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War of 1812

History -- Military history -- War

The North American War of 1812 between the United States and the United Kingdom is one of several wars associated with that year. It is more normally known in British texts as the British-American War to distinguish it from Napoleon's war against Russia which also began in that year and from the continuing British war with Napoleon. (These wars may perhaps be linked by a common connection with furthering Napoleon's Continental policy of economic attrition against British war-making capacity.)

This particular war began with the American declaration of war on June 18 of that year, and lasted until the beginning of 1815. The treaty of peace signed at Ghent on December 24, 1814 was ratified by President James Madison on February 17, 1815.

Table of contents
1 Causes
2 Course of the War
3 Operations on the Ocean
4 Operations on the Great Lakes and Canadian Border
5 1814: The Niagara Campaign and Battle of Lake Champlain
6 Operations on the American Coast
7 The Cheseapeake Campaign and the Star-Spangled Banner
8 The Southwestern Campaign
9 Effects of War of 1812 on postwar North America: Who Won?
10 Reference
11 See Also


The War of 1812 had two main causes: British naval actions on the Atlantic and an American desire to seize Britain's North American colonies.

During the long Napoleonic Wars American merchant ships became home to a number of deserters from the Royal Navy. British warships frequently stopped American ships and removed personnel believed to be deserters. However they also impressed a large number of Americans. Between six to eight thousand Americans were impressed into the Royal Navy at this time. The most violent incident of impressment was when the British warship Leopard opened fire on the American Chesapeake, which had refused to stop. A number of seamen were killed and wounded aboard the Chesapeake.

Britain also attempted to restrict American trade with France. They imposed tariffs and stopped any ships containing military supplies. France attempted to do the same, but its weaker navy caused less of a problem for the U.S. In 1807, President Thomas Jefferson signed a bill which banned all trade with the warring parties, hoping this would so damage them that they would be forced to negotiate. This failed to work, and the bill was repealed in 1808. Britain continued its impressment and restrictions, however and President Madison asked Congress to declare war on June 1, 1812; Congress declared war on June 18. Ironically, before war had been declared Parliament had already decided to end impressment and remove the trade restrictions, but the message was still in transit when the U.S. declared war.

Other Americans had different reasons for wanting war. Many thought that it was finally time for the US to annex Canada to complete its manifest destiny. Others believed that native unrest in the west was funded and encouraged by the British. Yet another important cause of the war was that 1812 was a presidential election year in which Madison was vulnerable.

Course of the War

Although the outbreak of war had been preceded by years of angry diplomatic dispute, the United States was absolutely unready, while the United Kingdom was still hard pressed by the Napoleonic Wars, and was compelled to retain the greater part of her forces and her best crews in European waters, until the ruin of the Grande Armee in Russia and the rising of Germany left her free to send an overwhelming force of ships to American waters.

The forces actually available on the American side at the outset of the war consisted of a small squadron of frigates and sloops in an efficient state. Twenty-two was the limit of the naval force the States were able to commission. The paper strength of the army was 35,000, but the service was voluntary and unpopular, and there was an almost total want of trained and experienced officers. The available strength was a bare third of the nominal. The militia, called in to aid the regulars, proved untrustworthy. They objected to serving outside their home states, were not amenable to discipline, and behaved as a rule very badly in the presence of the enemy. On the British side, the naval force in American waters under Sir John Borlase Warren, who took up the general command on September 26, 1812, consisted of ninety-seven vessels in all, of which eleven were of the line and thirty-four were frigates, a power much greater than the national navy of America, but inadequate for the blockade of the long coast from New Brunswick to Florida. The total number of British troops present in Canada in July 1812 was officially stated to be 5004, consisting partly of Canadians.

The theatre of operations can be naturally divided into three areas:

  1. The ocean;
  2. The Great Lakes and the Canadian frontier;
  3. The coast of the United States.

Operations on the Ocean

These cover all cruises of sea-going ships, even when they did not go far from the American coast. They can again be subdivided into the actions of government vessels, and the raids of the privateers. The first gave to the United States the most brilliant successes of the war. When the war began, two small squadrons were getting ready for sea at New York; the
frigate President (44) and the sloop Hornet (18), under Commodore John Rodgers, who also had the general command; and the frigates United States (44) and Congress (38), with the brig Argus (16) to which two guns were afterwards added, under Captain Stephen Decatur. Rodgers would have preferred to keep his command together, and to strike with it at the main course of British commerce, but he was overruled. He sailed on June 21, and after chasing the British frigate Belvidera (36), which escaped to Halifax by throwing boats, etcetera, overboard, stood across the North Atlantic in search of a West Indian convoy, which he failed to sight, returning by August 31 to Boston. While he was absent, Captain Isaac Hull, commanding Constitution (44), sailed from the Chesapeake, and after a narrow escape from a British squadron, which pursued him from the 18th to the 20th of July, reached Boston. Going to sea again on the 2nd of August he captured and burned the British frigate Guerriere, (38). On October 8 Rodgers and Decatur sailed -- the first on a cruise to the east, the second to the south. Commodore Rodgers met with no marked success, but on October 25 Captain Decatur in United States captured the British frigate Macedonian (38), which he carried back to port. At the close of the month Captain Bainbridge sailed with the Constitution, Essex (32), and Hornet (18) on a southerly cruise. On December 20, when off Bahia, he fell in with the British frigate Java (38), which was carrying General Hislop, the governor of Bombay, to India, and took her after a sharp action. The Essex and Hornet were not in company. The first, under the command of Captain David Porter, went on to the Pacific, where she did great injury to British trade, until she was captured off Valparaiso by the British frigate Phoebe (38) and the sloop Cherub (24) on March 28, 1814. In all of these actions except the last, the Americans had the advantage of greater size and a heavier broadside and they showed better seamanship and gunnery. The capture of three British frigates one after another caused a painful impression in Great Britain and stimulated her to greater exertions. More vessels were stationed on the American sea-board, and the watch became more strict. On June 1, 1813 the capture of the U.S. frigate Chesapeake (38), by the British frigate Shannon (38), a vessel of equal power, counterbalanced the moral effect of previous disasters. The blockade of American ports was already so close that the United States ships found it continually more difficult to get to sea, or to stay at sea without meeting forces of irresistibly superior strength.

The operations of American privateers were too numerous and far-ranging to be laid out in detail. They continued their activity until the close of the war, and were only partially baffled by the strict enforcement of convoy by the Royal Navy. A signal instance of the audacity of the American cruisers was the capture of the U.S. sloop Argus (20) by the British sloop Pelican (18) so far from home as St David's Head in Wales on August 14, 1813. The guns of the Pelican were heavier than those of the Argus.

Operations on the Great Lakes and Canadian Border

The American people, who had expected little from their tiny navy, had calculated with confidence on being able to overrun Canada. However, as they had taken no effectual measures to build up a mobile force they were disappointed. The British general, Sir George Prevost, was neither able or energetic, but his subordinate, Major-General Isaac Brock, was both. In July, before the Americans were ready, Brock seized Mackinac at the head of Lake Huron; and on August 16 Detroit, in the channel between Huron and Erie, was surrendered. Kingston was held at the east end of Ontario. Montreal on the St Lawrence was a strong position on the British side to which, however, the Americans had an easy approach via Lake Champlain. Sound reasoning would have led the Americans to direct their chief attacks on Kingston and Montreal, since success at those points would have isolated the British posts on Lakes Ontario, Erie, and Huron. They were however much influenced by fear of the Indians, who had been won over to the British side by the energy of Brock and by anger over years of mistreatment by the Americans. They therefore looked more carefully to the lakes than to the course of the St Lawrence, and it may be added that their leaders showed an utter want of capacity for the intelligent conduct of war.

The impracticable character of the communications by land made it absolutely necessary for both parties to obtain control of the water. Neither had made any preparations, and the war largely resolved itself into a race of shipbuilding. The Americans, who had far greater facilities for building than the British, allowed themselves to be forestalled. In the second half of 1812 the British general, Sir Isaac Brock, lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, adopted measures for opposing the Americans on the frontier line, between Huron and Erie. The American brigadier-general William Hull invaded Canada on July 12 from Detroit, just below the small Lake of St Clair between Huron and Lake Erie. His army was mainly composed of militiamen, who behaved very badly, and his papers having been captured in a boat, his plans were revealed. General Brock drove him back and forced him to surrender at Detroit on August 16. Brock now promptly transferred himself to the western end of Erie, where the American general Henry Dearborn was attempting another invasion. Brock fell in action on October 13 at Queenston, while repulsing Dearborn's subordinate Stephen van Rensselaer, a politician named to command by favour, and ignorant of a soldier's business. The Americans were driven back. On this field also their militia behaved detestably. The Canadians on the other hand, both the French who feared the anti-catholic stance of most of the United States (while also being relatively amenable to authority) and those of British descent, who being largely sons of loyalists of the War of Independence had a bitter hatred of the Americans, did excellent service. The discontent of New England with the war both hampered the American generals and also aided the British, who drew their supplies to a great extent from United States territory. On January 22, 1813, at Frenchtown, the American troops under Winchester surrendered to a British and Indian force under Procter.

During the winter both sides were busy in building ships. On Lake Ontario the Americans pushed on their preparations at Sackett's Harbour under Isaac Chauncey; the English were similarly engaged at Kingston. Sir James Lucas Yeo took command on the 15th of May 1813. On Lake Erie the American headquarters were at Presqu' Isle, now the city of Erie; the English at Fort Malden. The American commander was Captain Oliver Perry, the British commander, Captain Robert Barclay. On Lake Ontario Yeo created a more mobile though less powerful force than Chauncey's, and therefore manoeuvred to avoid being brought to close action. Three engagements, on August 10, September 11, and September 28, led to no decisive result. By the close of the war Yeo had constructed a ship of 102 guns which gave him superiority, and the British became masters of Lake Ontario. On Lake Erie the energy of Captain Perry, aided by what appears to have been the misjudgment of Barclay, enabled him to get a superior force by the 4th of August, and on the 10th of September he fought a successful action which left the Americans masters of Lake Erie.

The military operations were subordinate to the naval. On April 27, 1813 the Americans took York (now Toronto; see: Battle of York), and in May moved on Fort George; but a counter-attack by Yeo and Prevost on Sackett's Harbour, on May 29, having made the Americans anxious about the safety of their base, naval support failed the American generals, and they were paralysed. They gained a success on October 5 at the Battle of the Thames, where the Indian chief Tecumseh fell, but they made no serious progress.

The Americans then turned to the east of Lake Ontario, intending to assail Montreal by the St Lawrence in combination with their forces at the Battle of Lake Champlain. But the combination failed; they were severely harassed on the St Lawrence, and the invasion was given up.

1814: The Niagara Campaign and Battle of Lake Champlain

The operations of 1814 bear a close resemblance to those of 1813, with, however, one important difference. The American generals, including Winfield Scott, had drastically improved the fighting abilities and discipline of the army. They were able to fight much more effectively. Their attack on the Niagara peninsula led to hot fighting at the Battle of Chippewa on July 5 and Lundy's Lane on July 25. The first was a success for the Americans, the second a drawn battle: the Americans took the British gun line, but suffered high casualties and were forced to withdraw across the Niagara, defeating the British-Canadian forces at the Battle of Fort Erie). At this point, the fall of Napoleon freed the British government from the obligation to retain its army in Europe, and troops from Spain began to pour in. But on the Canadian frontier they made little difference. In August 1814 Sir George Prevost attacked the American forces at Champlain. But he hurried his ill-prepared naval support into action at Plattsburg on September 11 and it was defeated. Prevost then retired. His management of the war, more especially on Lake Champlain, was severely criticized, and he was threatened with a court-martial, but died before the trial came on. A British occupation of part of the coast of Maine proved to be mere demonstration.

Operations on the American Coast

When the war began the British naval forces were unequal to the work of blockading the whole coast. They were also much engaged in seeking for the American cruisers under Rodgers, Decatur and Bainbridge. The British government, having need of American foodstuffs for its army in Spain, was willing to benefit from the discontent of the New Englanders. No blockade of New England was at first attempted. The Delaware and Chesapeake were declared in a state of blockade on December 26, 1812. This was extended to the whole coast south of Narragansett by November 1813, and to the whole American coast on May 31, 1814. In the meantime much illicit trade was carried on by collusive captures arranged between American traders and British officers. American ships were fraudulently transferred to neutral flags. Eventually the United States government was driven to issue orders for the purpose of stopping illicit trading, and the commerce of the country was ruined. The now overpowering strength of the British fleet enabled it to occupy the Chesapeake and to execute innumerable attacks of a destructive character on docks and harbours. The burning by the American general McClure, on December 10, 1813, of Newark (Niagara on the Lake), for which severe retaliation was taken at Buffalo, was made the excuse for much destruction.

The Cheseapeake Campaign and the Star-Spangled Banner

The most famous of these destructive raids was the burning of public buildings including the White House in Washington by Sir George Cockburn, who succeeded Warren in April in the naval command, and General Robert Ross. Ross' account reads:

Judging it of consequence to complete the destruction of the public buildings with the least possible delay, so that the army might retire without loss of time, the following buildings were set fire to and consumed -- the capitol, including the Senate house and House of Representation, the Arsenal, the Dock-Yard, Treasury, War office, President's Palace, Rope-Walk, and the great bridge across the Potewmac.

President James Madison was forced to flee to Virginia and American morale was reduced to an all-time low. The expedition was carried out between August 19 and August 29, 1814, and was well organized and vigorously executed. On the 24th the American militia, who had collected at Bladensburg, Maryland, to protect the capital, fled almost before they were attacked.

The British army, having burned Washington's public buildings, then moved to capture Baltimore, a key base for American privateers. A subsequent attack at the Battle of North Point, against Maryland militia, during which General Ross was killed on September 12, 1814, was repulsed. The British then attempted to attack Baltimore by sea, but were unable to reduce Fort McHenry, which was located in Baltimore harbor. The defence of the fort by American forces under the command of Colonel George Armistead during the British attack inspired Francis Scott Key to write a poem, "The Defence of Fort McHenry", which was set to the tune "To Anacreon in Heaven" and was adopted as "The Star-Spangled Banner."

The Southwestern Campaign

In March of 1814, General Andrew Jackson led a force of Tennessee militia, Cherokee Indians, and U.S. regulars southward to attack the Creek Indians, led by Chief Menawa. The Creeks had for many years been British allies. On March 26, Jackson and General John Coffee fought the Creeks at Horseshoe Bend, killing 800 of 1000 Creeks at a cost of 49 killed and 154 wounded of approximately 2000 American and Cherokee forces. Jackson pursued the surviving Creeks to Wetumpka, near present-day Montgomery, Alabama, where they surrendered.

Jackson's forces moved to New Orleans in the Lousiana Territory in November 1814. Between December 1814 and January 1815, he defended the city against a force led by Major-General Sir Edward Pakenham. Two assaults on January 1 and January 8 were repelled. In the latter, General Pakenham was killed. See: Battle of New Orleans

Although the Treaty of Ghent had been signed on December 24, 1814, news of the treaty had not reached New Orleans.

Effects of War of 1812 on postwar North America: Who Won?

The Treaty established status quo ante bellum. There were no territorial concessions made by either side. The issue of impressing American seamen was made moot when the Royal Navy stopped impressment. This was a concession to American successes in battle in 1814: before this, the British position was to hold all territory gained in battle.

Canadians believe the War of 1812 was an American defeat. From their point of view, the American invasions of 1813 and 1814 were repulsed. However, from the American point of view, the war was a successful defense of American rights, culminating in the victory at New Orleans. Because New Orleans was successfully defended, American expansion into the Southwest was possible.

Following the Treaty of Ghent, relations between the United States and Britain would remain peaceful, if not entirely tranquil, throughout the 19th century. Both nations made border adjustments in 1818 and established 49 degrees North as the international border. Border disputes between the State of Maine and the Province of New Brunswick were settled in the 1830s.

In both Canada and the United States the War of 1812 caused a great rise in nationalism. In the Canadian colonies, the war united the French and the English colonies against a common enemy. At the beginning of the War of 1812 it is estimated that perhaps one third of the inhabitants of Upper Canada for example were American born, some were United Empire Loyalists but others had come just for the cheap farmland and many had little loyalty to the British Crown at the beginning of the war. Thus the war gave many inhabitants of Upper and Lower Canada a sense of nationhood as well as a sense of loyalty to Great Britain. Unfortunately, this nationalistic sentiment also caused a great deal of suspicion towards American ideas like responsible government which would frustrate political reform in Upper and Lower Canada until the Rebellions of 1837.

No territorial gains were made by either side and impressment and Indian issues were put on hold. The United States however did gain worldwide respect for managing to withstand Britain. A growth in American manufacturing was caused by the formidable British blockade of the American east coast. The death of the Federalist Party also followed the war. The Great Lakes were no longer disputed but became shared property of Canada and Britain, and the United States. The Indian threat was at a minimum since Tecumseh had fallen and the Prophet was increasingly ridiculed and finally resorted to drink.

There were several significant economic developments after the War of 1812, including:

A significant military development was the increased emphasis by General Winfield Scott on improved professionalism in the U.S. Army officer corps, and in particular, the training of officers at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. The American officer corps' professionalism was apparent during the 1846-1848 war with Mexico.

Motives of the U.S.

It is important to notice that the motives of the U.S. in this war were to gain Canada and to stop impressment. Why gain Canada? It was considered by many to be a barren desert. The War hawks, being Southerners wanted more seats in Congress. If new states were created, they wanted the Southerners to populate them. Sectionalism was beginning to deepen.

Motives of the U.K.

Britain's intention in the War of 1812 was not to regain its former colonies, as the cost of doing so would far outway any profit to be made (although if the cost of a war was bound to be incurred anyway, it might have made sense to make some gains in passing). The bold (or possibly rash) Americans had decisively defeated Britain once with help and hoped to do so again even without help. Britain however was a world power, with more out-of-area capability than ever and fewer enemies with such capability. It wanted to pass on a message to the world at large, "Britain is not a country to mess around with", and it had specific strategic interests in North America, e.g. as a source of naval supplies. Such a message was sent in passing when Britain burned down the White House. However it must be noted that Britain did not first declare war, but the United States, so it is realistic to suppose that Britain wished to protect its colonies and broader interests in North America.

Famous Canadian historian Pierre Berton stated his belief that if the War of 1812 had never happened Canada would be part of the United States today, as more and more American settlers would have arrived, and Canadian nationalism would never have developed.

According to data from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, the last surviving U.S. veteran of the conflict, Hiram Cronk, died on May 13, 1905 at the age of 105.


See Also