Peace Is Promised, But War Continues

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Peace Is Promised, But War Continues

The War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain was provoked by two major issues. The first was Britain's maritime policy of impressment in its war with France. This policy was where British officials often boarded U.S. ships to capture deserters from their own navy, often wrongfully taking American citizens in the process. The other issues that led to the war was Great Britain's overly friendly relations with Native Americans. Americans believed that the British were encouraging Native Americans to attack white settlers who were moving west. The Native Americans believed that the settlers were encroaching on (gradually taking over) their land. Although these two issues led to Americans being eager to fight a war with Britain, the United States was not necessarily ready to fight such a war. By the end of 1813, after almost eighteen months of war, the United States had little to show for their efforts. Although the United States had won some victories in the Northwest and elsewhere, the important planned invasion of Canada had failed. These failures were generally due to poor preparation, poor leadership, and poor strategy.

When Congress met on December 6 for its last session of 1813, a pessimistic mood prevailed. Despite its promising beginning, 1813 had not brought the United States any closer to the goals that it had set when it declared war on Great Britain: to secure its western settlements from Native American attacks, to stop Great Britain from disrupting trade and impressing U.S. sailors, and to expand its territory.

In his address to Congress, President James Madison (1751-1836) reported that Great Britain had rejected Russia's offer to help mediate a peace treaty; the British preferred to meet with the United States face to face. He focused on the U.S. victories that had taken place since Congress had last met and pointed out that war had stimulated the manufacturing and defense industries. Most importantly, Madison claimed, as recorded in the Annals of Congress, the war was showing that the United States was and would continue to be a "great, a flourishing, and a powerful nation."

On December 30 a British ship flying a flag of truce arrived in the United States. It carried news that Great Britain wanted to enter into direct peace negotiations. Madison accepted the offer, nominating almost the same team he had chosen for the proposed Russian-mediated negotiations: diplomat John Quincy Adams (1767-1848; president 1825-29), Senator James Bayard (1767-1815) from Delaware, and Speaker of the House Henry Clay (1777-1852) from Kentucky. Several months later, former secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin (1761-1849)—already in Europe because he had traveled there earlier in the year to take part in the proposed Russian-mediated talks—would also join the group in Ghent, Belgium. This time, Congress approved Madison's nominations. But fighting would continue for another year as each side tried to gain the upper hand and thus better their position in the peace talks.

More congressional debates about the war

Congress continued to debate the merits of the war, with the Federalists arguing for only defensive action and Republicans saying that the war was defensive but with inadequate resources, it could not be brought to a close. Raising the number of troops required to fight the war was still the Republicans' top priority. The number of new recruits had declined toward the end of 1813, and many soldiers who had enlisted before the war began or between 1812 and 1813 would soon be eligible for discharge. Again Congress raised the reward for new recruits and for those who re-enlisted; they also increased the length of the enlistment period. The authorized number of troops was raised to 62,500, and a new law was passed that gave the U.S. Army more power to force militiamen to obey orders. (Militiamen were members of small armies made up of troops residing in a particular state.) More money was allocated for naval operations, including funds for a steam-powered frigate (large warship) to be designed by inventor Robert Fulton (1765-1815), but the ship was completed too late to be used in the war. Learning that Great Britain had detained two thousand more prisoners of war than the United States and wishing to balance the scales, Congress also voted to increase the bounty (reward) paid for prisoners brought in by privateers (private citizens employed by the government to use their ships to disrupt enemy trade by attacking enemy ships and confiscating cargo).

Financially, the government was now teetering on the brink of bankruptcy (financial failure) as it struggled to meet both ordinary and war-related costs, even though additional taxes had been enacted in the previous session of Congress. Secretary of the Navy William Jones (1760-1831)—who also was serving as temporary treasury secretary until Gallatin's replacement could be named—recommended new taxes, but the Republicans, as usual, rejected this idea. Instead, they authorized a new $25 million loan and the issuance of $10 million in treasury notes or short-term bonds.

Stamping out trade with the enemy

Madison remained convinced that economic pressure would weaken Great Britain's position in the war. He also wanted to stamp out the trade that many Americans were carrying on with the British despite the war. Great Britain had made it clear that it would continue to trade with Americans who did not exhibit hostile behavior, and many merchants and traders had accepted their offer: in exchange for British textiles (fabrics), pottery, salt, and other products, U.S. citizens offered the food and supplies Great Britain needed to maintain its force in North America. Thus Americans were helping to feed and clothe the very soldiers who were fighting against U.S. troops.

In spite of the British blockade of American ports to the south of New England, sea trade also was taking place, most often by merchants whose ships (even though they were actually American or British) flew the flags of neutral countries. Smuggling (the buying and selling of illegally obtained goods) was a big problem. In New Orleans, pirates claiming to be privateers made a very good living bringing in goods stolen from ships they had attacked in the Gulf of Mexico. It was difficult to enforce the existing laws banning trading with the enemy, because too many people were making too much money from the practice.

Fed up with this situation, Madison presented Congress with a new system of restrictions: an embargo prohibiting American ships and goods from leaving port, a total ban on certain products produced in Great Britain or in its colonies (such as woolen and cotton goods and rum), and a ban on foreign ships entering U.S. ports unless three-quarters of their crew members were actually citizens of the country whose flag the ship flew.

The Federalists strongly protested, claiming that these new restrictions would severely damage commerce, agriculture, and government revenues. Nevertheless, the program was approved by Congress and signed into law by Madison before the end of 1813. However, the collapse of Napoleon's Continental System (restrictions on trade with the countries of Europe, which had helped bring about the War of 1812; See "The Napoleonic Wars" in chapter 2) meant that the British could trade with any country in Europe. Thus, the U.S. restrictions would not harm Britain much anymore, but they would hurt U.S. trade. Only four months after it had been signed, what has been referred to as the war's final embargo was repealed (officially done away with). Now Americans were barred only from direct trade with Great Britain.

Jackson's troops fight the Red Sticks

The first military action of 1814 was really a continuation of something that had been started, but not quite finished, in 1813. In the southwestern territories of Alabama, Mississippi, and West Florida, U.S. troops had been fighting Native Americans called the Red Sticks, a hostile faction of the Creek nation (see "Fighting Native Americans in the South" in chapter 4). In command of this effort was Andrew Jackson (1767-1845), known as "Old Hickory," a tenacious fighter who had only reluctantly let the majority of his troops return to their homes at the end of 1813 because they had reached the end of their enlistment terms.

In the early weeks of 1814, Jackson received one thousand reinforcements. He knew he had to act fast, because most of the men had enlisted for only a sixty-day period. The campaign began on January 22, when eight hundred of Jackson's troops—along with two hundred friendly Native American warriors (Cherokees and Creeks who had not sided with the Red Sticks)—marched from Fort Strother (in what is now central Alabama) to attack a Red Stick village on Emuckfau Creek. Although outnumbered, Jackson's troops sent their opponents fleeing. They fought another, somewhat shorter battle at Enitachopco Creek on January 24. Although neither of these confrontations was really conclusive, the Americans considered them victories.

Jackson now returned to Fort Strother to await the arrival of more troops and supplies. By February, he had command of four thousand additional soldiers from Tennessee (six hundred were regular soldiers, the rest militia). Plagued by trouble with the militia, Jackson put a rigid disciplinary system into effect, even condemning to death an eighteen-year-old volunteer who had refused to obey orders. After that, Jackson had fewer problems with the militia.

The Battle of Horseshoe Bend

From his Native American allies, Jackson learned that hostile Creeks had camped on a peninsula called Horseshoe Bend that jutted into the Tallapoosa River. The Red Sticks had fortified the land approach to their camp, while placing their canoes on the river behind it for a quick escape. Jackson began his attack on the camp on March 27 by sending his Native American friends swimming across the river to steal the Red Stick canoes. Then some of Jackson's troops attacked the front of the camp while others, crossing the river in the stolen canoes, attacked from the rear.

The battle resulted in very heavy casualties, especially since most of the Red Sticks preferred to die fighting rather than surrender. Before the battle was over, 800 Creeks had died compared to only 200 Americans. In addition, 350 Creek women and children were captured, and some were killed during the course of the battle. Most of the few Red Sticks who managed to escape, as well as those who had not been present, lost heart for further fighting and fled south into Florida.

In April Jackson was surprised by a visit from William Weatherford (1780-1824), the Red Stick leader of mixed Creek and white heritage who was known among Native Americans as Red Eagle. Weatherford surrendered to Jackson, asking no favors for himself but requesting aid for the Creek women and children still hiding in the woods. Reportedly, Jackson was so struck by Weatherford's courage that he offered him a drink, shook his hand, and sent him home. Weatherford lived out his life as a successful Alabama plantation owner.

The Treaty of Fort Jackson

After the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, Jackson established a fort (named after himself) at the junction of the Coosa and Tallapoosa Rivers and fought a few more minor battles with the Red Sticks who remained in the area. By August the Red Sticks were conclusively beaten, and the United States government prepared to offer them a treaty. The U.S. goal was to cut the Creeks off from Spanish influence by limiting their access to Florida.

Jackson (recently appointed to the high rank of major general) was assigned to present the treaty. He had been chosen over several candidates who were thought to be too soft on Native Americans. The Creeks were given no opportunity to negotiate the Treaty of Fort Jackson, but were simply forced to sign it. Even though many Creeks had fought on the side of the Americans (in fact, only one Red Stick was even present at the signing—the other signers were all friendly Creeks), the entire Creek nation was punished. They were to give up their rights to more than twenty million acres of land, which made up more than half of their territory.

Thus the U.S. government's goal of protecting white settlers took precedence over any obligation it might have had to the friendly Creeks. Although the Treaty of Fort Jackson did improve security for white Americans who lived on the western frontier, it did not affect the outcome of the War of 1812 very much. And the United States would continue to have problems with the Creeks: a few years later, refugee Red Sticks in Florida would join with Seminoles in fighting the First Seminole War (1817-19).

Great Britain goes on the offensive

Great Britain's victories against French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) at the Battle of Leipzig in Germany and in Spain in the fall of 1813 marked a turning point. In the opening months of 1814, Great Britain and its allies launched an invasion of France, and on March 31 they took over the French capital, Paris. Defeated, Napoleon was forced to abdicate (give up his position as emperor) and was exiled to the Mediterranean island of Elba. Europe was finally at peace. Now the British could devote more attention to the war in North America and better its position at the peace talks.

The British began sending more troops to North America—and these were not just any troops. They were seasoned veterans of the Napoleonic Wars, and there were a lot of them. By September 1814 thirteen thousand had arrived in Canada, bringing Great Britain's troop strength to thirty thousand; it would reach forty thousand by the end of the year.

As the United States took stock of its own position at the beginning of 1814 there were a few reasons for optimism. The U.S. Army was steadily improving in quality and quantity. The top ranks were now occupied by officers of more uniform skill and leadership ability, and the higher bounty authorized by Congress was attracting new recruits and re-enlistments. By the spring of 1814, the army was up to forty thousand troops—one-third more than it had been a year before—and by early 1815 it had risen to nearly forty-five thousand.

Also on the positive side, the Battle of Lake Erie and the Battle of the Thames had given the United States the upper hand in the Northwest. Goals for the 1814 campaign included holding on to that position while also gaining supremacy on the problematic Niagara frontier. Peace negotiations were already in the works, and the United States would be in a better position to bargain if its troops could gain some British-held territory before the talks got underway.

Back into Canada

On July 3, 1814, Major General Jacob Brown (1775-1828) led the next U.S. attempt to invade Canada, marching thirty-five hundred troops (plus six hundred Native American allies) into enemy territory. The plan was for the army to work its way up the Niagara River and capture the important shipping center of Kingston. The force was divided into two brigades, commanded by generals Winfield Scott (1786-1866) and Eleazer Ripley (1782-1839).

For several months, Scott had been intensively training his troops, subjecting them to at least seven hours of drilling per day but also making sure that they had good, plentiful food and hygienic conditions. They made an impressive, highly disciplined appearance, dressed in short gray jackets and white pants rather than the usual blue uniforms (due to a shortage of blue fabric). Some historians assert that this brigade's stellar performance on the battlefield led to the use of "cadet's gray" for students' uniforms at United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, but others claim there is no real evidence of this.

The British had occupied Fort Erie at the end of 1813, and the first task before Brown's force was to take it back. This was accomplished quite easily on July 3, when U.S. troops surrounded the fort with its small (only 137) band of British defenders inside. The British surrendered almost immediately. After securing Fort Erie, Brown pointed his troops north again, to search out the main British force.

"These are regulars, by God!"

Near the place where the Niagara and Chippewa rivers converge, advance troops (including militiamen as well as friendly Iroquois warriors) led by Peter B. Porter (1773-1844) of the New York militia came under fire from hostile Native Americans. The U.S. troops drove them off, but fell back themselves when they encountered a much bigger British force. Scott soon arrived with fifteen hundred regular soldiers and engaged the British, who also numbered about fifteen hundred and who were commanded by General Phineas Riall (1775-1850).

When Riall saw the gray uniforms worn by Scott's men, he assumed they were militiamen and thus inferior troops. But the U.S. soldiers advanced in an impressively steady, orderly, and courageous manner, so that eventually Riall, as reported in The War of 1812 by John K. Mahon, exclaimed, "These are regulars, by God!" (meaning regular soldiers). Suffering 500 casualties, Riall's troops were forced to retreat; the United States had 325 soldiers killed or wounded. Discipline and dedicated training paid off, and Americans felt proud of their troops' performance.

Brown now began moving his troops north along the Chippewa River. He hoped to meet up with Commodore Isaac Chauncey's (1772-1840) Lake Ontario fleet, so that the navy could provide both supplies and back-up fire during battles as the army attacked British bases. Chauncey was ill, however, and this delayed his response to Brown's request. Finally Chauncey told Brown that his navy would not be available, as they were meant for higher purposes than just backing up the army. Brown's troops were on their own.

The Battle of Lundy's Lane

The next major battle of the campaign took place on July 25 when about one thousand troops under Scott engaged a British force of between sixteen hundred and eighteen hundred under Riall (reinforcements on both sides would bring their numbers up to twenty-one hundred and three thousand, respectively) at Lundy's Lane, located just west of Niagara Falls. The noise of the falls competed with that of the battle well into the night. It was an incredibly fierce fight that lasted five hours and included many moments of chaos and confusion; both sides, for example, experienced moments when soldiers were actually firing on their own troops. British soldiers who had arrived recently from fighting in the brutal Napoleonic Wars claimed the battle was as intense as any they had experienced.

The British had placed a battery (set of guns) of six big guns on top of a small hill, and the Americans succeeded in a daring assault to take it over. The charge was led by Colonel James Miller (1776-1851), who became famous for having calmly said, when told he must try to take the hill, "I'll try, sir," as quoted in Donald R. Hickey's The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict. The British made several attempts to recover the battery but the U.S. troops held on through mounting exhaustion and thirst. Each of the top four officers on the scene was wounded: on the American side, Brown and Scott (two horses had been killed under him during the battle, and his injuries sidelined him for the rest of the war), and on the British side, Riall and General Gordon Drummond (1772-1854).

Finally Brown ordered a retreat. The Americans managed to carry away only one of the guns for which this terribly bloody battle had been waged. Casualties were very high on both sides: 81 British soldiers had been killed and 562 wounded; the Americans, 171 killed and 573 wounded. Afterward, the British expected the U.S. forces to attack again, but the attack never came. Instead, Brown pulled his troops back to Fort Erie. Although the U.S. forces had been the first to withdraw from the battlefield, they had done so while they were in a dominant position, also the casualties for each side were fairly close in number; therefore, the Battle of Lundy's Lane was considered a draw.

Successfully defending Fort Erie

As the summer of 1814 wore on, the British focused their attention on Fort Erie, now defended by twenty-one hundred soldiers under the command General Edmund P. Gaines (1777-1849) because Brown was in Buffalo, New York, recovering from his wounds. On August 13 the British showered the fort with artillery fire, and on August 15 they advanced with bayonets (daggerlike weapons that fit on the end of the muzzle of a rifle) drawn. One of their columns managed to break through the U.S. defenses and enter the fort, engaging its defenders in close combat for about two hours. During the battle a powder magazine (ammunitions storehouse) exploded, killing many British soldiers and sending the rest scurrying. Both of the British commanding officers had been killed, while 360 soldiers were killed or wounded and 540 were captured or missing. U.S. casualties numbered only 130, making this a major victory for the United States.

Rather than giving up on Fort Erie, the British began to bomb it from a position about five hundred yards away. Brown, who had returned to take command of his troops, was determined not to evacuate the fort. Instead, he made a plan to send a force out in a sortie (a quick raid) to destroy the cannons the British were using for the attack. On September 17 twelve hundred New York militiamen under the command of Miller and Porter headed out in the middle of a rainstorm, surprising the British and disabling two batteries of guns before withdrawing. Again, casualties were high: six hundred on the British side, five hundred on the American.

Brown was extremely pleased with the performance of the New York militia during the sortie, for throughout the war the various state militias had proved astoundingly uncooperative and often equally unskilled. Like the Battle of Lundy's Lane, this one had shown that American soldiers—and in this case, volunteers—could hold their own against the toughest British veterans. Despite this positive outcome, the Niagara campaign was now over, and it had brought the United States no real strategic gains. Meanwhile, other ups and downs had been occurring on the Chesapeake and Lake Champlain fronts.

Cochrane raids the Chesapeake Bay area

Having taken the offensive on the Niagara River, the British also were on the move along the mid-Atlantic coast. In August 1814, they had begun to launch raids on small towns around the Chesapeake Bay (which touches on the states of Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware), something similar to what they had done in 1813. Great Britain had several goals, the most important of which being to create a diversion that would relieve pressure on their troops fighting in the Northeast. They also wanted revenge for the burning and pillaging by American soldiers after the United States won the Battle of York.

Leading the naval part of this effort was Admiral Alexander Cochrane (1758-1832), who had succeeded John Borlase Warren (1753-1822; see "The British bolster their naval forces" in chapter 4) as commander of the British Navy in North America and who took up his task with enthusiasm. Meanwhile, Great Britain also sent a formidable land force to the area: twenty-five hundred soldiers, fresh from fighting Napoleon's troops in France, arrived in the Chesapeake Bay on August 15, commanded by Major General Robert Ross (1766-1814). The British now had a total of forty-five hundred troops in the region, and twenty warships.

Controlling the Chesapeake Bay gave Great Britain access not only to the many small towns situated along its coastline, but the important cities of Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Maryland. An attack on the capital of the United States would deliver a severe blow to Americans' pride and morale, and Baltimore was a thriving, wealthy seaport and naval center. Considered a "nest of pirates," according to Elting, by the British, Baltimore was home base to many privateers and thus a source of potential prize money for those who captured privateer ships.

The British plan to attack Washington, D.C.

The British began their expedition by pursuing Joshua Barney (1759-1818), a privateer who had been assigned to protect the Chesapeake Bay with his flotilla (a small fleet or group) of ships but who had retreated up the Patuxent River when he spotted the large British fleet. The British ships proceeded about twenty-five miles up the Patuxent and landed at Benedict, which is located about sixty miles south of Washington, D.C. One of Cochrane's squadrons (several units of military organization) continued in pursuit of Barney, while Ross's army disembarked. On August 20, they began their march north, reaching Upper Marlboro, Maryland, two days later. Meanwhile, knowing he would soon be cornered, Barney managed to abandon and burn his ships before the British arrived.

Cochrane was convinced that the time was right for an attack on Washington, D.C., and Ross finally agreed with him. They decided that the least risky and less expected route into the city was through the town of Bladensburg, located just northeast of the city.

A shocking lack of preparation on the part of the U.S. leadership would soon prove that Cochrane's instincts were correct. As early as July 1, Madison had told Congress that he expected an attack on the capital. Secretary of War John Armstrong (1758-1843), however, was absolutely convinced that the British would never bother with Washington; their logical target, he maintained, was Baltimore, and he concentrated most of the available resources on the defense of that city.

Madison, nevertheless, did succeed in establishing the District of Columbia as a special military district. General William Winder (1775-1824), a Baltimore lawyer, was assigned to head up the defense of the nation's capital. Chosen primarily because the administration wanted to secure the support of his uncle, Levin Winder (1757-1819), who was the Governor of Maryland and a Federalist, William did not have much experience in commanding troops. There would be only about only five hundred regular soldiers available in the event of an attack, so the defense of the city would have to depend mostly on whatever militia could be rounded up. Winder, who did not arrive in Washington to set up his headquarters until August 1, wanted to call up four thousand militia right away, but Armstrong insisted that they could only be activated in the presence of imminent danger.

On August 18, the news of the British landing at Benedict, Maryland, arrived in Washington. Clearly the British were on their way, but was their destination Baltimore or the capital? Winder finally received word to call up the militia, and by August 20, he had gathered nine thousand (most of them from Maryland and Pennsylvania). Still unsure which city the British would attack, Winder sent five thousand troops to Baltimore, deploying the rest around the District of Columbia.

In an unusual move for a member of the president's cabinet, Secretary of State James Monroe (1758-1831) volunteered to serve as a scout, heading off on horseback toward Benedict to find out the number of British troops on the way. When Monroe neared Benedict, however, he was afraid to get any closer than three miles to the British, and he had forgotten his telescope. Thus, he concluded that they had six thousand troops; he overestimated the number by about fifteen hundred.

The Battle of Bladensburg

Since the Americans had failed to obstruct the roads or burn the bridges leading toward Washington, the British were able to make a fairly quick advance. Skirting Washington and arriving at Bladensburg to the north, they were met and engaged by the U.S. troops. But the U.S. forces were immediately at a disadvantage because Monroe mishandled the self-appointed task of how the troops should be arranged for battle. The fight did not go well for the hastily assembled, inexperienced U.S. soldiers, and many of the militia-men fled after only a few minutes of battle. The British use of very noisy—although not very harmful—Congreve rockets (a standard part of the ammunition of most British warships developed by Lieutenant William Congreve) proved especially terrifying to the Americans. After about three hours of fighting, and despite the late appearance of Joshua Barney's more seasoned troops, the British took control of Bladensburg, in spite of the fact that they had experienced more casualties than the Americans. After resting for two hours, Ross's troops set off for the capital, arriving at about eight o'clock in the evening.

The capital city burns

Most of the city's residents, hearing of the American defeat at Bladensburg, had fled in a hurry. Madison was in Virginia, and Winder had gone with his defeated troops to Frederick, Maryland. The President's wife Dolley Madison (1768-1849; see biographical entry) had left the White House with a wagon full of important documents and other official items, but most of her personal belongings had been left behind.

Finding no one with whom to negotiate the terms of Washington's surrender, Ross ordered the city's public buildings destroyed. A group of British officers entered the White House and found a table set for forty people; they ate a good dinner, complete with wine, before burning the White House to the ground. Also destroyed were the Capitol and the buildings housing the Congress, Treasury Department, and the War Department. The fires burned brightly all night. The next morning, the British departed from Washington and marched back to Benedict, where they reboarded their ships.

Meanwhile, a British force under Captain James Gordon (1782-1869) had sailed up the Potomac River to provide support for Ross's invasion. By August 27 (two days after Ross left Washington), Gordon had reached Fort Washington, about ten miles south of the capital. To the amazement of the British, the Americans there responded to the enemy's arrival by abandoning and burning the fort, leaving the way clear for the British to enter Alexandria, Virginia, located about six miles upriver.

The defenseless city immediately surrendered to the British, who began to load a huge quantity of goods—including flour, tobacco, cotton, sugar, and wine—into twenty-one ships. Upon leaving Alexandria, Gordon's troops were fired upon by Americans on the riverbanks, but they made it safely to Chesapeake Bay.

Madison and his cabinet members returned to Washington on August 27, where many citizens held him responsible for the humiliating invasion of the nation's capital. According to Walter Lord's book The Dawn's Early Light, someone had even scrawled on a wall of the destroyed Capitol, "George Washington founded this city after a seven years' war with England—James Madison lost it after a two years' war." Madison's lack of popularity was second only to that of Secretary of War John Armstrong (1758-1843), who soon resigned from his office. Madison then appointed Monroe to take over Armstrong's duties.

The British plan to attack Plattsburg

During the same month as Britain's successful invasion of Washington, D.C., about seventeen thousand battled-toughened veterans of the Napoleonic Wars arrived in the Quebec and Montreal areas of Canada, ready to assist in Great Britain's planned invasion of the United States in order to move closer to their food supplies and increase territorial gains. The first target of the invasion was Plattsburg, New York, since it exists along the Richeliew River-Lake Champlain line and is a natural gateway to the United States. The British intended to accomplish this invasion with the support of their fleet on Lake Champlain, a body of water that is sandwiched between Vermont and New York. Unfortunately for the U.S. side, Armstrong had earlier ordered that most of the U.S. forces be moved from Plattsburg to Sacket's Harbor, New York. Left behind was General Alexander Macomb (1782-1841) with thirty-five hundred soldiers.

When Macomb learned of the British plan, he called for militia backup. New York and Vermont (which had previously not only taken a back seat in the war, but had provided large quantities of beef and timber to the British) responded with eight hundred and twenty-five hundred troops, respectively. On September 3, the U.S. Navy also heeded the call for help. thirty-year-old Lieutenant Thomas Macdonough (1783-1825) arrived commanding three warships: the Saratoga (twenty-six guns), the Ticonderoga (seventeen guns), and the Preble (seven guns), the Eagle, (a sloop with twenty guns), and ten gunboats. The gunboats, as well as a detachment of three hundred regular soldiers, harassed the British troops—about ten thousand of them—as they made their way toward Plattsburg.

Sir George Prevost (1767-1816), the governor-in-chief of Canada, was in command of the land invasion. The naval force on Lake Champlain was to begin an attack at the same time as that of the land forces. The ever cautious Prevost halted his troops across from the American position (three forts built on a peninsula between the lake and the Saranac River) to await the arrival of Captain George Downie's (d. 1814) fleet, which included the Confiance (thirty-seven guns), the Linnet (sixteen guns), the Chubb (eleven guns), and the Finch (eleven guns), along with twelve gunboats. The brand-new Confiance only had been completed just before the battle.

Fierce fighting on Lake Champlain

The British fleet arrived on September 9, and on September 11 they sailed into Plattsburg Bay to begin their attack. Because the U.S. Navy ships were equipped with more short-range than long-range guns, Macdonough also had moved his fleet into the bay to lure the British closer. The Saratoga and the Confiance were the first to do battle, and the Saratoga immediately took a broadside (in which a ship fires all of the guns on one side at the same time) that killed forty men. The crews' spirits plummeted, until a rooster that had escaped from its cage flew into the ship's sails. It gave a loud crow, and the men cheered and plunged back into the fight.

The battle lasted only an hour and a half, with each side repeatedly gaining and losing the upper hand. A big blow to British morale came in the first fifteen minutes of the battle, when Downie was killed. Macdonough was knocked down twice—once by the severed head of a soldier—but continued to direct the battle. Toward the end of the battle, the Americans surprised the British when Macdonough, having previously anchored the Saratoga so as to make it easier to maneuver, brought the damaged but still dangerous Saratoga around into position for a broadside on the Confiance. The other ship could not respond in kind and was soon forced to surrender.

Meanwhile, Prevost had waited until the naval battle was well underway before ordering the land forces into action. They had not made much progress when, hearing of the defeat of the British fleet on the lake and worried about his supply lines, Prevost ordered his men to retreat. The British generals under Prevost were stunned, for they knew their troops outnumbered the Americans; the U.S. generals also were amazed. Prevost was later accused of mismanaging the battle and court-martialed (called to trial before a military court) but died before he could present his case.

The British defeat at the Battle of Plattsburg crushed any remaining hopes they had of expanding their Canadian territory, while the victory put the United States in a stronger position at the Ghent negotiations. It also served as a morale booster that was much needed after the sacking of Washington, D.C. Macdonough became a nationally known hero and was showered with praise and rewards (including large plots of land in New York and Vermont).

The next British target: Baltimore

Also in early September 1814 Great Britain decided to follow up on its victory at Washington, D.C., with an attack on Baltimore. Home to forty-five thousand residents (making it the nation's third largest city), Baltimore was an attractive target to the British because it was not only an important commercial center and privateer base (its warehouses were loaded with merchandise taken from five hundred British merchant ships) but a hotbed of anti-British feeling.

Aware that the British would want to attack Baltimore, the city's leaders had established a Committee of Vigilance and Safety to oversee preparations for the defense of Baltimore. They asked Samuel Smith (1752-1839), a U.S. Senator and a major general in the Maryland militia, to lead this effort. Smith soon made it clear that every able-bodied male resident would either have to fight or pick up a shovel. By the middle of 1814, trenches and defensive breastworks (low walls put up to protect gunners) had been built around the city.

The British plan was for Ross's army troops to approach Baltimore on foot, while Cochrane's naval vessels attackedFort McHenry south of the city. Ross landed forty-five hundred troops at North Point on September 12 and began marching them toward Baltimore, located about fourteen miles away. About halfway there, the British force met thirty-two hundred militiamen who had been sent out from Baltimore under the command of General John Stricker (d. 1825).

The battle that followed turned out to be a victory for the British, but it was costly: they had 340 casualties, while the Americans had 215. One of those killed was Ross himself, shot by an American sharpshooter as he rode his white horse to the front of his advancing troops to investigate a delay. Ross's body was shipped back to England in a barrel of rum, so that it would not decay during the long journey.

Colonel Arthur Brooke (1772-1843) took over command of the British troops and led them again toward Baltimore. As they approached the city, however, they found it heavily fortified. Unable to lure the Americans out from behind their defensive works, Brooke decided that the likelihood of overtaking the city by land was not enough to justify the number of casualties that an attempt would bring. He turned his troops back.

At the same time as Ross was moving toward Baltimore by land, Cochrane had brought his bomb and rocket ships up the Patapsco River toward Fort McHenry, which was defended by a thousand soldiers under the command of Major George Armistead (1780-1818). Cochrane's plan was to disable the fort's big guns, then bring in the lighter British ships to fire on and break through the line of American defenders.

"The rocket's red glare"

For twenty-four hours on September 13 and 14, the British kept up a continuous bombardment of Fort McHenry. But of the fifteen hundred rounds of ammunition they fired, only four hundred hit the fort, and these did very little damage. Only four Americans were killed, with twenty-four wounded. Because the Americans lacked the long-range weapons they would need to reach the British fleet, they could not respond to the attack, but that made little difference. The British were forced to give up.

Witnessing the "red glare" of the Congreve rockets that night was a Georgetown lawyer and militiaman named Francis Scott Key (1779-1843). Early in the confrontation, Key had boarded an American ship to help negotiate the release of a prisoner. Although he succeeded in this task, he was detained on the ship until the battle was over. Key kept watch through the night, and on the morning of September 14 he saw the oversized American flag still flying over Fort McHenry. The sight inspired him to write "The Star-Spangled Banner" to the tune of an old British drinking song. Immediately popular, the song became the national anthem of the United States in 1931. Relatively few Americans realize, however, that its author was aboard a British ship that was bombing the United States when it was written!

The fruitless Battle of Baltimore was the last in Great Britain's Chesapeake campaign, which had embittered Americans who had witnessed or heard about its excesses. In addition to its plundering of peaceful, sleepy towns around the region, the British were accused of trying to start a slave rebellion. Although they had not really gone that far, Cochrane had issued a proclamation, recorded in Hickey's The War of 1812, that offered a "choice of either entering into His Majesty's Sea or Land Forces, or of being sent as FREE settlers to the British possessions in North America or the West Indies." About three hundred African American slaves took the British up on their offer and entered the British military service. When the British left the area, they took with them several thousand runaway slaves.

Almost a month before the Battle of Baltimore, representatives from the United States and Great Britain arrived in Ghent, Belgium, to begin negotiations for ending the war. This would be the last battle fought before the Christmas Eve signing of the agreement. Great Britain's failure to take the city of Baltimore and the defeat on Lake Champlain would weaken its position at the peace talks. By contrast, the U.S. victories would be the source of enormous pride for Americans across the country—especially after the humiliating invasion of Washington, D.C.

The Gulf campaign begins

In September 1814, with their Chesapeake Bay campaign finished, the British continued with the next phase of their plans: an invasion of the Gulf Coast of the United States (situated on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and including the present-day states of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida). Their ultimate goal was to attack New Orleans, a city of forty-five thousand people located about one hundred miles up the Mississippi River from the Gulf in what is now Louisiana. Control of New Orleans meant control of the mouth of the Mississippi River, the place where it meets the ocean and the place that provided a vital link to sea trade for Americans who lived west of the Appalachian mountains. The city would be a valuable possession for Great Britain in the peace negotiations.

About a month before the campaign actually began, the British set the groundwork for it by taking possession of Pensacola, a West Florida city that was held by the Spanish, along with adjoining Fort San Carlos de Barrancas. The Spanish reluctantly allowed the British to occupy the town since they feared an imminent invasion by the United States.

Meanwhile, two months after the Battle of Horseshoe Bend (which took place in March 1813; see "The Battle of Horseshoe Bend" in this chapter), Major General Andrew Jackson had been given command of an area that included the cities of Mobile (now part of Alabama) and New Orleans as well as the whole U.S. Army in the Southwest. Jackson was able to repel a British attack on Mobile in September at Fort Bowyer, which stood between the sea and the city.

From Pensacola to New Orleans

Jackson was firmly convinced that Pensacola was the key to dominating the Gulf Coast as well as eventually conquering all of West Florida, and he intended to take it from the British. Government leaders disagreed, fearing war with Spain might erupt over the issue. They sent word to Jackson that he was not to attack, but he had already left before the orders arrived. In early November, Jackson arrived at Pensacola with forty-one hundred regular soldiers, militia, and Native Americans to find the city deserted by the British (who had retreated into Fort Barrancas after their defeat at Mobile) and defended by only five hundred Spanish troops. The Spanish surrendered almost immediately.

The British now retreated, but as they left they blew up all the forts on Pensacola Bay. Pensacola posed no threat without its forts, so Jackson also left. Having heard that the British would soon attack New Orleans, he marched his troops there, arriving on December 1, 1814. New Orleans is situated in a terrain of swampy wetlands veined with bayous (small rivers or creeks running through the swamps) and canals, offering the British a wide variety of possible approaches. With his usual energy and aggressiveness, Jackson built up the city's defenses. Whereas a cloud of defeatism had previously hung over New Orleans's diverse population (which included French and Spanish people; African Americans; Native Americans; and Creoles, people of mixed heritage), almost everyone now pitched in to help.

Jackson quickly began making sure that all the water approaches from the Gulf to the city were blocked, and he set up batteries at strategic points along the way. Militia began arriving from nearby states. Jackson let it be known that free blacks (those who had managed to avoid or buy their way out of slavery) were welcome to enlist in his army, and he accepted the services of a special corps of black troops under the command of Colonel Jean Baptiste Savary.

The Baratarian pirates, who used the island of Barataria located on the mouth of the Mississippi River, were led by a dashing figure named Jean Lafitte (c.1780-c. 1826). They volunteered to serve in the U.S. military, mostly because they had been charged with violating trade laws and wanted to be pardoned. Even though Jackson had previously called them "hellish banditti," as reported in Hickey's The War of 1812, he had a desperate need for the Baratarians' guns and ammunition, so he accepted their offer. They would contribute a great deal to the Battle of New Orleans, because they were good shots and had a thorough knowledge of the local terrain. Lafitte even became a kind of unofficial aide to Jackson, and Madison did pardon him after the war; he later returned to pirating, however, and served as a spy for the Spanish.

The British begin their attack

The British were also preparing for their attack. After the unfortunate death of Robert Ross at the Battle of Baltimore, Major General Sir Edward Pakenham (1778-1815) had taken over command of the British troops. The British land and naval forces (the latter still commanded by Cochrane), which numbered about ten thousand, met up in Jamaica, an island in the West Indies south of Cuba, and sailed for the Gulf of Mexico in late November. They arrived off the coast of Florida on December 5. Contemplating the various routes available for attacking New Orleans, they decided that the best was through Lake Borgne, east of the city.

On December 14, the British approached Lake Borgne, where they encountered a small force of U.S. troops (185 men on five gunboats) under Lieutenant Thomas ap Catesby Jones (1790-1858). Although they were not really prepared to fight, the Americans turned and faced the British assault force of forty boats and twelve hundred men commanded by Captain Nicholas Lockyer. Jones's troops were thoroughly beaten—forty were killed and the rest captured—but this skirmish delayed the British advance and gave Jackson a little more time to work on defenses.

The British force now advanced across Lake Borgne and proceeded via bayous and canals until, on December 23, they reached a plantation owned by Jacques Villeré, located about eight miles south of New Orleans on the Mississippi River. They took over Villeré's house and set up camp, but Villeré's son managed to slip away and went to warn Jackson of the enemy's location. Determined to catch the British before they were fully prepared, Jackson quickly hustled eighteen hundred troops to within a mile of the British position. Backing him up on the river were two U.S. ships, the Carolina (fourteen guns) and the Louisiana (twenty-two guns).

On the evening of December 23, the Carolina opened fire on the British, catching them by surprise. They were even more surprised when Jackson's army attacked. It was a chaotic, confusing battle with much hand-to-hand fighting and occasions when men fired at their own troops. When it was over and both armies withdrew, the British had suffered 275 casualties and the Americans, 215.

The next few days saw the arrival of British reinforcements as well as Pakenham, whose ship had made an especially slow crossing from England. Meanwhile, the U.S. troops had retreated and formed a new battle line about two miles from the British. Situated behind a canal, with a swamp on the east and the Mississippi River on the west, they began building breastworks (temporary fortifications).

On December 27 Pakenham took action against the two U.S. ships which had been constantly bombarding the British position. The British managed to blow up the Carolina but the Louisiana escaped. The next day Pakenham ordered his troops to advance on the American line, but the resulting barrage of fire was so great that the British were forced back. Another artillery duel took place on December 31, with the British again forced to retreat. As the negotiations for bringing the war to a close were coming to a close in Ghent, Belgium, British and American forces positioned themselves for what would be the bloodiest conflict of the war—the Battle of New Orleans. (See "The Battle of New Orleans" in chapter 6.)

The war at sea

During the last year of the war, the British had continued to dominate the sea, especially through their use of the blockade. In April 1814 the blockade was extended to New England in an effort to prevent neutral countries from trading with the United States and to keep warships from using New England ports. American trade suffered even worse losses than before. For example, the value of exports (goods that are shipped to other countries) had been $61,300,000 in 1811 but fell to only $6,900,000 in 1814; while imports (goods that are shipped into a country) fell from $53,400,000 in 1811 to $13,000,000 in 1814. There were more oversupplies and shortages, just as there had been in 1813, and the shipping industry was especially hard hit.

The British stepped up their raids on coastal towns, and now New England also was affected. Coastal islands like Nantucket and Cape Cod (off the coast of Massachusetts) were cut off from the mainland and forced to declare neutrality or pay the British to avoid problems and receive supplies.

The British blockade meant that most U.S. warships were stuck in port, and those who tried to sneak out often paid a heavy price. A major loss to the U.S. fleet occurred after the peace treaty had been signed, but before the news reached the United States. In command of the heavy frigate President (fiftytwo guns), Captain Stephen Decatur (1779-1820) decided to take advantage of a heavy, early January snowstorm to slip out of New York's harbor. The President was caught, however, by a squadron of British ships and defeated on January 15.

The famous ship Constitution fared better. Commanded by Captain Charles Stewart (1778-1869), the Constitution escaped from Boston harbor in December and subsequently defeated two British ships, the Cyane and the Levant. Also successful were three of the six new U.S. sloops, the Hornet, the Peacock, and the Wasp. These ships captured a number of British vessels, including the Penguin, the Reindeer, the Avon, and the Epervier. The other three U.S. sloops—the Frolic, the Syren, and the Rattlesnake —were defeated by the British, while the Wasp was lost at sea for unknown reasons.

Both warships and privateers kept up their harassment of British merchant ships. As in 1813, the British Isles was the best hunting ground, because there the merchant ships were not required to travel in convoys (small groups) for protection and consequently made easy targets. Two especially noteworthy privateers were the Prince-de-Neufchatel, which captured or destroyed one million dollars worth of British property in a single cruise, and the Governor Tompkins, which caught and destroyed fourteen ships in the English Channel (the body of water that lies between England and France).

The United States faces a crisis

The nature of the war had changed by the fall of 1814 as Napoleon's defeat in Europe allowed Great Britain to go on the offensive in North America. The U.S. envoys were at Ghent, Belgium, meeting with British officials. As yet there was no word of an agreement and if those peace negotiations failed, the United States would have to raise more troops to carry out a campaign in 1815. Currently there were about 40,000 soldiers enlisted in the army, well below the authorized level of 62,500. Without more soldiers, the United States would have to depend even more on state militias, which brought their own set of problems.

The government also continued to be plagued by financial problems. There was no doubt it would be short of funds for 1815, and the prospects of raising more money were bleak. Meanwhile, trade with the enemy had not only continued but increased, as the influx of troops from Great Britain had created a higher demand for provisions. It was hard for U.S. government officials to control smuggling, because they could not legally search every vehicle. In addition, the British had seized eastern Maine in September (terrain they coveted because it jutted into Canada between Nova Scotia and Quebec) and used the towns along the one hundred miles of coastline they controlled as ports of entry.

Economic conditions in the United States were divided, with some parts of the country suffering and others enjoying prosperity. In the South, which was dependent on the exports of agriculture, now prevented by the blockade, as well as in New England, where the important fishing and shipping industries also had been brought to a screeching halt, people were feeling the effects of a poor economy. Meanwhile, the middle and western states were benefiting from government contracts and manufacturing; Pennsylvania and New York, for example, sold huge quantities of war materials and agricultural products to the U.S. government. Military spending also helped Kentucky and Ohio, and such cities as Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Lexington, Louisville, and St. Louis were booming.

Congress ponders the nation's problems

In the elections of 1814, voters in the New England states showed their discontent with Madison's administration by electing more Federalists than ever. However, there also was discontent within the Republican Party. Those who had supported New York statesman DeWitt Clinton (1769-1828) rather than Madison in the previous presidential election, as well as the group of Madison detractors known as the "Invisibles" kept up their complaints about how Madison was managing the war. There was increasing hostility in both parties to what was known as the "Virginia dynasty," the perceived dominance in national politics of men (like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe) from Virginia. Madison's popularity plummeted even more when the British burned Washington, D.C.

Madison summoned the Thirteenth Congress for its third and last session on September 19, which was earlier than usual (normally the legislature would meet in November or December) but necessitated by the national crisis. Lawmakers and other officials were shocked to see the extent of the damage the British had inflicted on the capital, and everyone was scurrying to find suitable office space.

In his opening remarks to the Congress, Madison focused on American victories, leaving out any mention of Great Britain's gains. He admitted that there was a crisis at hand, but expressed optimism that the American people would find their way through it. Madison was not as optimistic about the prospects for peace, for he had heard from the U.S. representatives in Ghent that the British were making some extravagant demands, especially in their demand for a Native American homeland.

Among the issues debated during this session of Congress were the possibility of relocating the capital (Philadelphia was considered as a possible alternative, but eventually it was decided that Washington, D.C., would be rebuilt), how to raise more troops, and a controversial enlistment law. The administration wanted to call for seventy thousand more troops: forty thousand volunteers for local defense, and thirty thousand regular soldiers to fight in Canada. Congress would not accept the administration's plan to conscript (draft) soldiers, but eventually passed a law allowing state troops to be enlisted in federal service.

The enlistment law caused a controversy, especially in New England, because it said that minors between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one could enlist in the military without their parents' permission. Despite the controversy, the proposal became law. Congress also created a board of naval commissioners to make the navy more efficient, and authorized the construction of smaller ships that could—like privateers—make more of an impact on enemy commerce

New taxes and loans were authorized, but a proposal to establish a national bank was killed. Supporters of the idea claimed that the bank would serve as a source of national currency and government loans, make it easier to transfer funds across state lines, and in general streamline the financial system. But no one could agree on the details of how the bank should be designed, and Federalists (along with some Republicans) opposed it because they feared it would give the government too much control. Congress did pass a new enemy trade bill that made it legal for customs officials to search without a warrant any vehicles, ships, or people they suspected of involvement in illegal trade; this law was only two weeks old when its purpose was negated by the end of the war.

The final session of the Thirteenth Congress came to a close without accomplishing much in the opinion of many Americans. After all the talk about the nation's problems, hardly any solutions had been reached. The newspapers were full of criticisms of Congress and the administration, while in New England, opposition to the way things were going was addressed at the Hartford Convention.

The Hartford Convention

The strongest expression of Federalist opposition to the war, the Hartford Convention was a regional conference held in Hartford, Connecticut from December 15, 1814, to January 5, 1815. It was the product of discontent and frustration felt by the New England states over the war. In particular, they felt that the government had allotted a disproportionally small portion of money and soldiers for the defense of New England, forcing them to finance much of their own protection. Since the British had extended the blockade, the New England coast was more vulnerable to raids, and the costs of these raids had already proved high.

These and other complaints led Governor Caleb Strong (1745-1819) of Massachusetts to call a special session of the state legislature in the fall of 1814. There the legislature recommended that a convention be held to allow delegates to discuss the region's problems and try to come up with some solutions. Twelve delegates were chosen to represent Massachusetts. The legislatures of Connecticut and Rhode Island also endorsed this proposal, and sent seven and four delegates, respectively. Although New Hampshire and Vermont did not officially participate, two counties in each state chose delegates, three of whom attended the convention. Altogether, there were twenty-six delegates at the convention.

The New England press had been loud and extreme in its opposition to the Madison administration, even suggesting that the New England states secede (separate themselves) from the United States. By contrast, most of the delegates at the Hartford Convention were moderates with no intention of severing any ties with the United States (and aware of the danger of suggesting such a thing, in a time of war). Their deliberations were secret, and the only record kept was the very sketchy journal of convention secretary Theodore Dwight (1764-1846) from Massachusetts. Playing a prominent role was Massachusetts politician Harrison Gray Otis (1765-1848), who wrote most of the convention's final report.

The Hartford Convention's report

Released on January 6, 1815, the report focused partly on issues of the war, recommending that states use federal tax money collected within their borders to pay for local defense, and that states nullify (make nonexistent) the federal law authorizing minors to enlist in the military without their parents' consent and the proposals to begin drafting soldiers.

In addition, the convention proposed seven amendments to the U.S. Constitution, all of them attempts to address New England's grievances. One amendment would require a two-thirds vote in Congress to declare war, restrict trade, or admit new states to the union; others would limit embargoes to thirty days and require a two-thirds vote in both houses for the adoption of commercial nonintercourse (trade restrictions) acts. The law allowing states in which slavery was practiced to count each slave as three-quarters of a person (which gave southern states an advantage in terms of congressional and electoral college representatives, which were determined on the basis of population) would be repealed. To limit the influence of foreign-born individuals (such as the Madison administration's Swiss-born Albert Gallatin) as well as the Virginia dynasty, which is how some referred to the dominance of Virginia leaders (especially Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe) in national politics, proposed amendments would prevent naturalized citizens (those born in other countries) from holding federal office, limit presidents to one term of office, and prohibit presidents from the same state to be elected twice in succession.

The proposed amendments reflected all of New England's grievances during the last decade. Federalists hoped to help the New England states in practical, material ways while also increasing the region's influence in national politics. Except for the policy nullifying the enlistment laws, all of the convention's positions were moderately voiced, and no stronger solutions (such as secession) were proposed. The report stated that if these grievances were not addressed, another convention would simply be called in June 1815 or sooner.

The governments of Massachusetts and Connecticut approved the convention's report and endorsed the proposed amendments. They also both nullified the enlistment of minors law, although Massachusetts did not do so until the war was over and the law was no longer important. Just as emissaries (agents) were about to request that the federal government provide tax money for New England's defense, news of Jackson's victory at New Orleans arrived, followed soon by the news that the Treaty of Ghent had been signed. With the war over and the majority of Americans feeling that it had been both justified and successful, the Hartford Convention came to look like an occasion of disloyalty. Despite the delegates' desire to avoid the appearance of treasonous (attempting to overthrow the government of one's country) intentions, that's exactly what they—and, by extension, the whole Federalist Party—were suspected of having. In fact, memory of the Hartford Convention would contribute to the Federalists' downfall in the years following the war.

For More Information


Altoff, Gerald. Amongst My Best Men: African-Americans and the War of 1812. Put-in-Bay, Ohio: The Perry Group, 1996.

Annals of Congress: Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States, 1789-1824, 42 vols., Washington, D.C.: 1834-56.

Arthur, Stanley Clisby. Jean Lafitte, Gentleman Rover. New Orleans, La:Harmanson, 1952.

Brooks, Charles B. The Siege of New Orleans. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1961.

Carter, Samuel. Blaze of Glory: The Fight for New Orleans, 1814-1815. London: Macmillan, 1971.

Coles, Harry L. The War of 1812. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965.

Crane, Jay David, and Elaine Crane, eds. The Black Soldier: From the American Revolution to Vietnam. New York: William Morrow, 1971.

Elting, John R. Amateurs to Arms!: A Military History of the War of 1812. Da Capo Press, 1995. Reprint. Original published by Algonquin Press, Chapel Hill, N.C., 1991.

Furlong, William R., and Byron McCandless. So Proudly We Hail: The History of the United States Flag. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981.

Heidler, David S., and Jeanne T. Heidler, eds. Encyclopedia of the War of 1812. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 1997.

Hickey, Donald R. The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.

Kroll, Steven. By the Dawn's Early Light: The Story of the Star-Spangled Banner. New York: Scholastic, 2000.

Lord, Walter. The Dawn's Early Light. New York: W. W. Norton, 1972.

Lloyd, Alan. The Scorching of Washington: The War of 1812. Washington, D.C.: Robert B. Luce, 1974.

Mahon, John K. The War of 1812. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, Inc.1991.

Vogel, Robert C. "Jean Lafitte, the Baratarians, and the Historical Geography of Piracy in the Gulf of Mexico." Gulf Coast Historical Review 5 (1990): 63-77.

Web sites

Discriminating Generals. [Online] (accessed on November 26, 2001).

DocumentsontheWarof1812. [Online] (accessed on November 26, 2001).

Thomas Warner Letters. [Online] (accessed on November 26, 2001).

War of 1812. [Online] (accessed on November 26, 2001).

"War of 1812." KidInfo. [Online] (accessed on November 26, 2001).

"War of 1812." Studyweb. [Online] (accessed on November 26, 2001).

War of 1812-1814. [Online] (accessed on November 26, 2001).

War of 1812—Forgotten War. Brief articles on battles. [Online] (accessed on November 26, 2001).

Albert Gallatin: Financial Expert and Skillful Negotiator

Much respected for both his intellect and his ability to forge compromises, Albert Gallatin was secretary of the treasury during President James Madison's administration. He also played a key role in the War of 1812 when he served on the five-member team sent to Ghent, Belgium, to negotiate a peace treaty to end the war.

The son of a wealthy merchant from an aristocratic, politically active family, Albert Gallatin was born in Geneva, Switzerland, on January 29, 1761. Orphaned as a child, he was raised by a relative. After graduating from the Academy of Geneva, the nineteen-year-old Gallatin sailed for the United States. Despite his aristocratic background, he had a liberal outlook and was inspired by the democratic ideals of the American Revolution and looked forward to becoming a citizen of the new nation.

Gallatin worked briefly as a merchant in Maine, then for several years as a French tutor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 1786 he bought a four-hundred-acre farm in western Pennsylvania. His neighbors were impressed by his intellect and broad worldview, and in 1788 they elected him as a delegate to a meeting to propose amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The next year, he was elected as a delegate to Pennsylvania's Constitutional Convention.

In 1790 Gallatin was elected to the Pennsylvania state legislature, where he served for two years and gained a reputation as a hard worker, a man of principle, and a good speaker. He also demonstrated a strong understanding of financial issues. Gallatin was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1793 as a Republican, but he served only three months because members of the opposing party, the Federalists, challenged his eligibility on the grounds that he had not been an American citizen long enough.

Returning to Pennsylvania, Gallatin was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1795. There he worked especially hard on financial issues, proposing the creation of the Ways and Means Committee to oversee the government's finances. Gallatin became the Republican spokesman in the House in 1797. In this position he expressed strong opposition to the Quasi War (a brief conflict between the United States and France that took place in the Caribbean region and involved attacks on U.S. merchant ships) and to the Alien andSedition Acts, which were intended to stifle criticism of the government.

Thomas Jefferson won the presidential election in 1800, and after taking office in 1801 he named Gallatin secretary of the treasury, a position he would hold until 1814. Gallatin pushed through a number of positive measures, including a plan to pay off the public debt, to promote manufacturing, and to devote federal money to the building of roads and canals.

When the War of 1812 began in June, it wreaked havoc on all of Gallatin's financial policies, for the federal government was not financially prepared to support the expenses of the conflict. Gallatin grew increasingly frustrated and unhappy in his position. When Russia offered to mediate peace negotiations between Great Britain and the United States, now-president James Madison gave Gallatin leave from his Treasury Department job to travel to Europe and assist with the negotiations. Before the talks could begin, however, Great Britain refused to participate.

By the time the British offered to hold peace talks in Ghent, Belgium, in August 1814, Gallatin had already been in Europe for many months. He was soon assigned by Madison to serve on the five-member team that would represent the United States in Ghent and played a major role in the negotiation. He not only crafted much of the final document, but he also helped the whole process to go smoothly through his calm presence and ability to compromise.

For most of the following decade, Gallatin was the U.S. diplomatic representative to France, a position he left in 1823. In 1826 he served as the U.S. minister to Great Britain. After his return to the United States, Gallatin settled in New York and in1831 became the president of the National Bank, retiring in 1839. He spent his remaining years in active involvement with such cultural groups as the New York Historical Society and the American Ethnological Society.

Gallatin died in 1849, survived by Hannah, his wife of almost fifty-six years, and five children.

Sources: Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., 17 vols. Gale Research, 1998; Heidler, David S., and Jeanne T. Heidler, eds. Encyclopedia of the War of 1812. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 1997.

The Role of the Privateers

When the War of 1812 began, the United States Navy was not prepared to take on the Mistress of the Seas—the nickname Great Britain had earned through the prowess of her mighty navy. Fearful that a large military could pose a threat to a democratic nation, two successive Republican administrations had made sure that both the army and the navy decreased in size during the years that followed the Revolutionary War. The result was not only an ill-prepared army, but a tiny navy that lacked the ships and sailors it would need to fight Great Britain.

Fortunately for the United States, privateers were able to fill that gap. These were privately owned vessels licensed by "letters of marquee," documents that gave them official permission to attack, raid, and sink merchant ships sailing under the flag of the enemy country. While profitable for the owners and crew of the privateers themselves, this practice helped the United States by hurting Great Britain's economy and by keeping its own navy busy defending the commercial ships.

Privateering had been common in the United States since colonial days, and some of the naval officers who would gain fame during the War of 1812 (including Stephen Decatur and Joshua Barney) had gotten valuable early training by serving aboard privateers. Privateering featured a unique blend of patriotism and profit-seeking, and it was used with great success during the War of 1812. Privateers tended to be smaller and faster than war ships, making them hard for the British to catch. Eventually Great Britain did put a convoy system (by which ships would travel in groups, with warships guarding them) into effect, which cut down on their losses.

Privateers were much more numerous and better armed than the ships of the U.S. Navy, and they took more prizes (captured more British ships). For example, the U.S. Navy had 23 ships with 556 guns that had taken 254 prizes. In comparison, there were 517 privateer ships with 2,893 guns that had taken 1,345 prizes. Privateers inflicted 45.5 million dollars worth of damage to the British shipping industry, and captured 30,000 British prisoners.

The practice of privateering proved enormously enriching for many Americans, whose fortunes and social rank skyrocketed after several successful cruises (journeys made for the purpose of finding, fighting, and capturing or sinking enemy ships). Life aboard a privateer did involve danger and risk, however, and most of the U.S. prisoners of war in the main British prisons in Canada and England were privateer crew members captured at sea.

Several ships gained great fame for their daring and success as privateers. The Yankee, a ship out of Bristol, Rhode Island, that was equipped with 14 guns and a crew of 120, made six cruises, traveling to places as far apart as Nova Scotia in Canada, West Africa, and the English Channel. The Yankee took 40 prizes and seized an estimated $5,000,000 worth of property, making owner James De Wolfe one of the richest men in his state. Likewise, the Crowninshield family's America, based in Salem, Massachusetts, had 20 guns and crew of 150. Despite its large size, this ship was one of the fastest. The America made four cruises and captured 21 enemy ships, earning more than $1,000,000.

One of the most famous U.S. privateer captains was Thomas Boyle of Baltimore. He commanded the Comet, which carried sixteen guns and made twenty-seven captures, as well as the Chasseur, with sixteen guns and fifty-three prizes to its credit. A ship distinguished by her sleek, low lines, the Chasseur became known as the Pride of Baltimore.

After the war, some of the privateers went on to take part in and profit from the revolutions that were springing up throughout Latin America. But in general, the War of 1812 was the last conflict in which privateering was used on such a large scale. The practice was outlawed in 1865.

Sources: Heidler, David S., and Jeanne T. Heidler, eds. Encyclopedia of the War of 1812. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 1997.

Captain Daniel Pring Delivers Bad News

The following letter was written by Captain Daniel Pring to Commodore Sir James Yeo, commander of the British navy in the Great Lakes region, to inform him of the British defeat on Lake Champlain on September 10, 1814.

United States Ship SARATOGA, Plattsburg-Bay Lake Champlain, Sept 12, 1814


The painful task of making you acquainted with the circumstances attending the capture of his Majesty's squadron yesterday, by that of the Americans under Commodore M'Donough, it grieves me to state, becomes my duty to perform, from the ever-to-be-lamented loss of that worthy and gallant officer, Captain Downie, who unfortunately fell early in the action.…

From the light airs and the smoothness of the water, the fire on both sides proved very destructive from the commencement of the engagement, and with the exception of the brig [squarerigged sailing ship], that of the enemy seemed united against the CONFIANCE. After two hours severe conflict with our opponents she cut her cable, run down and took shelter between the ship and the schooner [a ship with two or more masts at its front and back ends], which enabled us to direct our fire against the division of the enemy gun-boats and ship, which had so long annoyed us during our close engagement with the brig without any return on our part; at this time the fire of the enemy ship slackened considerably, having several of her guns dismounted, when she cut her cable, and winded her larboard broadside to bear on the CONFIANCE, who, in vain, eneavoured to effect the same operation; at thirty-three minutes after two, I was much distressed to see that the CONFIANCE had struck her colours. The whole attention of the enemy force then became directed towards the LINNET, the shattered and disabled state of the masts, sails, rigging and yards, precluded the most distant hope of being able to effect an escape by cutting the cable; the result of doing so must, in a few minutes, have been her drifting alongside the enemy's vessels, close under our lee [side sheltered from the wind]; but in the hope that the flotilla of gun-boats, who had abandoned the object assigned them, would perceive our wantsand come to our assistance, which would afford a reasonable prospect of being towed clear, I determined to resist the then destructive cannonading of the whole of the enemy's fleet, and at the same time, despatched Lieut. H. Drew to ascertain the state of the CONFIANCE. At forty-five minutes after ten I was appraised of the irreparable loss she had sustained by the death of her brave commander (whose merits it would be presumption in me to extol), as well as the great slaughter which had taken place on board, and observing from the manoeuvers of the flotilla, that I could enjoy no further expectation of relief, the situation of my noble comrades who had so nobly fought, and even now fast falling by my side, demanded the surrender of his Majesty's brig entrusted to my command to prevent a useless waste of valuable lives, and at the request of the surviving officers and men, I gave the painful orders for the colours to be struck.…

…when it is taken into consideration that 16 days before the CONFIANCE was on the stocks, with an unorganized crew, composed of several drafts of men who had recently arrived from different ships at Quebec, many of whom only joined the day before and were totally unknown either to the officers or to each other, with the want of gun-locks as well as other necessary appointments not to be procured in this country, I trust you will feel satisfied of the decided advantage that the enemy possessed, exclusive of their great superiority in point of force.…

I have much satisfaction in making you acquainted with the humane treatment the wounded have received from Commodore M'Donough. They were immediately removed to his own hospital on Crab Island, and were furnished with every requisite [necessity]. His generous and polite attention also to myself, the officers and men, will ever hereafter be gratefully remembered. Enclosed I beg leave to return you the return of killed and wounded.

I have the honour to be,


Source: "The War on Lake Champlain 2." Copies of Official Documents. [Online] (accessed on May 11, 2001).

A Flag So Big the British Couldn't Miss It

In June 1813, Major George Armistead was assigned to take command at Fort McHenry, which was the main source of defense for the city of Baltimore, Maryland. Any enemy who tried to enter Baltimore's harbor would first have to pass the fort. Soon after his arrival, Armistead told General Samuel Smith, the commander of Baltimore's militia, that his troops were ready to defend Baltimore but they still lacked a suitable flag to fly over the fort. Armistead requested a flag so big that the British would have no difficulty recognizing it from a distance.

Baltimore's leading flagmaker was Mary Young Pickersgill, whose sign advertised her expertise in creating "Silk Standards and Cavalry Colors, and other Colors of Every Description." Working out of her home on Baltimore's Albemarle Street, Pickersgill and her daughter Caroline Purdy fulfilled Armistead's request. On August 19, 1813, he received Fort McHenry's new flag, which was adorned with fifteen stars and fifteen stripes (representing the states then in existence) and measured forty-two feet by thirty feet.

No one knows whether this huge flag was flown before the British made their famous attack on Fort McHenry on September 14, 1814. But there is no doubt that it was flying when the British retreated after an unsuccessful bombardment. The sight of Pickersgill's gigantic flag still waving in the breeze the morning after the attack inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem "The Star-Spangled Banner," which would eventually become the U.S. national anthem.

The flag last flew over Fort McHenry in 1824, in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette (a French general who had aided the United States during the Revolutionary War) when he was touring the nation. Armistead then kept the flag for himself, and after his death and that of his wife Louisa it became the property of his daughter Georgiana, who had been born at Fort McHenry in 1817. In 1907, the Armistead-Appleton family donated the flag to the Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of History in Washington, D.C., where it remains on display.

Naval Hero Stephen Decatur

One of the most celebrated heroes in U.S. naval history, Stephen Decatur first made a name for himself during the Tripolitan War in the first decade of the nineteenth century. He went on to become one of the most famous naval commanders of the War of 1812.

Born January 5, 1779, in Sinepuxent, Maryland, Decatur was the son of a merchant ship captain. After attending the University of Pennsylvania and working for a short period as a shipping company clerk in Philadelphia, Decatur received a commission as a midshipman (the lowest rank) in the U.S. Navy in 1798. He was sent to the Caribbean, where the navy was fighting against French privateers who had been attacking U.S. merchant ships.

Assigned to serve on the Essex and later the Argus, Decatur was next sent to the Mediterranean region, where the United States was involved in a conflict with the Barbary states (Tunisia, Algeria, and Tripoli), which were interfering with trade. Serving under Commodore Edward Preble, Decatur took command of the twelve-gun ship Enterprise. On February 16, 1804, he led a daring expedition that managed to destroy the USS Philadelphia, which had earlier been captured by the enemy.

Praised for his bold, competent leadership, Decatur was promoted to captain and put in charge of a division of gun-boats. While participating in the bombing of Tripoli, he captured two enemy gun-boats. By the time he returned to the United States, the tall, handsome, curly-haired Decatur was already famous, and he received many honors. He spent the next few years performing the rather dull work of patrolling the U.S. coastline to enforce the Embargo Act, a measure that restricted U.S. ships from trading with other nations in an attempt to punish Great Britain and France for their own trade restrictions on the United States.

After the United States declared war against Great Britain in June 1812, Decatur was assigned to command a small squadron of ships based in Norfolk, Virxsginia. In this capacity Decatur would sail out to sea in search of enemy ships to fight. On October 25, 1812, he was commanding the USS United States when it met the British ship Macedonian near the island of Madeira (located off the coast of Morocco in North Africa). The battle ended in victory for the United States, and once again Decatur was greeted as a hero when he returned home. He also received a $30,000 cash prize.

Promoted to the high rank of commodore in 1813, Decatur spent most of that year and the next confined—due to the British blockade of much of the East Coast—to the harbor at New London, Connecticut. But toward the end of 1814, Decatur was assigned to command the President and ordered to take charge of New York's port defenses. In January 1815, in the middle of a snowstorm, he made a bid to slip through the British blockade. The attempt was unsuccessful, for the President got stuck on a sandbar and was detected and chased by the British ships enforcing the blockade. In a defeat that was both bitter and ultimately meaningless (the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war, had been signed about three weeks earlier) Decatur had to surrender to the British.

After the war, Decatur returned to the Mediterranean in charge of an expedition that was successful in forcing the Barbary States to pay for damages the United States had incurred during the earlier conflict with those nations. For the third time in his career, Decatur was treated as a hero on his return to the United States.

From 1815 until his death, Decatur served on the Board of Navy Commissioners and advised the secretary of the navy. In March 1820, the hot temper and strong sense of honor that Decatur had always exhibited brought about his death when he was killed in a duel with another officer.

Sources: Heidler, David S., and Jeanne T. Heidler, eds. Encyclopedia of the War of 1812. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 1997; Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed. 17 vols. Gale Research, 1998.

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Peace Is Promised, But War Continues

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