War of 1812
The North American War of 1812 between the United States and the United Kingdom is one of several wars associated with that year. It is more normally known in British texts as the British-American War to distinguish it from Napoleon's war against Russia which also began in that year and from the continuing British war with Napoleon. (These wars may perhaps be linked by a common connection with furthering Napoleon's Continental policy of economic attrition against British war-making capacity.)
This particular war began with the American declaration of war on June 18 of that year (following U.S. President James Madison's appeal to the U.S. Congress on June 1), and lasted until the beginning of 1815. The treaty of peace was signed at Ghent on December 24, 1814, although it did not reach the U.S. until mid-February, 1815. Ratification was unanimously advised by the U.S. Senate on February 16. It was ratified by President Madison on February 17 (reportedly at 11pm) at which time ratifications were exchanged with the United Kingdom. The treaty was proclaimed on February 18, 1815.
The War of 1812 had various causes.
Madison, in his war message to Congress, named several major reasons for war:
- Ongoing impressment of American sailors into service on British Navy ships, an insulting breach of American sovereignty; see Chesapeake Leopard Affair
- Britain's navy "violating the rights and the peace of our coasts";
- Britain's blockade of U.S. ports ("our commerce has been plundered in every sea");
- Britain's refusal to repeal its Order-In-Council forbidding neutral countries to trade with European countries, and the British Navy's enforcement of this order;
- Britain's incitement of Native American nations ("savages", as said in the letter) to violence against the Americans.
Contemporary historians cite this sequence of events:
- After the British defeated the French in the French and Indian War in 1763, the British began to settle Westward into North America.
- Following a series of bloody battles (Bloody Run, Bushy Run, and the loss of eight British forts), came the Proclamation of 1763. To make peace with the Indians, this Royal proclamation prohibited Westward settlement. Colonial reaction to this proclamation was very negative. This proclamation was a significant cause of the American Revolution.
- First the colonies, then the newly-formed United States turned Eastward as the American Revolution began (1776) and ended (1783).
- After the American Revolution, Britain wanted to keep an "Indian Buffer" between Canada and the new United States. To do this, Britain allied itself with the Native North American Indians.
- In 1807, HMS Leopard requested permission to board the USS Chesapeake to search for deserters. When this was refused, Leopard fired on and boarded the Chesapeake and carried off four seamen. Though the incident itself was minor, the implied attitude of the Royal Navy towards the USA — that it was independent only in name, and worthy of no esteem — outraged the American public.
- In the Election of 1810, the interior frontier states elected the "Warhawks". The Warhawks believed in the nation's Manifest Destiny, and wanted to expand Westward. None of the Warhawks were from the seaboard states – this fact is inconsistent with the idea that the War of 1812 was about Maritime law.
- In the U.S. presidential election, 1812, Madison justified the war of 1812 as a reaction to Britain's policies against American shipping (on June 1 that year he asked the United States Congress to declare war on the United Kingdom). This justification was needed to convince the coastal states that the war was necessary and important. The frontier states needed no justification. This is the first major war of the new country, and the first time that a war needed "justification" presented to its citizens. Ironically, as the textbook history below indicates, this first war of the new nation was also very unpopular.
Several days after Madison's war message to Congress, the Senate voted for war, 19 to 13, reflecting this unpopularity.
What is not in most history books is the role that Native North Americans played in the war of 1812. Five of the seven major land battles were fought against primarily Native American forces in the interior of the continent.
At the end of the war, the outcome was that Britain gave up its alliances with the Indian nations, in exchange for the US leaving Canada alone. Although "no territory was won or lost", the War of 1812 signalled the end of Native North American-European alliances. This resulted in Western settlement becoming a "mopping up" operation. The US could now settle the West, unafraid of European alliances. Although thousands of lives were lost in later US-Indian wars, the outcomes of these conflicts were never in doubt.
Course of the War
Although the outbreak of war had been preceded by years of angry diplomatic dispute, the United States was absolutely unready, while the United Kingdom was still hard pressed by the Napoleonic Wars, and was compelled to retain the greater part of her forces and her best crews in European waters, until the ruin of the Grande Armée in Russia and the rising of Germany left her free to send an overwhelming force of ships to American waters.
The forces actually available on the American side at the outset of the war consisted of a small squadron of frigates and sloops in a war-ready state. The States were only able to commission a total of 22 ships. The paper strength of the army was 35,000, but the service was voluntary and unpopular, and there was an almost total lack of trained and experienced officers. The available strength was a bare third of the nominal. The militia, called in to aid the regulars, proved untrustworthy. They objected to serving outside their home states, were not amenable to discipline, and behaved as a rule very badly in the presence of the enemy. On the British side, the naval force in American waters under Sir John Borlase Warren, who took up the general command on September 26, 1812, consisted of ninety-seven vessels in all, of which eleven were of the line and thirty-four were frigates, a power much greater than the national navy of America, but inadequate for the blockade of the long coast from New Brunswick to Florida. The total number of British troops present in Canada in July 1812 was officially stated to be 5004, consisting partly of Canadians.
The theatre of operations can be naturally divided into three areas:
- The ocean;
- The Great Lakes and the Canadian frontier;
- The coast of the United States.
Operations on the ocean
These cover all cruises of sea-going ships, even when they did not go far from the American coast. They can again be subdivided into the actions of government vessels, and the raids of the privateers. The first gave to the United States the most brilliant successes of the war. When the war began, two small squadrons were getting ready for sea at New York; the frigate President (44) and the sloop Hornet (18), under Commodore John Rodgers, who also had the general command; and the frigates United States (44) and Congress (38), with the brig Argus (16) to which two guns were afterwards added, under Captain Stephen Decatur. Rodgers would have preferred to keep his command together, and to strike with it at the main course of British commerce, but he was overruled. He sailed on June 21, and after chasing the British frigate Belvidera (36), which escaped to Halifax by throwing boats, etcetera, overboard, stood across the North Atlantic in search of a West Indian convoy, which he failed to sight, returning by August 31 to Boston. While he was absent, Captain Isaac Hull, commanding Constitution (44), sailed from the Chesapeake, and after a narrow escape from a British squadron, which pursued him from the 18th to the 20th of July, reached Boston. Going to sea again on the 2nd of August he captured and burned the British frigate Guerriere, (38). On October 8 Rodgers and Decatur sailed – the first on a cruise to the east, the second to the south. Commodore Rodgers met with no marked success, but on October 25 Captain Decatur in United States captured the British frigate Macedonian (38), which he carried back to port. At the close of the month Captain Bainbridge sailed with the Constitution, Essex (32), and Hornet (18) on a southerly cruise. On December 20, when off Bahia, he fell in with the British frigate Java (38), which was carrying General Hislop, the governor of Bombay, to India, and took her after a sharp action.
The Essex and Hornet were not in company. The first, under the command of Captain David Porter, went on to the Pacific, where she did great injury to British shipping. Many British whaling ships carried letters of marque allowing them to prey on American whalers; Porter's ship stopped this practice and inflicted an estimated $3,000,000 USD damage on British interests until she was captured off Valparaiso, Chile by the British frigate Phoebe (38) and the sloop Cherub (24) on March 28, 1814. David Farragut, who later became a prominent Federal naval officer in the American Civil War, served as a midshipman aboard the Essex.
In all of these actions except the action between the Essex and the Phoebe and Cherub, the Americans had the advantage of greater size and a heavier broadside and they showed better seamanship and gunnery. The capture of three British frigates one after another caused a painful impression in Britain and stimulated her to greater exertions. More vessels were stationed on the American seaboard, and the watch became stricter. On June 1, 1813 the capture of the U.S. frigate Chesapeake (38), by the British frigate Shannon (38), a vessel of equal power, counterbalanced the moral effect of previous disasters. The blockade of American ports was already so close that the United States ships found it continually more difficult to get to sea, or to stay at sea without meeting forces of irresistibly superior strength.
The operations of American privateers were too numerous and far-ranging to be laid out in detail. They continued their activity until the close of the war, and were only partially baffled by the strict enforcement of convoy by the Royal Navy. A single instance of the audacity of the American cruisers was the capture of the U.S. sloop Argus (20) by the British sloop Pelican (18) so far from home as St David's Head in Wales on August 14, 1813. The guns of the Pelican were heavier than those of the Argus.
Operations on the Great Lakes and Canadian border
The American people, who had expected little from their tiny navy, had calculated with confidence on being able to overrun Canada. Former U.S. President Thomas Jefferson dismissively referred to the conquest of Canada as "a matter of marching". However, as they had taken no effectual measures to build up a mobile force they were disappointed. The British general, Sir George Prevost, was neither able nor energetic, but his subordinate, Major-General Isaac Brock, was both. In July, before the Americans were ready, Brock seized Mackinac at the head of Lake Huron; and on August 16 Detroit, in the channel between Huron and Erie, was surrendered. Kingston was held at the east end of Ontario. Montreal on the St Lawrence was a strong position on the British side to which, however, the Americans had an easy approach via Lake Champlain. Sound reasoning would have led the Americans to direct their chief attacks on Kingston and Montreal, since success at those points would have isolated the British posts on Lakes Ontario, Erie, and Huron. They were however much influenced by fear of the Indians, who had been won over to the British side by the energy of Brock and by anger over years of mistreatment by the Americans. They therefore looked more carefully to the lakes than to the course of the St Lawrence, and it may be added that their leaders showed an utter want of capacity for the intelligent conduct of war.
The impracticable character of the communications by land made it absolutely necessary for both parties to obtain control of the water. Neither had made any preparations, and the war largely resolved itself into a race of shipbuilding. The Americans, who had far greater facilities for building than the British, allowed themselves to be forestalled. In the second half of 1812 the British general, Sir Isaac Brock, lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, adopted measures for opposing the Americans on the frontier line, between Huron and Erie. The American brigadier-general William Hull invaded Canada on July 12 from Detroit, just below the small Lake of St. Clair between Huron and Lake Erie. His army was mainly composed of militiamen, who behaved very badly, and his papers having been captured in a boat, his plans were revealed. General Brock drove him back and forced him to surrender at Detroit on August 16. Brock now promptly transferred himself to the western end of Erie, where the American general Henry Dearborn was attempting another invasion. Brock fell in action on October 13 at the Battle of Queenston Heights, while repulsing Dearborn's subordinate Stephen van Rensselaer, a politician named to command by favour, and ignorant of a soldier's business. The Americans were driven back. On this field also their militia behaved detestably. The Canadians on the other hand, both the French who feared the anti-catholic stance of most of the United States (while also being relatively amenable to authority) and those of British descent, who being largely sons of loyalists of the War of Independence had a bitter hatred of the Americans, did excellent service. The discontent of New England with the war both hampered the American generals and also aided the British, who drew their supplies to a great extent from United States territory. Rensselaer resigned as commander after the battle of Queenston Heights and was replaced by General Alexander Smyth, despite his having little command experience. After the unsuccessful Battle of Frenchman's Creek on November 28, Smyth left the service.
On January 22, 1813, at Frenchtown, the American troops under Winchester surrendered to a British and Indian force under Procter.
Battle of Lake Erie by William H. Powell (1865)
During the winter both sides were busy in building ships. On Lake Ontario the Americans pushed on their preparations at Sackett's Harbour under Isaac Chauncey; the British were similarly engaged at Kingston. Sir James Lucas Yeo took command on the 15th of May 1813. On Lake Erie the American headquarters were at Presqu' Isle, now the city of Erie; the British at Fort Malden. The American commander was Captain Oliver Perry, the British commander, Captain Robert Barclay. On Lake Ontario Yeo created a more mobile though less powerful force than Chauncey's, and therefore manoeuvred to avoid being brought to close action. Three engagements, on August 10, September 11, and September 28, led to no decisive result. By the close of the war Yeo had constructed a ship of 102 guns which gave him superiority, and the British became masters of Lake Ontario. On Lake Erie the energy of Captain Perry, aided by what appears to have been the misjudgement of Barclay, enabled him to get a superior force by the 4th of August, and on the 10th of September he fought a successful action which left the Americans masters of Lake Erie.
The military operations were subordinate to the naval. On April 27, 1813 the Americans took York (now Toronto; see: Battle of York), and in May moved on Fort George; but a counter-attack by Yeo and Prevost on Sackett's Harbour, on May 29, having made the Americans anxious about the safety of their base, naval support failed the American generals, and they were paralysed. They gained a success on October 5 at the Battle of the Thames, where the Indian chief Tecumseh fell, but they made no serious progress.
The Americans then turned to the east of Lake Ontario, intending to assail Montreal by the St Lawrence in combination with their forces at the Battle of Lake Champlain. But the combination failed; they were severely harassed on the St Lawrence, and the invasion was given up.
1814: The Niagara Campaign and Battle of Lake Champlain
The operations of 1814 bear a close resemblance to those of 1813, with, however, one important difference. The American generals, including Major Generals Jacob Brown and Winfield Scott, had drastically improved the fighting abilities and discipline of the army. They were able to fight much more effectively. Their attack on the Niagara peninsula led to hot fighting at the Battle of Chippewa on July 5 and Lundy's Lane on July 25. The first was a success for the Americans, the second a drawn battle: the Americans took the British gun line, but suffered high casualties and were forced to withdraw across the Niagara, defeating the British-Canadian forces at the Battle of Fort Erie. At this point, the fall of Napoleon freed the British government from the obligation to retain its army in Europe, and troops from Spain began to pour in. But on the Canadian frontier they made little difference. In August 1814 Sir George Prevost attacked the American forces at Champlain. But he hurried his ill-prepared naval support into action at Plattsburg on September 11 and it was defeated. Prevost then retired. His management of the war, more especially on Lake Champlain, was severely criticized, and he was threatened with a court-martial, but died before the trial came on. A British occupation of part of the coast of Maine proved to be mere demonstration.
Operations on the American coast
When the war began the British naval forces were unequal to the work of blockading the whole coast. They were also much engaged in seeking for the American cruisers under Rodgers, Decatur, and Bainbridge. The British government, having need of American foodstuffs for its army in Spain, was willing to benefit from the discontent of the New Englanders. No blockade of New England was at first attempted. The Delaware and Chesapeake were declared in a state of blockade on December 26, 1812. This was extended to the whole coast south of Narragansett by November 1813, and to the whole American coast on May 31, 1814. In the meantime much illicit trade was carried on by collusive captures arranged between American traders and British officers. American ships were fraudulently transferred to neutral flags. Eventually the United States government was driven to issue orders for the purpose of stopping illicit trading, and the commerce of the country was ruined. The now overpowering strength of the British fleet enabled it to occupy the Chesapeake and to execute innumerable attacks of a destructive character on docks and harbours. The burning by the American general McClure, on December 10, 1813, of Newark (Niagara on the Lake), for which severe retaliation was taken at Buffalo, was made the excuse for much destruction.
The Chesapeake Campaign and the Star-Spangled Banner
The best known of these destructive raids was the burning of public buildings, including the White House in Washington, by Sir George Cockburn, second in command to Sir Alexander Cochrane, who succeeded Warren in April in the naval command, and General Robert Ross. Ross' account reads:
- Judging it of consequence to complete the destruction of the public buildings with the least possible delay, so that the army might retire without loss of time, the following buildings were set fire to and consumed – the capitol, including the Senate house and House of Representation, the Arsenal, the Dock-Yard, Treasury, War office, President's Palace, Rope-Walk, and the great bridge across the Potewmac.
The expedition was carried out between August 19 and August 29, 1814, and was well organized and vigorously executed. On the 24th the inexperienced American militia who had collected at Bladensburg, Maryland, to protect the capital, were soundly defeated, opening the route to Washington. President James Madison was forced to flee to Virginia, and after the burnings, American morale was reduced to an all-time low.
Having destroyed Washington's public buildings, the British army next moved to capture Baltimore, a busy port and a key base for American privateers. The land portion of the subsequent Battle of Baltimore began with a British landing at North Point. General Ross was killed on September 12, 1814 in fighting with American militia, and the attack was repulsed. The British also attempted to attack Baltimore by sea on September 13, but were unable to reduce Fort McHenry, at the entrance to Baltimore Harbor. The defence of the fort against the British attack, by American forces under the command of Colonel George Armistead, inspired Francis Scott Key to write a poem, "The Defence of Fort McHenry". The poem was later set to the tune "To Anacreon in Heaven" and under its new name, "The Star-Spangled Banner", was eventually adopted as the national anthem of the United States.
The Southwestern Campaign
In March of 1814, General Andrew Jackson led a force of Tennessee militia, Cherokee Indians, and U.S. regulars southward to attack the Creek Indians, led by Chief Menawa. The Creeks had for many years been British allies. On March 26, Jackson and General John Coffee fought the Creeks at Horseshoe Bend, killing 800 of 1000 Creeks at a cost of 49 killed and 154 wounded of approximately 2000 American and Cherokee forces. Jackson pursued the surviving Creeks to Wetumpka, near present-day Montgomery, Alabama, where they surrendered.
The Treaty of Ghent and the Battle of New Orleans
'New Orleans', 1815 by Herbert Morton Stoops
Jackson's forces moved to New Orleans, Louisiana in November 1814. Between December 1814 and January 1815, he defended the city against a force led by Major-General Sir Edward Pakenham.
Although the Treaty of Ghent had been signed on December 24, 1814, news of the treaty had not reached New Orleans. Because of the slow nature of international communications, the Treaty had the following provisions:
"All hostilities, both by sea and land, shall cease as soon as this treaty shall have been ratified by both parties, as hereinafter mentioned. . . Immediately after the ratifications of this treaty by both parties, as hereinafter mentioned, orders shall be sent to the armies, squadrons, officers, subjects and citizens of the two Powers to cease from all hostilities."
The fastest means of communication in 1815 was the sailing ship, and the treaty also allowed ships of either side to be taken as prizes for a period varying from 30 to 180 days after the time the treaty was ratified, depending on where on the world's ocean the action took place.
By January 1815, Britain and the United States had not ratified the Treaty, and orders to suspend operations had not reached Jackson or Pakenham. Two assaults on January 1 and January 8 were repelled. In the latter, General Pakenham was killed. See: Battle of New Orleans
On February 17, 1815, President Madison signed the American ratification of the Treaty of Ghent, and the treaty was proclaimed the following day.
Effects of the War of 1812 on post-war North America: who won?
The Treaty established status quo ante bellum. There were no territorial concessions made by either side. The issue of impressing American seamen was made moot when the Royal Navy stopped impressment. This was a concession to American successes in battle in 1814: before this, the British position was to hold all territory gained in battle.
Many Canadians consider the War of 1812 to have been an American defeat. From their point of view, the American invasions of 1813 and 1814 were repulsed. Further supporting this point of view is that the British occupied some American territory at the end of the war; however, the Americans did not occupy any British territory. However, from the American point of view, the war was a successful defense of American rights, which they claimed culminated in the victory at New Orleans. Because New Orleans was successfully defended, American expansion into the Southwest was possible.
Following the Treaty of Ghent, relations between the United States and Britain would remain peaceful, if not entirely tranquil, throughout the 19th century. Both nations made border adjustments in 1818 and established the line of 49 degrees North latitude as the international border west of the Lake of the Woods. Border disputes between the State of Maine and the Province of New Brunswick were settled in the 1830s (see Aroostook War).
No territorial gains were made by either side and impressment and Indian issues were put on hold. The United States however did gain worldwide respect for managing to withstand Britain. A growth in American manufacturing was caused by the formidable British blockade of the American east coast. The death of the Federalist Party also followed the war. The Great Lakes were no longer disputed but became shared property of Canada and Britain, and the United States. The Indian threat was at a minimum since Tecumseh had fallen and the Prophet was increasingly ridiculed and finally resorted to drink. However, the War of 1812 did not increase any involvement of the people in global affairs.
There were several significant economic developments after the War of 1812, including:
A significant military development was the increased emphasis by General Winfield Scott on improved professionalism in the U.S. Army officer corps, and in particular, the training of officers at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. The American officer corps' professionalism was apparent during the 1846–1848 war with Mexico.
Motives of the U.S.
It is important to notice that the motives of the U.S. in this war were to gain Canada and to stop impressment. Why gain Canada? It was considered by many to be a barren desert. The War hawks, being Southerners, wanted more seats in Congress. If new states were created, they wanted the Southerners to populate them. The sectionalism that eventually led to the American Civil War was beginning to deepen.
According to data from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, the last surviving U.S. veteran of the conflict, Hiram Cronk, died on May 13, 1905 at the age of 105.
Motives of the UK
Britain's intention in the War of 1812 was not to regain its former colonies, as the cost of doing so would far outweigh any profit to be made (although if the cost of a war was bound to be incurred anyway, it might have made sense to make some gains in passing). The bold (or possibly rash) Americans had decisively defeated Britain once with help and hoped to do so again even without help. Britain however was a world power, with more out-of-area capability than ever and fewer enemies with such capability. It wanted to pass on a message to the world at large, "Britain is not a country to mess around with", and it had specific strategic interests in North America, e.g. as a source of naval supplies. Such a message was sent in passing when Britain burned the White House. However it must be noted that Britain did not first declare war, but the United States, so it is realistic to suppose that Britain wished to protect its colonies and broader interests in North America.
Effects of the War on Canada
In both Canada and the United States the War of 1812 caused a great rise in nationalism. In the Canadian colonies, the war united the French and the English colonies against a common enemy. At the beginning of the War of 1812 it is estimated that perhaps one third of the inhabitants of Upper Canada for example were American born, some were United Empire Loyalists but others had come just for the cheap farmland and many had little loyalty to the British Crown at the beginning of the war. Thus the war gave many inhabitants of Upper and Lower Canada a sense of nationhood as well as a sense of loyalty to Britain. For instance, Laura Secord was originally an American immigrant to Upper Canada, but did not hesitate to make her arduous trek to warn the British forces of a pending attack by her own former country.
Unfortunately, this nationalistic sentiment also caused a great deal of suspicion towards American ideas like responsible government which would frustrate political reform in Upper and Lower Canada until the Rebellions of 1837. However, the War of 1812 also started the process which ultimately led to Canadian Confederation in 1867. Although later events such as the Rebellions and the Fenian raids of the 1860s were more directly pivotal, Canadian historian Pierre Berton has written that if the War of 1812 had never happened Canada would be part of the United States today, as more and more American settlers would have arrived, and Canadian nationalism would never have developed.
Impressment of American Sailors
The British did not want the Americans trading with their enemy France, and sending them supplies. Britain established a partial blockade to stop American trade with France. The blockade angered France, which enacted its own laws to control trade. If the American sailors obeyed the British rules, their ships would be seized by the French. If they obeyed the French rules, their ships would be seized by the British. Britain also interfered with U.S. trade by impressment of American sailors. Between 1803 and 1812, about 6,000 American sailors were impressed.
The Embargo Act of 1807
Jefferson responded to the interference by France and Britain by stopping all foreign trade. The Embargo Act of 1807 prevented American ships from sailing to any foreign ports. The act also closed American ports to British ships. Although the trade embargo decreased the number of American ships attacked by the French and British, it greatly hurt the economy of the United States. No trade meant no way to sell materials and products to other countries to make a profit. More importantly, the United States relied on product shipped in from Europe to survive. Now they were forced to make their own supplies...
The War Hawks were people that wanted to go to war with Britain. They wanted to stop the British from aiding Native Americans, and they wanted to gain land by forcing the British out of Canada. Others wanted to go to war to stop the attacks on American ships.
The United States Military During the War of 1812
When the War of 1812 first began, the U.S. military was very weak and inexperienced. The army consisted of only 7000 men and small state militias. The navy had only 16 ships.
The Battle of the Thames
General Harrison defeated the British at the Battle of the Thames in October. This victory put an end to the British threat in the Northwest. Also, the rebel Native American Tecumseh died in the battle while fighting for the British.
Britain Defeats Napoleon
After defeating Napoleon in April 1814, Britain focused entirely on the United States. They burned the United States Capitol building and the president’s mansion in August 1814.
War of 1812 Terminology
impressment: the kidnapping and drafting of American soldiers into the British navy, on the grounds that they were AWOL British sailors
Embargo Act of 1807: An act passed by Congress that restricted American ships from sailing to foreign ports. The Act also closed American ports to British ships.
Tecumseh: A Shawnee chief who vowed to stop the loss of Native American land. He believed that the reason Native Americans to lose their land was because they were separated into so many different tribes. He believed that Native Americans had to unite and to further his status as a prophet, had warned of the great Earthquakes that indeed occured from 1811 to 1813 along the New Madrid fault.
War Hawk: Leaders such as Congressman Henry Clay who angrily demanded war against Britain. They wanted British aid to Native Americans stopped, and they wanted the British out of Canada. They believed that the United States could gain land by conquering Canada.
Key Events of the War of 1812
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