War of 1812
Also called "Mr. Madison's War"

1812 - 1814*

The War of 1812 was in many ways the strangest war in United States history. It could well be named the War of Faulty Communication. Two days before war was declared, the British government stated that it would repeal the laws which were the chief reason for fighting. If there had been telegraphic communication with Europe, the war might well have been avoided. Speedy communication would also have prevented the greatest battle of the war, which was fought at New Orleans 15 days after a treaty of peace had been signed.

The chief United States complaint against the British was interference with shipping. But New England, the great shipping section of the United States, bitterly opposed the idea of going to war. The demand for war came chiefly from the West and South.

It is strange also that the war, fought for freedom of the seas, began with the invasion of Canada. In addition, the treaty of peace that ended the war settled none of the issues over which it had supposedly been fought.

Another oddity was that the young United States was willing to risk war against powerful Great Britain. Finally, add that both sides claimed victory in the War of 1812, and it becomes clear that the whole struggle was a confused mass of contradictions.

Causes of the war

Napoleon Bonaparte, head of the French government after 1799 and emperor after 1804, had made himself the master of continental Europe. Except for one short breathing spell (1801-1803), Great Britain had been fighting France since 1793. Napoleon had long hoped to invade and conquer Britain, but in 1805 his navy was destroyed at the battle of Trafalgar. This forced Napoleon to give up the idea of taking an army across the English Channel. So he set out instead to ruin Great Britain by destroying British trade. Napoleon's Berlin and Milan decrees (1806-1807) were an attempt to shut off Great Britain from all trade with Europe. Great Britain, in turn, issued a series of Orders in Council which declared a blockade of French ports and of ports in Europe and elsewhere that were under French control.

The British and French blockades had disastrous effects on United States shipping. Before 1806, the United States was getting rich on the European war. United States ships took goods to both Great Britain and France, and the value of trade carried increased fourfold from 1791 to 1805. Now the picture had suddenly changed. A United States ship bound for French ports had to stop first at a British port for inspection and payment of fees. Otherwise the British were likely to seize the ship. But Napoleon ordered neutral ships not to stop at British ports for inspection, and he also announced that he would order his forces to seize any United States ships which they found had obeyed the British Orders in Council.

The British navy controlled the seas. So the easiest thing for United States vessels was to trade only with other neutrals, with Great Britain, or under British license. A few adventurous spirits ran the British blockade for the sake of huge profits they could make, and continued the risky trade with continental Europe. The United States complained of both French and British policies as illegal "paper blockades," because neither side could really enforce such an extensive blockade. See BLOCKADE (Paper blockade).

Impressment of seamen. The British navy was always in need of seamen. One reason for this need was that hundreds of deserters from the British navy had found work on United States ships. The British government claimed the right to stop neutral ships on the high seas, remove sailors of British birth, and impress, or force, them back into British naval service. The United States objected strongly to this practice, partly because many native-born Americans were impressed "by mistake" along with men who had actually been British seamen.

In June 1807, Captain James Barron of the frigate Chesapeake refused to let the British search his ship for deserters. The British frigate Leopard fired on the Chesapeake, removed four men whom the British called deserters, and hanged one of them. Anti-British feeling in the United States rose sharply. President Thomas Jefferson ordered all British naval vessels out of American harbors. Four years later, the British apologized for the incident and paid for the damage done, but the bitterness remained.

American reaction. The United States tried several times to get the British to change their policy toward neutral shipping and toward impressment. In April 1806, the United States Congress passed a Non-Importation Act, which barred British goods from American markets. The act was not put into continuous operation until December 1807. By that time, the Chesapeake incident had taken place and sterner measures were believed to be necessary. Also in December 1807, Congress passed the Embargo Act. This act prohibited exports from the United States and forbade American ships from sailing into foreign ports.

The embargo did not produce anything like the results Congress desired. Overseas trade nearly stopped, almost ruining New England shipowners and putting many sailors out of work. Shipyards closed, and goods piled up in warehouses. The embargo also hurt Southern planters, who normally sold tobacco, rice, and cotton to Great Britain. Opponents of the embargo described its effects on the United States by spelling the word backward. They called the embargo the "O-Grab-Me" act. Even with the hardships the embargo caused for the United States, it failed as a policy. The British and the French were intent on winning the European war at all costs, and so both refused to yield to American pressure.

After 14 months, Congress gave up the embargo and tried a new device for hurting British and French commerce. It passed the Non-Intercourse Act in March 1809, permitting American ships to trade with any countries but Great Britain and France. The act also opened American ports to all but British and French ships. But this plan also failed.

In 1810, Congress passed Macon's Bill No. 2, which removed all restrictions on trade. The law went on to say that if either Great Britain or France would give up its orders or decrees, the United States would restore nonintercourse rules against the other nation, unless it also agreed to change its policy.

Macon's Bill really helped Napoleon, who was eager to get the United States into the war against Great Britain. He pretended to repeal his Berlin and Milan decrees so far as they applied to United States ships. President James Madison shut off all trade with Great Britain. In the summer of 1811, further attempts were made to reach an agreement with the British. But these attempts failed, and in November, Madison advised Congress to get ready for war.

The War Hawks. A group of young men known as "War Hawks" dominated Congress during this period. Henry Clay of Kentucky and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina were the outstanding leaders of the group. Clay was then Speaker of the House of Representatives. Like Clay and Calhoun, most of the War Hawks came from Western and Southern states, where many of the people were in favor of going to war with Great Britain.

The people of New England generally opposed going to war because they feared that war with Great Britain would wipe out entirely the New England shipping trade which had already been heavily damaged. Another reason New England opposed war was because many New Englanders sympathized with Great Britain in its struggle against Napoleon.

Some historians have argued that a leading motive of the War Hawks was a desire for expansion. The people of the Northwest were meeting armed resistance in their attempt to take more land from the Indians, and they believed that the Indians had considerable British support. Friction between Westerners and Indians climaxed in November 1811 at the Battle of Tippecanoe near what is now Lafayette, Ind. Indians attacked an American army, and British guns were found on the battlefield. A desire to eliminate British aid to the Indians may have inspired some Westerners to seek an invasion of Canada, Britain's main possession in North America. But most Westerners favored such an invasion chiefly because of a deep resentment over long-lasting British insults at sea.

The main concerns of Congress were maritime rights, national honor, and the country's obligation to respond to foreign threats. The Federalists in Congress strongly opposed going to war. But the Democratic-Republicans believed that war was the only solution to America's dilemmas. They hoped a successful invasion of Canada would force Britain to change its policies. See DEMOCRATIC-REPUBLICAN PARTY.

Progress of the war

Declaration of war. On June 1, 1812, President Madison asked Congress to declare war against Great Britain. He gave as his reasons the impressment of United States seamen and the interference with United States trade. He charged also that the British had stirred up Indian warfare in the Northwest. Congress declared war on June 18, 1812. Two days earlier, the British foreign minister had announced that the Orders in Council would be repealed, but word of this announcement did not reach America until after the war had begun. Because President Madison asked for the declaration of war, many Federalists blamed him for the conflict, calling it "Mr. Madison's war."

Attitude of the nation. Congress had known for seven months that war was likely to come, but no real preparations had been made. There was little money in the U.S. treasury. The regular Army had less than 10,000 troops, and very few trained officers. The Navy had fewer than 20 seagoing ships.

To make matters worse, a large minority, both in Congress and in the country, was opposed to war. The declaration of war had passed by a vote of only 79 to 49 in the House, and 19 to 13 in the Senate. New England, the richest section in the country, bitterly opposed the war, and interfered with its progress by withholding both money and troops.

The war at sea. At sea, the United States depended primarily on privateers--that is, armed ships owned by private people and hired by the government to fight. This was because the tiny regular American navy was dwarfed by the massive British fleet. Several single-ship U.S. victories against British ships improved American morale but had no permanent effect on the naval struggle.

A British blockade was clamped on the United States coast, and United States trade almost disappeared. Because duties on imports were the chief source of federal revenue, the U.S. treasury drifted further and further into debt.

The only American naval victories that directly affected the course of the war were those won by Oliver Hazard Perry on Lake Erie, on Sept. 10, 1813, and by Thomas Macdonough on Lake Champlain, on Sept. 11, 1814. But United States naval vessels and privateers did considerable damage to British commerce, taking about 1,500 prize ships in all.

Land campaign of 1812. The American plan of attack called for a three-way invasion of Canada. Invasion forces were to start from Detroit, from the Niagara River, and from the foot of Lake Champlain.

At Detroit, General William Hull led about 2,000 troops across the Detroit River into Canada. The British commander, General Sir Isaac Brock, drove Hull's forces back into Detroit, surrounded them, and captured both the city and Hull's entire army. The British and Indians also captured Michilimackinac and Fort Dearborn (Chicago).

On the Niagara River, a United States force occupied Queenston Heights on the Canadian side. This force was defeated and captured when New York militia units refused to come to its support.

At Lake Champlain, the third United States army advanced from Plattsburgh, N.Y., to the Canadian frontier. Here, too, the militia refused to leave United States territory, and the army marched back again to Plattsburgh. Thus the first attempt to invade Canada failed completely.

Campaigns of 1813. In January 1813, an American army advancing toward Detroit was defeated and captured at Frenchtown on the Raisin River. In April, York (now Toronto), the capital of Upper Canada, was captured by United States troops and held for a short time. Some of the public buildings were burned.

Perry's destruction of the British fleet on Lake Erie forced the British to pull out of Detroit, and much of the Michigan Territory came under United States control. General William Henry Harrison was able to take his army across the lake and defeat the retreating British at the Battle of the Thames.

In the autumn, General James Wilkinson and General Wade Hampton undertook a campaign against Montreal. This attempt failed, and the United States armies retreated into northern New York. In December, the British crossed the Niagara River, captured Fort Niagara, and burned Buffalo and neighboring villages.

Campaigns of 1814. By 1814, Napoleon had been defeated in Europe. Great Britain was then able to send over 15,000 troops to Canada, thus ending all American hopes of conquest. But the United States had at last built up a well-trained and disciplined army on the New York frontier. Under the able leadership of Major General Jacob Brown and Brigadier General Winfield Scott, this army crossed the Niagara River from Buffalo in July and defeated the British at the Battle of Chippewa. But soon after that, the Americans were turned back at the Battle of Lundy's Lane. After holding Fort Erie in Canada for several months, United States troops finally withdrew to the American side. This was the last attempt to invade Canada. Meanwhile, nearly 11,000 British troops had moved into New York by way of Lake Champlain. The troops retreated hastily when the destruction of the British fleet on the lake threatened their supply lines back to Canada.

Another British army, under General Robert Ross, was escorted by a fleet to Chesapeake Bay, scattered the United States troops at the Battle of Bladensburg, occupied Washington, D.C., and set fire to the Capitol, the White House, and other public buildings. Both the British army and the British fleet were driven back at Baltimore. This engagement inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner".

"The needless battle." The Battle of New Orleans was the last engagement of the war. It was fought on Jan. 8, 1815. Like the declaration of war, this battle might have been prevented if there had been speedy communication. A treaty of peace had been signed at Ghent, Belgium, 15 days before the battle took place, but the treaty was not ratified by the United States until a month later.

The British had sent an army of more than 8,000 men to capture New Orleans. There were several possible routes to the city, but the British army chose to march straight toward the entrenchments that had been prepared by General Andrew Jackson. American artillery and sharpshooting riflemen killed or wounded about 1,500 British soldiers, including the commanding officer, General Sir Edward Pakenham. The Americans lost few men in the battle.

Treaty of Ghent. The British public was tired of war and especially of war taxes, and an increasing number of Americans feared disaster if the war continued. Commissioners of the two countries met at Ghent, Belgium, in August 1814.

The British at first insisted that the United States should give up certain territory on the northern frontier, and set up a large permanent Indian reservation in the Northwest. But American victories in the summer and fall of 1814 led the British to drop these demands. A treaty was finally signed in Ghent on Dec. 24, 1814, and ratified on Feb. 17, 1815. By the terms of this treaty, all land that had been captured by either party was to be given up. Everything was to be exactly as it was before the war, and commissions from both of the countries were to settle any disputed points about boundaries. Nothing whatever was said in the treaty about impressments, blockades, or the British Orders in Council, although they supposedly had caused the war.

Results of the war

The United States had faced near disaster in 1814. But the victory at New Orleans and what seemed to be a successful fight against Britain increased national patriotism and helped to unite the United States into one nation.

The war settled none of the issues over which the United States had fought. But most of these issues faded out during the following years. In the long period of peace after 1815, the British had no occasion to make use of impressments or blockades. Indian troubles in the Northwest were practically ended by the death of the chief Tecumseh and by the rapid settlement of the region. The United States occupied part of Florida during the war, and was soon able to buy the rest of it from Spain.

One indirect result of the War of 1812 was the later election to the presidency of Andrew Jackson and of William Henry Harrison. Both of these men won military fame which had much to do with their elections. Another indirect result was the decline of Federalist power. New England leaders, most of them Federalists, met in secret in Hartford, Conn., to study ways to protest the conduct of the war. Their opponents accused them of plotting treason, and the Federalists never recovered


Napoleon excludes British goods from "fortress Europe."
1806 - Europe
American ships caught in middle as British respond with blockade.
British seize 1000 U.S. ships, French ca. 500.

British seize American sailors
1803-1812 - High seas
British captains take more than 10,000 American citizens to man British ships.

Chesapeake - Leopard fight
June 1807 - 3 miles off Norfolk, Virginia
Chesapeake fired on by Leopard after refusing to be boarded. 3 Americans killed, 18 wounded.

Embargo Act
December 1807 - Washington, D.C.
Jefferson's attempt at "peaceful coercion" results in economic disaster for American merchants.

War Hawks elected to Congress
1810 - U.S.
Calhoun, Clay, others, bothered by insults to U.S., and by Indian incursions into settled areas.

Battle of Tippecanoe
1811 - Ohio River Valley, near present day West Lafayette, IN.
Tecumseh's brother, the Prophet, led attack on Harrison's army of 1000. It was believed that the attack was instigated by the British.

Congress declares war on Britain.
June 18, 1812 - Washington, D.C.
Pushed by War Hawks, Madison asks for declaration of war. All Federalists oppose it.

Invasion attempts of Canada
1812 - U.S. / Canadian border
3 attempts to invade, all fail.

Detroit captured by British
August 16, 1812 - U.S. / Canadian border
Detroit fell to British and Indian forces.

USS Constitution defeats British frigate Guerrière,
August 19, 1812, off coast of Nova Scotia.
Victory by U.S. ship -- "Old Ironsides".
Marks the birth of American naval power.
Other privateers captured or burned British ships.

Battle of York (Toronto)
April 1813 - Toronto, Canada
U.S. troops take control of Great Lakes, burn York (Toronto).

See W. H. Harrison letter from Camp Meigs Ohio

Battle of Lake Erie
September 1813 --- Put-in-Bay
Capt. Oliver Hazard Perry, starts an attack but his ship, the Lawrence, is destroyed. Transferring to the Niagara he repulses the British naval attack and becomes a national hero as the public calls him 'Commodore' Perry.

Battle of Thames
October 1813 - Ontario, Canada
Tecumseh killed in U.S. victory. Northwest Indians permanently weakened by this battle.

December 29, 1813 - Buffalo, New York
Still fighting for control of the lakes, British burn city of Buffalo.

Battle of Horseshoe Bend
March 1814 - Mississippi Territory
Andrew Jackson defeats Creek Indians.

British plan 3-part invasion of U.S.: Chesapeake Bay, Lake Champlain, & mouth of Mississippi River
1814 -Washington, D.C
British burn capital buildings, but are turned back at Baltimore harbor.
See Dolley Madison description
See Bristish version

Battle of Plattsburgh
September 1814 - Lake Champlain
U.S. secured northern border with victory over larger British force.

Hartford Convention
December 15, 1814 - Hartford, Connecticut
Group of Federalists discuss secession but end up proposing 7 constitutional amendments to protect influence of Northeast states. [They're still at it by proposing to eliminate the Electoral College. Ed.]

Treaty of Ghent
December 24, 1814 - Ghent, Belgium
British and American diplomats agree on status quo ante bellum. [Just stop fighting and forget it. -- No reprisals, no reparations.]

Battle of New Orleans* -- Jackson Letter to the Secretary of War.
January 1815 * - New Orleans
Jackson's forces defeat British. 700 British killed, 1400 wounded.
U.S. losses: 8 killed, 13 wounded.

* The war had ended December 24, 1814 but Jackson had not received word about the Treaty of Ghent.

SOURCES: IBM World Book 1999 / Encyclopedia Britannica

Additional resources

Berton, Pierre F. D. Flames Across the Border. 1981. Reprint. Penguin, 1988. The Invasion of Canada. 1980. Reprint. Penguin, 1988.

Bosco, Peter I. The War of 1812. Millbrook, 1991.

Elting, John R. Amateurs, to Arms! A Military History of the War of 1812-1815. Algonquin Bks., 1991.

Hickey, Donald R. The War of 1812. Univ. of Ill. Pr., 1989.

Kroll, Steven. By the Dawn's Early Light: The Story of the Star Spangled Banner. Scholastic, 1994.

Turner, Wesley. The War of 1812. Dundurn, 1990.

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