War of 1812: 1812–15
War of 1812: 1812–15
In the early 1800s, Britain and France were at war with each other, but the United States remained neutral, refusing to take sides. U.S. merchant ships continued to trade with both of the warring countries, but neither Britain nor France would allow them to do so without risk. If either side caught American ships trading with the enemy, they would seize the ships and the sailors on board. After enduring years of this treatment, the United States decided to go to war to gain some international respect.
Since the mid-1790s, the United States had struggled to defend its freedom of the seas through diplomatic means, primarily treaty negotiations with Britain and France. Freedom to pursue international trade was crucial for farmers to ship produce to overseas markets and for merchants to import manufactured goods from Europe. The nation did not yet have the capability to manufacture its own supply of goods. Despite many attempts to reason with Britain and France, the two nations continued seizing U.S. ships. The Democratic-Republican Party, which had long proclaimed allegiance to a friendship with France and disdained Britain, now controlled the presidency and Congress. Therefore, led by twenty to thirty newly elected Democratic-Republican congressmen from the South and West, Congress declared war on Britain in June 1812. The resulting War of 1812 (1812–15), also referred to as the Second War for Independence, was a near disaster for the young nation. Having maintained only a small army and almost no navy for the last twelve years, the United States was unprepared for the battle ahead.
Words to Know
blockade: Barriers positioned at a seaport entrance to prevent ships from entering or leaving.
frigate: A sailing warship with tall masts and numerous large guns, sometimes positioned on two levels of decks.
impressment: A long-standing British practice of seizing sailors from foreign ships and forcing them into military service on British warships.
neutrality: A political policy of not taking sides in a war between other nations.
privateers: Privately owned small ships recruited to fight or harass the enemy.
revenue: The total income a government collects from taxes and other sources.
Unable to contest the mighty British navy on the high seas, the United States decided to attack Britain on a different front, making repeated unsuccessful attempts to invade British-controlled North America (modern-day Canada). These assaults backfired: U.S. forces were disorganized, and in the chaos British forces eventually made gains onto American soil. Meanwhile, the British navy established a blockade (barriers positioned at seaport entrances to prevent ships from entering or leaving) that strangled the U.S. economy. British forces invaded Washington, D.C., in August 1814 and burned key government buildings, including the Capitol. However, U.S. forces were able to hold off British attacks enough to wear British forces down. The two countries finally signed a cease-fire treaty in Europe in December 1814, but word of the treaty did not reach America before the last major battle was fought. The Battle of New Orleans was the biggest U.S. military victory of the war. Though the war resolved very little between the two nations, the United States came away with a new feeling of national pride and unity.
Troubled foreign relations
From 1806 to 1811, the United States was caught in the middle of a war between Britain and France. Presidents Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826; served 1801–9) and James Madison (1751–1836; served 1809–17) maintained a policy of neutrality (not supporting either warring party). They asserted that the neutral status of the United States gave American merchant ships the right to conduct international trade. However, Britain and France refused to recognize this U.S. claim. Instead, they imposed blockades on each other's ports to keep foreign goods from reaching the enemy. They also seized U.S. merchant ships that continued to trade. In addition, Britain continued its long tradition of seizing U.S. sailors, many of whom were British deserters or past British citizens, and forcing them to serve in the British navy. This practice, called impressment (see Chapter 5), greatly angered the American public.
Americans were disgusted by their government's inability to defend U.S. ships and sailors, and this discontent led to a change in Congress. Voters elected new young candidates who were in favor of war in the fall of 1810. Primarily Democratic-Republicans from the West and the South, these men, known as war hawks, included John Calhoun (1782–1850) of South Carolina and Henry Clay (1777–1852) of Kentucky. The Democratic-Republican Party was the political party of Jefferson and Madison. Democratic-Republicans represented the common people, largely rural farmers, who made up most of the U.S. population. The Democratic-Republicans also held strong sympathies with France, America's ally during the American Revolution (1775–83), and greatly distrusted a strong national government. By late 1811, the war hawks in Congress argued that the only way to earn respect from other countries was to declare war on Britain.
In June 1812, President Madison shifted away from the U.S. position of neutrality under the persistent pressure coming from his own Democratic-Republican Party and Congress. Madison asked Congress to declare war on Britain. (The U.S. Constitution states that only Congress has the authority to declare war on a foreign nation, not the president.) The declaration passed in the House of Representatives by a vote of 79 to 49 and in the Senate by 19 to 13. The vote was close, indicating that the nation was not united in its desire to go to war.
Federalist Party supporters questioned why the United States should direct its anger at Britain and not France too. Federalist supporters were primarily wealthy merchants living in New England. They favored good relations with Britain and a strong central government. France was causing almost as many problems as Britain by seizing American ships that were trading with the British. In addition, many Americans did not like the military aggression of French dictator Napoléon Bonaparte (1769–1821), who was engaged in a quest to conquer Europe.
However, other factors were influencing the Democratic-Republican desire for war against Britain. The British controlled Canada. Winning Canada would greatly increase the amount of land available for farmers. By taking control of Canada, the United States could also gain control of the Saint Lawrence River, a key waterway for shipping goods to foreign markets. Lastly, British troops stationed along the Canadian border in the Great Lakes region were encouraging Native Americans to resist U.S. expansion in the Ohio River valley and other areas west of the Appalachian Mountains. Most settlers in those regions were Democratic-Republican farmers, and they greatly resented the actions of the British.
In early 1812, Britain was facing its own problems besides war with France. Experiencing severe economic problems, British businessmen and workers clamored to revive trade with the United States. They wanted to export a large amount of goods to America, as they had done in the past. The British parliament finally relented and removed trade restrictions against the United States. But it was too late to revive peaceful trade. Because communications were slow during the early 1800s, the United States did not know Britain was changing its policies toward U.S. merchant ships. Just two days after the British parliament acted, Congress declared war on Britain. If Congress had been aware that Parliament had acted to halt harassment of U.S. ships, it is unlikely that the war hawks could have gathered enough votes for a declaration of war.
Unprepared for war
The nation was totally unprepared for war. President Jefferson had believed in a small national government, including a small army and navy. Spending on the military was very limited during his presidency. With few paid regular troops or ships, the nation relied on volunteers and state militias. State militias consisted of adult white males between 18 and 45 years of age.
Because public support for the war was not widespread, the U.S. government had to provide incentives (in this case, financial motivation) to recruit the thousands of men it needed to field a wartime army. Congress offered men 350 acres of land and $124 (equal to a typical year's pay at that time) to serve. Many joined in response to this offer, motivated by the thought of having their own farm.
Though eager to declare war, the Democratic-Republicans in Congress were not willing to raise taxes to pay for it. Under Democratic-Republican presidents Jefferson and Madison, government income, or revenue, came mostly from tariffs, taxes on goods imported into the United States. However, since trade was greatly restricted by the blockades and U.S. trade policies after 1807, revenue from tariffs was significantly reduced.
The government needed $2.5 million to build at least ten ships; it also needed money to pay the soldiers recently recruited. In 1812, the nation spent $20 million while receiving only $10 million in revenue. The Democratic-Republicans authorized $11 million in loans to make up the shortfall in 1812. Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin (1761–1849) easily obtained the loans from individuals and organizations.
A disorganized start
Hindered by a deficient army and navy and a lack of national unity regarding the war, the United States launched a very poor war effort. To make matters worse, U.S. military leadership was aging. Most of the officers had served in the American Revolution, which had ended nearly thirty years earlier. Given these limitations, U.S. military leaders decided to concentrate on invading Canada, which was lightly guarded by British troops.
The resulting military offensive strategies against Canada were not well planned, and the state militias recruited to assist regular U.S. troops were poorly trained and undisciplined. Some states refused to let their militia fight outside state boundaries or to have them fight under the command of a U.S. military officer. For example, Connecticut claimed its militia could be used to subdue domestic unrest or defend against invasions of Connecticut, but not to fight wars on foreign soil. New York tried to avoid involvement in the war by at first withholding its militia from service. New Yorkers feared that their economy would greatly suffer, including an end to wheat trade with the Canadians. Half of Pennsylvania's militiamen would soon desert, not wanting to take on the better trained and armed British troops.
Supplying the advancing troops on the battlefield proved to be another major problem hampering an invasion of Canada. Obtaining adequate food, arms, and clothing from private companies was a problem. In the past, the U.S. military had purchased its supplies from companies in foreign countries. However, recent restrictions on international trade meant these sources were no longer available. Delivering supplies was also a problem. Roads were almost nonexistent along the Canadian front, and the U.S. military could not ship supplies on the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain in upper New York, because the British navy controlled those lakes.
American forces attacked Canada on three fronts in 1812. The most western force attacked at Detroit, a central one at Niagara, and a third to the east in the Lake Champlain area aimed at capturing Montreal. General William Hull (1753–1825), leading the Detroit offensive, was tricked into retreating by a clever British tactic. The British commander dressed Canadian volunteers in British uniforms, so the number of regular British troops appeared larger than Hull expected. Hull, who eventually surrendered his forces to the British, was later court-martialed (tried in a military court) for his ineptness. The British captured Detroit and another American fort on the western front, Fort Michilimackinac.
At Niagara, as soon as U.S. forces successfully advanced into Canada, New York militiamen refused to fight further. They claimed they had no authority to fight outside the United States. Even though American forces far outnumbered British forces, the Americans were so disorganized after the militiamen left that further fighting proved disastrous. Three hundred American soldiers were killed and nine hundred captured. About one hundred British troops were killed or wounded.
Similar problems occurred at Lake Champlain. First, a six-month delay forced U.S. troops to launch their attack in winter conditions. The delay also gave the British plenty of time to gather forces for defense. As some six thousand American soldiers began their move toward Montreal, the Vermont militiamen refused to cross the Canadian border. Like the New York militia at Niagara, the Vermont militia would not fight outside American territory. The attack fell into chaos as the American force that did push forward soon fell back. They settled into a winter camp, where many would die of pneumonia. With such dismal results at all three points of attack along the Canadian front, the U.S. Army suspended further operations until spring.
Through modern times, the United States has often been called by the nickname "Uncle Sam." The nickname most likely originated during the War of 1812. At that time, a merchant named Samuel "Uncle Sam" Wilson (1766–1854) operated a meat-packing business in Troy, New York. Through a contract with the U.S. government, he supplied barrels of salted meat to the American army. The barrels containing the meat were stamped with a "U.S." to indicate that they were for the U.S. military. Some citizens of Troy joked that the initials on the barrels stood for Uncle Sam—Samuel Wilson—the popular merchant who supplied the meat. After that, U.S. Army troops started calling themselves "Uncle Sam's soldiers," and soon Uncle Sam became the nickname for the nation.
As U.S. soldiers struggled to maintain a war offensive, New England merchants and farmers continued to trade with the British though the United States was officially at war with Britain. They sold large quantities of food and supplies to British forces in Canada and the British West Indies. These businessmen had no interest in loaning their money to the government to support the war effort; instead, they funneled profits from the illegal wartime trade into new local manufacturing companies. In November 1812, congressmen proposed a ban on U.S. merchants exporting goods to the enemy, but the legislation failed to pass. Congress, like the rest of the nation, was divided on the subject of war.
Election of 1812
President Madison, a Democratic-Republican, faced reelection in the fall of 1812. It was the nation's first wartime presidential election, and the war was going badly. However, the Federalist Party faced its own problems. Many in the party strongly opposed the war and refused to support it. Their opposition was seen by much of the public as unpatriotic. Some Federalists were even publicly beaten by angry crowds. The Federalists chose as their candidate New York City mayor DeWitt Clinton (1769–1828), nephew of Madison's recently deceased vice president, George Clinton (1739–1812).
Despite the wartime problems, Madison won reelection. Clinton did well, winning 40 percent of the vote, including the eastern coast states of Delaware, New Jersey, New York, and all the New England states except for Vermont. Madison won all other states, gaining 128 electoral votes to Clinton's 89, a fairly narrow electoral margin. The Democratic-Republicans maintained control of both houses of Congress.
Widespread criticism of the chaotic war effort led Madison to make changes in his Cabinet for his second term in office. He appointed Brigadier General John Armstrong (1758–1842) as the new secretary of war. Armstrong had been an officer in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. He also replaced Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton (1762–1816) with Revolutionary War veteran William Jones (1760–1831).
A second year of war: 1813
The nation's financial problems only worsened in 1813. The British established a naval blockade of American ports in February. At first, they blockaded only ports in Chesapeake Bay and Delaware Bay area, including the states of New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia, but soon they extended the blockade north to New York and south to Georgia. They also blocked ship traffic at the mouth of the Mississippi River at New Orleans. In addition, from these blockades the British would often send small parties to shore to harass and burn American settlements along the coast. Favoring their New England trading partners, the British avoided blockading Northeastern ports and began issuing licenses to New England ships doing trade with Britain to protect them from seizure by the British navy. New England shippers and manufacturers profited while blockades crippled trade along the rest of the Atlantic coast.
The blockades further reduced U.S. government revenue as the taxes collected on imported goods plummeted further from the disastrous years leading up to the war with the various trade restrictions. In addition, government expenses increased to $30 million during 1813. Congress still refused to impose new taxes but authorized the administration to seek another $16 million in loans. However, with the war going badly and the blockade of American trade taking its toll, loan money was not as readily available as it had been in early 1812. As the national financial crisis worsened, a group of American financiers including Stephen Girard (1750–1831), John Jacob Astor (1763–1848), and David Parish provided much of the required money.
Congress finally passed a ban on trade with Britain in July 1813. However, it had little effect, because by then the U.S. Navy was trapped in the blockaded seaports and could not enforce the ban on free-roaming New England ships. Congressional efforts to stop the illegal trade were ineffective and only strengthened New England's opposition to the war. While the illegal trade flourished, Britain successfully choked off all other trade.
On the northern border, further U.S. attempts to invade Canada met with failure just as they had in 1812. Any advances were followed by retreats. The British conducted one successful offensive in the Niagara area. They burned the U.S. towns of Lewiston, Black Rock, and Buffalo in retaliation for previous U.S. assaults. The border remained at a standoff through much of the year.
Battle of Lake Erie
Secretary of War Armstrong believed controlling Lake Erie was crucial to pushing back British troops who remained in the Detroit and Niagara areas. The British transported supplies across Lake Erie to their troops. In March 1813, American naval officer Captain Oliver Hazard Perry (1785–1819) was given command of a fleet of ships under construction on the banks of Lake Erie. In September, Perry launched his new fleet of nine ships and engaged a British fleet of six ships on the lake. After an intense battle, Perry managed to capture the British ships. As Armstrong anticipated, the loss of their secure supply route forced British land forces to withdraw from Detroit and nearby Fort Malden.
U.S. ground forces led by General William Henry Harrison (1773–1841) overtook the retreating British and defeated them at the Battle of the Thames in October 1813. Native American leader Tecumseh (1768–1813), a brigadier general in the British army, was killed in the battle. Though U.S. attempts to invade British-controlled Canada failed miserably, this series of victories provided renewed hope among Americans. In addition, Tecumseh's death essentially ended Native American resistance to American settlement in the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys.
U.S. naval victories
In addition to Lake Erie, the U.S. Navy managed a number of other key naval victories. These victories gained considerable respect for the U.S. Navy since the mighty British navy had more than eight hundred military ships and America's navy consisted of just sixteen. Generally the United States avoided engaging British fleets on the high seas, choosing one-on-one engagements instead. The few larger American warships, known as frigates, were larger than the largest British ships. The U.S. frigates were the best-designed warships in the world and handled by skillful captains and crew. The American ships outmaneuvered British ships during engagements. They often fought on interior lakes such as the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain.
One of the first U.S. victories at sea came in August 1812 when the U.S.S. Constitution, also known as "Old Ironsides" because of its unusually thick sides, engaged the British ship Guerrière several hundred miles off the coast of Newfoundland (then a British possession, now a Canadian province). Under the command of Isaac Hull (1773–1843), the Constitution won the battle decisively, capturing the Guerrière. The U.S. victory over the mighty British immediately caught the world's attention. The Constitution followed that victory with another in December. Other U.S. ships also waged successful battles. The U.S. frigate United States defeated a British warship off the coast of Morocco in the Mediterranean Sea in October 1812.
Helping the regular navy were privateers. Privateers were privately owned ships commissioned to fight or harass the enemy. Some five hundred American privateers joined in the defense of the United States during the war. The small privateer vessels maneuvered easily around the British merchant ships and slowed transport of British supplies to Canada. By the end of 1812, the British had lost some five hundred merchant ships to privateers. The privateers destroyed over thirteen hundred British merchant ships throughout the war. They even operated off the coast of Britain, much to the frustration and embarrassment of the British fleet. Attempting to contain the privateers, the British strengthened their blockade of American ports, which further crippled American trade. Though the British navy itself captured hundreds of American merchant ships during the war, the British were humiliated by their naval defeats to the smaller American navy.
British take the offensive: 1814
At the close of 1813, war expenses continued to mount. In March 1814, Congress approved another $25 million in loans and $10 million in the sale of bonds (paper certificates the government sold to raise money, imprinted with the government's promise to pay back the purchase price at a later date). However, sources for money were still shrinking: Merchants suffering from the blockade did not have any money to loan; merchants in New England who were making money did not support the war and therefore did not want to buy bonds or finance the war effort in any way.
To make matters worse for the United States, by March 1814 the British were finally gaining the upper hand on Napoléon's French forces in Europe. Britain could now focus its attention on finishing the war with the United States. The British planned to further weaken the U.S. economy by strengthening their blockade of American ports. They had also developed a plan to launch invasions on three fronts—along the Canadian border, on the Mid-Atlantic coast, and at New Orleans.
In April, the British navy extended its blockade of the American coast all the way northward through New England. The blockade kept most U.S. merchant ships and warships confined in their ports. British raiding parties meanwhile continued to cause havoc along the coast. In one case, they entered the Connecticut River and destroyed twenty-seven ships.
The expanded British blockade caused significant damage to the U.S. economy. U.S. exports fell to less than $7 million in 1814, far down from $108 million in 1807 at the height of foreign trade. U.S. merchants and shippers were losing considerable business, and so were the nation's farmers. The sale of farm products, such as tobacco and cotton, was way down. Frustrated by the ever worsening financial condition of the nation, Albert Gallatin resigned as secretary of the treasury. By the summer of 1814, the U.S. government was nearing bankruptcy.
The British assault from Canada
Britain sent some ten thousand seasoned veteran troops to the Canadian front. Their extensive goals included (1) capturing land in upper New York and Maine to serve as a buffer from further U.S. attacks, (2) taking New York City and splitting the nation in half, and (3) capturing the Louisiana Territory, part of the land the United States purchased from France in 1803 and formerly controlled by Spain, Britain's ally.
Gathering its forces along the Canadian border, Britain anticipated major victories. First, British troops made advances at the far eastern and western ends of the Canadian front. They moved into Maine with little resistance as far as the Penobscot River. They also moved into parts of Wisconsin, gaining control of the upper Mississippi River.
The British planned their main assault to advance south from Montreal into New York along Lake Champlain. The British force moved quickly to the outskirts of Plattsburgh, New York, on the shore of the lake, by September 6, 1814. Because of the poor roads in the area, they had to ship their supplies on the lake. However, a small American fleet of four ships commanded by Commodore Thomas Macdonough (1783–1825) intercepted the British fleet. An intense battle resulted near Plattsburgh on September 11. During the battle, Macdonough's own ship looked beaten. However, he was able to turn his ship and hit the enemy with a fresh broadside of cannon, winning the victory. With their supply line broken, the invading British land army quickly retreated to Montreal. Macdonough's victory was stunning. It saved New York from falling to the British and probably kept the United States from losing the war.
An attack on Washington and Baltimore
To create a diversion from the main assault in the north, Britain launched an attack on the Mid-Atlantic coast in August 1814. A British force of four thousand soldiers landed in the Chesapeake Bay area at Benedict, Maryland, a short distance from Washington, D.C. Six thousand U.S. militiamen took positions at Bladensburg, Maryland. Alarmed at the sight of the large well-armed and highly regimented British force, the militia panicked and fled into the woods, leaving the U.S. capital undefended. To the shock of the American public, on August 24 the British forces burned many public buildings in Washington, D.C., including the Treasury, the War Department, the Capitol, and the President's House (the name of the White House at the time). It was a major insult to American pride.
President James Madison fled into the surrounding hills in advance of the British arrival. First lady Dolley Madison (1768–1849) gathered what she could from the President's House, including presidential papers and a famous portrait of George Washington, and then fled to Virginia. Secretary of War John Armstrong resigned in disgrace on September 4. He was replaced by Secretary of State James Monroe (1758–1831), who served in both Cabinet positions for the remainder of the war.
From Washington, the British marched toward the port of Baltimore on September 11. However, Baltimore was well fortified, and the British met stiff militia resistance. The British commander, General Robert Ross (1766–1814), was killed by a U.S. sharpshooter. With the ground troops stalled, a British fleet of sixteen ships began exchanging fire with Fort McHenry at the narrow entrance to Baltimore's port. Cannons on the British ships had a longer range than the fort's guns. Therefore, the ships moved back out of range of the fort and began a bombardment on the afternoon of September 13. The assault went on into the night, and the fort, undercommand of U.S. Army major George Armistead (1780–1818), received four hundred direct hits. Remarkably, U.S. forces held, and the following morning the British ships stopped the assault and withdrew from the Baltimore area. The Americans lost only thirty soldiers (see sidebar).
When Congress first met after the British burned the Capitol and other government buildings in Washington, the congressmen had to gather in the U.S. Post and Patent Office. News on the war only got grimmer. Secretary of the Treasury George Washington Campbell (1769–1848) reported that the nation needed another $23 million to continue the war. Discouraged, Campbell resigned and was replaced by Alexander J. Dallas (1759–1817). Dallas did what he could to raise money, borrowing some and selling more bonds. However, the nation could not make payments on its existing loans.
By mid-1814, U.S. casualties were mounting, and American forces had won very few victories. Six thousand American soldiers had been killed or wounded. Across the ocean, Britain was growing weary. Since the French and Indian War in the mid-1700s, the British had rarely stopped fighting. Both Britain and the United States were interested in ending their conflict, so American and British negotiators gathered in Ghent, Belgium, in August 1814. The United States sent five diplomats, including U.S. minister to Russia John Quincy Adams (1767–1848), son of former president John Adams (1735–1826; served 1797–1801), and former Speaker of the House Henry Clay (1777–1852) of Kentucky, one of the original young war hawks from Congress.
Both sides made large demands when they first met. The United States demanded control of Canada. Britain wanted to keep areas its military had occupied along the
"The Star-Spangled Banner"
The British bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore's harbor on the night of September 13, 1814, set the stage for the creation of the future national anthem of the United States, "The Star-Spangled Banner" by Francis Scott Key (1779–1843). Key was a lawyer from nearby Georgetown.
After their assault on Washington, D.C., on August 24, British forces arrested Dr. William Beanes (1749–1829) of Upper Marlboro for harassing British troops. Beanes was held on a ship in Chesapeake Bay. Friends of Beanes summoned Key, along with John S. Skinner of Baltimore, to seek the doctor's release. On September 7, Key and Skinner met with British commanders and secured Beanes's freedom. However, British forces were now preparing for an assault on Baltimore, so the three Americans were detained on the ship as it moved out of the bay. It anchored at a position outside Baltimore's harbor while British military forces moved in.
On the night of September 13, Key and the others witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry, the army post that guarded the entrance to Baltimore's harbor. Despite heavy rain and many direct hits on the fort, American forces would not surrender. By 9 o'clock the next morning, the Americans still held the fortress and control of the harbor. Major George Armistead, who commanded the fort, raised a large, dry U.S. flag over the installation. This sight inspired Key to write a poem on the back of a letter he had in his pocket. After he and the others were released from the British ship on September 16, Key reworked and added to his poem, and at the urging of Key's brother-in-law, Captain Joseph Nicholson, a Baltimore newspaper published the poem.
Key's work was originally titled "The Defense of Fort McHenry," but that was soon changed to "The Star-Spangled Banner." Key then set the poem to music, and it was first performed on October 19, 1814, at the Holliday Street Theatre in Baltimore. In 1931, Congress designated the song as the national anthem. The flag that inspired the poem is housed in the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
Canadian border, including much of Maine. The Americans wanted impressments to end. Britain wanted a Native American–controlled buffer area in the Great Lakes region between the United States and Canada. The buffer would guard against any further desires by the United States to invade and gain control of Canada.
When news arrived in Ghent that the British invasion of New York had failed and that the capitol building and other buildings in Washington had been burned, the mood changed on both sides. The demands stopped. Neither side believed that victory was possible. The United States did not have a sufficient military for a decisive overall victory. Britain did not have the will to escalate its military effort further in far off North America after years of war with France. Both were ready to call a halt to the fighting. After several months of negotiating, the Treaty of Ghent was signed on December 24, 1814. The treaty was essentially a cease-fire; it did not actually resolve the grievances that started the war. It made no mention of British seizures of American ships and impressments of American sailors. It simply restored British-American relations and reopened trade. Even the boundary between the United States and Canada remained as it was before the war.
News traveled very slowly in the early 1800s. The United States had declared war in 1812 without knowing that just two days earlier Britain had repealed key policies inciting American anger. Similarly, the final major battle of the War of 1812 came two weeks after the United States and Britain signed the peace treaty.
British forces approached the port of New Orleans on the Gulf Coast in December 1814. General Andrew Jackson (1767–1845) arrived with a combined U.S. force of seven thousand men—regular troops, pirates, militiamen, Frenchmen, and Native Americans—to defend the city. The Louisiana militia included some four hundred free blacks. Jackson's force, fresh from a major victory over Native American forces at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in Alabama, dug trenches for defense. On January 8, 1815, some eight thousand British troops launched a massive attack against the combined American force. In only a half hour of battle, more than two thousand British soldiers were killed or wounded. Only seventy-one American soldiers were killed or wounded. The Battle of New Orleans was a resounding victory for the United States. General Jackson became a national hero and later served two terms as president.
News of the victory reached Washington, D.C., just before news of the peace treaty arrived from Europe. Therefore, many Americans wrongly believed the U.S. victory at New Orleans had led the British to end the war. Upon learning that the United States did not lose any territory in the treaty, the American public regarded the war as a victory. The U.S. Senate immediately approved the treaty.
While final negotiations were proceeding at Ghent and British and American forces were gathering at New Orleans, Federalists who opposed the war held a secret convention in Hartford, Connecticut, from December 15, 1814, to January 5, 1815. Attending the convention were twenty-six delegates from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Rhode Island. They gathered to discuss the effects of the war. The war had significantly reduced the profits of New England merchants. To the Federalists, this seemed unfair, because they had not agreed with the government's decision to go to war. Some delegates talked of New England seceding (separating) from the union and forming its own nation.
The convention produced seven proposed revisions to the U.S. Constitution. They were designed to limit congressional power—specifically, the power to declare war and to place long-term restrictions on trade. However, before the revisions could be delivered to Washington, D.C., news of the peace treaty arrived. Americans were excited and eager to move forward in a time of peace and rejuvenate the economy. As word of the Federalist convention spread among the public, support for the Federalist Party was further weakened. The Federalists were seen as unpatriotic at a moment of great national pride and celebration.
Looking toward peace and prosperity
A period of peace followed the War of 1812 in Europe and North America. The war left the United States with a single political party for a brief period. The Federalists were in total disarray and nearing collapse. In 1816, the last Federalist presidential candidate, U.S. senator Rufus King (1755–1827) of New York, would suffer a resounding defeat to Democratic-Republican James Monroe.
The War of 1812 helped shape the nation's self-image. For the second time in less than fifty years, America had fought the world's mightiest nation, Britain, to a standoff. The war created new American heroes such as Andrew Jackson, Thomas Macdonough, Oliver Hazard Perry, and William Henry Harrison. The U.S. Navy had gained worldwide respect with its key victories over Britain's mighty fleet. Quickly forgotten were the many setbacks on the battlefields, the poor performance of the state militias, the refusal of Northern states to contribute men or funding to support the war, and the illegal trade Northern merchants carried on with Britain and Canada. Even though the economy had suffered and the Capitol had burned, the nation survived. Trade was once again opened to the international markets, and renewed prosperity was in sight.
For More Information
Borneman, Walter R. 1812: The War That Forged a Nation. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.
Ketcham, Ralph L. James Madison: A Biography. New York: Macmillan, 1971.
Mattern, David B., and Holly C. Shulman, eds. The Selected Letters of Dolley Payne Madison. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003.
Remini, Robert V. The Life of Andrew Jackson. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.
Wait, Eugene M. America and the War of 1812. Commack, NY: Kroshka Books, 1999.
"First Invasion: The War of 1812." The History Channel.http://www.historychannel.com/1812/ (accessed on August 2, 2005).
"Niagara History: Oliver Hazard Perry." U.S. Brig Niagara.http://www.brigniagara.org/perry.htm (accessed on August 2, 2005).