War of 1812

views updated Jun 11 2018

War of 1812. The War of 1812 is often referred to as the United States's second war of independence because, like the Revolutionary War, it was fought against Great Britain. The Conflict resulted from the clash between American nationalism and the war Britain and its allies were waging against the empire of Napoleonic France. Many Americans believed that England sought to humiliate the United States, limit its growth, and perhaps even impose a quasi‐colonial status upon its former colonies.


Throughout the wars between Revolutionary and Napoleonic France and Great Britain (1793–1801 and 1803–15), the belligerent powers of Europe repeatedly violated the maritime rights of neutral nations. The United States, endeavoring to market its own produce while also asserting the right to profit as an important neutral carrier in the Atlantic commercial system, was particularly hard hit. In order to man the Royal Navy, British naval officers impressed seamen from American vessels, claiming that they were either deserters from British service or British subjects, irrespective of whether they had been naturalized by the United States. The United States defended its right to naturalize foreigners and rejected Britain's claim that it could legitimately practice impressment on the high seas. Relations between the two countries reached breaking point on this issue in June 1807, when the frigate HMS Leopard fired on the USS Chesapeake inside American territorial waters in order to remove, and later execute, four of its crew.

The exact number of Americans affected by impressment is difficult to ascertain—American newspapers on the eve of the war claimed that it was in excess of 6,000—and Great Britain and the United States were never able to resolve the dispute. Over time the issue became the most flagrant example of Great Britain's reluctance to respect the sovereignty of the United States, and this was one of the reasons why President James Madison cited impressment in his 1 June 1812 message to Congress as the first major grievance that had to be settled by war.

Equally offensive to the United States was the British practice of issuing executive orders in council, particularly those of November 1807 and April 1809, in order to establish blockades of the European coast. The Royal Navy then seized neutral vessels bound for the Continent that did not first call at a British port to pay duties and unload cargo. By these means, Great Britain could simultaneously wage economic warfare against France and control American trade to its advantage. British ministries justified these tactics as fair retaliation against Napoleon's equally antineutral Berlin and Milan decrees, promulgated in December 1806 and December 1807, respectively; but American merchantmen suffered more heavily from British seizures than from French, and the administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison never accepted British blockading practices as valid under the law of nations. It was the seriousness of this dispute that ultimately raised the question of whether the United States should go to war to defend its neutral rights.

At first, the United States responded with policies of economic coercion rather than war. At the suggestion of President Jefferson, Congress passed a series of embargo laws between December 1807 and January 1809. These laws prohibited virtually all American ships from putting to sea and eventually banned any overland trade with British and Spanish colonial possessions in Canada and Florida. Because the legislation failed to change British policy and seriously harmed the U.S. economy as well, it was replaced by the Non‐Intercourse Act in March 1809. This measure forbade trade with European belligerents until it was replaced in May 1810 by Macon's Bill No. 2. This law reopened American trade with all nations subject to the proviso that in the event of either France or Great Britain repealing its antineutral policies, the United States would then enforce nonintercourse against whichever nation failed to follow suit by lifting the remaining restrictions on trade.

In August 1810, Napoleon announced he would repeal the Berlin and Milan decrees on the understanding that the United States would also force Great Britain to respect its neutral rights. President Madison accepted this as proof that French policy had changed, and in November 1810 he imposed nonintercourse against Great Britain. He then demanded the repeal of the orders in council as a condition for the resumption of Anglo‐American trade. When Great Britain refused to comply, Madison, in July 1811, summoned the Twelfth Congress into an early session in November to prepare for war. After eight months of debate, Congress responded to the president's initiatives by declaring war on 18 June 1812. The decision was bitterly controversial and was carried by Republican Party majorities alone. In the House of Representatives, the vote was 79 to 49 for war; in the Senate, 19 to 3. The Federalists, whose constituents (especially in New England) depended heavily on trade with Great Britain, believed that France had equally offended against American neutrality; they opposed the declaration of war and, thereafter, its prosecution.

Military and Naval Events.

The principal theater of operations in the war was the American‐Canadian frontier between Detroit and Lake Champlain. Upper and Lower Canada were the closest British imperial possessions that were vulnerable to U.S. military and naval power. The rapid growth of their economies in the early nineteenth century, particularly in the timber trade, had transformed them into a significant resource for Great Britain during its protracted maritime struggle against France; this reinforced the American desire to seize them, and fostered a strategy of invasion. To the extent that the British were able to carry the war to the Americans, it was by sea; thus, especially after the summer of 1814, the theater of operations expanded to include the mid‐Atlantic coast and the American territories around the Gulf of Mexico. For this reason, a war that commenced as an invasion of Canada in 1812 concluded in a defense of the city of New Orleans in the early months of 1815.

Over the summer and fall of 1812, U.S. forces, under the commands of Brigs. Gen. William Hull, Alexander Smyth, and Stephen Van Rensselaer, and Maj. Gen. Henry Dearborn, were directed to invade Canada at Detroit, Niagara, and Montréal; but inadequate preparations, poor leadership, and untrained troops undermined the invasions. The British general Sir Isaac Brock, together with Tecumseh and the Shawnee, Delaware, and other northwestern Indians who had their own complaints about American territorial expansion, captured Detroit in August 1812. In September and October, Brock and Maj. Gen. Roger Sheaffe defeated two American invading armies on the Niagara peninsula, while Dearborn's invasion of Lower Canada was called off after only one minor engagement in November. American efforts made at the same time by Maj. Gen. William Henry Harrison and Brig. Gen. James Winchester to retake Detroit were also unsuccessful; the latter officer surrendered his army to British and Indian forces on the Raisin River in Michigan Territory in January 1813.

The only American victories in the opening months of the war occurred on the ocean as the heavy frigates of the tiny U.S. Navy took to the seas to protect American trade and to harass the vastly superior naval forces of their enemy. In August 1812, the USS Constitution, under Capt. Isaac Hull, destroyed HMS Guerrière; in October, Capt. Stephen Decatur's USS United States captured HMS Macedonian; and in December, the Constitution, now under Capt. William Bainbridge, defeated HMS Java in an engagement off the coast of Brazil.

Between May and November 1813, the U.S. Army attempted to invade Canada across the Great Lakes and down the St. Lawrence River. American forces were successful inasmuch as they captured Fort George and York (now Toronto) in Upper Canada in May, but subsequent efforts to extend American control in the province were thwarted by British victories at Stony Creek and Beaver Dams in June. A major thrust from Sacketts Harbor down the St. Lawrence toward Montréal under Maj. Gen. James Wilkinson was also aborted, first by British resistance at Crysler's Farm in November 1813, then by Wilkinson's decision to end his offensive after learning that he would be unable to join forces with U.S. troops below Montréal. On the northwest frontier, American naval forces under Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry defeated a British squadron at Put‐in‐Bay on Lake Erie in September. Thereafter, Harrison and his U.S. and Kentucky troops were able first to retake Detroit, and then, in October, to destroy the alliance between the British and the Indians with a victory at the Battle of the Thames.

There were no other major American victories in 1813. The Royal Navy avenged the defeats of 1812 by capturing the USS Chesapeake in June 1813, and throughout the year British frigates steadily extended their blockade of U.S. ports, annoying coastal communities and disrupting trade. Yet another setback for the American war effort came in the fall of 1813 when “Redstick” factions in the Creek Nation, who like the Shawnees and Delawares had ample grievances against the United States, attacked forts and settlements on the southwestern frontier. Georgia and Tennessee mobilized troops in response and Tennessee forces under Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson eventually defeated the Creeks at Horsehoe Bend, Mississippi Territory, in March 1814.

By 1814, American land forces had improved in both quality and leadership. Disciplined troops under Maj. Gen. Jacob Brown and Brig. Gen. Winfield Scott resumed efforts from the previous year to expel the British from Niagara, and between July and September they fought the enemy on even terms in three major engagements at Chippewa, Lundy's Lane, and Fort Erie. But the defeat of Napoleon in Europe in the spring of 1814 allowed Great Britain to send more troops to North America, and by late summer, the United States had to contend with invasions by combined army and navy forces at Lake Champlain and in Chesapeake Bay. Capt. Thomas Macdonough's victory over a British squadron on Lake Champlain in September compelled one invading army to withdraw to Canada. Meanwhile, another British force had taken and burned the White House, the U.S. capitol, and most other government buildings in Washington, D.C. (in August), and a third had occupied the northeastern section of the District of Maine. Efforts to seize Baltimore failed as Maryland militiamen inflicted heavy losses on the British regulars of Gen. Robert Ross, and the harbor defenses of Baltimore withstood a heavy naval bombardment. It was during the shelling of Fort McHenry on 13–14 September that the poet Francis Scott Key composed the work that became The Star‐Spangled Banner as a tribute to the American defense.


Efforts to end the war lasted almost as long as the conflict itself. Great Britain, in fact, repealed its orders in council in June 1812 before it had learned of the declaration of war, but President Madison decided to continue the struggle in order to obtain a comprehensive settlement of American grievances. For this purpose, he accepted in March 1813 a Russian offer to mediate the conflict and dispatched a five‐man negotiating team to St. Petersburg. Britain rejected mediation in July, but later offered to open separate peace negotiations. Madison accepted this offer in January 1814; the opening of the talks was delayed until July, however, because of changes in venue resulting from the defeat of Napoleon. At Ghent, Belgium, Great Britain initially made unrealistic demands, seeking not only to establish a neutral Indian buffer state in the American Northwest but to revise both the Canadian‐American boundary and the terms of the 1783 Treaty of Paris that had established the United States as an independent nation. The United States, which had originally wanted an end to all objectionable British maritime practices and cessions of Canadian territory as well, forbore to press any claims at this time. Its diplomats parried Great Britain's demands until the British ministry, rebuffed by the duke of Wellington (who refused to take command in Canada) and fearing the expense of a long continuation in hostilities decided to settle for a peace based on the status quo ante bellum. Between the signing of the treaty, on 24 December 1814 and the time the news arrived in the United States, the last major battle, the Battle of New Orleans, had been fought on 7–8 January 1815.

Neither the War of 1812 nor the Treaty of Ghent secured American maritime rights on a firm basis; but a century of peace in Europe after 1815 meant that they were not seriously threatened again until World War I. Nor did Great Britain pursue its future disputes with the United States to the point of risking war. And though the United States failed to obtain any Canadian territory, the campaigns of the war destroyed Indian opposition to U.S. expansion on the northwestern and southwestern frontiers. Both the United States and Canada emerged from the war with a heightened sense of national purpose and awareness, and particularly in the American case, the war consolidated the nation's military and naval establishments on more secure bases than before 1812.

In other respects, though, the war was as much a mixed blessing as an unqualified gain for the United States. The immediate domestic impact of the conflict was to heighten tensions between the northern and the southern states, on the one hand, and the Federalist and Republican parties, on the other. These strains became so serious that in November 1814, New England Federalists met in convention at Hartford, Connecticut, to consider measures to nullify the war effort. The ending of the war shortly afterwards left the Federalists marked with the stigma of disloyalty, and this undoubtedly contributed to the party's rapid demise after 1815.

The economic impact of the war was equally complex. The disruptions it entailed on America's international commerce were, to some extent, offset by greater governmental expenditures, an increased demand for domestic manufacturing, and the deflection of capital from shipping to the first large‐scale American industries, especially in New England. Yet not all of the resulting gains survived the unstable economic conditions of the postwar period; and even the American belief that the war marked a significant stride toward cultural, economic, and political independence would ultimately be overshadowed by the Civil War, which profoundly altered the meaning of all America's earlier conflicts in the shaping of the nation's identity and purposes.
[See also Neutrality; Rush‐Bagot Agreement; Trade, Foreign.]


Henry Adams , The History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, 9 vols., 1891; 1986.
Alfred T. Mahan , Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812, 2 vols., 1905.
Frank Updyke , The Diplomacy of the War of 1812, 1915.
Bradford Perkins , Prologue to War: England and the United States, 1805–1812, 1961.
Bradford Perkins , Castlereagh and Adams: England and the United States, 1812–1823, 1964.
J. C. A. Stagg , Mr. Madison's War: Politics, Diplomacy, and Warfare in the Early American Republic, 1783–1830, 1983.
George F. Stanley , The War of 1812: Land Operations, 1983.
Steven Watts , The Republic Reborn: War and the Making of Liberal America, 1790–1820, 1987.
Donald Hickey , The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, 1989.

J. C. A. Stagg

War of 1812

views updated May 21 2018

WAR OF 1812

WAR OF 1812, fought under the motto "free trade and sailor's rights," was the result of British maritime policies during the wars between Great Britain and France, the desire of President James Madison to strengthen republicanism, and the American belief that it could secure possession of Canada as a bargaining chip against Great Britain.

Neither Britain nor France cared much about the rights of neutrals in their struggle, which lasted with only short interruptions from 1793 to 1815. Britain's major asset was its navy, which contained France by closing off large stretches of the European coastline. The British blockade from Brest to the mouth of the Elbe River; Napoleon's Berlin Decree of 21 November 1806, declaring a blockade of the British Isles and prohibiting ships from entering French harbors if they previously had been in British waters; the British Orders in Council of 1807 that all neutral ships coming from France would be seized if they had not previously visited British harbors; and Napoleon's Milan Decree of 17 December 1807 that all neutral ships that concurred with the British demands would be seized had little impact on the war in Europe but affected the United States and its profitable maritime trade. Americans were in no position to do anything about this sort of war. Great Britain, straining for sailors on their warships, insisted on the right of its naval officers to "impress" from American ships deserters from the Royal Navy or other British subjects liable to naval service. British sailors had deserted by the thousands to the American merchant marine. Many who had taken out naturalization papers were nonetheless the victims of the British policy.

Anger over the British practices reached a climax on 22 June 1807, when the USS Chesapeake was stopped by the British frigate Leopard. When the American captain denied the British request to search his ship for deserters, the Leopard shelled the American vessel. Not prepared for a military engagement, the Chesapeake suffered casualties quickly. After firing one shot, the American captain allowed the British to board his ship. They took four sailors prisoner and put out to sea again. This arrogant provocation injured American national pride. Although President Thomas Jefferson seemed ready to go to war, he resorted to economic warfare. At his request, Congress

passed the Embargo Act of 1807, which was intended to prevent additional entanglement in European affairs by prohibiting the export of American goods on both American and foreign vessels. While the British and French embargoes had led to seizures of American merchantmen, they had provided an opportunity for traders to reap huge profits by counting on the fast and sleek American ships to run the blockades. Prohibiting the ships from leaving harbor prevented seizure and impressment, but it also put an end to a lucrative situation. Although smuggling became routine, the Embargo Act severely hurt communities in New England and cotton planters and farmers in the West and South who depended on the European markets, particularly the British markets.

The embargo had little impact on Great Britain and France. Amidst growing protests against the embargo, under the impression of election victories by the rival Federalists, and with New Englanders airing secessionist ideas, President Jefferson asked for a modification of the Embargo Act shortly before he left office. Congress repealed the act and on 1 March 1809 passed the Nonintercourse Act. The new law prohibited trade with Great Britain and France and banned British and French ships from U.S. waters, but it permitted trade with the rest of the world. Great Britain had found ready suppliers in Central and Latin America, and like the embargo, nonintercourse did not change British naval conduct. Having

accomplished nothing, the United States backed down and replaced the Nonintercourse Act with Macon's Bill No. 2, a bill introduced by Representative Nathaniel Macon that barred armed vessels of the belligerents from entering American ports but reopened trade with France and Great Britain. Macon's Bill promised that, if either England or France revoked the blockade, nonintercourse would be imposed against the other.

Napoleon reacted swiftly. He instructed his foreign minister, Jean-Baptiste Nompère de Champagny, duc de Cadore, to notify the Americans that the Milan and Berlin Decrees were revoked. Although the note the Americans received from Cadore was vague and stated that repeal of the decrees was contingent on resumption of American nonintercourse with Great Britain, President James Madison proclaimed the French in compliance with Macon's Bill. This gave the British until February 1811 to revoke the Orders in Council.

Great Britain remained intractable, and by the time Congress assembled in November, Madison was ready to put the nation on a war footing. Many members of Congress, however, were reluctant to go to war with the mightiest naval power on the globe. The most vocal group calling for war or at least some action was called the War Hawks. They were for the most part a group of young Jeffersonian Republicans from the West and the South who had recently been voted into office. Among them was Henry Clay of Kentucky, who had never served in the House of Representatives before and was only thirty-four years old but was nonetheless elected to the influential position of speaker of the House. Clay made sure that a number of his colleagues willing to go to war were appointed to important committees.

The War Hawks argued that British crimes were not confined to the high seas. On the northwestern frontier, in Ohio and the territories of Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan, Native Americans, led by the Shawnee prophet Tenskwatawa and his brother Tecumseh and supported by the British in Canada, resisted the relentless white encroachment on their lands. Tenskwatawa preached a return to the customary way of living, Native American brotherhood, and abstinence. Strongly opposed to the extensive land cessions secured by the Americans and using anti-white rhetoric, he attracted many young warriors. After the Treaty of Fort Wayne, in which chiefs opposed to Tenskwatawa ceded 3 million acres of land to the United States, Tenskwatawa threatened to prevent settlement of the land by force. Tecumseh would supply the necessary military and political leadership. Americans suspected that Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh were agents of British interests, and while Tecumseh traveled into the South to enlist other Native American nations, the Indiana governor William Henry Harrison moved against what he perceived to be a threatening Native American coalition. He destroyed their town at the Tippecanoe River, providing an additional incentive for the Native Americans to seek support from the British in Canada. The attacks against white settlers did not end, and the War Hawks, holding Great Britain responsible for those attacks, advocated ousting the British from North America by conquering Canada. Others

from the Southwest and the South saw an opportunity to conquer East and West Florida. The United States had long claimed that West Florida was part of the Louisiana Purchase and had begun absorbing it piecemeal.

Frontier grievances and ambitions were debated in Congress, but they were hardly sufficient by themselves to bring about war with Great Britain. Some may have hoped to incorporate Canada into the United States, but most members of Congress simply perceived Canada as an easy target because Britain was too occupied with France to divert men and arms to defend its dominion in North America. Canada was to serve as a bargaining chip to force Great Britain to change its conduct on the high seas.

After more than half a year of deliberations and persuasion, Congress declared war on 18 June 1812. The House voted 79 to 49 on 4 June 1812, with 17 Republicans voting against war and 10 abstaining. Not one Federalist voted for war. The Senate approved the declaration by a narrow margin of 19 to 13 on 17 June. Madison signed it the following day. Two days before and unknown to the members of Congress, the British Parliament had repealed the Orders in Council. When the news reached the United States, it was already too late.

Invasion of Canada

Despite the long period of debates in Congress, the nation was hardly prepared to actually wage the war it declared on a formidable enemy. Inadequate military, naval, and financial preparation resulted in insufficient and illtrained troops. Military incompetence and defective strategy led to a series of military disasters, particularly during the first year of the war, when American troops tried to invade Canada. The army was additionally hampered by a militia that generally defined itself as a defensive force and was unwilling to partake in a war of conquest and by obstruction of the war effort in the Federalist-controlled New England states. General William Hull had to surrender Detroit on 16 August 1812, Generals Stephen van Rensselaer and Alexander Smyth failed dismally on the Niagara River in October, and General Henry Dearborn broke off a feeble attempt to march on Montreal in November. On Lake Erie, U.S. forces achieved their greatest success under the command of Oliver H. Perry in September 1813. Detroit was recovered the following year, and Harrison defeated the British at the Thames River on 5 October 1813, a battle in which Tecumseh was killed, breaking Native American resistance. The year closed, however, with the complete failure of a renewed campaign against Montreal by General James Wilkinson on 11 November

1813, the British capture of Fort Niagara on 18 December 1813, and the destruction of a number of towns, including Buffalo, New York, by the British during December 1813.

By the summer of 1814 many incompetent officers had been replaced, and under the command of Generals Jacob Brown and Winfield Scott, the northern army, although failing to conquer any substantial territory, stood its ground at Chippewa River on 5 July 1814, Lundy's Lane on 25 July 1814, and the siege of Fort Erie in August 1814. In September, despite an overwhelming majority, the British broke off an attack against upper New York when their naval support was defeated on Lake Champlain.

British Landing Operations

After Napoleon's abdication in April 1814, Britain was free to transfer battle-hardened troops from Europe to North America, which made landing operations in Maine and the Chesapeake Bay possible. The British were successful in Maine, and their attack against Washington, D.C., brought about the infamous routing of the American militia and troops at Bladensburg, Maryland, and the burning of official buildings in the nation's capital, including the White House and the Capitol on 24 and 25 August 1814. In early September, the British moved against Baltimore, but there they were driven off. That battle inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Blockade of the American Seaboard

During the first six months after the declaration of war, the Royal Navy was slow to use its superiority, but by the end of 1813, the American East Coast was under blockade. Only the New England states were exempted by Admiral John B. Warren until May 1814, because they opposed the war and supplied the British in Canada and the West Indies. American exports dropped sharply, and even coastal trade became increasingly dangerous. Harbor towns were affected severely, but farmers and planters in the West and the South also suffered heavily. Most American ships, navy and merchant marine, were bottled up in port, and single-ship actions on the high seas failed to affect the overwhelming superiority of the British fleet. Even privateers, who had been quite successful in previous years, found few prizes because most British ships now sailed in convoys.


Both the Americans and the British were eager to enter into negotiations. Russia offered to mediate the conflict, and American and British peace commissioners met in Ghent, Belgium, in August 1814. The American delegation had hoped to put impressment on the negotiation table but soon found that the British would not be moved on this issue. Anxious to protect Canada and their Native American allies, the British first demanded territory, a Native American buffer state, and demilitarization of the Great Lakes. In view of little encouraging news from

North America and increasing opposition at home to war taxes, they agreed to end the war on the basis of a status quo ante bellum. The British navigation rights on the Mississippi River and the American rights to fish in Canadian waters, both guaranteed in 1783, were left out of the Treaty of Ghent, signed on 24 December 1814.

Although the United States had not achieved one thing it had gone to war for, the news that the war was over was received joyously in all parts of the United States. For the United States, it seemed that not to have been defeated by Britain was a victory. News about the most important battle victory of the war arrived almost simultaneously with word about peace and added immensely to an impression of achievement. It did not matter that the Battle of New Orleans, where, on 8 January 1815, General Andrew Jackson inflicted the most crushing military defeat of the war on a British army, took place two weeks after the war was over.

The peace treaty, unanimously ratified by the Senate, led to the final demise of the Federalists and any secession ideas harbored in New England. The years after 1815 saw a sense of national identity in the United States and in Canada that had not existed before or during the war. Capital that lay dormant during the embargo, nonintercourse, and the British blockade found a new outlet in the developing industry in the United States, now protected by high tariffs. Americans learned not to rely too heavily on a militia, making way for a reorganized army that enabled future expansion. The Second War of Independence, as the War of 1812 has been called, was the first step in establishing the United States as a serious, permanent player in international politics.


Benn, Carl. The Iroquois in the War of 1812. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.

Egan, Clifford L. Neither Peace nor War: Franco-American Relations, 1803–1812. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983.

Elting, John R. Amateurs to Arms! A Military History of the War of 1812. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books, 1991.

Fredriksen, John C., comp. War of 1812 Eyewitness Accounts: An Annotated Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwod Press, 1997.

Gardiner, Robert, ed. The Naval War of 1812. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1998.

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

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

———. "The War of 1812: Still a Forgotten Conflict?" Journal of Military History 65, no. 3 (2001): 741–769.

Lord, Walter. The Dawn's Early Light. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Skeen, C. Edward. Citizen Soldiers in the War of 1812. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999.


See alsoCanada, Relations with ; Chesapeake-Leopard Incident ; Embargo Act ; France, Relations with ; Great Britain, Relations with ; Great Lakes Naval Campaigns of 1812 ; Impressment of Seamen ; Macon's Bill No. 2 ; New Orleans, Battle of ; Nonintercourse Act ; Tippecanoe, Battle of ; Washington Burned andvol. 9:Madison's War Message .

War of 1812

views updated May 11 2018

WAR OF 1812

The War of 1812 is undoubtedly America's least known war. The average American cannot name the two participants, the United States and Great Britain, let alone discuss what prompted President James Madison and Congress to declare war on 18 June 1812. In contrast, Canadians regard the war as among the most important events in their history. The underlying reasons concerning how the War of 1812 is regarded at the start of the twenty-first century is based not only on the failures and successes of the conflict, but also on events that followed decades later. For America, the vast majority of the war was characterized by dismal failure. Not only was the nation's capital put to the torch by British forces in August 1814, but campaign after campaign was lost due to either blunder, poor military leadership, lack of supplies, or the refusal of militias to cross into Canada, the occupation of which was the one strategic objective of the United States. In the wake of the U.S. Civil War, the War of 1812 seemed a minor affair to Americans. Canadians, on the other hand, successfully defended their homeland and in the process built a strong sense of nationalism. The one saving grace for Americans was the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815, an unparalleled victory led by General Andrew Jackson that allowed the young Republic to walk away from the War of 1812 with a sense of accomplishment in an otherwise lackluster performance.

american grievances

The war's causes were rooted in the Napoleonic Wars. This European struggle between Great Britain and France was essentially a world war that bridged the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Engaged in a death struggle for supremacy, these two colossal powers embroiled their many neighbors, as well as the United States, in the conflict. The United States attempted to avoid involvement, but the lucrative trade to be had as a neutral nation enticed American shipping to brave the dangers of war. The end results were violations of neutral trade rights, illegal blockades, and extensive impressments (the seizing of sailors from American vessels to serve on foreign war ships). Both England and France engaged in these practices, though impressment was largely a British policy.

These varied maritime issues had been of concern in the 1790s but became even more problematic during and after 1803 when Britain and France disputed provisions of the 1802 Treaty of Amiens, which had ended the previous war between 1793 and 1801. Britain released a significant portion of its armed forces in the expectation that the peace would last more than a year and as a result was in a difficult position when the war resumed. Fighting for its very survival, Britain stepped up violations of neutral trade and impressments. Some of the trade violations were veiled in classic English legal tinkering. The Rule of 1756, a holdover from the Seven Years' War (1756–1763), decreed that any nation failing to have a trade agreement with a nation in time of peace did not have one by virtue of a war. This essentially meant that America could not act as a neutral in the French carrying trade between its West Indian colonies and the French mainland. Americans worked around this with the 1800 Polly case, in which British admiralty courts determined that goods taken from French colonies and returned to America, then re-exported to France, were considered "naturalized" American goods. The British closed this loophole with the 1805 Essex decision, which held that all such goods must be off-loaded and must have duties paid on them in America. Much of this was legal game playing, but it was a game backed by the firepower of the British navy, and thus Americans had to play by British rules.

Further trade violations came from both France and Great Britain. In 1806 Napoleon issued the infamous Berlin Decree, which announced a blockade of the British Isles and the right to seize all British goods even when on a neutral vessel. The British responded in January 1807 with an Order in Council requiring all vessels bound for certain ports in Western Europe to stop in Britain and pay a duty. Napoleon retaliated later in the same year with the Milan Decree, in which he declared that any ship paying the British

duty would be considered an enemy and treated as such. These varied orders and decrees resulted in the seizure of some nine hundred American ships between 1807 and 1812.

Impressments were also a major source of American dismay. On 22 June 1807 they reached an extreme when a British warship, the HMS Leopard, attempted to stop and ultimately fired on the USS Chesapeake, killing three sailors and wounding another eight. The British subsequently boarded the vessel and removed four sailors who, they claimed, were English citizens. The British did not normally violate a nation's sovereignty by impressing sailors from a war vessel, and the crown offered to pay reparations and later returned three of the four impressed sailors. Nonetheless, Americans were outraged by this affront to their liberties.

the road to war

There is little wonder why America determined that immediate action was necessary. What, however, should be done? President Thomas Jefferson believed that war was hardly an option and instead decided upon a fifteen-month embargo that shut down American ports from 22 December 1807 to 1 March 1809. The idea was to hurt Britain and France economically by refusing them American goods and thereby forcing a respect for U.S. rights. Though the embargo hurt both nations, it was not enough to alter their policies, and Jefferson was faced at home with intense hostility to the embargo, which ended just days before James Madison's inauguration.

The new president did little to change British and French policy toward America. The young Republic was merely a pawn in a much bigger chess match. Violations of trade and impressments continued

throughout Madison's first term, and on 16 May 1811 a new clash between an English and American ship fanned anti-British sentiment. This time, however, the recipient of the pounding was the HMS Lille Belt. This incident, combined with the continuation of the Orders in Council and the belief that Indian depredations on the western frontier had been encouraged by the British, caused Americans to look for satisfaction from their former mother country.

In reality, the French were as guilty of neutral trade violations and illegal blockades as were the British; however, there remained lingering hostility against the British from the Revolutionary War. Moreover, with Britain's command of the seas, it was its warships that plied the U.S. coast. Thus, the June 1812 decision to engage in war was based not only on very real violations of American sovereignty, but on an emotional animosity as well. The irony is that the British foreign secretary Lord Castlereagh had announced on 16 June, just two days prior to the American declaration of war, that the Orders in Council would be rescinded. Even when this information became known in the early days of the war, the United States was in no mood to engage in further diplomatic dickering. The Second War for Independence, as some called it, was designed to make Britain stop treating America like a colony.

The declaration of war focused primarily on maritime issues, though historians for many years have asked a very basic question about the war's causes: If it was fought to defend maritime rights, why did the Northeast, the area most affected by violations of those rights, oppose the war so vehemently? Scholars have theorized that a number of additional factors may have been at play: western land greed and the potential conquest of Canada; an attempt to end British influence over Native Americans; Republican Party hostility to Great Britain; and preservation of national honor and a desire to prove the strength of republican institutions. It is likely that all of these factors had some influence on the American decision to engage in war, but foremost were the maritime violations.

Congressional War Hawks may have been eager for retribution, but America was no more ready to prosecute a major war in 1812 than it was in 1807, when Jefferson imposed the embargo. During the intervening years the nation's leaders had done little to prepare for conflict. America had achieved success in the Revolution only through the help of France and had failed to reform a militia system that George Washington criticized on many occasions. Part of the hope, no doubt, was that British forces would be tied up in Europe fighting Napoleon, and that Americans would therefore have an easy time of it. Additionally, many wrongly believed that Canadians would quickly unfurl American flags and jump at the chance to join the Union. Nothing was further from the truth, and the reality of war hit the nation hard. The War Department was badly organized and weakly staffed, the system for the pay and supply of troops was manifestly inadequate, and the army was littered with incompetent and geriatric officers. Most troops lacked discipline and had no real military experience, and a number of militia units in the North argued that they were solely a defensive force and therefore refused to march across the border into Canada. Finally, just when the nation needed a national bank most in order to finance the war, Alexander Hamilton's embattled institution ran the course of its charter in 1811. It is doubtful that the nation could have been less prepared for war.

the conflict

Nevertheless, Americans prepared for an offensive into Canada. The plans called for attacks all along the border. Yet in the Northwest, William Hull, fearing an Indian massacre, surrendered Fort Detroit on 16 August 1812 to a smaller British force and was later found guilty of cowardice and neglect of duty by a court martial. At the Raisin River on 22 January 1813, some three hundred Americans were killed by a superior British and Indian army. Thirty Americans who had surrendered were slaughtered by Indians after the battle. The massacre was so ghastly that Americans later attempted to excite troops by announcing, "Remember the Raisin!" Military action in the East was equally bad. Campaigns on the Niagara front at Queenston Heights (13 October 1812) and Fort Erie (27 November 1812) were also failures. The planned attack on Montreal never achieved any kind of meaningful momentum. In most of these actions militiamen refused to cross the border into Canada. William Henry Harrison had better luck in September 1813 when he defeated the British in the Battle of the Thames, in which the infamous Indian Prophet Tecumseh was killed. Though this was a victory for the United States, it was fleeting. Just two months later General James Wilkinson's attempt to capture Montreal ended unsuccessfully when his army was defeated by a smaller British force at Chrysler's Farm.

American navy sailors did far better than the army soldiers. American ships were faster and sturdier, though certainly fewer in number than the British, and U.S. sailors were second to none. On 19 August 1812 Captain Isaac Hull, commanding the USS Constitution, defeated the HMS Guerrière, and on 15 October 1812 Captain Stephen Decatur of the USS United States captured the HMS Macedonian. On 29 December the Constitution, this time under the command of William Bainbridge, once again vanquished a British ship, the Java. The American navy also performed well the following year, when victory on the Great Lakes inspired Captain Oliver Perry to utter his famous words, "We have met the enemy and they are ours." Unfortunately, the American army failed to capitalize on the navy's control of the lakes by once again botching its forays into Canada.

The American campaigns in the South were more successful. In 1813–1814 an American army engaged the Creek Indians and a little-known but tenacious general named Andrew Jackson defeated the hostile Red Sticks, known for the red clubs they carried, in several successive battles—Tallushatchee (3 November 1813), Talladega (9 November 1813), Emuckfau (22 January 1814), and Enotachopco (24 January 1814)—before virtually annihilating them at Horseshoe Bend (27 March 1814).

On the East Coast, things went badly in 1813–1814. Using their superior naval power, the British blockaded the entire seaboard south of New England. That region was at first excluded because of its opposition to the war and because it was a source of supplies for British troops in Canada. But as the war progressed New England, too, felt the wrath of British might. Also, early in 1813 British raids on Chesapeake Bay and on Hampton, Virginia, struck fear in the American countryside. By 1814 the British had the opportunity to unleash their full force on the United States. Napoleon had been defeated and a wave of battle-hardened veterans sailed across the ocean. Americans nevertheless held their own in battles on the Canadian border, such as Chippewa (5 July 1814), Lundy's Lane (25 July 1814), and Plattsburgh (11 September 1814) but the year would be noted more for its losses than gains. The Chesapeake region was once again invaded, and although Baltimore was successfully defended, inspiring Francis Scott Key to pen the words to the "Star-Spangled Banner," Washington City, the nation's capital, was put to the torch.

The highlight of the war for Americans came with a major British offensive against the Gulf Coast. Expecting to roll into New Orleans virtually unimpeded, the British army met the formidable General Jackson and were summarily slaughtered on the field. Jackson's troops sent forth such a hail of fire on 8 January 1815 that some 2,500 British troops were killed and wounded. With only 6 Americans losing their lives and another 7 wounded, the victory was remarkable and touted as the greatest moment in the young nation's military history.

Ironically, the battle actually occurred after the peace treaty, the Treaty of Ghent, had been signed on Christmas Eve 1814. Once ratified in February 1815, the treaty ended all hostilities, but it said virtually nothing about the maritime issues that had triggered the war. For the most part, those issues had disappeared with the cessation of the Napoleonic Wars. There was no longer any reason for Great Britain to harass American ships, and the U.S. delegates at Ghent, like their counterparts, simply wanted to end the conflict. Thus, matters of impressments and violations of neutral trade were swept under the rug. Some historians state that as a result, America failed in the war. Yet one could argue that standing up to Britain and not suffering utter defeat was success for a fledging Republic attempting to steer a course around monarchical giants.

The War of 1812 lasted for nearly three years and cost the United States $158 million. Total American deaths amounted to 17,000, though only 2,260 of these were combat deaths, the remainder caused by disease. Another 4,505 were wounded. The ultimate results of the war were myriad: the conflict revealed the limited nature of the Republican Party's policies and encouraged it to adopt many Federalist views; Republicans suddenly favored a national bank, internal improvements, and tariffs; the war marked the end of the first party system with the demise of the Federalist Party, which had opposed the war at every point and whose hostility culminated at the Hartford Convention in December 1814–January 1815; the war broke the Indian power in the Northwest and the South; and the Battle of New Orleans generated significant American nationalism—military, political, and economic. This nationalism, combined with their stance on the war, carried several politicians, such as John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay, to national prominence. The success at New Orleans also carried Andrew Jackson to the White House in 1828.

See alsoArmy, U.S.; Creek War; Embargo; Federalist Party; Ghent, Treaty of; Hartford Convention; Horseshoe Bend, Battle of; Impressment; Jackson, Andrew; Marines, U.S.; New Orleans, Battle of; "Star Spangled Banner"; Thames, Battle of the; War Hawks; Washington, Burning of .


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

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

Horsman, Reginald. The War of 1812. New York: Knopf, 1969.

Mahon, John K. The War of 1812. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1972.

Matthew Warshauer

War of 1812

views updated Jun 27 2018

WAR OF 1812

The War of 1812 was the first major war fought by the United States under the Constitution. It was also the second and last time that the nation waged war against Great Britain. The contest was a direct outgrowth of the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815). The United States went to war to force the British to give up the Orders-in-Council, which regulated American trade with the European Continent, and impressment, which was the Royal Navy's practice of removing seamen from American merchant ships on the high seas.

The United States declared war on June 18, 1812, after little preparation. The congressional vote was relatively close: 79 to 49 in the House and 19 to 13 in the Senate. Declaring war against a major power after such limited preparation and against the wishes of a large minority of the American people was decidedly risky. Jeffersonian Republicans were willing to take this risk because they were confident that if the British did not cave into their demands, the conquest of Canada would be, in the words of former president Thomas Jefferson, "a mere matter of marching" (Letter to William Duane, August 4, 1812). Once conquered, Canada would be held as ransom for concessions on the maritime issues. If the British refused to make concessions, then presumably Canada would be permanently annexed.

The British repealed the Orders-in-Council five days after the declaration of war but were unwilling to give up impressment because they considered the practice essential to maintaining their naval power and thus their war effort against Napoleon. Hence, despite the interest that both sides showed in terminating the war quickly, it dragged on for two and a half years.

battle and campaigns

In the campaign of 1812, the United States launched a three-pronged assault against Canada that ended in disaster. One army surrendered at Detroit when Major General William Hull lost his nerve; a second U.S. army under Lieutenant Colonel Winfield Scott surrendered on the Niagara frontier when American militia refused to cross the border to reinforce the regulars who had established a beachhead on the Canadian side; and a third army under Brigadier General Henry Dearborn conducted little more than a demonstration on the St. Lawrence front before returning to the United States.

The United States launched another three-pronged campaign in 1813, and this time it was more successful, but only in the West. Commodore Oliver H. Perry defeated a British fleet on Lake Erie, which enabled Major General William Henry Harrison to crush an Anglo-Indian army in the Battle of the Thames fifty miles east of Detroit. The great Indian leader and British ally, Tecumseh, was killed in this battle. Perry added more luster to his name by sending Harrison a message that read: "We have met the enemy and they are ours." Further east, however, the United States made no headway, and after two years of campaigning, Canada remained in British hands.

In 1814 the initiative in the war shifted to the British because Napoleon's defeat in spring had ended the war in Europe, thus enabling Great Britain to concentrate on the American war. The United States launched a bloody but inconclusive offensive on the Niagara frontier, but elsewhere the British took the offensive. One British army retreated from New York when a spectacular American naval victory by Commodore Thomas Macdonough on Lake Champlain gave the United States command of this crucial waterway. A second British army successfully occupied eastern Maine.

A third British army achieved mixed results in the Chesapeake, occupying Washington and burning the public buildings there but then giving up an attack on Baltimore because the American defenses were too formidable. A British naval bombardment of Fort McHenry at Baltimore prompted Georgetown lawyer Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner," describing the artillery barrage. A final British assault on the Gulf Coast in early 1815 was rebuffed by Major General Andrew Jackson's forces at New Orleans in one of the most lopsided defeats in British military history.

Both sides in this war had trouble mounting successful offensive operations. Waging war in remote wilderness areas posed such difficult logistical problems that fate usually favored the defending side. Hence, on the battlefield the War of 1812 ended in a draw.

In the war at sea, the United States won a series of impressive frigate duels early in the war, but thereafter an ever tightening British naval blockade kept most American warships in port. American privateers did considerable damage to British trade, although getting prizes to a friendly port was always problematical. Moreover, British warships and privateers took a heavy toll on those American merchantmen that ventured to sea. In the end, British naval power triumphed in the war at sea, although the United States made a much better showing than anyone had anticipated.

men and money

The United States faced persistent problems raising men and money to fight and finance this war. Despite offering princely bounties (which by the end of the war amounted to two or three times the annual income of an unskilled civilian laborer), recruitment for the U.S. Army always lagged behind need. At the end of the war, army strength was only at around two-thirds of its authorized level.

The United States found it no easier to raise money to finance the war. When a major war loan failed in the summer of 1814, public credit collapsed. The government defaulted on the national debt and was forced to rely increasingly on treasury notes, a form of short-term, interest-bearing paper money that banks and army contractors were increasingly reluctant to accept, even at a steep discount. Had the war lasted much longer, the popular phrase from the American Revolution, "not worth a Continental," might have been replaced by "not worth a treasury note." The government's financial problems were compounded by a weak economy. Unlike most American wars, the War of 1812 did not stimulate prosperity. Although the middle Atlantic and western states profited from large war contracts and a surge in manufacturing, New England and the southern states suffered from the British naval blockade, which made it risky to send ships and commodities to sea. The nation's primitive road system made it costly to ship goods overland, and in the coastal trade only short voyages in shallow waters were likely to be safe.

federalist opposition

Compounding the U.S. government's problems in waging this war was the opposition of the Federalists, which was more determined and partisan than the nation has experienced in any other foreign war. Federalists voted unanimously against the declaration of war in Congress, and thereafter they presented a united front against most war measures. They opposed all bills to raise men and money, to authorize privateering, or to restrict trade with the enemy, although they supported proposals to increase the navy and coastal fortifications because they considered these measures defensive in character.

Even though Federalists everywhere opposed the war, the opposition was stiffest in New England, where the unpopularity of the war enabled the party to win control of all five states. Federalists in this section wrote, spoke, and preached against the war; they refused to enlist in the army and discouraged subscriptions to the war loans; and on occasion their governors withheld their militia from federal service.

The climax of New England's opposition was the Hartford Convention, a regional conference held in the winter of 1814 to 1815 to protest the war and other Republican policies, provide for the defense of the region, and propose amendments to the Constitution to protect New England's position in the Union. The war ended

before any action could be taken on these proposals, and their effect was to further discredit the Federalist party in other parts of the Union.

the treaty of ghent

Peace feelers sent out by the United States in 1812 produced no agreement, and the British refused a Russian mediation offer the following year. The two sides met for direct negotiations in summer of 1814 in Ghent in modern-day Belgium. The United States was represented by a strong delegation that was headed by John Quincy Adams and included rising congressional star Henry Clay and former secretary of the treasury Albert Gallatin.

By the time the negotiations got under way in August, the United States had dropped its impressment demands, but the British, now in the driver's seat in the war, laid out their own terms. They demanded the establishment of an Indian barrier state in the Old Northwest, the surrender of territory in northern Minnesota and Maine, the unilateral demilitarization of the Great Lakes, and an end to American fishing privileges in Canadian waters. The American delegation adamantly refused to make any concessions, and gradually the British dropped their demands.

On December 24, 1814, the two nations signed the Treaty of Ghent (also known as the Peace of Christmas Eve). This agreement provided for ending the war and returning to the status quo ante bellum (the state that existed before the war) as soon as both governments had ratified. The British ratified the treaty on December 27; the United States on February 16, 1815. Both sides immediately proclaimed an end to hostilities, although desultory fighting continued in remote parts of the world for several months. The last engagement took place in the Indian Ocean on June 30, 1815, when the USS Peacock (carrying 22 guns) compelled the surrender of the East Indian cruiser Nautilus (14 guns).


The War of 1812 ended in a draw, and the maritime issues that United States had fought for were not mentioned in the peace treaty. Although the American people might have blamed the Republicans for a failed war policy, they chose instead to focus on the great victory at New Orleans and to view the war as a success. As a result, a number of Americans leaders (such as Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, James Monroe, Henry Clay, and John Quincy Adams) were able to capitalize on their service during the war to advance their public careers. The Federalists, on the other hand, saw their wartime popularity vanish. Opposition to the war, so popular while the conflict raged, suddenly seemed unpatriotic. The Federalist party quickly collapsed as a national organization and survived as a viable party only in New England.

The war affected other people as well. Some four thousand runaway slaves, mainly from the Chesapeake, found sanctuary and freedom with the British. Other black Americans capitalized on manpower shortages to make a mark for themselves in the army, navy, and privateers. American Indians, on the other hand, were the heaviest losers in the war. The relentless drive to dispossess them of their lands gained momentum as a result of Harrison's victories in the Northwest and Jackson's in the Southwest. Never again would Native Americans pose a serious threat to the United States, and never again would they be able to secure foreign assistance in their campaign to hold on to their lands and their way of life.

The war had other lasting effects. It promoted nationalism and patriotism and produced several enduring national symbols: Uncle Sam (who was probably named after a Troy, New York, army contractor named Samuel Wilson); the Fort McHenry flag, which is now in the Smithsonian and is the nation's most revered and tangible link to the war; and "The Star-Spangled Banner," which gradually surpassed other patriotic songs and was designated the national anthem by Congress in 1931. Defense spending received a boost as a result of the war. The navy's wartime victories against the acknowledged Mistress of the Seas gave notice to the world of a rising naval power, and this service won a special claim on the nation's resources that even penny-pinching, land-locked congressmen acknowledged. The United States acquired part of West Florida during the war, although this acquisition came at the expense of the hapless Spanish rather than the enemy. In Europe, Americans enjoyed a new-found respect. Even the British were careful not to alienate the young republic in the postwar era, frequently subordinating other interests to promote Anglo-American accord.

At the time, Republicans claimed that the War of 1812 was a second war of independence. Although the nation's independence was never really at stake, there is no denying the this inconclusive war shaped the future of the young republic in a host of ways that reverberated across the Atlantic and through history.


Altoff, Gerard T. Amongst My Best Men: African Americans and the War of 1812. Put-in-Bay, OH: Perry Group, 1996.

Benn, Carl. The Iroquois in the War of 1812. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.

Engelman, Fred L. The Peace of Christmas Eve. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1962.

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

Hitsman, J. Mackay. The Incredible War of 1812: A Military History [1965]. Revised edition by Donald E. Graves. Toronto: Robin Brass Studio, 1999.

Horsman, Reginald. The Causes of the War of 1812. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1962.

Perkins, Bradford. Prologue to War: England and the United States, 1805–1812. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961.

Quimby, Robert S. The U.S. Army in the War of 1812: An Operational and Command Study, 2 vols. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1997.

Roosevelt, Theodore. The Naval War of 1812. New York: Putnam's Sons, 1882.

Skeen, C. Edward. Citizen Soldiers in the War of 1812. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999.

Stagg, J.C.A. Mr. Madison's War: Politics, Diplomacy, and Warfare in the Early American Republic, 1783–1830. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Donald R. Hickey

See also:Federalist Party; Flags; Jackson, Andrew; Monroe, James.

War of 1812

views updated May 17 2018

WAR OF 1812

The War of 1812 (18121814) remains one of the least known of American wars. Some historians regard it as a minor sidelight to the Napoleonic Wars (18001814)in Europe. Others see it as a continuation of the struggle that began with the American Revolution (17751783). Most agree, however, that the war had its origins in the economic problems facing the young republic in the early nineteenth century. The war's end resolved some of these problems. But other problems raised by the war continued to plague the United States through the first half of the nineteenth century.

Contemporary sources suggest that the United States entered the War of 1812 partly to end British impressment (a kind of forced draft) of American sailors. This was undoubtedly the case. But the complete cause of the war was much more complex. The War of 1812 had just as much to do with American trading interests as it did with foreign powers respecting the rights of American citizens. Some of the war's fronts were opened to seize Canadian lands and to end British influence over Native Americans in the Great Lakes area. Historians have also suggested that the war was fought to enhance the prestige of the Republican (Anti-Federalist) Party, and to enhance the prestige of the United States. The end of the war is equally confusing. Although the United States has won most of its wars, the War of 1812 was a major exception. The Treaty of Ghent (1814) that ended the conflict simply restored the state of affairs that had existed before the war began.

The problem of European powers interfering with American trade was an old one, stretching back decades into the years following the American Revolution. They were rooted in the French Revolution (17891795) and the Napoleonic period (17991815). At the time, the British were trying to choke off foreign trade with France, while the French were denying the British access to Continental ports. The Orders in Council established Great Britain's intention to seize goods carried in neutral ships that were intended for French ports, while Napoleon's Berlin Decrees performed a similar service for ports in other mainland European nations. When the British warship HMS Leopard boarded the USSChesapeake in 1807 and removed four sailors who had allegedly deserted from the British navy, the Americans responded with outrage. Following the example set by the thirteen American colonies in the 1760s, President Thomas Jefferson (18011809) guided an Embargo Act (1807) that ended almost all American foreign trade. However, the Embargo Act hurt the United States far more than it did the nation's trading partners. In 1809 Congress reopened trade with foreign nations (except for Britain and France) in the Non-Intercourse Act. This act also stated that trade with Britain and France would be resumed if the two countries agreed to respect U.S. shipping. Even this step did not help the faltering U.S. economy, and in 1810 Macon's Bill No. 2 opened trade with both countries with the stipulation that trade with either country would be cut off if the other agreed to drop its restrictions on U.S. trade. Napoleon quickly took advantage of the opportunity to hurt the British, and in 1811 President James Madison (18091817) cut off trade with England. In June of 1812 the British government finally repealed the Orders in Council. But by that time Madison had already asked Congress for a declaration of war.

The other major source of conflict between the British and the Americans was on the Great Lakes frontier. Since the conflict known as the Little Turtle's War (17911794), the territory known as the Old Northwest had been a place of constant conflict between Native Americans and U.S. settlers. After the Treaty of Greenville (1795) awarded most of what is now Ohio to the U.S. government, most Indians left the area. Among them were the Shawnee leader Tecumseh and his younger brother Tenkswatawa, sometimes known as the Shawnee Prophet. Tecumseh was determined to put together an inter-tribal confederacy to resist further American incursions into Indian lands. His dream was smashed at the battle of Tippecanoe (1811), when General William Henry Harrison confronted the Shawnee Prophet at Prophetstown and scattered Tecumseh's Native American confederation. Tecumseh promptly joined the British forces in Canada as a commander of auxiliaries. He helped seize Detroit from American general William Hull in 1812 before being killed at the Battle of the Thames (1813). Tecumseh's death marked the effective end of Indian resistance to white settlement in the Old Northwest.

The problem of how to pay for the war was also one that occupied the government of the young republic. One of the reasons that the United States lost most of its battles in the first year of the war was that Congress had made a declaration of war, increased pay for its soldiers and raised money to encourage enlistments, but it had also adjourned before voting taxes or appropriating funds. In March of 1813, Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin was reduced to begging for money through subscribed loans. Gallatin had to call on financial lion Stephen Girard, who had made his money through a shipping business centered in Philadelphia, for help. Girard was probably the richest man in the United States at the time. The same Congress that had authorized war with Great Britain had also refused to renew the charter of the Bank of the United States effectively killing off the government's primary financial institution. Girard himself, along with fur trader John Jacob Astor and a syndicate of wealthy businessmen, underwrote most of the needed loans. In less than two weeks he had sold $4,672,800 worth of loan subscriptions to the American public, and purchased a further $2,383,00 himself. Girard's efforts helped bring about U.S. victories in 1813, and contributed to Great Britain's willingness to negotiate an end to the war.

The War of 1812 came to an end when British and American negotiators signed the Treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814. At the time the treaty was signed, events were going on at opposite ends of the country that dramatically affected the future of the United States. New Englanders had long objected to the restrictions placed on trade by Congress as war measures. From December 1814 to January 1815, the Hartford Convention met in Connecticut and published a list of New England grievances. These ranged from undue influence of southerners in Congress to a series of constitutional amendments designed to protect New England from the damaging effects of national actions. The Hartford Convention also established the principle of nullificationthe right of a state to overturn a federal law in order to protect the interests of its citizensa principle that would later be taken up by southern states. At the same time, on January 8, 1815, in Louisiana, General Andrew Jackson was beating the British army at the Battle of New Orleans. Jackson's victory, along with the news of the peace treaty, virtually destroyed the Federalist Party in the United States. Despite the fact that none of Madison's war aims had been achieved, many citizens regarded the War of 1812and the "Era of Good Feelings" that followed itas an unqualified success.

See also: Embargo Act, Andrew Jackson, Tecumseh (Death of)


Brown, Roger H. The Republic in Peril: 1812. New York: Columbia University Press, 1964.

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

Horsman, Reginald. The Causes of the War of 1812. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1962.

Stagg, J. C. A. Mr. Madison's War: Politics, Diplomacy, and Warfare in the Early American Republic, 17831830. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Wilson, George. Stephen Girard: America's First Tycoon. Conshohocken, PA: Combined Books, 1995.

War of 1812

views updated Jun 11 2018

War of 1812

The War of 1812, a war between the United States and Great Britain from 1812 to 1815, was primarily an offshoot of a larger ongoing conflict in Europe, the Napoleonic Wars (1799–1815). The United States went to war mainly to force Great Britain to repeal its unfair regulation of American trade with the European continent and to give up impressment , the practice of removing seamen from U.S. merchant vessels and forcing them to serve in the Royal Navy. Other hostilities with Great Britain that led to war dated back to the American Revolution (1775–83). Britain had long maintained outposts in U.S. lands in the Northwest Territory and enlisted the aid of American Indians to help fortify them. Many people who supported the war hoped to eliminate the British presence from North America altogether.

Napoleonic Wars

The war in Europe had begun in 1799, when French army general Napoléon Bonaparte (1769–1821) seized power in France. An extremely effective leader, Napoléon soon was named emperor, ruling with unlimited power. Not content with ruling France, he set his sights on the entire continent of Europe. To start, he wanted control of the English Channel, the body of water that runs between England and France. England's navy was much stronger than France's. Securing control of the channel, England was able to avoid invasion. Napoléon's mighty army, however, defeated the Austrians and Russians and then Prussia. By 1806 Napoléon dominated Europe from the Atlantic to the borders of Russia. Still unable to defeat England, he decided to employ economic measures. He established the Continental System, which forbade all European countries from trading with England. England, in turn, tried to choke off foreign trade with France.


The United States became involved in this conflict through its trade with Europe. England had issued the Order in Council in 1807, which announced its intention to seize goods carried in neutral ships (ships that

were not linked to either side of the conflict) heading for French ports. France threatened to do the same to ships bound for England. This violated U.S. rights at sea as a neutral trader. In 1807 a British warship boarded the USS Chesapeake and removed four sailors who had allegedly deserted from the British navy. The American public felt its honor was insulted by the British impressments, which were becoming more frequent.

In response, President Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826; served 1801–09) stopped trade with Europe and ordered British ships out of American waters. The act hurt the United States far more than England. In 1809 Congress reopened trade with foreign nations other than Britain and France. Even this step did not help the faltering U.S. economy. A new bill opened trade with both countries, but the United States let it be known that if France agreed to drop its restrictions on U.S. trade, the United States would cut off trade with England, and Napoléon quickly took advantage of the opportunity to hurt the British. In 1811 President James Madison (1751–1836; served 1809–17) cut off trade with England.

The War Hawks

In 1810 a new Congress was elected, featuring a group of young Republicans who were impatient with the peaceful responses to humiliation abroad. The “War Hawks,” led by skillful politicians such as Henry Clay (1777–1852) and John C. Calhoun (1782–1850), were members of the Democratic-Republican Party . They were incensed by impressments and by news of secret British aid to the Indians in the Old Northwest (a governmental territory in the United States comprised of modern-day Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin , and part of Minnesota ). The War Hawks represented the West and the South, regions that strongly favored the war. The war was strongly opposed by members of the Federalist Party , which was strong in the northern states that relied heavily on trade with England. War opponents in both parties pointed out that the United States was ill-prepared for war, both militarily and economically. Nevertheless, when President Madison sought to declare war on June 1, 1812, a divided Congress approved.

Preparing for war

In 1812, the strength of the regular army was still under seven thousand, and its officers were either too old or too poorly trained to be effective leaders. The U.S. Navy had only sixteen vessels to face Britain, the world's strongest navy. Antiwar governors in Federalist New England states refused to detach their militias (groups of volunteer soldiers) for federal service, stating that militias were emergency armies to be called upon to repel invasion, not to act in offensive moves.

How to pay for the war was another question. When Congress declared war, it had neglected to vote in taxes or come up with funds. The National Bank had been eliminated, and the Treasury Department was forced to rely on a decentralized system (one without a central authority) of state banks. A group of very wealthy businessmen finally loaned the United States the money it needed to wage war, but by that time the conflict was already well underway.

A poor start

The War of 1812 was ineffectively led and poorly fought, especially in its first year. The U.S. strategy was to strike out at Great Britain in Canada, which the Americans viewed as vulnerable because British forces were concentrated against Napoléon's armies in Europe. But shortly after the war began, the United States was forced to surrender Detroit to the British in a battle complicated by the long-term conflict with the Indians from that region. After the Treaty of Greenville (1795) awarded most of what is now Ohio to the U.S. government, Shawnee leader Tecumseh (c. 1768–1813) put together an intertribal confederacy to resist further American incursions into Indian lands. After Tecumseh's confederacy had been smashed by U.S. forces at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, the Shawnee leader promptly joined the British forces in Canada. He played an important role in that seizure of Detroit from the United States in 1812.

Throughout 1812, the United States continued to encounter defeat. This was partly due to the unpopularity of the war. The Battle of Queenston Heights in Canada was lost when the New York militia refused to cross the Canadian border to support the army. In November the refusal of militia forces to leave the United States ended an attack on Montreal. U.S. naval victories in 1812 boosted morale but had no strategic importance. By 1813 the British navy's blockade of the American coast guaranteed Britain's dominance of the seas.

A stalemate

Gradually, the U.S. Army started to improve, with younger and more capable officers such as Andrew Jackson (1767–1845) and Winfield Scott (1786–1866) receiving combat commands. Still, military progress remained disappointing until the fall of 1813, when the United States destroyed the British fleet on Lake Erie. The victory was followed by the defeat of British-Indian forces at the Battle of the Thames in October, which restored American control of the Northwest. In July 1814 American troops crossed the Niagara River into Canada, defeating the British at the Battle of Chippewa. A standstill was reached in the Battle of Lundy's Lane, marking the last American attempt to conquer Canada.

Napoléon Bonaparte was defeated in Europe in April 1814, freeing up Britain to prepare for a final offensive in North America. The British army first attempted to secure Canada by cutting off New England from the rest of the United States, but this attempt failed with a British defeat on Lake Champlain in Plattsburgh, New York. Meanwhile, a British force occupied Washington, D.C. , in August, burning the White House and the Capitol. President Madison was forced to flee. British forces moved on to capture Baltimore, but a successful resistance forced the British to abandon their plans. The war had reached a stalemate.

Federalists speak out, too late

In December 1814, New England Federalists assembled in Hartford, Connecticut , to discuss ways of objecting to the war. The main objective of the Hartford Convention was to restore power to the North through constitutional amendments to limit the power of the federal government. The delegates upheld the doctrine of nullification, a theory that proposes that states have the right to overturn federal laws when the federal government has exceeded its constitutional powers. There was even a slight threat in the convention report that the New England states might consider secession from the Union if their concerns were not heeded. But on the same day the New England delegates announced their demands, news arrived that Andrew Jackson had defeated the British at New Orleans, and that the United States and Britain had signed a peace treaty. The delegates, fearing to be seen as fools or traitors, quickly let the matter drop. The Federalist Party lost its credibility. It never regained strength after the war and soon dissolved.

The Battle of New Orleans

Americans wanted a hero for the war and Andrew Jackson, a major-general by 1814, emerged to fulfill that yearning. Prior to the Battle of New Orleans, he had begun assembling a large military force and building entrenchments in preparation for a British assault. On January 1, 1815, American troops at New Orleans held off the British army with artillery (large guns and cannons). A week later a reinforced British army of six thousand men launched a frontal assault. American artillery and rifle fire inflicted more than two thousand British casualties (dead and wounded

in battle). The Americans suffered only twenty-one casualties. Neither Jackson nor the rest of the nation knew that a peace treaty had been signed two weeks earlier. In a war that was short of resounding victories, Americans celebrated the Battle of New Orleans as a glorious defense of American honor.

The Treaty of Ghent

Peace negotiations for the War of 1812 were concluded with the Treaty of Ghent, which was signed on December 25, 1814. (Some fighting continued until Congress ratified the treaty in 1815.) The treaty basically affirmed the state of affairs before the war. European peace had solved the problem of impressments and neutral trading with France. During negotiations, the American diplomats stood firm against British demands for territorial cessions and asserted the United States's status as an independent nation that would not accept the violation of its rights or the humiliation of impressment. The glory to be found in the war's aftermath was that a nation only three decades old had held its own against a world power.

Perhaps the most important gains from the War of 1812 were internal improvements. After the war, the United States reorganized its military to correct the defects the war had revealed. President Madison acknowledged the financial difficulties caused by the lack of a national bank and the supply problems caused by the poor conditions of American roads. He also acknowledged the value of American domestic manufacturing, which had been stimulated by the disruption of trade during the war. Congress approved a national bank, federal support for transportation and internal improvements, and protective tariffs (import duties to protect U.S. manufacturers from foreign competition) in the years immediately following the war.

American Indians fared very poorly in the War of 1812. Tecumseh was killed at the Battle of the Thames in 1813. His death marked the end of Indian resistance to U.S. settlement in the Old Northwest. In the Old Southwest, Tennessee border captain Andrew Jackson led a defeat of the Creeks in 1814, clearing the southern states and the Gulf Coast for U.S. dominance.

War of 1812

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WAR OF 1812

the war

The war that began in 1812 between the United States and Great Britain resulted from the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars of the 1790s and early 1800s. Both France and Britain violated American neutral rights, and the United States objected to these transgressions. Ultimately, America exhausted both its diplomacy and its patience, declaring war on Britain on 18 June 1812. Preoccupied by its fight with Napoleon, Great Britain tried at the last minute to avoid war with the United States, and efforts were under way from its outset to conclude it. Nonetheless, the war lasted for two and a half years and would be instrumental in transforming Anglo-American relations from suspicious enmity to grudging respect and eventually firm partnership.


During the early years of the Franco-British conflict, the United States prospered because European powers used neutral shippers to supply their colonies. Yet the breakdown of the Peace of Amiens (1802) in 1803 abruptly changed that situation as France renewed its war against Britain. When Admiral Horatio Nelson decisively defeated the French fleet off Trafalgar (21 October 1805) and Napoleon crushed Britain's continental allies at Austerlitz (2 December 1805), a stalemate resulted with Britain's Royal Navy supreme on the seas and Napoleon's Grande Armée apparently invincible in Europe. Unable to fight each other by force of arms, the two powers resorted to commercial warfare, a move that unavoidably targeted the United States, which was claiming the right as a neutral to trade with both countries. Although both Britain's Orders in Council and France's Berlin and Milan decrees restricted American trade, most Americans found British behavior more offensive because of the Royal Navy's use of impressment—the abduction of sailors from American merchant vessels—to man British warships.

In 1807, impressment nearly provoked war when HMS Leopard waylaid the U.S. Navy frigate Chesapeake and seized four of her sailors. Rather than resorting to war, however, President Thomas Jefferson persuaded Congress to pass the Embargo Act in December 1807. The plan was to deprive warring Europeans of U.S. trade until they respected American neutral rights, but commercial restriction failed as Americans openly flouted the embargo and seethed under government efforts to enforce it. Congress repealed the unsuccessful embargo in 1809 but continued commercial restriction with the temporary Non-Intercourse Act (1809) and Macon's Bill No. 2 (1810). Both were failures, but Macon's Bill No. 2 was an embarrassing one: the United States resumed trade with the entire world, including Britain and France, but pledged to sustain it with the country that ended trade restrictions and stop it with the other. Napoleon, a master of deceit, hinted he would drop his restrictions, an obvious lie that President James Madison chose to treat as truth. The United States stopped trade with Britain.

As Anglo-American tensions mounted in 1811, other issues drove the countries toward war. Indian unrest on America's western frontier was actually the result of indigenous native resistance led by the Shawnee Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa ("the Prophet"), but many Americans believed it to be the product of British agitation. When Indiana territorial governor William Henry Harrison destroyed Tecumseh and the Prophet's town at the Battle of Tippecanoe (7 November 1811), it drove the Indians into a British alliance.

In late 1811, Madison called Congress into special session, and a prominent faction, the War Hawks, urged a resolute defense of American honor and security. The most popular War Hawk, Kentuckian Henry Clay, was elected Speaker of the House and steered a course that finally compelled Madison to send a war message to Congress on 1 June 1812. Congress responded with a formal declaration of war on 18 June 1812, but the divisive congressional debates and close votes on the declaration were a portent of American disunity in the coming conflict.

The minority Federalist Party doubted the stated reasons for going to war with Great Britain. Federalists accused Republicans of wanting to expand American territory with the conquest of Canada, not reclaim American honor and preserve neutral rights. The war's proponents were primarily western and southern farmers, they noted, who were improbable champions of free trade and sailors' rights. New Englanders, who had the greater material interest in protecting trade, were the war's most adamant opponents. Most scholars have concluded, however, that these appearances are deceptive. Farmers had a stake in preserving access to foreign markets for their produce and yearned to protect American honor. Aside from any expansionist schemes, the plan to invade Canada was dictated by the fact that Canada was where the British were. The United States declared war in 1812 to avenge the insult of impressment and stop injuries caused by the Royal Navy's interference with America's overseas trade. Britain finally did realize the danger of alienating the United States and was in the process of repealing the Orders in Council while Congress was voting for war, but the delay in receiving this news from London made it irrelevant. Fighting had already begun, and Britain, in any case, was unwilling to abandon impressment.

the war

Although Americans regarded Canada as a realistic military objective, repeated attempts to invade and occupy it proved fruitless. Occasionally they were disastrous, as when Michigan territorial governor William Hull's 1812 campaign ended with his surrendering Detroit, a catastrophe that exposed the entire Northwest to British occupation and Indian depredations. Hull's replacement, William Henry Harrison, barely kept an army together under the British onslaught. Elsewhere along the Canadian border in 1812 American plans proved equally ineffective, if not quite as ruinous. Brigadier General Henry Dearborn's political clashes with unwilling New England state militias prevented a campaign against Montreal, and the Niagara frontier proved invulnerable to American invasion attempts.

This dismal chronicle might have sunk American hopes altogether had it not been for the small U.S. Navy's unexpected success during the war's opening months. Because the Royal Navy was blockading Napoleonic Europe, it was short of ships for the American conflict, and aggressive American captains commanded skilled crews aboard powerful frigates that were more than a match for their British counterparts. Victories by celebrated ships such as the USS United States and USS Constitution (dubbed "Old Ironsides" by her crew) thrilled Americans and dismayed Britain. In 1813, however, the consequences of Napoleon's ill-advised invasion of Russia signaled a dramatic decline in his fortunes, and more British ships could prosecute the American conflict. The Royal Navy asserted its dominance in 1813, bottling up the dangerous American frigates and mounting damaging raids along the coast, especially in Chesapeake Bay where Admiral Sir George Cockburn was particularly destructive.

American attempts in 1813 to invade Canada at first appeared to be just as futile as the previous year's had been. Dearborn crossed the Niagara River but had limited success and lost all gains as he tried to move into Upper Canada. The northeastern Canadian border remained impervious as well. Although the ineffectual Dearborn resigned, his replacements, Major Generals James Wilkinson and Wade Hampton, could not overcome personal differences to stage a march on Montreal. On 10 September 1813, however, American commodore Oliver Hazard Perry's stunning victory over Sir Robert Barclay's squadron secured American control of Lake Erie. Perry's soon famous message of "we have met the enemy and he is ours" marked the war's turning point in the Northwest. William Henry Harrison retook Detroit and hounded its fleeing defenders under Brigadier General Henry Procter, defeating them at the Battle of the Thames (5 October 1813). Tecumseh's death in the battle ended Anglo-Indian cooperation in the region.

The contest's decisive year would be 1814, for Napoleon's defeat and abdication (April 1814) allowed Britain to shift veteran soldiers from Europe to North America; meanwhile competent, aggressive officers were given command of American armies. In the spring, Major General Andrew Jackson defeated Red Stick Creeks in the Mississippi Territory, and Major General Jacob Brown crossed the Niagara River, took Fort Erie, and marched north to rendezvous with Commodore Isaac Chauncey's Lake Ontario squadron. Chauncey's squadron failed to appear, and Brown retreated, but not before fighting the war's bloodiest battle, a stalemate at Lundy's Lane (25 July 1814). Meanwhile, the British launched offensive operations in upstate New York and Chesapeake Bay. Major General Robert Ross scattered green American militia at Bladensburg, Maryland, and occupied Washington, D.C. (24 August 1814), burning its public buildings, including the Capitol and Executive Mansion. Following this symbolic but strategically irrelevant success, the British attacked Baltimore (12–13 September 1814), but Fort McHenry, which protected Baltimore's Inner Harbor, withstood a relentless naval bombardment. When an American sharpshooter's bullet mortally wounded General Ross, the British called off the attack. The British invasion along Lake Champlain ended when an American naval squadron under Commodore Thomas Macdonough crippled Captain George Downie's ships on Plattsburgh Bay (11 September 1814), and at Plattsburgh, New York, Alexander Macomb's Americans repulsed veterans under Canada's governor-general Sir George Prevost.


Despite these victories, New England dissidents met at Hartford, Connecticut, in late 1814 to voice grievances and protest the war. Occurring in the shadow of recent American successes, the Hartford Convention caused the rest of the country to question New England's loyalty and the Federalist Party's patriotism. In addition, New England dissent that insisted the war could only end badly coincided with the war's relatively acceptable conclusion. American and British peace commissioners who had been meeting in Ghent since late summer finally signed a peace treaty on Christmas Eve, 1814. Although the Treaty of Ghent did not address impressment or neutral rights, both parties regarded it as a satisfactory termination of the conflict. Britain had endured a quarter century of war in Europe and was eager to rid itself of the distraction of one in North America. The United States was relieved to escape the grave consequences of serious military defeat. The treaty thus restored all territory to the status quo antebellum, literally the situation as it existed before the war.

The United States emerged from the contest more energized and united than it had been before or during it. Andrew Jackson's crushing defeat of Lieutenant General Sir Edward Pakenham's forces outside New Orleans on 8 January 1815 had occurred after the signing at Ghent but before the treaty's ratification. The nearly simultaneous occurrence of Jackson's victory and the news of the peace convinced many Americans that they had won the war. Britain, on the other hand, was ready to pursue diplomatic efforts to conciliate Americans and rehabilitate relations with them. In the coming years, important agreements both fixed and demilitarized the U.S.-Canada border, and other disputes were frequently submitted to arbitration. Anglo-American relations would occasionally be strained, but they would never again break, marking an evolving partnership that was to have a continuing and profound impact on Europe and the rest of the world.

See alsoFrench Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic Wars; Great Britain; Imperialism.


Coles, Harry L. The War of 1812. Chicago, 1965.

Heidler, David S., and Jeanne T. Heidler, eds. Encyclopedia of the War of 1812. Annapolis, Md., 2004.

——. The War of 1812. Westport, Conn., 2002.

Hickey, Donald R. The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict. Urbana, Ill., 1989.

Horsman, Reginald. The War of 1812. New York, 1969.

Mahon, John K. The War of 1812. Gainesville, Fla., 1972.

David S. Heidler,

Jeanne T. Heidler

War of 1812

views updated May 11 2018

War of 1812


The War of 1812, spawned by the European Napoleonic Wars, was the last war in which the fledgling United States fought its former colonial power, Great Britain. After three years of fighting on land and at sea, the United States military successfully drove the British forces from United States soil, but not before British troops burned Washington, D.C. The War of 1812 assured the United States the independent sovereignty it claimed after victory in the American Revolution and shaped American foreign policy for over a century.

When continental Europe erupted in conflict in 1793, the United States declared itself neutral. Not wanting to anger France or Britain, the two main rivals in the European war, the United States tried to remain out of contentious European politics, especially in regards to European colonial holdings in the Americas. Relations were further strained by British resentment of ongoing United States trade and diplomatic cooperation with France. British ships blockaded United States ports, hoping to prevent supplies and trade goods from reaching France. United States leaders, George Washington and John Adams, worked to ease tensions and lift the blockade, and by 1795, the nation again conducted trade with allies in Europe. However, by 1803, the United States government grew deeply concerned about the presence of a strong British military force in the Great Lakes region. Negotiations with Britain to reduce their military presence in the West and along the northern border of New England failed. Tensions again mounted when France sold the United States significant territories, including the Mississippi River, in the Louisiana Purchase.

In 1805, the British Navy resumed its blockade of the Unites States coast, prohibiting the export of most goods to continental Europe. The Orders in Council of 1807 further restricted neutral trade with Europe, and authorized British ships to take both the cargo and crew of seized neutral ships. The practice of impressment, forcing captured seamen into service on British ships, inflamed anti-British sentiment in the United States. The passage of the Embargo Act, confining all United States trade to the North American coast, the failure of continued diplomatic relations, and British-incited Indian attacks on United States outposts, gave credence to the opinions of the "War Hawks" in the United States government. In June 1812, the United States declared war on Britain.

The War of 1812 forced the United States to rapidly form and train military forces. After the Revolutionary War, the federal government only reluctantly allowed provisions for national forces. Most armies were maintained by individual states, with little standardization of training and equipment. The war spanned the entire breadth of the United States and its territories, from the Great Lakes region to New Orleans, Louisiana. Regional armies facilitated troop movement and deployment, but the lack of national infrastructure made travel and communication among the different battlefronts difficult. Military generals attempted to create a complex communication and espionage network, utilizing couriers on horseback and semaphore, to deliver messages. Codes were primitive and easy to break, but both British and American forces employed invisible inks to help conceal communications.

The vast expanses of rough and unfamiliar territory that both armies traversed required the extensive use of scouts. Both British and American forces preferred to use Indian scouts, who often had superior knowledge of regional terrain and could communicated in several indigenous languages. Indian scouts also aided in the recruitment of Indians to fight rival forces. British and United States military leaders also attempted to spark warfare between rival tribes with varying allegiances, hoping to distract opposing forces or break their aid network. Extensive contact with indigenous populations proved devastating, as during the American Revolution, disease ravaged Indian villages and several thousand Indian warriors died in battle.

From 1812 to 1814, the United States suffered numerous crushing defeats at the hands of superior British forces. United States offensives failed to take the Great Lakes region, and military defenses could not keep British troops from occupying Washington, D.C. Anticipated French aid never materialized in the 1813, as the tide of war in Europe had shifted decisively in favor of the British, and Napoleon's French Empire was in grave danger of collapse. American diplomats in Paris maintained a small espionage network in Europe and the Americas to monitor the British military and diplomatic corps. A French spy, posing as a local trader, rode to the White House to inform the president and cabinet members of the British plans to invade, occupy, and then destroy Washington, D.C. The government fled the British invasion of the capital city, but only by a matter of hours.

Despite the grim prospects of the United States land campaign in the early years of the war, the new United States Navy mounted surprisingly successful battles against the powerful British Navy. The United States reluctantly formed its Navy to combat the extortionist trade monopoly of the North African Barbary Pirates who dominated shipping in the Mediterranean. While wealthier European government simply paid annual tributes and occasional ransoms to the Barbary authorities, the fledgling United States Federal government could not afford to pay such large sums of money. The nation mounted a small but highly effective Navy, eventually driving the Barbary authorities to capitulation. After the conflict, the government only narrowly voted to keep naval forces.

When the British began the blockade of the American coastline, United States navy and merchant ships successfully ran the blockade. The government employed "pirate" ships to destroy British ships, and recapture seized cargo and Americans impressed into service. With the outbreak of war, naval resources were increasingly devoted to strategic sea campaigns against British vessels. The United States Navy successfully captured the British frigate Macedonian, defeated the Java, and raided several other merchant and military ships. Victories at sea, though limited, enforced the need for a permanent navy in the United States and ensured its continued survival. One hundred and forty years later, the United States Navy surpassed the British fleet to become the world's dominant sea power.

As the French were defeated in Europe, the British devoted more resources to the battlefront in America. However, United States forces rallied, turning the tide of the war in their favor by August 1814. Wishing to avoid clear military defeat, both sides began peace negotiations. The British failure to capture Baltimore prompted the government to settle their dispute with the United States, instead of continuing a lingering, expensive, and increasingly stalemated overseas war. The Treaty of Ghent formally ended the war in 1815. On January 8, 1815, after the signing of the treaty, United States forces, commanded by Andrew Jackson, achieved a stunning victory against the British at the port of New Orleans. Since communication was tedious across the Atlantic and the expansive western territory of Louisiana, news of the Treaty of Ghent did not reach either forces in time to prevent the engagement. The Battle of New Orleans gave the impression that the long-stalemated war was a sound United States victory, but the new nation was successful largely because of the failure of British offensive operations.

After the War of 1812, the United States declared firmer international policy. With the issuance of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, the nation stated its policy of non-intervention in European conflicts. Furthermore, the United States declared the New World closed to further colonization, and that attempts of foreign powers to intervene in conflicts between colonial powers and their colonies would be viewed as an act of aggression. The War of 1812 solidified the political and military preeminence of the United States in the Americas, and began the great expansion westward toward the Pacific coast.



Dudley, Wade G. Splintering the Wooden Wall: The British Blockade of the United States, 18121815, reprint ed. Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute, 2000.

Hickey, Donald R. The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict. reprint ed. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

Katcher, Philip R. The American War, 18121814 (Men-at-Arms, no. 226). reprint ed. Buffalo, MN: Osprey Publishing, 1990.


Revolutionary War, Espionage and Intelligence

War of 1812

views updated May 21 2018

WAR OF 1812

The War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain was a conflict fought over the right of neutral countries to participate in foreign trade without the interference of other nations and the desire of many in the United States to end British occupation of Canada. The war, which lasted from 1812 to 1815, proved inconclusive, with both countries agreeing to revert to their prewar status as much as possible.

The U.S. declaration of war against Great Britain that President james madison signed on June 18, 1812, culminated nearly a decade of antagonism between the nations. The British, who from 1802 to 1815 were involved in the

Napoleonic Wars with France, sought to prevent the United States, a neutral, from trading with France. Britain imposed a blockade on France and required that U.S. ships stop at British ports and pay duties on goods bound for France. In addition, outrage grew in the United States over the British practice of boarding U.S. ships on the high seas and impressing seamen (seizing them and forcing them to serve Great Britain) who the British claimed had deserted the Royal Navy. More than ten thousand U.S. seamen were impressed between 1802 and 1812.

In 1807 President thomas jefferson succeeded in convincing Congress to pass the embargo act, which prevented virtually all U.S. ships from sailing overseas. The economic consequences of this law were disastrous to the U.S. economy, forcing the act's repeal in 1809. In its place, Congress enacted the Non-Intercourse Act, which forbade trade only with Great Britain and France. A third law, passed in 1810, allowed trade with both nations but stipulated the revival of nonintercourse against whichever nation did not remove its trade restrictions. When France announced an end to its trade decrees, the United States banned trade with Great Britain.

Anger against Britain was also fueled by a group of expansionist congressmen, nicknamed the War Hawks, who wanted more land for settlement and military action against the British in Canada. British support of the American Indians on the frontier had led to Indian wars against U.S. settlers.

The war itself provided limited success for the United States. Though a U.S. naval squadron under the command of Oliver Hazard Perry captured the British fleet on Lake Erie in 1813, battles in northern New York and Ontario, Canada, proved inconclusive. After U.S. forces burned the city of York (now Toronto), Ontario, the British attacked Washington, D.C., on September 13 and 14, 1814. The British burned the U.S. Capitol and the White House.

Both sides realized the futility of the struggle and began treaty negotiations in 1813. Because of the military stalemate, neither side could extract concessions from the other. The United States and Great Britain agreed, in the Treaty of Ghent, to return to the prewar status quo. The treaty, which was signed on December 24, 1814, in Ghent, Belgium, was ratified by the U.S. Senate on February 16, 1815. However, the Battle of New Orleans was fought on January 8, 1815, before news of the treaty reached the two armies. General andrew jackson led his troops to a decisive victory over the British forces, providing the U.S. public with the illusion that the United States had won the war. The battle also enhanced Jackson's national reputation and helped pave the way for his presidency.

The frictions that had precipitated the war disappeared. The end of the Napoleonic Wars ended both the need for a British naval blockade and the impressing of U.S. seamen. Although the United States did not acquire Canada, American Indian opposition to expansion was weakened, and U.S. nationalism increased.

further readings

Wait, Eugene M. 1999. America and the War of 1812. Commack, N.Y.: Kroshka.

War of 1812

views updated Jun 11 2018

War of 1812 (1812–15) Conflict between the USA and Britain. The main source of friction was British maritime policy during the Napoleonic Wars, which included the impressment of sailors from US vessels and the interception of US merchant ships. Difficulties on the border with Canada also contributed. In 1811, President James Madison reimposed the Nonintercourse Act on trade with the British. The USA was ill-prepared for war and an invasion of Canada failed. Stephen Decatur restored US pride. Victory on Lake Erie (September 1813) enabled US forces, led by William H. Harrison, to force British troops back across the Canadian border. The Hartford Convention raised the possibility of New England secession, while the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1814) freed more British forces. The British imposed a naval blockade and captured Washington, D.C., burning the White House. A US naval victory on Lake Champlain, however, ended the British threat to New York. With the war at stalemate, John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay led US negotiations that resulted in the Treaty of Ghent (December 24, 1814). Andrew Jackson's victory at New Orleans occurred after the signing of the treaty.