to protect Canada. The American invasion plan called for a complicated three-pronged offensive which was beyond the capability of American commanders to coordinate and execute and worse dispersed the American force. The three prongs included: 1) an eastern prog from Lake Champlain to Montreal; 2) a central prong across the Niagara frontier; and 3) and a western prong into Upper Canada from Detroit. Clay's assessment of an easy American victory soon proved to be an illusion. In the east the American force moving north along Lake Champlain the American forces withdrew as winter weather closed in without any major contact (November 1812). The center prong at Niagara had to turn back when the British prevailed at Queenston (October 1812). The western prong faired even worse. Gen. William Hull had surrender Detroit to the British (August 1812). The U.S. Army and militia were clearly unprepared for war and the initial engagements were not with the hardened, experienced and well-armed troops that the British would soon be shifted from Europe as the threat posed by Napoleon receeded.

Naval Engagements

The one bright spot for the Americans was the performance of the fledgeling United States Navy. The British victory at Trafalgar (1805) was so overwealing that few in America thought America could challenge the Royal Navy. It would assume that America could easily conquer Canada in a land invasion, but a war at sea would be hopless. President Madison was about to lay up the American frigates when some of the captains met with him and convinced him to let them sail. The Royal Navy was shocked when American frigates won a series of single-ship engagements with British frigates. This was in part because American frigates were designed as slightly larger vessels. The Admiralty had to eventually issue the embarassing order to its frigate captains that they should refuse to give battle in single ship engagements. The captains and crew of the frigates Constitution and United States were lauded as herps. The U.S. Navy was very small, however, and no match for the Royal Navy. The British thus gradually were able to effectively blockade the major American ports making it impossible for the American figates to sail. While the American frigates lifted the morale of the American public, it was privateers that had aeal impact on the British. American privateers harassed British shipping, seizung large numbers of merchant vessels and driving up insurance rates. The United States had a very long coasline. And while the Royal Navy effectively botteled up the American figates, it did not have the capability of blockading every small port. Thus large numbers of privateers continued to defy the Royal Navy. The Royal Navy did, however, cut off American trade with Europe and the Caribbean and had a serious impact on the American economy. It drove New England to consider secession and would have bankrupted the Federal Government if the War had continued another year. (Import duties were the Federal Government's principal source of incomd.) The Royal Navy also gave the British the ability to stike at will anywhere along the coast. A force landed in Chesapeake Bay burned Washington. A force landed near New Orleans, howver, was decimated by the Americans. The Amerucan Navy pplayed an important rike in these victoiries. [Daughan]

Congressional Mid-term Election (1814)

The 1814 campaign was the first American election held during a major war--the War of 1812. The main issue in the election of 1814 was the War with Britain. The United States had been led into the War by the War Hawks, a faction of the Democratic-Republicans. President Madison had acceeded to their calls for war in large measure to secure his renomination. The same Democratic-Republicas refused to approve the appropriations needed to prepare for War or build a professional military. The War Hawks blithely felt that war could be waged by militias without major expendutures to train or arm them. The American invasion of Canada failed, but the frigates of the small American Navy performed brilliantly. This was the same Navy that the Federalists had built and the Democratic Republicans had strongly opposed. The War by 1814 had caused severe economic dislocations in the United States. America was still a largely agricultural country, but trade and maritime commerce was important, especilly in the Northeast. The Royal Navy had closed off all major ports, except in New England hoping to create division. After the 1814 voting was over, the British as part of their Cheaspeake campaign burned Washington (August 1814). Despite the very real failures in the War, the Democratic-Republicans were not punished by the voters. They actually gained 5 House seats.

Hartford Convention (1814-15)

New England with an economy based on trade and maritime commerce was especially hard hit by the Royal Navy blockade. New England opponents of the war were discussing separation from the American Republic. The Harford Convention met in Connecticut (December 1814 and January 1815). The delegates stopped short of declaring separation, but suggested constitutional amendments to restrict Federal power. Had the War not ended in earky 1815, discintent in New England might have become a much more serious problem.

British War Strategy (1814-15)

The British were heavily engaged in Europe during the first 2 uears of the War. This changes as a result of defeats suffered by Napoleon. The British had been committed in Europe to fighting Napoleon. The Russian destruction of Napoleon's Grand Army (October-December 1812) changed the military picture in Europe. Napoleon suffered grevious losses in Germany (1813) and was forced to surender and exiled to Elba (1814). This allowed the British to deply military forces to North America, both seasoned army regulars and more of the Royal Navy. The small Americn Army and poorly trained militias thus faced seaoned British regulars. The British adopted a three front strategy. In studying the situation, the Duke of Wellington advised operations along the coast that could be supported by the Royal Navy or at least along waterways. Welingtom was mindful that Britain during the Revolution lost two field armies when they were cut off from the Royal Navy. The British war plan entailed three fronts. First was in the north. This was an attack in northern New York along Lake Champlain and the Hudson River. The objectivec was sever restive New England from the rest of the country. Second was a central offensive in the Chesapeake Bay where the Royal Navy could support the operation. This was seen as a largely diversionary maneuver. Third was a southern attack at New Orleans to block the Mississippi. The British hoped that success would force the United states to make ajor territorial concessions in a peace treaty. The situation for the United States was precarious. The regular U.S. Army was very small and the miltia which would be relied on to fight the War, poorly armed and largely untrained. In addition, the Federal Government which had to finabce the War relied on import duries for revenue. As a result, the Federal Government was basically insolvent as a result of the Royal Navy blockade.

Northern offence

The British assembeled a well-equipped professional army in Canada near Plattsburg, New York. Their plan was essentially a repeat of the Revolutionary War offensive commande by Gerneral John Burgoyne to split America in two. About 10,000 British regulars advanced into the United States from Montreal. The American army and militia could not have stopped them. There was no substantial force to oppose them all the way to New York City, but a great deal of backwoods terruitory. Somehow a naval victory intervened. Captain Thomas MacDonough won the naval battle of Lake Champlain (Plattsburg Bay), destroying a superior the British fleet (September 11, 1814). The unexpected naval victory on Lake Champlain, however, meant that the British would have had trouble supplying their army as it drove south. Roads in the backwood were almost not existent. The British commander would have been all too aware of what gappened to Burgoyne's army during the Revolutionary War.

Central offense

The British used the Royal Navy to launch a central campaign with the objective of seizing Baltimore, a major port at the time. It also gave them the opportunity to attack Washington. One historian writes, "August 24, 1814, began as a typical summer day in Washington: bright and cloudless, promising heat and humidity as the day wore on. For years, James Madisin, the president, had fled high summer in Washington and other loy-lying cities for the chealthier air of his inland home in the Virginia Piedmont. But this August his presence was required in the capital. America had been at war with Britain for two years. Mr. Madison's War--he had asked Congress to declare it--had been fought along the Canadian border; against Indians on the frontier; on the high seas. Now the war was coming home." [Brookhiser] American resistance to the diversionary attack was embarassingly weak. Most of the American Army was in the north along the Canadian border. When Red Coats advanced on the militia at Bladensburg, they broke and ran (August 24). The British then marched into Washington, D.C. and burned most of the public buildings. Privste property was fgor the modt part left intouched, President Madison had to flee into the countryside. Dolly save the invaluavle portrait of George Washington. The British then began the attack on Baltimore, their principal objective. Here For McHenry survived an intense naval bombardment. Lawyer Francis Scott Key on a British ship penned the "Star-Spangled Banner". The major outcome of the fighting around Baltimore and Washingtom was to convince the Democratic Republicans that America needed a professional army. Jefferson and other Republicans were afraid of a professional army and navy. They tried to prevent the creation of a navy and for an army wanted to rely primarily on civilian militias. The Battle of Bladensburg showed that militias could not be relied upon to confront bprofessiinal military forces. As President, Jefferson had signed legislation establishing the United States Military Academy (1802). It was not until the War Of 1812, however, that Colonel Sylvanus Thayer, the 'father of the Military Academy' began go turn West Point into a serious military training institution.

Southern offense

A simple look at the map revealed America's greatest weakness--New Orleans. There were no roads across the Apalschins enabled Western farners to economically ship their harvests to market. The output of the entite Mississippi Basin, including Wesrern Pennsylvania and Ohio had to be shipped down the Mississppi to the port of New Orleans. Without possession of the port, the entire Western economy would collapse. Thus a large British flotilla with a cohort of experienced and well-armed infantry was ordered to seize the port. Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane commanded the naval flotilla of more than 50 ships transporting 10,000 veteran troops from Jamaica. The infantry force was led by Sir Edward Pakenham, the 37-year-old brother-in-law of the Duke of Wellington and a respected and decorated officer. Col. Andrew Jackson with a handfull of poorly armed regulars was ordered to New Orleans to defend the port. He would have to rely in local militias which had not performed well in other engagements with British regulars. The result was perhaps the most iconic battle in American history and one virtually unknown in Britain--at least until Johnny Horton's song, 'The Battle of New Orlans' hit the popular charts there. The Battle was fought south of the city on the Chalmette Plantation along the Mississippi River Channel. Jackson's great victory saved New Orleans for the United States. Largely unhealed was the role of the U.S. Navy in Jackson's victory. [Daughan] The Battle was fought, however, after the war was over. We are not entirely sure, however, that the British would have given it back if they had won the battle.

Fiscal Policy

Treasury Secretary Galation hoped to finance the War using the First Bank of the United States. The Bank was a national bank, sort of a precursor to the Federal Resetve chartered for a term of 20 years, by the United States Congress (1791). Unfortunatly the Congress did not renew the Bank charter (1811). Galatian had to plead with wealthy Americans like fur tycoon John Philip Astor to loan the Government money. The War caused major financial defaults. With the Bank of the United States gone, private banks charted by the states printed massive quantities of paper money. (The Fedral Government at the time did not print a paper currency. The banks used thoir notes to buy the Federal government bonds used to finance the war. Most of the banks which didn't take part in the note printing frenzy were those located in New England, where the War was not popular. When the participating banks began to fail the U.S. Federal government as ell as state governments (outside New England) decided to aid the banks. "As the banks all faced failure, the governments, in August 1814, permitted all of them to suspend specie payments -- that is, to stop all redemption of notes and deposits in gold or silver -- and yet to continue in operation. In short, in one of the most flagrant violations of property rights in American history, the banks were permitted to waive their contractual obligations to pay in specie while they themselves could expand their loans and operations and force their own debtors to repay their loans as usual." [Rothbard] Ironically, the future president had written "Of all the enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few ... No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare." [Madison]

Treaty of Ghent (1815)

Peace neogtiations were held at Ghrent in modern Belgium. The American peace commissoners were Albert Gallatin, Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams. It was an interesting group. Galatian as Sectetary of the Trasurer had opposed the War. Clay was a leading War Hawk whon had forseen an American victory within weeks. Adams had been a Federalist who had at times supported Jefferson in the Senate on issues like the Louisiana Purchase. As a result he was forced to resign. Masison had appointed him ambassadir to to Russia and he was thus out of the country during the debate over the War. He was thus seen as a kind of neutral voce. There was a first little progress, primarily because the British demanded territorial gains. The British after dispatching substantial forces to North America in 1814 had high hopes of substantial territorial gains. American victories on Lake Champaign and the British failure to take Fort McHenry protecting Baltimore, however, convinced the British to take the ongoing peace talks more seriously. Transpprting substantial military forces to America was expensive and nothing had come of it except burning Washington. Britain after years of war with Napoleon was financially strapped and the war in America was only adding go the debts incurred. The Treaty of Ghent officially ending the War was signed in Ghent (December 24, 1814). The War in America continued until news arrived from Europe although there were no important engagements (mid-February 1815). This of course included the Battle of New Orleans. It was quickly ratified by both America and Britain. None of the major issues which precipitated the War were resolved. The British impressment of American sailors had essentially been ended when the British repealed the Orders in Council (June 1812) before America declared war. And the end of the Napoleonic Wars meant that the Royal Navy could be reduced insize. British captains no longer needed to impress Americans. Neither impressment or neutral rights were mentioned in the treaty. The borders were left unchanged. Prisoners and conquered land were to be returned. A commission was appointed to study lingering boundary issues between the United States and Canada. As a result of the Louisuiana Purchase there was a lengthy border between America and Canada. The major issue was the Oregon Territory and American settlers after the Treaty was signed would begin arriving their in large numbers. The major losers were the Native Americans who fought with the British. Nothing in the Treaty protected their rights. This ended the last mikitary conflict between America and Britain, although tension rose over the Oregon Territory (1840s) and of all places Guyana at the end of the century.


Historical opinions vary about the War of 1812. To many it solved nothing. The borders were left unchanged. To others it was much more important, esentially a Second War of Independence. [Howard] Britain had recognized Anerica's indepedence after the Revolutinary War. But many in Britain, especially the aristocracy did not believe that the new United stares was a real nation. Many believed that royalty was an essential part of nationhood and that a repubklic woukd never last. And this attitude manifested itself in British foreign polivy. The British continued to support the Native American tribes that had fought with them and occupied western forts on Americn soil. And of course they had stopped American ships and impressed American citizens. Allm of this changedcwith the War. The British were still not sure the United States was a real nation, but few thought that the nation would not last. And what they knew about merica they did not like. They did not like our political statiina nd looked dowen on our people. Perhaps the most imprtant imapact of the War was the change in British policy toward America led by Lord Castlereagh. And this meant an accomidation with America. Hufe issues remained with Britain, but because of the accomdation policy negun of Castlereagh there would be no war over the oustandiung issues. For America this meant that with the Roiyal Navy in the Atlantic the Americans could look west without fear of European inervention. There were still many issues to be resolved, most importantly the Canadian border, but the two nations would never again wage war on each other. One result of the War was the impact on America's self image. One might have thought that battlefield defeats, government bungling, the burning of Washington, and a trippling of the national debt with no real substantive gain would have a sobering impact on the American self image. Just the opposite prove true. The War resulted in an outpouruing of popular support. And there were victories about which the new nation could feel proud. American frigites defeat Royal Navy ships in individual combat. This was something the French rarely achieved. An embarassed Royal Navy had to order its captains not to give battle in individual ship actions. Oliver Perry achieved victory on Lake Erie under a banner enscribed with 'Don't give up the ship.' The war also decided the devisive debate over the Navy. The Federakisdts had wanted strong Navy. The Republicands led by Jeffersin had opposed it. After the Wasr of !812 tghere was a natiinsl condensus over the need for a navy. American in speeches, cartoons, songs, and broadsides depicted the War as a geat republican adventure against monarchy. It was the beginning of Manifest Destiny and expamded opportunities for Americans. The foundation for the American patriotism was laid in War of 1812. [Eustace] There Were several consequences. One was the Era of Good Felling, an important period of politica stability that was vital for the future of a new republic. It was an era in which the national identity was strenthened. This both delayed the rise of the slavery divide and created the a ptriotic spirit that would eventually defeat it.

Reader Comments

Two countries (America and Britain), a colony (Canada), and numerous Native American tribes were involved in the War of 1812. Few Americans know anything about the war. The British know even less. Most Brits were startled when Johhny Horton's 'Balled of New Orleans' hit the popular charts that Col. Jackson had chased them doen the 'Mighty Missisip'. The Canadians are a different matter. Whike the war of 1812 is a mere blip on American history, the War determined Canada's historical trajetory. Even more than Canadians, Native mericans were affected by the war. Unlike the Canadian experience, the war devestated the Native Americsn peoples east of the Mississippi. A Canadian readr writes,"Maybe the Monarchy that the majority of Quebecers should dislike is the old French Monarchy that decided that it was in the best interest of France to protect their colonial islands in the Caribbean for the spices being shipped back to France. After all, from New France the French King decided that wood and furs for trade were not worth defending. Also we should have a better teaching of the importance of the War of 1812 in how the British Monarchy along with French civilian militias in Lower Canada and English civilian militias in both Upper and Lower Canada stopped the Americans from getting control of the entire St. Lawrence river and valley for use as a trade route for goods that wood be coming from the Great Lakes area. When the Americans could not get control they ended up building the Erie Canal to ship through New York instead. If the Americans had been successful in capturing the territory from Lake Ontario to Montreal and also Quebec City then this land that we proudly call both Canada and Quebec would have ended up being an important part of America and the French language would have disappeared just as it has with the French that are now living from northern Maine to New York." [Silverman}

Ending the Slave Trade

One impact of the War of 1812 was to make it virtually impossivle for the United States to cooperate with Britain to end the slave trade. The United States until the Civil War (1861-65) was still a country in wgich slavery was not only permitted, but was an important part of the economy. Even so, Congress anolished the slave trade (1807). While ilegal, the United States did not have a Navy which could ebforce the law. Onkly the Royal Navy had the capacity to do this. Yet because of the impressment of U.S. citizens before the War of 1812, most Americans opposed allowing the British to stop American-flg ships.


Berton, Pierre. Flames across the Border (1981; repr. 1988).

Berton, Pierre. The Invasion of Canada (1980; repr. 1988).

Brookhiser, Richard. James Madison (2011).

Caffrey, Kate. The Twilight's Last Gleaming: The British against America 1812-1815 (1977).

Coles, Harry L. The War of 1812 (1965).

Daughan, George. 1812: The Navy's War (2011).

Eustace, Nicole. 1812: War and the Passions of Patriotism. ,p> Fitz-Enz, David. Hacks, Scophants, Adventurers & Heroes: Madison's Commanders in the War of 1812.

Horsman, Reginald. The War of 1812 (1969).

Howard, Hugh. Mr. and Mrs. Madison's War: America's First Couple and the Second War of Independence (2011).

Kukla, Jon. A Wildrerness so Immense: The Louisana Purchase and the Destiny of America (Knopf, 2003), 430p.

Madison, James. (1795).

Mahon, John K. The War of 1812 (1972).

Rothbard, Murray. A History of Money and Banking in the United States.

Silverman, Irv. E-mail message, November 25, 2011.

Tucker, Glenn. Poltroons and Patriots: A Popular Account of the War of 1812, 2 vols. (1954).


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Created: 11:30 PM 10/6/2006
Last updated: 4:36 AM 6/15/2021