An Unpromising Beginning

views updated

An Unpromising Beginning

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. In fact the first year of the war was a disaster for the United States, generally, due to poor preparation, poor leadership, and poor strategy.

Congress debates and plans for war

The congressional election of 1810 had brought to the forefront a number of young lawmakers eager for war with Great Britain, earning them the nickname War Hawks. When U.S. President James Madison (1751-1836; see biographical entry) called Congress into a special session in November 1811 to discuss the possibility of war, the War Hawks led the debate on the "yes" side. The "no" side was voiced by the outnumbered Federalists (a political party favoring a strong central government), who made up only 25 percent in the House of Representatives and 18 percent in the Senate; most prominent among them were Josiah Quincy (1772-1864; see biographical entry) of Massachusetts and James A. Bayard (1767-1815) of Delaware.

It might seem like a contradiction that representatives of the northeastern states, where so many people depended on the shipping industry for their livelihoods, would oppose a war in which the nation's shipping rights were being defended. But the fact is that northeastern shipping companies and merchants had made a good living despite the trade restrictions imposed by Great Britain and France. They enjoyed especially strong commercial relations with Great Britain, and they believed that severing those relations would be financially disastrous. The Federalists in Congress argued that the nation's disputes with Great Britain could and should be resolved by other means. They recommended that trade restrictions be lifted and suggested that U.S. merchant ships be allowed to carry weapons and defend themselves against any illegal actions. The Federalists also viewed the prospect of invading Canada with scorn, asking Republicans why a conflict that was supposedly all about shipping and sailors' rights would be fought on land.

For the next seven months the debate continued, while at the same time Congress enacted a number of measures to prepare the nation for war, even though it was generally expected (and hoped, by some people, at least) that Great Britain would change its policies in time to avoid war. Legislation was passed that authorized the army to bring its enlistment up to the authorized number of ten thousand (from less than seven thousand) and also to recruit twenty-five thousand regular soldiers to serve for five years. The president also was authorized to call up one hundred thousand state militiamen (small armies made up of troops residing in a particular state) to serve for six months.

At this time, Congress was dominated by Republicans who were, for the most, against taxes. For this reason, Congress did not approve any war taxes, and instead, arranged for loans from the Bank of the United States (BUS)—a centralized, national bank created by Congress in 1799, over the protests of the Republicans. These loans proved a problem, however, because the twenty-year charter of the BUS had expired in 1810. Republicans opposed anything they saw as giving the federal government too much power and refused to renew the charter. That meant that the government had to borrow money from state banks with higher interest rates (the fees banks charge for the privilege of borrowing money). The war exposed this serious weakness of the U.S. economy, leading to a recharter of the national bank after the war.

The United States declares war

For a while Madison tried to use diplomacy (the art or practice of handling international relations, including negotiating treaties, alliances, and trade agreements) to resolve the problems with Great Britain and was expecting a break through. As he awaited word from Britain, the War Hawks pressed their demands for war. On June 1, Madison relented and delivered to Congress a war message in which he stated that the British practices of impressing American seamen, interfering with U.S. trade, and urging and aiding Native Americans to commit acts of violence against Americans had made war necessary. Three days later, the House of Representatives approved the Declaration of War with a vote of seventy-nine to forty-nine; on June 17 the Senate voted in favor of the war by a margin of nineteen to thirteen. On June 18, Madison signed the formal war declaration. However, both vote tallies had revealed fairly substantial opposition to the war, especially in the northeastern states. From then on those who were against the war would scornfully refer to it as "Mr. Madison's War."

Meanwhile, in England, lawmakers had finally decided that a nation engaged in war with Napoleon (1769-1821; see "Napoleonic Wars" chapter 2) could not afford another conflict across the sea. But due to the slowness of communications between Europe and the United States, their decision came too late. Two days after Great Britain announced that it would repeal the Orders in Council, which required anyone intending to trade with France to stop first in England and purchase a license, the United States (unaware of Great Britain's action) declared war against Great Britain.

The declaration of war had taken almost everybody by surprise, whether they were Republicans exhilarated by the news or Federalists who dreaded its effects on commerce. The vote in Congress had shown that a considerable number of Americans did not want to go to war. In the New England states, especially, many people were declaring their unwillingness to help with the war effort. Governor Caleb Strong (1745-1819) of Massachusetts even authorized a day of mourning in his state, when bells tolled and shops closed to mark the beginning of what many citizens there viewed as a mistaken war. Massachusetts residents, like those in other New England states, were free to voice their opposition to the war. Those who took such a stance in the rough-and-tumble city of Baltimore, Maryland, however, paid a high price for speaking out.

The Baltimore Riots

In 1812 Baltimore was the fourth largest city in the United States, with a population of forty-one thousand. Located on the Chesapeake Bay, it was growing fast and was known as a rowdy place, especially around the neighborhood of Fells Point, close to the waterfront. It also happened to be a city with both a very high concentration of Republicans and an outspoken minority of war-opposing Federalists. Like members of their party in other cities, Baltimore's Republicans felt the time had come to support the war effort, no matter what differences of opinion had been expressed before war was declared. But the Federal Republican, a Baltimore newspaper that was considered the voice of the city's Federalists, disagreed. Under the spirited direction of its editor and co-owner, twenty-six-year-old Alexander Hanson (1786-1819), the newspaper came out passionately against Madison and the war. Other newspapers predicted that the Federal Republican would pay a high price for its stance, but Hanson refused to back down.

The Saturday, June 20 edition of the Federal Republican contained a strongly worded editorial condemning the war declaration, calling war completely "unnecessary," and suggesting that foreign nations (meaning France) were exerting too much influence on the U.S. government. The editorial stirred up Republican anger, and on the evening of Monday, June 22, a mob attacked and demolished the newspaper's offices. While city officials stood by, reluctant to become involved, the mob then marched to the waterfront, where they set on fire several Federalist-owned ships and other property.

Federalists everywhere were shocked and disgusted by this turn of events. For the next five weeks, the Federal Republican was published from a house near Washington, D.C. Then Hanson announced that the newspaper would soon begin publication from new offices in a house in Baltimore. War supporters immediately threatened to attack the Federal Republican again, and when city officials made no move to protect the newspaper, about twenty well-armed Federalists gathered to defend its offices. Among them were two well-known Revolutionary War (1775-83) veterans, General James Lingan and General Henry "Lighthorse Harry" Lee (1756-1818).

On June 27 the Federal Republican was published from its new Baltimore offices, featuring an editorial in which the previous violence against the newspaper was strongly condemned. That evening a crowd of angry war supporters gathered. At first they were content to throw stones at the house, but eventually they stormed its front door. The defenders inside opened fire, killing one man and injuring several others. The mob scattered, but later formed again. It was not until three o'clock in the morning that the city took action, and in this case it was not effective: two companies of militia and a cavalry unit were called out to restore order, but their commander, Brigadier General James Stricker (d. 1825), seemed not only unwilling to challenge the mob but actually sympathetic with them. By six o'clock the same morning, the crowd numbered between fifteen hundred and two thousand people. Finally, Baltimore mayor Edward Johnson and Stricker reached an agreement with those inside the newspaper office, guaranteeing them safe passage to the jail, where they would be charged with murder.

The price of dissent

Surrounded by militiamen, the Federal Republican defenders made their way to the jail, pelted constantly by rocks from the crowd, which remained outside the jail after the prisoners were safely inside. The newspaper's offices were quickly destroyed, and the militia made no attempt to intervene. Throughout the day, the crowd at the jail grew both in size and unruliness. By nightfall they had completely surrounded the jail, and finally they scared a guard into letting them enter. The terrified prisoners made a dash for the outside, hoping to mingle with the mob, but about half of them were caught. They were severely beaten and dumped in a heap on the front steps of the jail, where they remained exposed and subject to torture throughout the night.

Despite his pleas that his life be spared due to his age and war record, Lingan was killed, while Lee was crippled for the rest of his life. Hanson was severely injured and never fully recovered from his injuries; he died in 1819 at the age of thirty-three. A later investigation by the Maryland legislature found the city of Baltimore guilty of negligence in the incident, but city officials downplayed their role, and no one was ever punished for taking part in what came to be called the "Baltimore Massacre" or "Baltimore Riots." Federalists angrily denounced the incident, comparing it to the violent mob actions and excesses of the French Revolution (1789-1793), while Republicans called the Federal Republican a treasonous publication and excused the mob's actions as overzealous patriotism. Although outrage over the Baltimore Riots probably helped Federalist candidates win some subsequent elections in Maryland, New York, and New England, their legacy was generally one of fear as Federalists learned how much dissent could cost them.

Not enough troops to fight a war

Despite the steps Congress had taken to bolster the ranks of the U.S. Army, many more soldiers would be needed to fight Great Britain. However, a cornerstone of republican belief was that a large military was dangerous, as it might open the way for a military takeover of a democratically elected government (see "Two political parties emerge" in chapter 1). As soon as the Republican Party gained dominance by winning both the presidency and the majority in Congress in 1800, they began to cut the army's numbers substantially. By 1807 there were only about twenty-four hundred soldiers left, and very few good officers around to lead them. Notoriously low pay and a lack of adequate food, clothing, and medical supplies made a military career seem unattractive to many young men. These factors had combined to result in a woefully inadequate military.

Congress enacted a limited war program in early 1812 that was meant to prepare the nation for war. By the time war was declared, however, there were still less than seven thousand regular soldiers enlisted in the army. Most of the few available officers were either old enough to have fought in the Revolutionary War or had attained their rank through political connections, and in either case they often lacked the energy and skills necessary to lead men into modern warfare.

Neither was the U.S. Navy ready to go to war, especially against the Mistress of the Seas, as Great Britain was known. In 1812 the navy had less than twenty seagoing ships available. During the congressional debate, Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton (1762-1816) had even recommended having the U.S. Navy sit out the war, since it had no chance against Great Britain's superior navy. Congress had, nevertheless, authorized some funds to prepare what ships and seamen there were for battle. In addition, the United States would have to depend on privateers, private ships equipped with weapons and hired by the government, to fight the war on the high seas. The men on these ships risked death or imprisonment if they lost their sea battles, but if they won, they could gain great profits. Bringing in a captured enemy ship, referred to as a "prize," could earn thousands of dollars in profit to be shared among those responsible for its capture.

Depending on state militias

Clearly the United States would have to call on the individual state militias to fight the war. Congress had anticipated this need in legislation authorizing the president to bring one hundred thousand militiamen into the war. Although there were more than five hundred thousand militiamen available, relying on them brought its own set of problems. Militias tended to be poorly trained and often lacked adequate weapons. They usually considered themselves emergency, temporary forces that were to be used to defend against invasion by a foreign country, rather than to attack a foreign country. They were not required to lend their services to the federal government for more than three months per year, and some of them were not required to venture beyond their own state borders. Their officers were often men with political ambition but no practical military experience.

Although the militias of southern and western states—especially Kentucky and Tennessee—were generally cooperative and even enthusiastic about the prospect of conquering new frontiers, those of the Federalist-dominated northeastern states were decidedly reluctant to fight an allout war. In some cases, state officials felt the same way: Rhode Island contributed no militiamen except those assigned to protect the city of Newport while Massachusetts, after initially complying with the federal government's order, finally ruled it unconstitutional and sent no more militiamen. Once the war was underway, even militia from states that were generally sympathetic to the war effort, such as New York, would prove (sometimes at crucial moments) reluctant to fight.

Great Britain not well prepared, either

The British were not much better prepared for the War of 1812. There were about ten thousand regular troops stationed in Canada, including both British and Canadian soldiers, but only about half of these could be counted on to be loyal to Great Britain. Although they were better trained than the U.S. fighting force, they were scattered from the colony's east coast to the Great Lakes. The British side also had militiamen—about eighty-six thousand of them—but they were not well organized or well armed, and their loyalty was often questionable. Whereas the United States had about seven-and-half million occupants at this period, the population of Canada was only five hundred thousand. Many Canadian citizens were transplanted Americans who lacked any strong loyalty to Great Britain. The Canadian geography (similar to that of the northern United States, but even more severe) was also a liability: there were few roads through the thick forests, the rivers were treacherous, and the winter weather was harsh.

The British forces in Canada could, however, count on help (especially after the Battle of Tippecanoe; see "The Battle of Tippecanoe" in chapter 2) from some of the western Native American nations, including the Sioux, Winnebago, Menominee, Kickapoo, and Shawnee. Their support had been cultivated before the war as British fur trappers and traders jostled for advantage in the Northwest Territory (an area of land that would become the states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and parts of Minnesota), and it became even more important after war was declared. The British believed that if they did not enlist Native Americans on their side early in the conflict, they instead would aid the Americans.

Great Britain, however, was too occupied with the war against France to offer much assistance to her colony in Canada. Responsibility for war strategy rested primarily with officials and military officers based in North America, especially Sir George Prevost (1767-1816), the governor of the Canadian territory, and Sir Isaac Brock (1769-1812; see biographical entry), a brilliant commander whose death in the opening stages of the war was a major loss for the British.

A three-pronged plan of attack

As the United States prepared for war with Great Britain, Madison, Secretary of War William Eustis (1753-1825), and Major General Henry Dearborn (1751-1829), a Revolutionary War veteran who had been assigned to command the troops in the northeastern region, worked out a three-pronged plan for the invasion of Canada. U.S. troops would cross into Canada at three important places: at Detroit in Michigan territory, located at the northern edge of the Northwest Territory; at the Niagara River, crossing from western New York about 200 miles northeast of Detroit; and about 250 miles farther northeast, crossing Lake Champlain from Plattsburg, New York. Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy was given the task not only of defending the American coast but of interfering as much as possible with British commercial and naval ships on the high seas. Former president Thomas Jefferson (1743-1846; president 1801-09) predicted that an American victory would be "a mere matter of marching." But Jefferson and others were headed for a big disappointment.

Hull leads attack from Detroit

In the summer of 1812, Detroit—then a town inhabited by about eight hundred people, many of them fur trappers and traders of French-Canadian origin—became the base of operations for the northwestern branch of the U.S. Army. General William Hull (1753-1825), a veteran of the Revolutionary War, was named to command them. Some historians claim that Hull accepted the assignment reluctantly, while others assert that he lobbied for it; most agree, however, that this fifty-nine-year-old grandfather in poor health turned out to be a bad choice for the job.

Hull began recruiting a force of regular soldiers, volunteers, and members of Ohio's militia, mustering (gathering together in preparation for war) them at Dayton, Ohio. From there Hull traveled north with about two thousand soldiers, arriving in Detroit on July 5. Incredibly, Hull had not yet been informed that war had been officially declared; the news had been sent to him through the regular mail system. To speed up his journey, Hull had sent some of his luggage, and most of the papers detailing plans for the invasion, on a ship across Lake Erie. The ship was captured by the British, and the papers were immediately delivered into the hands of General Isaac Brock, who was commanding the British troops in the region and whose superior officers had taken more care than Hull's to inform him that the war had begun. This was a worrisome beginning for Hull, and things would only get worse.

An unpopular retreat

Despite the eagerness of his men and officers to start their invasion, Hull waited for about a week until the slow-moving declaration of war finally arrived. Then he and his troops crossed the Detroit River and headed for Fort Malden (located near present-day Amherstburg, Ontario), where a British force about half the size of Hull's was stationed. The U.S. troops occupied Sandwich (now Windsor, Ontario) and Hull issued a proclamation informing the area's residents that they would be left alone unless they chose to oppose the invasion. Over the next few weeks, however, problems arose. Hull began to worry about the safety of his supply lines (which moved food and equipment along) and sent several detachments out to investigate. Both were attacked by hostile Native Americans. Then news of the British, joined by their Native American allies, attack on Fort Michilimackinac (pronounced mi-shu-LEE-ma-ku-naw; located in northern Michigan territory; see "Fort Michilimackinac falls") on July 29 arrived. Apparently fearing this victory would bolster the Native Americans and the full fury of their aggression would roll southward like a tidal wave, Hull ordered his troops back to Detroit.

The retreat caused a great deal of unrest among Hull's officers and soldiers, many of whom were loudly questioning his competence to lead them. Meanwhile, across the Detroit River at Fort Malden, Brock had arrived with reinforcements. Letters from a captured U.S. mailbag revealed the disenchantment of the U.S. forces, and Brock decided to capitalize on this obviously poor morale. He put out a false message, making sure that it would be captured, in which he claimed to have many more Native American allies than he really did. Next Brock sent an officer to Detroit with a demand that Hull surrender. Hull waited two hours before refusing the demand, suggesting that he had seriously considered a surrender.

Strange behavior, and a flag of surrender

Meanwhile, Hull was irritating and worrying his men with his strange behavior. He would allow no preparations to be taken for Detroit's defense, and he stayed in his quarters or moved in a crouching walk as if afraid that bombs might fall at any moment. He spoke incoherently, and he stuffed wads of chewing tobacco in his mouth, ignoring spittle that dripped down his face. Many civilians had taken refuge in Detroit's fort, including Hull's own daughter and two grandchildren. It seems likely that he was overwhelmed by worry about what might happen to these innocent people during an attack, especially if Native Americans were involved. Hull had witnessed Indian attacks in the past and knew that even women and children were often subject to scalpings and other atrocities.

Brock now moved his troops into position, surrounding Detroit. On the afternoon of August 15, they began bombarding the fort, and the attack continued through the night and into the next day. Finally, without consulting any other officers, Hull sent up the white flag of surrender. The British took Hull and all the regular soldiers prisoner, sending the militiamen back to Ohio.

After the war, Hull was court-martialed (tried in a military court) for treason, cowardice, and neglecting his duty. He was convicted and sentenced to death (the only U.S. general ever to receive such a sentence), but Madison pardoned him because of his age and prior military service. Some historians have suggested that Hull was used as a scapegoat for the failings of others—most notably Henry Dearborn, who had failed to create a diversion or a distraction to occupy and thus weaken the British force as planned (see, "Montreal: the last target of the three-pronged invasion" later in this chapter).

The surrender of Detroit helped to crush U.S. hopes of a swift and glorious end to the war. The British now occupied an American fort in a very strategic place, and they would have the upper hand in the northwestern region for the next year. Two events that happened around the same time as the Detroit fiasco further dampened American hopes for victory.

Fort Michilimackinac falls

The surrender of Fort Michilimackinac, the news of which had struck so much fear in Hull's heart, was one of the events that led to the weakening of U.S. morale. Once a British possession, this fort located on an island in the strait between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, had come under American control in 1794. On July 25 the fifty-four troops stationed at the fort—who were not yet aware that war had been declared—were surprised by an attack of British forces consisting of regular soldiers and volunteers, as well as about four hundred Native Americans. Completely unprepared and outnumbered, the Americans surrendered. The British would hold on to Fort Michilimackinac until the end of the war, fighting off a July 1814 attack by a much larger U.S. force.

A massacre at Fort Dearborn

Another disaster, for which Hull could be held partially responsible, occurred at Fort Dearborn (located near present-day Chicago, Illinois) on August 15. The fort was occupied by fifty-four soldiers and twelve militiamen commanded by Captain Nathan Heald. There also were nine women and eighteen children living at Fort Dearborn, which served more as a trading post than a military installation. Hearing of the British victory at Fort Michilimackinac and expecting further attacks, Hull ordered an evacuation of Fort Dearborn. Though warned that it would be suicidal to leave the fort due to the presence of hostile Native Americans, Heald went along with the order, destroying much of the fort's supplies before leading the soldiers and civilians out. Marching with them was a group of Potawatomi Indians who had supposedly agreed to protect them. As they left the fort, however, the Potawatomis melted away, joining a force of about four hundred Native Americans who attacked the evacuated group about a mile from the fort.

The ensuing fight was brutal: twenty-six of the soldiers, all of the militiamen, two of the women, and twelve of the children were killed. The fort was burned, and the survivors were handed over to a Native American chief named Blackbird; some eventually escaped, while others were later bought out of captivity by British officers.

The Battle of Queenston

The second part of the U.S. plan called for troops to cross the Niagara River into Canada. By the late summer and fall of 1812, a little more than six thousand American troops had gathered along the Niagara frontier. Command was divided between Major General Stephen Van Rensselaer (1764-1839), an officer in New York's militia, and Brigadier General Alexander Smyth (1765-1830), a regular army officer with no military experience. Van Rensselaer was supposed to be the overall commander of the region, but the pompous Smyth looked down on Van Rensselaer (because he was from the militia rather than the U.S. Army) and refused to cooperate with him. Smyth's arrogant attitude would contribute to the failure of this second phase of the plan, and he would eventually be expelled from the army.

Van Rensselaer planned to cross the Niagara River at Lewiston, New York, landing near the town of Queenston on the Canadian side. He wanted Smyth, who was stationed farther north on the river at Fort Niagara, to create a diversion by attacking Fort George (located across the river from Fort Niagara). Smyth refused to accept or acknowledge the messages from Van Rennselaer, who was forced to proceed without Smyth's help. Van Rensselaer put his more experienced relative, Colonel Solomon Van Rensselaer (1774-1852) in command of the attack; among the other officers also present was Lieutenant Colonel Winfield Scott (1786-1866; see biographical entry), who would gain great fame later in the war.

About four thousand U.S. troops assembled in the area, ready to take part in the attack; meanwhile, on the British side, Brock was expecting an attack on Fort George and had most of his troops stationed there. The invasion was set to begin before dawn on October 10. When the troops arrived at the river, however, they found that the boats that were to carry them across were missing their oars. The oars had disappeared downstream along with a young soldier; whether he took the oars intentionally or by accident is not known, for he was never seen again.

A lost opportunity for victory

After a three-day delay, the attack got underway. Since there were only thirteen boats to carry the troops across the river, they would have to be transported in shifts. The first group to land was to be made up of six hundred men. Solomon Van Rensselaer led three hundred militiamen, while Lieutenant Colonel John Chrystie (d.1813) commanded three hundred regular soldiers. Soon after entering the water, however, Chrystie's boat was carried downstream by the fast-moving current, and he would not arrive at the scene of the battle for several hours.

As the soldiers landed on the Canadian shore, they were fired upon by British troops stationed on rocks above the river, some towering as high as 345 feet (in fact, this is sometimes called the Battle of Queenston Heights). A fierce fight ensued as the Americans tried to scale the rocks. Soon Solomon Van Rensselaer was wounded, and had to be taken back to Lewiston. Since Chrystie had not yet appeared, command was transferred to Captain John Wool (1784-1869), who was only twenty-three years old and had never been in battle before.

Wool rose to the occasion admirably. Leading about 240 soldiers, he managed to find a fishermen's trail that led up the heights to the rear of the British position. Meanwhile, Brock had heard the sounds of the battle from Fort Niagara and had hurried to Queenston. He and his men had just arrived at the top of the heights when Wool's troops appeared, completely surprising the British, who made a hasty retreat back down. Assessing the situation from the bottom, Brock decided another quick attack would overcome the Americans now on the heights. He ordered another charge, which not only proved futile but led to his own death when he was shot by an American sharpshooter (an expert gun shooter).

Now about six hundred American reinforcements arrived, and command was passed to Scott. Sure that a victory was within reach, Stephen Van Rensselaer crossed back to the American side in order to bring the rest of the militiamen into the battle. By now, though, the troops waiting at Lewiston had seen the first wave of wounded U.S. soldiers return. They could also hear the cries of several hundred Iroquois Indians who were fighting alongside the British. The militiamen refused to cross the river, insisting that they were not required to enter foreign territory. Astonished and dismayed, Van Rensselaer rode back and forth among them trying to persuade them to rally, but nothing he could say would make them change their minds.

Some costly lessons learned

Back on the heights, the U.S. troops could look down and see the column of eight hundred British troops marching from Fort Niagara. They were not alarmed because they thought their own reinforcements would soon be arriving. But the remaining militiamen, of course, did not arrive, and the British were soon able to overwhelm the Americans. Their first attempt to surrender was ignored by the Iroquois warriors, so that Scott had to take a dangerous ride through thick hand-to-hand fighting—another officer's white neck scarf stuck to the end of his sword—in order to reach the British commander and offer the Americans' surrender. The American casualties were great: ninety were killed, one hundred wounded, and almost one thousand were captured. The British lost only fourteen soldiers, with eighty-four wounded and fifteen missing.

The Battle of Queenston lengthened the list of American defeats in the opening months of the War of 1812. But it also taught military leaders some valuable lessons: first, that militiamen might not be willing to fight a war that involved the invasion of a foreign country (rather than the defense of their own); and second, that an invasion undertaken for its own sake (rather than in response to some kind of provocation) could be a risky business. The only bright moments of the battle had been provided by those who had acted heroically despite the circumstances, especially Captain John Wool and Scott. For their part, the British had paid a very high price for their victory, for they had lost one of their most brilliant and promising generals and strategists, Brock.

Smyth's career comes to an end

Humiliated by the disaster at Queenston, Stephen Von Rensselaer soon resigned his position as brigadier general. The government then assigned command of the troops stationed along the Niagara River to Smyth, of whose failings they seemed unaware. Smyth spent the next month issuing proclamations written in very fancy language. Although they were meant to inspire his men and the people of New York to embrace the war with gusto (saying, for example, that his soldiers would "conquer or they will die"), they only brought ridicule to Smyth.

Meanwhile, Smyth continued building up the ranks of his army until it reached about four thousand, more than half of which were militiamen. In early November Smyth announced his readiness to attack Fort Erie, located at the southern end of the Niagara River, close to Lake Erie. On November 28, he began loading his troops onto boats for the crossing to Canada, but he ordered them off again later in the day when it appeared they could not reach Canada before nightfall. Smyth tried to get the mission underway again on November 30, but this time many of the militiamen refused to get onto the boats, and the departure had to be delayed again. Now many of the soldiers and officers were frustrated and reacted with anger, some of them breaking their weapons in rage. A shot was fired into Smyth's tent, and he fought a duel with an officer who called him a coward (neither was hurt). Finally, the military career of Alexander Smyth came to an end as he was relieved of his position and slunk back to his home in Virginia.

Montreal: the last target of the three-pronged invasion

The remaining part of the planned three-pronged invasion involved an attack on the city of Montreal, located close to the southeastern coast of Canada. Major General Henry Dearborn, an overweight, slow-moving Revolutionary War veteran known to his troops as "Granny," was put in charge of this effort. After many delays Dearborn had gathered a force of six thousand regular soldiers and militiamen at Albany, New York. In early November, Dearborn and his troops moved to Plattsburg, on the banks of Lake Champlain, and began their advance on Canada. When they stopped at a small town about a mile from the Canadian border, about two-thirds of the militiamen refused to continue, invoking their right not to enter foreign territory. With the ranks of the regular soldiers much reduced by illness, Dearborn felt that his remaining force was not up to the task at hand. So the third stage of America's invasion plan ended in the same manner as the first two.

Surprising American victories on the high seas

At the same time that American troops on the ground were failing in their attempt to invade Canada, the U.S. Navy, on the other hand, was making some impressive gains on the high seas. This was contrary to everyone's expectations, for no one thought the fledgling U.S. Navy would pose any threat at all to the mighty British Navy.

When the War of 1812 began, the U.S. Navy had seventeen ships. Seven of these were frigates (fast, medium-sized sailing warships that carried from twenty-four to sixty guns); and three were heavy frigates or superfrigates, which were a little bigger and stronger but still fast. Unlike the army, the navy had many seasoned men in its ranks, including dynamic, capable officers like Stephen Decatur (1779-1820) and Oliver Hazard Perry (1785-1819; see biographical entry). Nevertheless, the navy was running short on sailors, as many young men found life aboard a military ship unrewarding—in terms of both working conditions and pay—especially compared with the rewards that could come from working on a privateer.

The Constitution defeats the Guerriere

Captain Isaac Hull (1773-1843) was a U.S. Navy officer who was eager to meet the British Navy in their own element, the Atlantic Ocean. Assigned to command the USS Constitution, said to be the navy's finest frigate, Hull (a nephew of the ill-fated General William Hull of the U.S. Army) set out from Boston in early August and headed toward the West Indies, where he intended to catch British ships sailing home to Great Britain. About six hundred miles east of Boston, the Constitutionencountered the HMS Guerriere, under the command of Captain James R. Dacres (1788-1853).

The two ships soon began a late-afternoon battle that lasted less than an hour. Lucky shots from the Constitution severely damaged the Guerriere's three main masts early in the fight, rendering her defenseless. The ships came close enough to collide, causing damage to both, but especially to the Guerriere. Sailors from both sides tried to board the others' ship, but the rain of bullets was too heavy. The Guerriere surrendered at sunset. A member of the Constitution's elated crew is supposed to have cried, after seeing a shot bounce off the ship's side, "Huzza, her sides are made of iron!" and from then on, the Constitution was known as Old Ironsides.

The British are shocked

The Constitution, which carried a crew of 456 sailors and 44 guns, had suffered only 14 casualties in the encounter (7 killed, 7 wounded), while the Guerriere, with a crew of 272 and 38 guns, had 23 men killed and 56 wounded. News of the battle caused reactions on both sides of the ocean, as might have been expected: Americans were pumped up with pride, while British military leaders (the British public was not informed of the Guerriere's defeat, for fear there would be an uproar and more resistance to an already unpopular war) were shocked. How could this upstart U.S. Navy have pulled off such a feat against the Mistress of the Seas? They were forced to admit that the United States had at least one very strong, very well-made ship and the talent to handle her well.

More American victories

Americans went on to win several more victories at sea during the fall of 1812. On October 15 the frigate United States, commanded by Decatur, defeated the HMS Macedonian south of the Azore Islands (off the coast of Africa). The Macedonian became the first vessel captured by the United States to be brought to an American port when it was hauled to New York, and the crew of the United States earned the largest prize of the war: $200 thousand which was shared among them. Several days later, the eighteen-gun American sloop (a small warship with guns on only one deck) Wasp, commanded by Master Commandant John Jacob, beat the HMS Frolic. The battle resulted in British casualties that were about four times those of the Americans; 80 percent of the Frolic's crew was either killed or wounded. The fact that the Wasp was captured the very next day by the British ship Poictiers did not make her earlier victory any less painful for Great Britain.

Near the end of December, the Constitution, now under the command of Commodore William Bainbridge (1774-1833), met the HMS Java in waters off the coast of Brazil. In the ensuing battle, the Java's commander, Captain Henry Lambert (1772-1847), was killed and the ship so damaged that it had to be destroyed at sea. After this defeat, Great Britain ordered that from then on the U.S. superfrigates should only be taken on in battle by two or more British ships.

None of these battles made much difference in the overall course of the war, but they did give a big boost to American morale, especially in the wake of the losses being suffered by the army all along the Canadian border. Americans took great pride in defeating the Mistress of the Seas. In a speech delivered to Congress on December 16, 1812, U.S. Representative Lemuel Sawyer (1777-1852) declared that "the bully has been disgraced by an infant." For the moment, Americans could bask in the glory of these unexpected triumphs. The coming year would bring challenges and moments of despair to tarnish that glory, as well as some victories to set it glowing again.

For More Information


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

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.

Mahon, John K. The War of 1812. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 1991. Reprint. Originally published by University of Florida Press, Gainesville, Fla., 1972.

Hitsman, Jay McKay. The Incredible War of 1812: A Military History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972.

Hollon, W. Eugene. The Lost Pathfinder: Zebulon Montgomery Pike. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1949.

Maloney, Linda M. The Captain from Connecticut: The Life and Naval Times of Isaac Hull. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1986.

Schroeder, John H. "Stephen Decatur: Heroic Ideal of the Young Navy." Command Under Sail: Makers of the American Naval Tradition, ed. James C. Bradford. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1985.

Terrell, John Upton. Zebulon Pike: The Life and Times of an Adventurer. New York: Weybright and Talley, 1968.

Web sites

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

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

The Final Step: War

The following newspaper editorial from the Washington National Intelligencer supports the opinion that war should be declared against Great Britain. The author of the article believes that the United States has just cause for a war and will be successful defeating Britain.

Two months after this editorial was published the U.S. Congress did pass a declaration of war, and so began the War of 1812.

"War Should Be Declared," Washington National Intelligencer, April 14, 1812

But if the reports which we now hear are true, that with England all hope of honorable accommodation is at an end, and that with France our negotiations are in a forwardness encouraging expectations of a favorable result, where is the motive for longer delay? The final step ought to be taken, and that step is WAR. By what course of measures we have reached the present crisis, is not now a question for patriots and freemen to discuss. It exists: and it is by open and manly war only that we can get through it with honor and advantage to the country. Our wrongs have been great; our cause is just; and if we are decided and firm, success is inevitable.

Let war therefore be forthwith proclaimed against England. With her there can be no motive for delay. Any further discussion, any new attempt at negotiation, would be as fruitless as it would be dishonorable.…

But is it said that we are not prepared for war, and ought therefore not to declare it. This is an idle objection, which can have weight with the timid and pusillanimous [cowardly] only. The fact is otherwise. Our preparations are adequate to every essential object. Do we apprehend danger to ourselves? From what quarter will it assail us? From England, and by invasion? The idea is too absurd to merit a moment's consideration. Where are her troops? But lately she dreaded an invasion of her own dominions from her powerful and menacing neighbor [France]. That danger, it is true, has diminished, but it has not entirely and forever disappeared. The war in the Peninsula, which lingers, requires strong armies to support it. She maintains an army in Sicily; another in India; and a strong force in Ireland, and along her own coast, and in the West Indies. Can anyone believe that, under such circumstances, the British government could be so infatuated as to send troops here for the purpose of invasion? The experience and the fortune of our Revolution, when we were comparatively in an infant state, have doubtless taught her a useful lesson that she cannot have forgotten. Since that period our population has increased threefold, whilst hers has remained almost stationary. The condition of the civilized world, too, has changed. Although Great Britain has nothing to fear as to her independence, and her military operations are extensive and distant, the contest is evidently maintained by her rather for safety than for conquest. Have we cause to dread an attack from her neighboring provinces? That apprehension is still more groundless. Seven or eight millions of people have nothing to dread from 300,000. From the moment that war is declared, the British colonies will be put on the defensive, and soon after we get in motion must sink under the pressure.

Source: Documents on the War of 1812. [Online] (accessed on November 26, 2001).

Native Americans: Choosing Sides

Native Americans were intimately involved in the War of 1812. As white settlers moved farther west into the lands occupied by Native Americans for thousands of years, tension rose and more and more violent confrontations took place. The widespread American belief that the British were actually encouraging Native Americans to attack whites in the Northwest Territory was a contributing factor in the U.S. declaration of war against Great Britain.

Meanwhile, Native Americans were desperately searching for ways to preserve their lives and lands as they had always known them. Many thought their best chance of survival lay in alliance with the British, who promised to set aside Native American lands in exchange for help in fighting the United States. In the end, neither Great Britain nor the United States was truly interested in seeking justice for Native Americans, and as the nineteenth century progressed, their lands and rights would gradually be taken away from them.

Below is a list showing how Native American loyalties were divided during the War of 1812.

Great BritainUnited States
Misquakies (Foxes)
Estimated total:
< 3,000 warriors1,050 warriors

Members of the Delaware, Algonkian, Shawnee, Wyandot, and Sandusky nations also fought on the side of the United States.

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

Journal of an American Prisoner of War

The following journal excerpts are taken from Journal of an American Prisoner at Fort Malden and Quebec in the War of 1812, edited by George M. Fairchild and published in Quebec in 1909. They were written by James Reynolds, who was a surgeon's assistant on a British prison ship. The accounts give the reader an impression of life as a prisoner of war in the Northwest Territory during the first year of the war, enduring harsh weather, rampant disease, and the dispiriting news of the Surrender of Detroit.

Journal of an American Prisoner: Surgeon's Mate James Reynolds

16th - Sunday. Pleasant weather but unpleasant news we heard about noon that Hull had given up Detroit and the whole Michigan Territory. The Indians began to return about sunset well mounted and some with horses.… Who can express the feelings of a person who knows that Hull had men enough to have this place three times and gave up his post. Shame to him, shame to his country, shame to the world. When Hull first came to Detroit the 4th U.S. Regt. would have taken Malden and he with his great generalship has lost about 200 men and his Territory.

Can he be forgiven when he had command of an army of about 2500 men besides the Regulars and Militia of his Territory and given up to about 400 regular troops and Militia and about 700 Indians.

Oct. 1st - Thursday. Pleasant. Sergt. Maj. Huggins and two men all sick came on board our vessel and I sent (away) three well men in their room (place). The three men that came on board were very sick.

7th - Wednesday. Cold and squalls of snow. The guard came to bury Sergt. Stoner's child. I visited all the prison ships in the Harbor and gave medicine to the sick. We had some sugar, rice, and barley sent for the sick and some other refreshments was sent on board.

9th - Friday. Cold for the season. Corp. Berry's child died about three o'clock this morning. The men are something better. I visited all the prison ships in the harbor. Corp. Perry's child was buried this afternoon.…

19th - Monday. Pleasant. Amos Ingalls died at 5 o'clock this morning. 6 men came from [ship] 406 and 4 returned. The men very sick many of them, 44 in our number of sick.…

Source: Documents on the War of 1812. [Online] (accessed on November 26, 2001).

The Fort Dearborn Massacre

The following is an account of the Fort Dearborn Massacre written by Mrs. John Kinzie and Mrs. Linai Helm. On August 15, 1812, the fort was being evacuated in response to orders issued by General William Hull. As the group of occupants was leaving the fort under the watch of Captain William Wells and a small band of friendly Miami Native Americans, they were attacked by the Potawatomi and Winnebago. Of the ninety-three people living at the fort at the time of the attack only forty-one survived.

The Fort Dearborn Massacre by Mrs. John Kinzie and Mrs. Linai Helm

…the scene is best described in the words of an eyewitness and participator in the tragedy, Mrs. Helm, the wife of Captain (then Lieutenant) Helm, and stepdaughter of Mr. Kinzie…

The troops behaved most gallantly. They were but a handful, but they seemed resolved to sell their lives as dearly as possible. Our horses pranced and bounded, and could hardly be restrained as the balls whistled among them. I drew off a little, and gazed upon my husband and father, who were yet unharmed. I felt that my hour was come, and endeavored to forget those I loved, and prepare myself for my approaching fate.

While I was thus engaged, the surgeon, Dr. Van Voorhees, came up. He was badly wounded. His horse had been shot under him, and he had received a ball in his leg. Every muscle of his face was quivering with the agony of terror. He said to me, "Do you think they will take our lives? I am badly wounded, but I think not mortally. Perhaps we might purchase our lives by promising them a large reward. Do you think there is any chance?"

"Dr. Van Voorhees," said I, "do not let us waste the moments that yet remain to us in such vain hopes. Our fate is inevitable. In a few moments we must appear before the bar of God. Let us make what preparation is yet in our power."

"Oh, I cannot die!" exclaimed he, "I am not fit to die—if I had but a short time to prepare—death is awful!"

I pointed to Ensign Ronan, who, though mortally wounded and nearly down, was still fighting with desperation on one knee.

"Look at that man!" said I. "At least he dies like soldier."

"Yes," replied the unfortunate surgeon, with a convulsive gasp, "but he has no terrors of the future—he is an atheist."

At this moment a young Indian raised his tomahawk over me. Springing aside, I partially avoided the blow, which, intended for my skull, fell on my shoulder. I seized the Indian around the neck, and while exerting my utmost strength to get possession of his scalping-knife … I was dragged from his grasp by another and older Indian.

The latter bore me struggling and resisting towards the lake. Despite the rapidity with which I was hurried along, I recognized, as I passed, the lifeless remains of the unfortunate surgeon. Some murderous tomahawk had stretched him upon the very spot where I had last seen him.

I was immediately plunged into the water and held there with a forcible hand.… I soon perceived, however, that the object of my captor was not to drown me, for he held me firmly in such a position as to keep my head above water. This reassured me.…

When the firing had nearly subsided, my preserver bore me from the water and conducted me up the sand banks. It was a burning August morning, and walking through the sand in my drenched condition was inexpressibly painful and fatiguing. I stooped and took off my shoes to free them from the sand with which they were nearly filled, when a squaw seized and carried them off, and I was obliged to proceed without them.

When we had gained the prairie, I was met by my father, who told me that my husband was safe and but slightly wounded. I was led gently back towards the Chicago River, along the southern bank of which was the Potowatomi encampment. Once I was placed upon a horse without a saddle, but, finding the motion insupportable, I sprang off. Assisted partly by my kind conductor … and partly by another Indian, Pee-so-tum.…

The wife of Wau-bee-nee-mah, a chief from the Illinois River, was standing near. Seeing my exhausted condition, she seized a kettle, dipped up some water from a stream that flowed near, threw into it some maple sugar, and, stirring it with her hand, gave it to me to drink. This act of kindness, in the midst of so many horrors, touched me deeply. But my attention was soon diverted to other things.

The fort, since the troops marched out, had become a scene of plunder. The cattle had been shot as they ran at large, and lay about, dead or dying. This work of butchery had commenced just as we were leaving the fort. I vividly recalled a remark of Ensign Ronan, as the firing went on. "Such," turning to me, "is to be our fate to be shot down like brutes!"

Source: Documents on the War of 1812. [Online] (accessed on November 26, 2001).

"Old Ironsides": The USS Constitution

During the first year of the War of 1812, the flagging spirits of most Americans were lifted by the victories won by the USS Constitution, the nation's top warship. During her long and distinguished career, the Constitution was commanded by some of the Navy's most famous captains, including two from the War of 1812: Stephen Decatur and Thomas Macdonough.

In 1794 the U.S. Congress authorized the building of six new warships. The Constitution was one of the first three to be built. Constructed over a period of three years at Edmond Hartt's Shipyard in Boston at a total cost of $318,719, the vessel not only was bigger than most frigates (the second-largest type of warship, carrying 40 to 50 guns) but also faster. It took 1500 trees to build the Constitution, and her copper fittings were made by Boston silversmith (and famous Revolutionary War figure) Paul Revere. The Constitution was 204 feet long and could carry a crew of 475 officers and seamen.

The Constitution was launched on October 21, 1797, and put to sea the next year. Commanded by Captain Samuel Nicholson, she cruised through the West Indies, protecting U.S. merchant ships from French privateers. In 1803, the Constitution was sent to the Mediterranean region, where the Barbary states—Tripoli (present day Libya), Algeria, and Tunisia—were harassing U.S. ships by demanding payments before they could visit Mediterranean ports. Under the command of Captain Edward Preble, the Constitution led the bombing of Tripoli, and hosted the signing of a peace treaty between the three countries and the United States in 1805.

The Constitution returned to Boston and in 1809 was made the flagship (lead vessel, carrying the overall commander) of the navy's North Atlantic squadron. In 1810 Captain Isaac Hull was given command of the ship. About a month after the June 17, 1812, declaration of war between the United States and Great Britain, the Constitution was sailing from the Chesapeake Bay to New York when she ran into five British ships, which began to chase her. Through the crew's determination and ingenuity, the Constitution made an amazing escape.

On August 19, 1812, the Constitution was cruising about six hundred miles east of Boston when she encountered the British ship HMS Guerriere. During a fairly short battle, the Constitution shot down all of her opponent's masts, and the battle ended with an American victory. The Guerriere was so badly damaged that she had to be sunk. It was during this battle that one of the Constitution's crew reportedly saw bullets bouncing harmlessly off the ship's side and exclaimed, "Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!" From then on, the ship was affectionately known as "Old Ironsides."

The fame of the Constitution increased in December, when she defeated the HMS Java off the coast of Brazil. Although confined in port by the British blockade for much of the war, the Constitution managed eight captures altogether, and she served as both a morale booster to Americans and a wake-up call to the British, who had previously underestimated the strength and ability of the U.S. Navy. In her final clash of the War of 1812, the Constitution took on two British ships—the Cyane and the Levant —near Madeira (off the coast of West Africa) and beat them both.

After the war, the Constitution was docked at Boston Harbor until 1821 when she became the flagship of the navy's Mediterranean squadron. In 1830 the navy began researching the cost of refurbishing the Constitution, and word got out that she was headed for the scrap heap. Inspired by the poem titled "Old Ironsides" by Oliver Wendell Holmes, the U.S. public came to the defense of the Constitution, and the navy agreed to rehaul her.

In 1844 the Constitution made an around-the-world voyage that took her 52,279 miles in 495 days. From 1853 to 1855 the Constitution patrolled the coast of West Africa, looking for ships involved in the illegal slave trade. In 1860, she became a training ship for the U.S. Naval Academy, a job she performed for almost twenty years.

After more years as a training and barracks ship, the Constitution was brought back to Boston in time for her one hundredth birthday, after which she was turned into a naval museum. Between 1925 and 1930, the ship was completely restored, and in 1930 she made a tour of the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts of the United States. She was boarded by 4.5 million visitors.

The Constitution returned to Boston in 1934 and has remained there ever since. In 1998 Boston Harbor hosted a bicentennial celebration for the Constitution.

Sources: "Old Ironsides": A Grand Old Lady of the Fleet. [Online] (accessed on November 26, 2001); Ramsdell, Lorraine. "USS Constitution: The History." Naval Reserve Office of Information. [Online] (accessed on November 26, 2001); USS Constitution History Timeline. [Online] (accessed on November 26, 2001).