The War of 1812 (1812–1815)

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The War of 1812 (1812–1815)



A major cause of the War of 1812 was British impressment of American sailors. Impressment—a form of naval conscription—generated more controversy and greater outrage than any other aspect of naval life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

During peacetime, the Royal Navy, along with most national navies, relied on volunteers to man its ships. In 1792, the last year of European peace before the wars stemming from the French Revolutionary Wars, only 20,000 sailors were required. When Great Britain joined the wars against France in 1793, the number of sailors needed jumped dramatically. By the end of 1794, the Royal Navy needed 73,000 sailors, and in 1813, after twenty years of warfare, the Royal Navy had swelled to 109,000 seamen. To meet this manpower need, the Royal Navy used impressment—involuntary recruitment into the Royal Navy.

There were strict rules over who was subject to impressment and who was not. The object was to find men capable of sailing a ship. Seamanship was a skilled trade, and while a warship could use some unskilled landsmen, the real need was for those that knew which lines to pull (handle), knew how to work with sails (reefing), and knew how to stand a watch at a tiller or wheel (steer).

Only mariners subject to the British crown could be pressed into service. Foreigners—including Americans—were exempt. Some maritime activities—fishermen or watermen (those who handled small boats in harbors and rivers)—were also exempt, as were the officers and petty officers of merchant vessels. Any other British sailor could be seized and forced to serve on a Royal Navy ship for the duration of the time the ship remained in commission.

While impressment sounds harsh, it differed little from military conscription used by the United States during the Civil War and in the twentieth century. It worked well for most of the eighteenth century, when few naval wars lasted more than four years. Conditions aboard a British warship, while difficult by modern standards, were actually easier than those on the average merchant vessel of the same period.

Impressment was ill adapted to a long war, however. By 1808, Britain had been at war with France for more than a decade. The pool of available sailors was drained, and the war seemed to have no end. Service in the Royal Navy appeared to be a life sentence, discouraging volunteers.

Royal Navy captains became increasingly desperate to find men. Sometimes they illegally pressed landsmen. Other captains gave in to the temptation to impress American sailors. Often, those Americans had been born in Britain and immigrated to the United States. In the eyes of the Royal Navy, such sailors were still British and subject to impressment.

Some British officers made honest mistakes. It was difficult to differentiate between the accents of someone born in New England—part of the United States—from someone born in Nova Scotia—part of Canada. On other occasions, Royal Navy officers simply did not care. They needed men. In their view, the United States was being protected from Napoleon’s ambition by the British fleet. The tariff of a few sailors was a small price for that protection and the money the United States made as a neutral carrier.

Quite reasonably, the United States did not see things the same way. American citizens had no obligation to serve in the Royal Navy, even if those American citizens had been born British. In 1812, all Americans over the age of thirty-one had been born British citizens. Failure to protect the rights of its citizens could lead to a loss of American sovereignty, something about which the young republic was highly sensitive.

Neither side would yield. The British were willing to return native-born Americans, but needed men too badly to concede immunity to Britons claiming to be American, even those that had legitimately moved to the United States. Taken with incidents where overzealous Royal Navy captains pursued deserters onto American soil, or on one occasion onto an American Navy warship, and there was a complaint worth fighting over.

As with much associated with the War of 1812, the impressment issue was not resolved by the war or the peace treaty. Britain was at peace with every nation except the United States by 1815. It would not again need conscription until World War I began in 1914. Yet it never forswore either impressment—or the right to conscript British sailors who became American citizens.

An Impressed Seaman’s Story

James R. Durand was born in Connecticut in 1786. He took to a life at sea, serving on numerous merchant vessels and three American warships. He was serving as mate aboard a British merchant ship when caught by a press gang in Plymouth harbor, in England.

As an American and a ship’s officer, he should have been doubly exempt from impressment, but neither status protected him. The frigate Narcissusbadly needed men, and his claim of being an American was ignored since he was on a British ship. In his memoirs, Durand gives a vivid account of being impressed:

About 11 o’clock at night, there came along side a boat belonging to the Narcissus frigate. They boarded our brig and came below where I was asleep. With much abuse, they hauled me out of my bed, not suffering me to put on or take anything except my trowsers.In this miserable condition I was taken on board their ship but did not think to be detained there for seven years.

Trade Restrictions

A major cause of the War of 1812 was trade restrictions. While the plight of impressed sailors struck an emotional chord, it affected few. British alliances with the Native Americans only affected those on the frontier, another minority. Few in the United States would profit from adding Canada to the country. However, trade affected the lives of all Americans. When trade flowed freely, the whole of the United States prospered. When trade was restricted, the entire country suffered.

By 1812, Europe had been at war for almost two decades. The two main antagonists, Great Britain and France, could not defeat the other through force of arms. The war had stalemated in the late 1790s. The French military was too weak to defeat the British Royal Navy at sea and reach England. The British Army was too small to overcome the French Grande Armée. Each side turned increasingly towards trade restrictions, hoping to weaken its foe by ruining the enemy’s economy.

In the early nineteenth century, there were conflicting views about what type of trade was allowed. Everyone agreed that a nation at war had the right to stop and capture ships that belonged to nations with which it was fighting. Beyond that was confusion about the rights of ships of neutral nations.

The United States held to a theory originated by the Dutch, that free ships meant free goods. In other words, a neutral ship could carry any cargo to any port. Nations with small navies and large merchant fleets liked this doctrine because it allowed them to carry goods into blockaded ports.

The major European nations rejected this doctrine, as would the United States once it developed a powerful navy. They held that belligerent nations had the right to blockade enemy ports and to seize neutral ships carrying military cargoes to enemy countries.

Trade Legislation

The British carried this one step further with the Rule of 1756—which was first used in a war started that year. It stated that trade closed to a nation in time of peace could not be opened during wartime. If France did not let the United States carry sugar from Guadeloupe to Bordeaux during peacetime, the British could seize American ships doing that when Britain and France were at war.

While the United States officially held to its free ships–free goods position, it recognized these accepted European rules of blockade, including the Rule of 1756. The United States was unwilling to fight for unlimited access to belligerent ports. Then the French and British changed the rules.

In November 1806, French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) issued the Berlin Decree. It stated that no ship could sail directly to French-controlled portions of Europe directly from England or an English colony. If it did, it would be seized in port. This, and the subsequent Milan Decree, further restricted neutral trade with Britain and formed the heart of what Napoleon called the Continental System.

The British retaliated. It issued the First Order-in-Council in January 1807, which forbade neutral ships from trading between enemy ports—even if the cargo carried were allowed during peacetime. At the time, the United States was the only neutral country with a significant merchant fleet.

Then, in November 1807, the Second Order-in-Council required neutral shipping cargoes to the European continent to stop in Britain first. Ship owners were thus forced to abide by either the Second Order-in-Council or the Berlin Decree; it was impossible to comply with one without violating the other.

The United States countered these actions with the Embargo Act in 1807. It closed United States ports to international commerce. It threw the United States into a deep recession, because much of the economy was based on foreign trade. It failed to coerce either Britain or France to change its policies. The Embargo Act served the purposes of the Orders-in-Council and the Continental System better than Britain or France could. Realizing this, the Embargo Act was repealed in 1808.

In 1809, Britain again modified its trade policies. It issued a Third Order-in-Council, imposing a strict blockade on French-controlled Europe. This actually had an adverse affect on the British economy, because it blocked British shippers from trading with European nations that were allied with France but were not fighting Britain.

The United States retaliated with the Non-Intercourse Act of 1809. It banned trade with Britain and France while they blocked United States shipping. It was as ineffective at modifying British and French policy as the Embargo Act.

It had less effect on the United States economy than the Embargo Act, however, because it was easy to evade. Merchants simply claimed to be sailing for a destination not barred by the Act. They then went to a British (or French) port due to some purported emergency that forced them to anchor. While there, they sold their cargo, claiming their host would not allow them to leave with it.

Because it was ineffective, the U.S. Congress modified the law in 1811 by passing the Non-Importation Act. It forbade imports from countries that blockaded United States ships. It, too, failed to modify British trade policy.

War Erupts

Congress resorted to the only action that could affect British behavior: threatening war. By early 1812, Britain’s resources were stretched to the limit by the war with France. It wanted to avoid a North American distraction. The Orders-in-Council were as unpopular in Britain as the Embargo and Non-Intercourse Acts had been in the United States. The reason was the same—it hurt the country initiating the rule more than its intended victim.

In 1812, Britain offered a compromise. It offered to issue American ships licenses to trade with Europe. The United States rejected that offer, feeling it was too difficult to control. At that point, the British government gave in. Rather than go to war, on June 16, 1812, it anounced that it would repeal the Orders-in-Council if the United States repealed the Non-Importation Act. Since the Non-Importation Act was aimed at removing the Orders-in-Council, the offer should have been acceptable.

American patience had run out. On June 18, 1812,—after the British lifted the Orders-in-Council, but weeks before Congress would hear about it—President James Madison (1751–1836) signed into law a declaration of war against Britain. War, once started, was not easy to stop.

British Alliance with Native Americans

One reason cited by the U.S. Congress for going to war with Britain in 1812 was that the British government was “exciting the Indians to hostilities against the United States.” In reality, prior to the war, the British government had been trying to restrain its Native American allies from attacking the United States. However, it was hard to convince an American settler in the western territories of that. The period immediately prior to the War of 1812 was marked by Native Americans on the frontier resisting westward expansion of American settlers by force of arms. Many of the arms they used were supplied by British traders.

The British cultivated ties with the Native American nations on the western frontier for economic and strategic reasons. The Native Americans were valued as trading partners. A large part of Canada’s economy was then based on furs. Native Americans on both sides of the border trapped animals and sold pelts to British agents.

The Native Americans bought needed or desired goods from the British that they could not manufacture. The Native Americans of the Old Northwest (in present-day Ohio), lacking the capability to smelt metals, had grown dependent on trade for iron cookware, steel knives, hatchets, animal traps, and the firearms that they needed. Britain made a good profit from both the furs exported to Europe and the goods they sold to their Native American allies.

The British also viewed the Native Americans as a bulwark that would help shield Canada from the United States. Many of these tribes had fought alongside Great Britain in the American Revolution. They had provided Britain with a militarily useful auxiliary force.

Britain was not seeking a war with the United States in the first decade of the nineteenth century. British military resources were committed to the war against France that Britain was then fighting. Britain did not want the expanded military commitment a war with the United States would entail. That included getting dragged into a war by their Native American allies.

Britain did not—and could not—control its allies. Tribes often had their own agendas, especially the militant tribes that were determined to stop settler encroachment on their lands. Frequently, lawless Americans would rob or otherwise injure Indian tribes allied with Britain. The tribe would retaliate—drawing a response from the United States, which then triggered a cycle of increasing violence.

Often, British citizens would be involved in these retaliatory actions. Many traders and agents acting for the British had married Native Americans. Family ties often caused them to go further in their support for the tribe than British policy permitted. U.S. citizens that suffered from Indian raids interpreted this unofficial support as representing British government policy.

Once war was declared, Britain used its Native American allies widely and sought out new allies as well. Native American forces assisted the British in capturing the frontier forts of the United States. For example, Fort Mackinaw, which guarded the straits connecting Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, was captured by forces that were almost exclusively Native American.

Britain sought the assistance of Native Americans in the southwestern United States as the war progressed but met with mixed success. Of the five major tribes in the gulf states, the Choctaw and Chickasaw actively supported the United States. The Choctaw sent a group to help defend New Orleans in 1814. The Cherokee remained friendly with the United States, but offered limited military assistance.

The Creeks split. One faction favored the United States, while another fought an independent war against the United States. The Creek War ended decisively in favor of the United States before the British began serious recruiting of Indian allies in 1814. Many surviving Red Stick Creeks, from southern Alabama, and Seminoles, a closely related tribe from northern Florida, allied with the British.

The Forgotten Clause

The British remembered their Native American allies in the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812. Article 9 of the Treaty of Ghent stated, in part:

The United States of America engage to put an end immediately after the Ratification of the present Treaty to hostilities with all the Tribes or Nations of Indians with whom they may be at war at the time of such Ratification, and forthwith to restore to such Tribes or Nations respectively all the possessions, rights, and privileges which they may have enjoyed or been entitled to in one thousand eight hundred and eleven previous to such hostilities.

For many tribes, this clause proved hollow. They often did not have the possessions, rights, and privileges they enjoyed previous to the war restored. Britain did nothing to help them. The United States posed less of a military threat to Canada, and the fur trade was diminishing in value. As the military and economic value of the native peoples faded in importance to Britain, the value of the United States’s goodwill increased. As typical in diplomacy, interests proved more important than friendship.

Major Figures

James Madison

James Madison (1750-1836) was the fourth president of the United States. To Federalists, the War of 1812 was “Mr. Madison’s War.” However, it would be more accurate to describe Madison as the man who happened to be president when the war was fought than as the man who shaped the War of 1812.

Early Career

Madison’s presidency was an undistinguished capstone to what had hitherto been an illustrious career. Madison was born on March 16, 1751, in Port Conway, Virginia. He was a contemporary of, and neighbor to, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe. Educated at the College of New Jersey at Princeton, he considered entering the ministry, but chose instead to return to Virginia, where he became involved in politics. He served in both the Continental Congress and in the Virginia Assembly during the American Revolution and was an active supporter of the Revolution.

A Founding Father

The apogee of his career came during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and its immediate aftermath. He took a leading role in the framing of the Constitution and is often refered to as its “father.” He was one of the main advocates of a strong central government and helped develop the system of checks and balances written into the Constitution.

After the Constitution was drafted, he was one of the leading figures in the successful struggle to ratify the document. Along with John Jay (1745–1829) and Alexander Hamilton (1755 or 1757–1804), he wrote the Federalist Papers, a series of eighty-five essays that still form a cornerstone of constitutional law. Additionally, Madison drafted the Bill of Rights—the first ten amendments to the Constitution. It is a testament to Madison’s ability as a lawmaker that the Constitution has endured in one of the oldest continuous governments in the world.

Following the Constitution’s ratification, Madison served in Congress until 1798. Along with Thomas Jefferson, he helped found the Republican-Democratic Party (today’s Democratic Party, but often called the Republicans during the War of 1812). A Francophile (and Anglophobe), Madison opposed the Jay Treaty, ratified in 1795, which provided closure to the American Revolution. Madison feared it would bring the United States too close to its mother country.

Madison returned to national politics in 1800, when he became President Thomas Jefferson’s (1743–1826) secretary of state. Madison was instrumental in securing the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and in suppressing the Barbary Pirates from 1803 through 1805. However, Madison also supported the pro-French, anti-British foreign policy of the Jefferson Administration that led to the Embargo Act of 1807.


James Madison took the then-conventional route to the White House, being elected to the presidency in 1808 after serving as secretary of state. He inherited the presidency at a time of turmoil. The country was in a depression due to the effects of the Embargo Act. The act had been repealed prior to Madison’s taking the oath of office, but Madison continued the Anglophobic policies of the Jefferson Administration. This hastened the slide to war.

When the British issued the retaliatory Third Orders-in-Council in 1809, which restricted the United States’s ability to freely trade with Europe, Madison supported passage of the Non-Intercourse Act that same year, followed by a less restrictive non-importation act in 1811. Neither act damaged Britain financially, although both hurt American commerce. Madison also allowed the charter for the national bank to lapse in 1811. Both weakened the American economy in the years immediately preceding the war, undermining the government’s ability to prepare for war.

Additionally, he failed to delay momentum toward war until the United States was prepared militarily for a conflict. He instead allowed the ambitions of congressional “War Hawks” to dictate the pace of events.

Madison’s leadership during the war was as uninspired as his performance prior to the war. He pinned success on Canada succumbing to American military might before Britain could move reinforcements to that province. Considering the performance of Continental militias during the Revolution, and the dependence upon similar militias for any invasion of Canada, it represented a triumph of hope over experience.

Madison also failed to field good commanders, particularly in the army. He was slow to replace bunglers like James Wilkinson (1757–1825) or William Winder (1775–1824). The lackluster performance of the U.S. Army in 1812 was a major reason for Madison’s narrow presidential victory in the 1812 election.

After the War of 1812 ended, Madison led a set of internal improvements that restored his popularity, including provisions for a national bank and interstate travel. Retiring from public life in 1817, he focused his attention on scientific agriculture at his estate at Montpelier, Virginia. With Jefferson, he helped found the University of Virginia. He died in 1836, then the last of the great founders of the United States.

Dolley Madison

Dorothy (Dolley) Payne Todd Madison (1768–1849) married then-Representative James Madison in September 1794. Dolley would be the love of Madison’s life. She was also a political partner that would not be repeated on a national scale for another hundred years, when Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt took America’s political stage.

Dolley Payne, born into a Quaker family in 1768, married John Todd of Philadelphia in 1790. He died of yellow fever less than three years later, leaving Dolley a widow with a small son. Dolley met James Madison in 1794, and they married that year.

After their marriage, both blossomed. Dolley became a fashionable society hostess. James Madison, a reticent, private man before marriage, became more outgoing. When James Madison became secretary of state for Thomas Jefferson, a widower, Dolley made the Madison home the capital’s social center. It was a role she continued after becoming First Lady. Dolley was also one of James Madison’s closest and shrewdest political advisors. Her gracious tact was one of Madison’s diplomatic assets during his presidency.

During the War of 1812, Dolley performed two important services for her country. She nursed James Madison back to health after a serious illness in 1813. She also oversaw the evacuation of the White House in 1814, taking a portrait of George Washington attributed to Gilbert Stuart. It would otherwise have been burnt along with the White House after the British occupation.

Dolley Madison died in 1849, thirteen years after her husband.

Alexander Cochrane

Alexander Cochrane (1758–1832) was in command of British naval efforts in the War of 1812. Born in 1758, he was the son of Thomas Cochrane, the eighth Earl of Dundonald. Alexander Cochrane entered the Royal Navy as a teenager, in the early 1770s.

Early Career

In 1778 he was promoted to lieutenant and appointed to the Sandwich, Admiral George Rodney’s (1718–1792) flagship during Rodney’s West Indies campaign during the American Revolutionary War. Cochrane distinguished himself, and in 1789 was promoted to commander and given command of a sloop-of-war. Just before hostilities ceased, Cochrane was promoted to captain—“made post” in the parlance of the Royal Navy. Once a man became a post captain, future promotion was based on seniority.

Unemployed by the Royal Navy during most of the peace between the American and French revolutions, Cochrane received command of a frigate in 1790. Thereafter, and until the Peace of Amiens in 1801, Cochrane was continuously at sea, first as a frigate captain, and later commanding a ship-of-the-line. After the Napoleonic Wars resumed in 1803, he was given command of another ship-of-the-line and then promoted to rear-admiral in 1804. From there, he commanded increasingly larger numbers of ships, primarily in the Caribbean.

Cochrane conquered Guadeloupe in 1810, taking it from the French. It was the last French possession in the Caribbean. Cochrane had been continuously in the Caribbean since 1805, spending the time capturing islands held by France and its allies.

Command in North America

Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane took command of the North American Station (the headquarters of the Royal Navy ships stationed in North American waters)—and through that, command of British naval efforts in the War of 1812—in late 1813. Cochrane replaced Admiral John Borlase Warren (1753–1822) because the British government had finally decided to more aggressively seek a military solution to the war.

The British government, focused on the war against Napoleon, had initially tried to ignore the American declaration of war, hoping the problem would go away. When it did not, Britain then attempted to negotiate a peace based on the status quo before the war. That failed, despite American military losses in Canada, primarily because of American success at sea. Napoleon’s empire began collapsing following a failed invasion of Russia in 1812. By 1813, this released Royal Navy resources for use against the United States. Britain determined to compel a settlement through force of arms.

The Admiralty chose Cochrane for three reasons: He was competent, he was aggressive, and no other admiral then serving had as much experience conducting joint and amphibious operations. At the time of his promotion, Cochrane had been serving as governor of Guadeloupe.

Cochrane exceeded Admiralty expectations. He instituted a successful blockade of the American coast. While unable to stop American privateers from sailing, Cochrane successfully bottled up American merchant shipping and the U.S. Navy. Between July 1813 and the end of the war, only two squadrons of American warships evaded the British blockade.

In 1814, Cochrane initiated a series of successful raids on the American coast. From Stonington, Connecticut, to the Louisiana coast, British fleets would suddenly appear, land British soldiers, destroy structures, and burn or carry off materials that could aid the United States’ war effort. The British would usually be back aboard ship and sailing to a new destination before American forces could react.

Later Career

After the War of 1812 ended, Cochrane returned to England. He was promoted to admiral in 1819 and appointed commander-in-chief of the naval base at Plymouth, England, in 1821. He died in 1832.

Robert Ross

Robert Ross (1766–1814) was a commander of one of Wellington’s brigades in North America. Ross was born in 1766 in Rosstrevor, Ireland, and was a member of the Scots-Irish aristocracy. After graduating in 1784 from Trinity College, Dublin, he joined the British Army as an ensign in 1789. After progressing through the officer ranks, he purchased a major’s commission in the Twentieth Foot in 1799.

Service in the Napoleonic Wars

Ross remained with the Twentieth Foot regiment until 1813, becoming its commanding colonel in 1809. During that time he saw action in Holland, Italy, Portugal, and Spain. In 1813, he was promoted to command of the Fusilier Brigade in Wellington’s Army, which included the Twentieth. He led the brigade ably at the battles of Vittoria, Pampeluna, Sauroren, Nivelle, and Orthes. He received a gold medal for Vittoria. Wellington (Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington) (1769–1852), who led British forces against Napoleon, cited Ross’s brigade for its bravery at Sauroren. At the Battle of Orthes on February 27, 1814, Ross was badly wounded—again leading from the front—which took him out of the rest of the campaign. His ability and availability led to his appointment as a brigade commander in North America.

Command in North America

Ross was given command of one of four brigades of Wellington’s veterans sent to North America in June 1814. Three brigades were sent to Canada. Ross’s brigade, which consisted of three regiments from Europe and one added at Bermuda, was sent to raid the American coast.

Ross proved to be an imaginative, aggressive, and competent commander. Working closely with his naval counterparts—Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, who commanded the North American Station, and Rear Admiral George Cockburn (1772–1853), commanding inshore forces—Ross led a series of successful raids in Chesapeake Bay.

The high point of the Chesapeake campaign occurred in the week between August 19, 1814 when British forces landed at Benedict, Maryland, and August 24, when they took Washington, D.C. Ross bypassed two strongly held positions on the Eastern Branch of the Potomac at bridges on the direct route to Washington, looping north to Bladensburg, Maryland. He outmaneuvered and routed an American militia force fortified there, allowing uncontested possession of the American capital.

Ross dined at the White House on August 24, writing “so confident was Madison of the defeat of our troops that he had prepared a supper for the expected conquerors.” Ross was probably mistaken as to the nature of the meal he found at the president’s abandoned residence. There is no evidence that Madison planned a victory dinner. Madison’s valet Paul Jennings wrote in his memoirs that a state dinner had been prepared for that night. Ross mistakenly assumed it was a victory meal.

After the capture of Washington, D.C., Ross attempted to duplicate the feat at Baltimore. He landed forces at North Point, Maryland, and planned to march them twelve miles to Baltimore. At a narrow spot on the peninsula, Ross’s forces encountered six thousand militia in prepared positions. As was common with British generals schooled in Wellington’s army, Ross led his troops from the front. Ross had had a horse shot out from under him during the march on Washington. His luck ran out at the Battle of North Point in September 1814. The British routed the Americans, but Ross had been shot and mortally wounded while scouting the American positions.

Jean Lafitte

Jean Lafitte (c. 1780–c. 1826) was portrayed as a seagoing Robin Hood, a patriot pirate who helped the United States win its most decisive battle in that war. Lafitte’s contribution to the Battle of New Orleans, while real, was much smaller than his legend recounts.

Early Career

Jean Lafitte and his brother Pierre were born in France but had moved to San Domingue (colonial Haiti). Chased out of San Domingue by slave revolts, and out of the French Caribbean by British conquests, the brothers appeared in New Orleans around 1803. They started as traders, but began fattening their profit margins through smuggling. From there it was an easy slide to smuggling slaves and stolen goods.

Gentleman Pirate

Around 1811, Jean Lafitte decided to eliminate his middlemen. He acquired first one, then more armed ships, and acquired goods through force of arms. He was technically a privateer authorized by a port on the Colombian coast that had declared itself independent of Spain. This port, the Republic of Cartagena, issued licenses to ship owners, allowing them to seize Spanish merchant ships.

Lafitte set up a base in Lake Barataria, Louisiana, and was selling seized goods on the U.S. gulf coast, where he could get better prices than in Cartagena. Few nations recognized the Republic of Cartagena—which made him a pirate in the eyes of the owners of the seized goods. He made money initially, but by 1813, legal complications threatened his freedom and his finances.

Service to the United States

Lafitte tried unsuccessfully to get licensed as an American privateer when the War of 1812 broke out. By then, he was viewed as a pirate by United States and Louisiana authorities. He thus remained a Cartagenian privateer. The British attempted to recruit him to their side in August 1814, offering him a captain’s commission in the Colonial Marines. Lafitte turned the offer down. Instead, he reported the British offer to the Louisiana governor, motivated by his dislike for the British and expectation that the Americans would control Louisiana after the war.

Lafitte’s action on behalf of the United States did not save his ships or his Baratarian base. In September 1814, the U.S. Navy took time out from the war to attack Lafitte’s base. It captured his ships and stolen goods and destroyed the base.

Lafitte and the few Baratarians that escaped the attack hid out in the bayou country for the next two months. In December, Lafitte again offered his services to the United States against the British. He and three dozen surviving Baratarian pirates agreed to serve in the U.S. Army in exchange for a pardon. The men provided crews for two of the fourteen artillery pieces the Americans used during the Battle of New Orleans. Jean Lafitte served as a staff officer.

Contrary to legend, Lafitte supplied the American army with neither gunpowder nor artillery. His stocks had all been seized by the U.S. Navy in September, when Barataria was raided.

General Andrew Jackson (1767–1845), the hero-leader of the Battle of New Orleans, recommended Jean Lafitte, his brother Pierre, and the thirty-six Baratarian artillerymen for pardons, which were granted. Jean Lafitte began 1815 freed of legal complications, but in the years following the war, slid back to his old ways.

Later Career

Dozens of new nations were born around the Caribbean basin between 1815 and 1825. Lafitte accepted privateering commissions from several such young nations and was again viewed as a pirate. He set up a colony at Galveston, Texas, while a privateer for a “Mexican” republic revolting against Spain. That republic disappeared before his colony did, and the United States and Spain chased him out of Galveston in 1820.

Lafitte then went on to become a privateer for Venezuela. Fort the first time in his career, he was a legitimate privateer, operating out of the country from which he held his commission. He disappeared in the 1820s, probably killed in a storm or aggressions at sea.

Major Battles

Invasion of Canada

One of the United States’s objective in the War of 1812 was to add Canada to the nation. At that time, Canada was considered to consist of what are today the provinces of Ontario and Quebec—Upper and Lower Canada, respectively. Newfoundland was then a separate colony.

The United States failed to achieve this objective for three reasons: poor American leadership early in the war; American reliance on militia troops, which were rarely steady enough for prolonged offensives; and the awakening of Canadian nationalism. The War of 1812 made Canadians work together to defend their territory—and got them thinking as Canadians rather than colonists.

At the war’s outset, the United States launched invasions of Canada from the Michigan Territory and across the Niagara River. Both attempts ended disastrously.

The Michigan invasion was commanded by General William Hull (1753–1825), known as “Granny” Hull by his men because of his timidity. Hull’s force was mostly militia, many of whom refused to leave the United States to fight in Canada. Even without these men, Hull outnumbered the British forces and their Native American allies in the area.

It did not matter. Hull’s fear of the Native American forces led by Tecumseh (c. 1768–1813) paralyzed American forces. In August 1812, Hull was ignominiously bluffed into surrendering at Detroit by the British commander, Isaac Brock (1769–1812). At the end of 1812, Britain controlled both the Michigan Territory and parts of western Ohio.

At the other end of Lake Erie, U.S. forces crossed the Niagara River into Canada on October 13, 1812. Colonel Winfield Scott (1786–1866) fought his way onto Queenston Heights with a mixed force of U.S. Army regulars and New York militia. His forces were driven out by a mixed army of British regulars, Canadian militia, and Native American auxiliaries led by General Brock. Brock was killed in the battle, depriving Britain of a talented leader.

Scott was driven from Queenston Heights by lack of reinforcements. Militia units in the American army refused to leave the United States. While possibly motivated by constitutional concerns, these green troops were more likely unnerved by the fighting they had witnessed during Scott’s assault.

In 1813, the United States launched a successful amphibious assault at York (present-day Toronto). They captured the fort, but suffered heavy casualties after the battle, when the fort’s magazine exploded. The Americans then successfully captured much of Canada around the western side of Lake Ontario.

Instead of reinforcing success, the United States began drawing troops from that front to provide reinforcements for a proposed invasion of Lower Canada, across the St. Lawrence River. Led by General James Wilkinson, one of the most notoriously ineffective and self-serving American generals ever, the St. Lawrence attack was delayed until 1814. Drawing forces from the Niagara front so weakened the American army that they had to withdraw from Canada.

On December 10, when the United States evacuated Fort George on the Canadian side of the Niagara River, they had burned the fort—and the adjacent town of Newark (now Niagara). Their evacuation balance so tipped in favor of the British that in November, Brock’s successor Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost (1767–1816) launched a counteroffensive. It culminated in the capture of Fort Niagara in December. Prevost then raided the American side of the Niagara River, including several towns on the border, as a reprisal after the burning of Newark.

The United States fared well in the west during 1813. The Battle of Lake Erie in September 1813 gave the United States control of that lake. Led by General William Henry Harrison (1773–1841), the U.S. forces, reinforced by a large contingent of Kentucky militia, retook the occupied portions of Ohio and Detroit in the Michigan Territory. The Kentucky militia, under Harrison’s firm leadership, was willing to invade Canada.

Crossing the Detroit River, American forces trapped a smaller force of British and their Native American allies at the River Thames. In the ensuing battle, the Native American leader Tecumseh was killed, and Native American military power was shattered. British forces slipped away, but 1813 ended with the United States in firm control of western Ontario.

The war’s final year, 1814, proved a year of stalemate. The western frontier became a strategic sideshow once the United States retook its territory. Western Upper Canada’s fate depended on military events to the east.

Three fronts developed in the east: the Niagara River, the St. Lawrence near Lake Ontario, and the Richelieu River and Lake Champlain. The end of the war in Europe allowed the British to send three brigades of troops to Canada starting in June—13,000 veterans of campaigns against Napoleon.

This was balanced by the increased professionalism of the U.S. Army. Ineffective officers had been replaced by active leaders, except for Wilkinson, whose main talent was professional survival. After two years of war, the Army had developed a core of first-rate regular soldiers.

A number of bloody actions were fought on the Niagara front in 1814. The United States again invaded Canada with an army commanded by Major General Jacob Brown (1775–1828). With him was Winfield Scott, now a brigadier general. The American army, spearheaded by Scott’s brigade, swept the British from the field at the Battle of Chippawa. It was the first time in the war that an American force defeated a British force of equal size on an open field. The two armies fought a few weeks later to a bloody draw at Lundy’s Lane.

Lundy’s Lane blunted the American offensive, and they fell back to Fort Erie, on the Niagara River, opposite Buffalo, New York. The British besieged, and then on August 15, assaulted Fort Erie. They were repulsed in a battle that saw heavy casualties on both sides.

On the St. Lawrence River, Wilkinson took four thousand men to threaten Montreal. Near the Richelieu, in late March, he encountered a British force of five hundred men, which stopped him. Wilkinson turned around and fell back to his starting point.

In the summer, Prevost sent ten thousand of the veterans from Europe down the Richelieu River. He planned to invade northern New York using Lake Champlain as his supply line. Prevost’s army besieged a smaller American one at Plattsburg, New York, but was forced to withdraw after the British lost control of Lake Champlain in the naval Battle of Lake Champlain.

Before the 1815 campaign season could begin, peace was signed. Both sides agreed to return to pre-war boundaries.

The Lakes Campaigns

Canada was the major theater of land operations during the War of 1812. In an era before the steam locomotive, supplies followed waterways—along rivers or across lakes and seas. The northern lakes along the Canadian-American border—Michigan, St. Claire, Erie, Ontario, and Champlain—were highways, not barriers. Whoever controlled those lakes controlled the flow of goods needed to supply an army.

They were seasonal roads. These freshwater bodies froze in the winter, becoming impassable. Communications between the lakes was difficult for anything other than small boats. A warship could not sail from Lake Ontario to Lake Champlain or Lake Erie. Separate naval forces had to be built on each lake that were incapable of supporting the other lakes. The lakes upstream of Erie were strategically insignificant in 1812.

The Canadian side of the lakes was more heavily settled than the American side. The St. Lawrence River served Canada as a highway to the sea. On the American side, goods had to be brought up the Mohawk River and then portaged to Lake Oneida and the Oswego River to reach the lakes.

The war started with the British holding the advantage on Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. They had small groups of warships on both lakes. The United States had one warship on Lake Ontario. In 1812, the Americans armed six schooners on Lake Ontario, giving them rough parity with the British. Both nations moved regular naval officers and resources to Lake Ontario and began building warships. By the spring of 1813, both sides on Lake Ontario had two brigs mounting twenty-four guns each to augment the forces they had started with.

The results on Lake Ontario were indecisive. Both sides had cautious commanders, Captain James Yeo (1782–1818) for the British, and Commodore Isaac Chauncey (1779–1840) for the United States. The guns mounted by the respective navies gave the Americans an advantage in calm seas and the British an edge in rough weather. Neither commander was willing to cede the advantage to his opponent, so both sides advanced and fell back as weather conditions changed.

Both sides commenced a building war in 1814, first building sloops-of-war, then frigates, and finally ships-of-the line. None of the largest ships were finished by war’s end, and the hulls remained on the builders’ stocks for years afterwards. Both commanders remained unwilling to fight unless they had the advantage. The two sides alternated retreating from the lake as the other side added ships.

On Lake Erie and Lake Champlain, results were more decisive. The British dominated Lake Erie in 1812, seizing the one American warship on that lake when they captured Detroit. In 1813, both sides reinforced Lake Erie. The United States sent Lieutenant Oliver Perry (1785–1819), along with sailors from the Atlantic coast and shipwrights. The Americans began construction of two big twenty-gun brigs-of-war.

The British sent Commander Robert Barclay (1786–1837), who augmented the existing British force on that lake by building a twenty-gun warship. Both sides finished their ships at roughly the same time. The British outnumbered the American forces in warships and roughly equaled them in men. The Americans had a decisive advantage in guns, however. American warships had a broadside weight of metal that was almost double that of the British.

The two sides met at Put-in-Bay, on Lake Erie’s western shore, on September 10, 1813. Despite being outgunned, the British initially held their own. They battered Perry’s flagship silent. The second American brig had been slow to join the fight. Perry shifted his flag to that ship. Once it joined the action, the outcome shifted decisively to the United States.

The Battle of Lake Erie became the best-known naval action of the war, in part because of Perry’s memorable report of the action. It started, “We have met the enemy, and they are ours—two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop.” The results were equal to the drama of the statement. Lake Erie remained in American control for the rest of the war.

On Lake Champlain, an equally decisive result occurred near Plattsburgh, New York. Lake Champlain was a traditional invasion route between the United States and Canada, starting in the Seven Years War. During the American Revolution, the colonies had sent an expedition under Benedict Arnold to capture Canada, and the British used it to invade northern New York, during the Saratoga campaign during the American Revolution.

The United States wrested control of Lake Champlain from the British at the war’s outset. With the British shift to a more aggressive policy in 1813, the lake became the scene of an arms race. The British moved veteran regiments from the Peninsular Campaign to Canada to spearhead the invasion.

At the Battle of Lake Champlain (also known as the Battle of Plattsburgh), the U.S. Navy, under the command of Captain Thomas Macdonough (1783–1825), defeated a larger Royal Navy force commanded by Captain George Downie, who died in that battle. Without control of the lake, the British could not supply their invasion of New York, and the attempt to achieve another triumph in New York—as they had during the American Revolution—was thwarted. The war ended with the United States firmly in control of Lake Champlain.

The Battle of Lake Champlain

In 1814, both sides began building ships on Lake Champlain at a frantic pace. The Americans ripped the engines out of a steamboat on the lake, converting it into a sailing warship. They built a large sloop-of-war, a brig, and numerous gunboats. They stripped the crews out of American frigates blockaded on the Atlantic coast to provide crews for the lake fleet.

The British matched the Americans by dismantling a thirty-six-gun frigate, moving the pieces to Lake Champlain, and rebuilding it. They also built a seventeen-gun and two eleven-gun brigs, as well as twelve gunboats. In this case, the United States had a disadvantage in men and weight of broadside. The two sides met on September 11, 1814.

Macdonough countered that British advantage by choosing a site for the battle that neutralized the British edge. He anchored his fleet in a tight line, allowing the entire crew of the ship to work the guns. The British had to fight their way to the American line. Eventually, the British battered the exposed sides of the American warships, silencing them.

That should have given the British victory, but Macdonough anchored his ships so that they could pivot 180 degrees. They now did, exposing a fresh set of guns to the enemy. The British attempted to do the same, but had not made the same preparations. Their attempt failed. The British frigate surrendered to the Americans, shifting the balance on the lake to the United States.

Chesapeake Bay

The British campaign in the Chesapeake in 1814 followed a shift from a purely defensive strategy. The shift was made possible because the war in Europe had ended, freeing resources for the fight in North America. After fighting virtually continuously since it entered war with France in 1793, Britain was war-weary. It wanted to end the War of 1812 and felt the quickest way to do that was to force the United States to seek peace.

The British sent a brigade—four regiments—to raid the eastern seaboard of the United States. These infantry regiments, veterans of the Peninsular Campaign in Spain and France, totaled 3,400 men. The force also had light artillery and a detachment of Congreve rockets. These troops were commanded by Brigadier General Robert Ross, who had commanded a British fusilier brigade in Spain and France.

Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, commanding the Royal Navy on the North American Station, assigned a squadron of warships commanded by Rear Admiral George Cockburn to transport and assist the army. In addition to transport and gunnery support that the ships could offer, each warship had a contingent of marines. Seagoing soldiers, the marines upheld authority aboard ship and were used for shore expeditions carried out by the Navy. When this force was filled out by sailors, it added one thousand men to the force available to Ross.

Ross, Alexander, and Cockburn settled on Chesapeake Bay as the theater for their raids. The Chesapeake sheltered what were then two of the United States’s largest seaports, Philadelphia and Baltimore, as well as the capital, Washington, D.C. The Chesapeake provided a highway to European markets for Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. Valuable tobacco plantations lined the southern Chesapeake. It also gave access to the Atlantic states most strongly favoring the War of 1812.

The Chesapeake Campaign on Water

Cockburn spent most of 1813 exploring the Chesapeake with his ships and early 1814 conducting lightning raids on vulnerable towns and plantations. By the time Ross arrived in August 1814, Cockburn’s squadron knew the Chesapeake better than many American pilots.

A small flotilla of gunboat barges commanded by Joshua Barney (1759–1818) guarded the bay for the United States. Barney captained a frigate in the American Revolutionary Navy. Barney was pugnacious and capable, but his flotilla of a few dozen boats—mainly small row-barges with single large guns in the bows—were outclassed by the Royal Navy. One seventy-four-gun British ship-of-the-line could fire more ammunition at once than Barney’s entire flotilla.

On land, state militias defended the Chesapeake. The federal government called for 93,000 men, but only 15,000 mustered. These troops were scattered among three states and the District of Columbia. On paper, United States forces outnumbered British troops three to one, but the Americans were so widely scattered that the British could gain localized superiority.

From April until August 1814, Barney fought a stubborn rear-guard action against the British. By the time British troops arrived off the Chesapeake in August 1814, Barney’s force had been swept from the Bay. Barney formed the surviving sailors into a naval brigade to fight on land.

The Chesapeake Campaign on Land

The British landed their troops at Benedict, Maryland, on the Patuxent River. It was a short march to Washington, D.C. With 4,500 men, and three days’ rations, the British Army, led by Ross and Cockburn, moved out to the capital.

The landing drew thousands of militiamen to the defense of the capital. Including the 500 marines and sailors of Barney’s force, Brigadier General William Winder, commander of the Washington District, had 6,000 men with which to defend the capital: 2,000 militia from the District, 2,000 from Baltimore, and the rest from the Maryland countryside.

Winder was a political appointee who lacked energy and skill; he lost control of the situation. The British ignored crossings on the direct route, marching around Washington to attack it from the north. James Monroe (1799–1870), then secretary of state, repositioned the defenses at Bladensburg, Maryland. Monroe had no authority to do this, but Winder allowed it.

Monroe scattered the defenders into positions where they could not support each other. When the British attacked on August 24, the American line initially held. The British took the first line of American defenses. A barrage of Congreve rockets caused the militia to flee a second line.

Barney’s men held the third line and were stopping the British when Winder ordered the withdrawal of part of the third line’s militia. Instead of withdrawing, the militia routed, leaving the flank—and the road to Washington—open. Barney’s men retreated in good order, but the rest of the army scattered.

The U.S. government fled the capital in a panic. The Washington Navy Yard was burned to deny the Royal Navy the ships and stores held there. The British occupied the evacuated city that evening.

The British were in a quandary. The landing was a raid. Occupation was not the goal. There was no American government with which to negotiate. Ross ordered the public buildings of Washington burned before evacuating the city as retaliation for the American destruction of the Canadian provincial capital at York (now Toronto). It was an unusual, but legal, order. It denied the enemy resources with which to fight. Cockburn and Ross then marched the British forces back to Benedict where they re-embarked on August 30.

Meanwhile, the British sent a flotilla up the Potomac, where it took the Washington suburb of Alexandria, Virginia. There they confiscated or destroyed 16,000 barrels of flour, 1,000 hogsheads (large barrels) of tobacco, 150 bales of cotton, and $5,000 worth of wine.

The British closed their Chesapeake campaign with an unsuccessful raid on Baltimore. On this occasion, the Americans were led by more resolute commanders and were able to turn back the British invasion.

The Rocket’s Red Glare

The Congreve rocket, invented by William Congreve in 1804, was a gunpowder-filled steel tube, much like skyrockets used in fireworks displays. The rockets had no fins, using a long stick tied to the tube for stability. The British Army deployed Congreve batteries throughout the latter half of the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812.

The rockets were noisy, spectacular, and inaccurate. A Congreve rocket gave a piercing shriek in flight and was trailed by a long red flame (the rocket’s red glare mentioned in “The Star-Spangled Banner”). Upon impact, they exploded violently. The actual warhead was small, so each rocket did limited damage.

They were more a psychological weapon than a killing tool. An initial exposure to Congreve rockets often caused even veteran troops to panic. Experienced soldiers learned to ignore them. Congreve rockets succeeded in the Chesapeake because American militias—never particularly steady—had no previous experience with them.

The Battle of Baltimore

The capstone of the British campaign on the Chesapeake was supposed to be the capture of Baltimore, Maryland. Baltimore was probably the most anti-British city in the United States and was viewed as the heart of the war’s support. It was also a wealthy port and home to many of the privateers preying on British mercantile traffic. Admiral Alexander Cochrane believed Baltimore’s capture would force the Americans to end the war.

Baltimore, unlike Washington, D.C., possessed both significant defensive works and competent leadership. Instead of the inept General William Winder, forces in Baltimore were under the overall command of the energetic Samuel Smith (1752–1839), and the city was protected from seaborne approaches by Fort McHenry, a masonry fortification completed during the Quasi-War with France in 1799.

The overland approaches were vulnerable, but Smith had virtually all of Baltimore’s male population turn out to create a massive earthwork anchored on Hampstead Hill. Known as Rodgers Redoubt, it shielded Baltimore from any overland march from a landing coming from the Chesapeake. It was occupied by ten thousand armed men, including the naval brigade, twelve hundred marines, and sailors commanded by Commodore John Rodgers (1772–1838).

The British tried the overland approach. They landed at North Point, on the tip of a peninsula formed by the Patapsco and Back Rivers. They then marched toward Baltimore, eight miles away. After traveling three miles, they encountered 3,100 American militiamen in prepared positions at a narrow spot in the peninsula. In the resulting Battle of North Point, they swept the militia aside, but only after the British commanding general, Robert Ross, was shot and killed.

Colonel Arthur Brooke (1772–1843) assumed command of the British forces. After reforming their troops, the British pressed on to Baltimore. When they reached the American defensive works, Brooke decided against a frontal assault. The position was too strong to storm. Instead, he tried to lure the Americans out of their fortifications, but Smith did not accept the bait.

Brooke decided to let the Royal Navy soften up the redoubt. Since it was an earthwork, it would be vulnerable to fire from British bomb vessels. Bomb vessels carried two mortars, each of which fired either a 200-pound, 13-inch shell or a 10-inch shell that weighed 70 pounds. Both were filled with explosive. The mortars could devastate anything they could reach. To reach Rodgers Redoubt, the Royal Navy had to silence Fort McHenry. Unless that was done, the fort’s guns would sink the bomb vessels before they could sail close enough to the redoubt to strike it.

On the evening of September 13, 1814, Alexander Cochrane sailed the British fleet up the Patapsco River to attack Fort McHenry. He had four bomb vessels, and one that fired Congreve rockets. Congreve rockets were fueled with black powder, much like skyrockets used for fireworks. They were inaccurate, but noisy, and could panic troops that had not faced them before.

The British bombarded the fort throughout the night. They fired over 1,500 mortar shells, a quarter of which landed within the fort but failed to do serious damage. The rest, along with the rockets, burst spectacularly, but harmlessly, in the air. By dawn, American casualties numbered twenty-four wounded and four dead.

The fleet withdrew, unable to force passage into the harbor’s Northwest Branch, where they could bombard the redoubt. Shortly after dawn, once it became apparent that the fleet had failed, Brooke marched the British troops back to North Point, and re-embarked on the transports. General Smith allowed them to depart unmolested. He did not wish to give the British an opportunity to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

The assault on Baltimore proved counterproductive. Instead of disheartening the United States, the victory renewed American spirits. It punctured the reputation for invulnerability the British had developed during the Chesapeake campaign and cost them the life of one of their most talented generals.

The Star-Spangled Banner

The most lasting result of the Battle of Baltimore was the national anthem of the United States: “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Its author, Francis Scott Key (1780–1843), was a Georgetown lawyer. After a prominent area physician, Dr. William Beanes (1749–1829), had been seized by the British and confined on a warship, Key boarded the British flagship to negotiate the doctor’s release. He succeeded, but the British were going to attack Baltimore that night. Key and Beanes were kept behind the British line until the attack ended.

Key watched the bombardment and assault from deck. While not a soldier, Key was patriotic. When the sun rose the next morning, Key was overjoyed to see the American flag still flying over Fort McHenry. He composed a poem to express his intense relief and pride: “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Key and his wife had the poem printed as a broadsheet with the title “The Defense of Fort McHenry.” The poem became instantly popular. As was common in that period, the poem was sung using a then-popular drinking song, “To Anacreon in Heaven.”

Its popularity grew, despite the vocal challenge it presents to the singer. Its original title was forgotten. Within a few years “The Star-Spangled Banner” became an unofficial national anthem for the United States. It was officially designated the national anthem by Congress in 1931.

The War at Sea

The War of 1812 is best known for a set of spectacular, but strategically unimportant, naval battles fought between the Royal Navy and the new U.S. Navy. They are chiefly remembered because they are the stuff of legend. Most of the battles were single-ship duels in which two comparable ships squared off. Adding to the story was a David-versus-Goliath quality to the battles: the Royal Navy had been fighting virtually undefeated for nearly twenty-five years, while the U.S. Navy was in its infancy.

Throughout the War of 1812, the U.S. Navy was tremendously outnumbered by the Royal Navy. It had only a dozen frigates—large cruising warships—and perhaps as many sloops-of-war—used primarily for anti-commerce warfare or as convoy escorts—throughout the war. There were never more than half the fleet ready to go to sea. In 1812, the Royal Navy had 124 frigates and 235 sloops-of-war at sea. Britain also had 102 ships-of-the-line commissioned. A ship-of-the-line mounted from 64 to 120 cannon. It could blow a frigate out of the water with a few blasts.

The U.S. Navy had a few advantages as the war opened. Britain was in a war with France. Most of its navy was tied down blockading Europe or protecting its sea-lanes. The North American Station was a backwater before the War of 1812 started. The Royal Navy sent its weaker ships and second-best captains there. It needed the best to fight France.

The U.S. Navy was also ready for war at sea. It sent out all of its frigates in one squadron, looking to snap up any unsuspecting Royal Navy ships. As a result, the Royal Navy was forced to concentrate its warships, allowing American merchant vessels and privateers—private warships sailing under government license—unmolested access to the Atlantic Ocean.

As the American squadron ran low on supplies, ships from the squadron returned to port individually. En route, two of them came across single British frigates, also sailing to or from the British squadron. In each case a single-ship duel resulted, where the American and British frigate squared off. The American ships mounted much heavier broadsides than their British opponents.

In both cases, victory went to the heavier battery—a pattern that continued virtually unbroken to the end of the war. When the British ship had the advantage of broadside (the total ammunition that could be fired at once), it won. When the United States ship had it, it won.

The results of these spectacular victories—as well as a few others in 1812, actually weakened the U.S. Navy strategically. They encouraged the United States to send out individual warships rather than a squadron. This allowed the Royal Navy to break up its squadrons and send its cruisers out in pairs—which could beat an individual American frigate. After 1812, the United States won only one frigate action on the high seas. On that occasion, the British commanders disregarded orders and attacked a superior force.

The British also shifted stronger ships and better leaders to the North American Station, starting in 1813. In 1814, the end of the Napoleonic Wars allowed Britain to transfer a crushing superiority in warships to American waters. They began a close blockade of the United States’s coastline, stopping privateers and capturing any American merchant craft that sailed without a license from Britain. (Britain licensed merchant ships from the United States to carry food from the United States to Wellington’s army in Spain.)

By the middle of 1813, the United States realized the futility of trying to match Britain at sea. The three largest American frigates remained in commission to provide a strategic distraction for the British, to force them to use resources guarding against these ships.

Five smaller frigates were laid up, and their crews transferred to the inland lakes, to provide men for the warships being built there. Only two of the small frigates remained in commission. One took the diplomats to Europe to negotiate the Treaty of Ghent. A second was sent to the Pacific to attack the British whaling fleet there. Privateers kept sailing, but the risk of capture soared.

After the war’s end, the captains—on both sides—that fought in the frigate duels became celebrities, and the ships that fought in them were cherished symbols of naval prowess. The United States kept two of the frigates that fought in the War of 1812 for over fifty years after the war. Both the United States and Great Britain made replicas of one of the frigates they captured from the other and kept them as trophies even after the sailing warship became obsolete.

The Battle of New Orleans

Denied at Baltimore, the British sought another way to put pressure on the United States. New Orleans, near the mouth of the Mississippi was an obvious target. It was the outlet, in 1814, for all goods produced by the United States west of the Appalachian Mountains. Whoever held New Orleans held the American economy.

By the fall of 1814, Britain had won its long war against Napoleon. This freed up veteran troops for use in North America in Britain’s last active war. Nine regiments were sent from Europe. These veterans had formed the core of the army Wellington had led to victory against the French in Spain and France. Edward Pakenham (1778–1815), Wellington’s adjutant general in Spain, took command.

The British included the troops raiding the Chesapeake to these reinforcements and added two regiments from Jamaica to serve as an occupation force once New Orleans had been taken. Pakenham sailed to the Gulf of Mexico with orders to press operations until he received official word of a peace settlement and to disregard any rumors of peace.

British preparations were noticed. General Andrew Jackson commanded American forces in the southern United States. As 1814 progressed, he set about securing the Gulf Coast. He reinforced Fort Bowyer at Mobile Bay just in time to repulse a British attack there in September 1814. Next, Jackson moved into neutral west Florida, then Spanish. He captured Pensacola, chasing out a small British garrison that was not officially there. These actions denied the British the two good gulf coast bases from which to launch an assault on New Orleans.

In August, the British enticed Jean Laffite and the band of pirates he led at Lake Barataria, offering Lafitte a captain’s commission if he joined the British. Lafitte spurned the offer, reporting it to Louisiana’s governor, William Charles Coles Claiborne (1775–1817). By late November, Jackson was hurrying to New Orleans with every American unit he could gather.

On November 22, 1814, the British fleet assembled in Jamaica to sail for Louisiana. By the time the British landed in Louisiana, Jackson had gathered 4,500 men in New Orleans, a mixture of regular units of the U.S. Army; militia units from Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana; and local volunteers. The latter included the Baratarian pirates who volunteered to serve as gunners and a company of Choctaw Indians.

The British had a considerably larger force—7,500 soldiers, all regulars, from ten Army regiments, as well a contingent of Royal Marines and sailors landed by the navy. Well over half of these were veterans of Wellington’s peninsular campaign.

The problem was getting this army to New Orleans. The port was nearly one hundred miles from the mouth of the Mississippi River. Fort St. Phillip covered the river approaches halfway to New Orleans. Instead of going up the Mississippi, the British considered taking New Orleans from the north, landing their army on the southern shore of Lake Ponchartrain.

The British fleet swept away a small flotilla of American gunboats guarding Lake Bourne. Once in Lake Bourne, the British discovered Ponchartrain was too shallow to use. Instead, they landed their army on Lake Bourne at Fisherman’s Village, south and east of New Orleans. On December 22, they captured the Villere Plantation and discovered a canal that ran to the Mississippi that could be used as a supply line.

Jackson’s army was scattered around New Orleans to give warning of any British approach. Once reports of the capture of the Villere Plantation arrived, and the British army began arriving south of New Orleans through the Villere Canal, Jackson massed his forces on the south side of the city. Because of the swamps, the British could only attack via a plain a few thousand yards across. Jackson planned to hold a line behind a canal where the plain narrowed to only one thousand yards.

Jackson attacked the arriving British in the evening of December 22. He used a complicated three-pronged attack, which proved too ambitious. The British pushed the Americans back, almost capturing Jackson. While Jackson’s plan failed, it caused the British to spend time preparing defenses for their base.

Jackson cut a levy between the two armies, flooding the plain with thirty inches of water. This gave him time to build up the earthworks behind the Rodriguez Canal. A four-foot-high earth rampart was raised and faced with timber to keep it from collapsing. Cotton bales were used to build artillery emplacements.

By December 28, the plain had drained. The British launched a hasty assault on this Jackson line. The American ran from similar positions at Bladensburg and North Point on the Chesapeake. The British thought one quick charge could rout the defenders. They came close to success, but they lacked artillery support and the American line held. The British brought up artillery and attempted to bombard the Americans out of the Jackson line on January 1, 1815, but their ammunition ran out before the Americans did.

Things remained quiet for the next week. The British brought up ammunition and troops. The Americans strengthened their defensive works. Finally, on January 8, the British launched a prepared assault on the American positions.

It proved a disaster for the British. The British landed troops on the west bank of the Mississippi to clear away American batteries that were firing across the river at the British. That attack eventually swept the Americans from the field, too late to affect the outcome on the east bank.

British artillery proved ineffectual against the reinforced mud embankment. American artillery firing at massed troops in an open field cut the British down in rows. The British reached the Jackson line, but troops carrying the ladders needed to climb the embankment had gotten lost. American riflemen picked off British officers. Pakenham was killed, along with other senior officers. The assault faltered, and the British retreated, having suffered 192 dead, 1,265 wounded, and 484 missing of 7,000 attackers. American casualties were less than fifty men.

The British army withdrew from Louisiana. Before they could reorganize for another attempt, word of the peace treaty arrived. The battle’s biggest impact occurred four months later, during the Waterloo campaign in Europe. Wellington faced Napoleon without the veteran troops sent to North America. Wellington won, but it was close, and had Napoleon not made mistakes, Wellington might have lost. Jackson emerged as a national hero, eventually becoming president.

The Battle of New Orleans was fought two weeks after the peace treaty had been signed on December 24, 1814, but a month before it was ratified and the war ended. As with much of the War of 1812, it was a battle whose results were overtaken by outside events.


Riverboat Travel on the Mississippi

During the War of 1812, bulk goods moved by water—along rivers and across lakes, or by sea, from seaport to seaport. Railroads did not yet exist. Animal-drawn wagons were useful for short distances, but the draft team would eat a wagon’s weight of fodder in less than a week. To move low-value, high-bulk goods such as grain long distances over land, merchants had to convert it to a more concentrated form of wealth. They fed the corn to livestock (which moved themselves) that they could sell as meat, or they distilled it into whiskey (which was valuable and compact).

The United States has an excellent inland-waterway system. The Great Lakes basin allowed goods to flow throughout the upper Midwest. Its major limitation in 1812 was that it then had no outlet to the ocean. The Mississippi basin provided a highway to the sea for the southern and central United States. The Mississippi and its eastern tributaries, the Ohio, Tennessee, and Wabash rivers, gave the inland states a market for their goods.

Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana, as well as the western parts of Pennsylvania and Virginia, could ship corn, timber, and hogs by boat to New Orleans, where they could be loaded onto seagoing ships for shipment to markets. It was easier to send a load of corn from Wheeling to Richmond through New Orleans than directly overland.

During the War of 1812, the boats on the Mississippi were primarily muscle-powered. Sail power was undependable. Going upwind required a ship to beat into the wind. It was slow—they could only go three to four knots—and they could sail no closer to the wind than 45 degrees. If they were sailing upstream, against the current, the river’s current often pushed them downstream faster than they could sail upstream. Once they got north of New Orleans, the Mississippi was too narrow to navigate upstream easily.

Thus, most river travel was one-way—downstream. Men would build flatboats, timber rafts that were as much as sixty feet long and twelve to twenty feet across. A crude deckhouse housed the crew—typically four to eight men—who would steer the boat with oars as it drifted down the Mississippi. Flatboats could move tons of goods inexpensively down the river because they did not need to pay for fuel.

The boat itself would be taken apart when it reached New Orleans and sold for lumber. The crew would then walk back home, following the Natchez Trace, an early road that ran from Tennessee to New Orleans. Often, they returned with a small amount of manufactured goods, such as nails or tools. These were items that were portable, necessary, yet not available in the frontier counties.

The New Orleans, the Mississippi’s first steamboat, appeared in 1811. It was experimental, used primarily as a tugboat, to help sailing ships get to New Orleans. Steamboat technology was emerging but had been interrupted by the war. After the American victory, steamboat traffic on the Mississippi blossomed, with hundreds of river steamboats.

The Hartford Convention

The Hartford Convention was the product of New England’s frustrations with the War of 1812. Many, including people living in New England, considered the gathering as treasonous, although most of those most ardently opposed to the war—and those most actively seeking secession from the United States—refused to participate. They viewed the convention’s goals as too moderate.

The War of 1812 was never popular in New England. Much of that region’s economy depended on maritime trade, or trade with Britain and Canada. War put an end to much of that. Some in New England initially profited from privateering. They sent out privately owned warships, called privateers, that held government commissions to capture British merchantmen. The Royal Navy ended that source of easy money by the end of 1813, protecting their sea lanes with warships freed by the end of the Napoleonic War in Europe.

Reverses in Canada threatened the New England states, making them vulnerable to invasion. By late 1814, several New England states were so war-weary that they were willing to negotiate a separate peace with England. Massachusetts and then Connecticut issued calls for constitutional conventions. In Massachusetts, delegates to this convention were elected by a minority of the state’s legislators. In Connecticut, the governor, John Cotton Smith (1765–1845), convened the legislature and invited states to send delegates.

The convention called for by Governor Smith met in Hartford, Connecticut, in December 1814. Only Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island sent state delegations, although delegates from a single county in Vermont and two counties in New Hampshire also attended. A total of twenty-six delegates attended.

The convention was handicapped from the outset because the delegates were primarily Federalists—the minority party in the United States. Even Federalist John Adams described the Hartford delegates as “intelligent and honest men who had lost touch with reality.”

Regardless, the convention indicted President Madison for perceived abuses of federal power in starting and running the War of 1812. It also passed a resolution recommending seven amendments to the U.S. Constitution:

  1. Congress would repeal the “three-fifths compromise,” which allowed states to count slaves toward representation in Congress and the Electoral College
  2. Admission of new states could only occur after a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress.
  3. Embargoes could not be imposed for more than sixty days.
  4. A two-thirds vote of both Houses of Congress would be required for declarations of war.
  5. A two-thirds vote of both Houses of Congress be required to declare commercial embargoes.
  6. Naturalized citizens could not hold any elective or appointive federal office.
  7. A president could only serve one term, and no two successive presidents could come from the same state.

All twenty-six delegates signed the resolution and sent it to Washington, D.C., under the care of Harrison Gray Otis (1765–1848), a Massachusetts Federalist who first conceived the idea of holding such a convention.

As with much else associated with the War of 1812, the resolution was overtaken by events. On January 8, 1815, three days after the resolution was signed, the United States won a decisive victory over the British at New Orleans. Word of the victory reached Washington at the same time that Otis arrived there on February 5, 1815. Less than a week later, the Treaty of Ghent arrived in the United States. It was quickly ratified. The Hartford resolutions were withheld, and they were never introduced to Congress.

International Context

The Rise and Fall of Napoleon

The War of 1812 was fought against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars. Both impressment of American sailors and free trade issues were the direct result of the war that Great Britain was waging against France. A major cause of that war was French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Without Napoleon, the War of 1812 might never have been fought.

Early Years

Napoleon Buonaparte (he changed the spelling to Bonaparte in 1796) was born to a family of minor nobility in Corsica in 1769. This was the same year Corsica was annexed by France. The annexation made Bonaparte French, but he came from a province outside traditional French society of the day.

Educated at military schools in France, in 1784, Bonaparte attended the École Militaire of Paris, the royal military school. Graduating with honors, he entered the Royal French Army in 1785. Although a member of the Corsican aristocracy, he lacked influence in France. He became an artillery officer, the traditional branch of service for bright officers without political connections.

The French Revolution in 1789 transformed Bonaparte’s life. An outsider, he was unsympathetic to the French aristocracy. He was willing to serve in the Revolutionary Army when few other trained officers would. The French Revolution triggered a nationalistic rising in Corsica. It split into pro-independence and pro-French factions. Bonaparte’s family, siding with the pro-French faction, fled Corsica when the nationalists won. This tied Napoleon to France.

Napoleon rose to prominence during the siege of Toulon. He commanded the artillery key to the Revolutionary Army’s victory there. Afterwards, despite occasional bumps, he rose meteorically, successfully leading French armies in Italy on two occasions.

Political Power

Napoleon led a coup that overthrew the existing revolutionary government in 1799. Napoleon was named first consul, heading up the new government, and given dictatorial powers.

Despite rising as a result of the French Revolution, Napoleon ruled like a monarch. In 1802, he was named consul for life, with the right to name his successor—giving himself the power of a king, if not the title. In 1804, he crowned himself Emperor of France. In 1810, he annulled his first marriage and married a daughter of the Austrian Emperor, with an eye towards establishing a Bonaparte dynasty in France, with himself as Napoleon I.

He got away with such naked ambition because was a talented administrator and a brilliant battlefield commander. When he first took over France, he ended the internal fighting between Royalist and Revolutionary factions that had been ongoing since the execution of King Louis XVI in 1793. He also established a rational civil service and laws within greater France. He was also a superb general, defeating the armies of each nation in Europe in turn.

The Napoleonic Empire

Bonaparte’s greatest fault as a leader was consistently placing personal interests ahead of everything else, including the best interests of France. He ran France like a personal possession, not a nation. He reconstituted a heredity aristocracy with himself as the head, and his immediate family as leading nobles.

He awarded kingdoms to his brothers and brothers-in-law. In 1808, Napoleon alienated what had previously been France’s strongest ally, Spain. Napoleon deposed Spain’s king, replacing him with a brother, Jerome Bonaparte. Spain rebelled and allied with Britain.

Napoleon also conducted diplomacy as vendetta. Unable to conquer Great Britain (his armies could not reach the island nation), Napoleon negotiated peace with Britain in 1801. It ended a war between Britain and France that began in 1793. Obsessed with humbling Britain, Napoleon used the peace to prepare for a new war with Britain. Realizing that they were the object of French invasion plans, Britain renewed the conflict in 1803.

The next ten years was a duel between the two nations, with neither able to conquer the other. Britain destroyed French and Spanish fleets at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. This made it impossible for France to invade Britain. Napoleon turned on Britain’s continental allies, beating the Austrians and Russians in an 1805 campaign that ended with a decisive French victory at Austerlitz. He conquered Prussia the following year.

Napoleon controlled most of Europe by 1806, but not Britain. Yet Britain could not beat France. Both sides began conducting economic warfare. The French imposed the Continental System restricting trade with Britain. The British government issued Orders-in-Council choking trade with the French-controlled parts of the continent. Neutrals and allies—on both sides—ignored these trade restrictions at every opportunity.

Napoleon began a set of destructive wars to enforce the Continental System. French armies unsuccessfully invaded Portugal to keep Portugal in the Continental System. Failure in Portugal led to Napoleon deposing Spain’s king in 1808. The Spanish war that resulted from replacing Spain’s king encouraged Austria to mobilize against France. Napoleon crushed Austria in a campaign waged in 1809.


In 1812, determined to force obedience to the Continental System, Napoleon invaded Russia. Napoleon’s main army chased the Russians to Moscow, but failed to destroy Russia’s army. When the Russian winter began, Napoleon had to withdraw his exhausted army. By the time Napoleon reached the Russian border, his army was gone.

In 1813, every major power in Europe attacked France. Napoleon fought a brilliant defensive campaign before losing the Battle of Nations at Leipzig. In 1814, France’s enemies were at its frontiers. In April 1814, Napoleon abdicated, and accepted exile in Elba, off the Italian coast.

The end of this war removed many reasons for fighting the War of 1812. By December 1814, Britain and the United negotiated a peace, which was ratified by the United States Congress in February 1815.

A month after the peace between Britain and the United States took effect, on March 20, 1815, Napoleon escaped from Elba and returned to Paris in an attempt to regain his throne. A brief campaign ensued. Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo in June 1815. Napoleon again abdicated, accepting exile to St. Helena, an island in the South Atlantic. He remained in St. Helena until his death in 1821.


Monroe Doctrine

In the War of 1812, the United States held its own—without any major allies—against one of the world’s foremost powers. The United States had not beaten Britain, true, but Britain could not beat the United States, either. One of the results of this realization by the United States was increased confidence in its position on the world stage and an increased willingness to assert its interests. The Monroe Doctrine was one fruit of that new confidence.

The decade following the war’s end—1815 through 1825—would become known as the “Era of Good Feeling.” Restoration of trade relations with Europe following the war’s end revived the American economy. President James Madison, continuing the precedent set by George Washington, declined to run for a third term in 1816. Madison was succeeded by his Secretary of State, James Monroe (1799–1870).

The United States had gained respect on the world’s stage—and had increased self-confidence. The United States proved able to hold its own against Britain, without European allies. The peace treaty—a return to the status quo prior to the war—demonstrated a measure of respect for American military prowess by Britain, now Europe’s leading nation.

With the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the causes of the partisan differences that bitterly divided the United States in the nineteenth century’s opening years faded. One measure of how cordial domestic politics had become was that Monroe appointed John Quincy Adams (1767–1848) as secretary of state, a position that then led to the presidency. Adams, son of President John Adams (1735–1826), helped negotiate the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812. He was also a former Federalist, the party in opposition to Monroe’s Republican-Democrat Party.

While things ran smoothly within the United States, the decade following the War of 1812 was a troubled one in the rest of North and South America. Russia was moving south from Alaska, threatening to exclude other countries from the Pacific Northwest. Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the New World declared independence, intent on following the path taken by the United States in the previous century.

In 1823, rumors circulated that the Holy Alliance—a combination of reactionary European monarchies that included Spain and France—had concluded an agreement to reconquer these breakaway colonies.

Both the Republican-Democrats and Whigs (which had replaced the Federalist Party) found common ground in a desire to prevent this. It could interfere with American territorial ambitions as well as American economic growth—the ex-colonies were trading partners.

The rumors also troubled Great Britain, the only nation with significant colonies left in the Americas. In 1823, the British foreign minister invited the United States to issue a joint declaration that supported Latin American independence—and that pledged to abandon further territorial ambitions in the New World. Britain’s offer of diplomatic partnership with its former colony was evidence of the increased influence of the United States.

The offer was flattering but constraining. The United States would have to abandon the territorial ambitions it held toward pieces of the former Spanish empire. Adams also realized that Britain would block Spanish recolonization efforts even if the United States failed to support the declaration.

Adams recommended that the United States go it alone and establish a policy that declared that “the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintained, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.”

Monroe used this language almost verbatim in his annual address to Congress in December 1823. This policy, that European nations could establish no new colonies in North or South America, became known as the Monroe Doctrine. It put Russia and Britain on notice that expansion of their colonies would not be tolerated by the United States either.

When announced, the Monroe Doctrine was enthusiastically accepted in the United States and widely ignored by European nations. It had no practical effect during the balance of the Monroe administration. No European nation intended to create new colonies during that time. It was ignored when the British took over the Falkland Islands in 1833.

In the 1840s, President James Polk (1795–1849) reasserted the Monroe Doctrine, threatening military action if either Spain or England established a protectorate in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. From then on, the Monroe Doctrine would be increasingly cited as justification for expansion of or intervention by the United States in the Western Hemisphere.



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