The 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
to distinguish it from Napoleon's war against Russia that 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 by the American declaration of war on June
18 of that year, and lasted till the beginning of 1815. The treaty of peace
signed at Ghent on December 24, 1814 was ratified by President James Madison
on February 17, 1815.
The War of 1812 had two main causes: British naval actions on the Atlantic,
and an American desire to seize Britain's North American colonies.
During the long Napoleonic Wars the American merchant ships became home
to a number of deserters from the British Navy. British warships frequently
stopped American ships capturing any believed to be deserters, but also
impressed a large number of Americans. The British had probably impressed
between six to eight thousand Americans into their navy. The most offensive
incident of impressment was when the British warship Leopard opened
fire on the American Chesapeake, which had refused to stop. A number
of seamen were killed and wounded aboard the Chesapeake.
Britain also attempted to restrict American trade with France. They
imposed tariffs and stopped any ships containing military supplies. France
attempted to do the same, but its weaker navy made it less of a problem
for the U.S. than Britain's attempts. In 1807, President Thomas Jefferson
signed a bill which banned all trade with the warring parties, hoping this
would so damage them they would be forced to negotiate. This failed to
work, and the bill was repealed in 1808. Britain continued its impressment
and restrictions, however and President Madison declared war in 1812. Ironically
before war had been declared the British parliament had already decided
to end impressment and remove the trade restrictions, but the message was
still in transit when Madison declared war.
Other Americans had different reasons for wanting war. Many thought
it was finally time for the US to annex Canada to complete its manifest
destiny. Others believed native unrest in the west was funded and encouraged
by the British. Another important cause of the war was that 1812 was a
presidential election year in which Madison was vulnerable.
Course of the War
Although the outbreak of war had been preceded by years of angry diplomatic
dispute, the United States were absolutely unready, while Great Britain
was still hard pressed in the Napoleonic Wars, and was compelled to retain
the greater part of her forces and her best crews in European waters, till
the ruin of the Grande Armee 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 when the war began
consisted of a small squadron of frigates and sloops in an efficient state.
Twenty-two was the limit of the naval force the States were able to commission.
The paper strength of the army was 35,000, but the service was voluntary
and unpopular, while there was an almost total want 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 serve
beyond the limits of their states, were not amenable to discipline, and
behaved as a rule very ill 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
to 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 in part of Canadians.
The scene of operations naturally divided into three sections:
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 coast. They again subdivide into the actions of national vessels,
and the raids of the privateers. The first gave to the United States the
most brilliant successes of the war. When it began two small squadrons
were getting ready for sea at New York; the frigate President
and sloop Hornet
(18), under Commodore John Rodgers, who had also
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 into Halifax by
throwing boats, &c., 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
(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
captured the British frigate Macedonian
which he carried back to port. At the close of the month Captain Bainbridge
sailed with the Constitution
(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
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 trade, till she was captured off Valparaiso by
the British frigate Phoebe
(38) and the sloop Cherub
on March 28, 1814. In these actions, except the last, 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 Great Britain and stimulated her
to greater exertions. Vessels were accumulated on the American sea-board,
and the watch became more strict. On June 1, 1813 the capture of the U.S.
(38), by the British frigate
a vessel of equal force, 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 keep the
sea without meeting forces of irresistibly superior strength.
The operations of American privateers were too numerous and far-ranging
to be told in detail. They continued active till the close of the war,
and were only partially baffled by the strict enforcement of convoy by
the British authorities. A signal 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. Pelican's guns were heavier than those of the
Operations on the Great Lakes and Canadian Border
The American people, who had expected little from their diminutive navy,
had calculated with confidence on being able to overrun Canada. As, however,
they had taken no effectual measures to provide 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 road of approach by 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. But they were much
influenced by fear of the Indians, who had been won over to the British
side by the energy of Brock and 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 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, while repulsing Dearborn's
subordinate Van Rensselaer, a politician named to command by favour, and
ignorant of a soldier's business. The Americans were driven back. In this
field also their militia behaved detestably. The Canadians on the other
hand, both the French who were traditionally amenable to authority and
those of English 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. On January 22, 1813, at Frenchtown, the American
troops under Winchester surrendered to a British and Indian force under
During the winter both sides were busy in building ships. On Ontario
the Americans pushed on their preparations at Sackett's Harbour under Isaac
Chauncey; the English were similarly engaged at Kingston. Sir James Lucas
Yeo took command on the 15th of May 1813. On Erie the American headquarters
were at Presqu' Isle, now the city of Erie; the English at Fort Malden.
The American commander was Captain Oliver Perry, the British commander,
Captain Robert Barclay. On Lake Ontario Yeo formed a more mobile though
less powerful force than Chauncey's, and therefore manoeuvred to avoid
being brought to close action. Three engagements, on the 10th of August,
11th of September September 28, led to no decisive result. By the close
of the war Yeo had constructed a ship of 102 guns which gave him the 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 misjudgment 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.
In April 1813 the Americans took York (now Toronto), 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.
A success was gained by them (October 5) at the Thames, where the Indian
chief Tecumseh fell, but they made no serious progress. The Americans turned
to the east of Ontario, intending to assail Montreal by the St Lawrence
in combination with their forces at Lake Champlain. But the combination
failed; they were severely harassed on the St Lawrence, and the invasion
was given up.
The operations of 1814 bear a close resemblance to those of 1813, with,
however, one important difference. The American generals, having by this
time brought their troops to order, were able to fight with much better
effect. Their attack on the Niagara peninsula led to hot fighting at Chippewa
(July 5) and Lundy's Lane (July 25), the first a success for the Americans,
the second a drawn battle. The fall of Napoleon having now freed the British
government from the obligation to retain its army in Europe, 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 his naval support, ill prepared, was hurried into action by him at
Plattsburg on the 11th of September, and 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 by 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 most famous of these destructive raids was the burning of public buildings
including the White House in Washington by Sir George Cockburn, who succeeded
Warren in April in the naval command, and General Robert Ross. Ross' account
reads: Judging it of consequences 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
. President James Madison was
forced to flee to Virginia and American morale was reduced to an all-time
low. The expedition was carried out between August 19 and August 29, 1814,
and was well organized and vigorously executed. On the 24th the American
militia, collected at Bladensburg to protect the capital, fled almost before
they were attacked. A subsequent attack on Baltimore, in which General
Ross was killed (September 12, 1814), was a failure. The valiant defense
of Fort McHenry by American forces during the British attack inspired Francis
Scott Key, to write "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Effects of War of 1812 on postwar North America
In both Canada and the United States the War of 1812 caused a great deal
of nationalism in both lands. 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 British 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. The war,
thus, gave many inhabitants of Upper and Lower Canada a sense of nationhood
as well as a sense of loyalty to Great Britian.
No territorial gains were acquired by either sides and impressment and
Indian issues were put on delay. The United States however did gain a large
amount of worldwide respect for managing to withhold Britain. A growth
in manufacturing was caused since the British amassed a formidable blockade
on the East coast. The death of Federalist Party also preceded. The Great
Lakes were no longer disputed but shared property of Canada and Britain.
Indian threat was at a minimal since Tecumseh had fallen and the Prophet
has become ridiculed and resorted to become a drunkard.
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 stop the impressment. Why gain Canada? It was a barren
desert. Well, the War Hawks, being Southerners wanted more seats in Congress.
If new states were created, they wanted the Southerners to populate them.
Sectionalism is beginning to deepen.
Britain's intention in the War of 1812 was not to regain its former colonies,
as the cost of doing so would have made it unprofitable (as opposed to
which, 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 before and fewer other enemies with such capability.
It wanted to pass on a message to the world at large, "Britain was 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 down the White House. However it must
be noted that Britain did not first declare war, but the United States,
so it it is realistic to suppose that Britain wished to protect its colonies
and broader interests in North America.
Famous Canadian historian Pierre Berton stated his belief that if the
War of 1812 had never happened Canada would be part of the United States
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.