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War of 1812

Military history of Canada
Military history of the United Kingdom
Military history of the United States
Conflict War of 1812
Date 1812–1815
Place North America
Result Status quo ante bellum (A Stalemate)
United States of America United Kingdom
100,000 50,000
12,000 5,000

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 (following U.S. President James Madison's appeal to the U.S. Congress on June 1), and lasted until the beginning of 1815. The treaty of peace was signed at Ghent in Belgium on December 24, 1814, although it did not reach the U.S. until mid-February, 1815. Ratification was unanimously advised by the U.S. Senate on February 16. It was ratified by President Madison on February 17 (reportedly at 11pm) at which time ratifications were exchanged with the United Kingdom. The treaty was proclaimed on February 18, 1815.



  • In 1807, HMS Leopard requested permission to board the USS Chesapeake to search for deserters. When this was refused, Leopard fired on and boarded the Chesapeake and carried off four seamen. Though the incident itself was minor, the implied attitude of the Royal Navy towards the USA — that it was independent only in name, and worthy of no esteem — outraged the American public.
  • Jefferson responded to the interference by France and Britain by stopping all foreign trade. The Embargo Act of 1807 prevented American ships from sailing to any foreign ports. The act also closed American ports to British ships. Although the trade embargo decreased the number of American ships attacked by the French and British, it greatly hurt the economy of the United States. No trade meant no way to sell materials and products to other countries to make a profit. More importantly, the United States relied on product shipped in from Europe to survive. Now they were forced to make their own supplies...
  • In the Election of 1810, the interior frontier states elected the "Warhawks". The Warhawks believed in the nation's Manifest Destiny, and wanted to expand Westward. None of the Warhawks were from the seaboard states – this fact is inconsistent with the idea that the War of 1812 was about Maritime law.
  • In the U.S. presidential election, 1812, Madison justified the war of 1812 as a reaction to Britain's policies against American shipping (on June 1 that year he asked the U.S. Congress to declare war on the United Kingdom). This justification was needed to convince the coastal states that the war was necessary and important. The frontier states needed no justification. This is the first major war of the new country, and the first time that a war needed "justification" presented to its citizens. Ironically, as the textbook history below indicates, this first war of the new nation was also very unpopular.

Madison, in his war message to Congress, named several major reasons for war:

  • Ongoing impressment of American sailors into service on British Navy ships, an insulting breach of American sovereignty; see Chesapeake/Leopard Affair
  • Britain's navy "violating the rights and the peace of our coasts";
  • Britain's blockade of U.S. ports ("our commerce has been plundered in every sea");
  • Britain's refusal to repeal its Order-In-Council forbidding neutral countries to trade with European countries, and the British Navy's enforcement of this order;
  • Britain's incitement of Native American nations ("savages", as said in the letter) to violence against the Americans.

Several days after Madison's war message to Congress, the Senate voted for war, 19 to 13, reflecting this unpopularity.

What is not in most history books is the role that Aboriginals played in the war of 1812. Five of the seven major land battles were fought between American and British forces (Bitish forces being comprised of local militia, British army regulars and native warriors) in the interior of the continent.

At the end of the war, the outcome was that Britain gave up its formal alliances with the peoples nations, in exchange for the US ceasing its unjustified aggression towards British North America. Although "no territory was won or lost", the War of 1812 signalled the end of formal Native North American-European alliances. Informally most Native cheifs said that their tribes maintained that they would fight on the British side of any future conflicts with the United States because many tribes were having their ancestrial homelands stolen by American settlers as they spread west. After the war, the US started to settle the West, massacring villages and forcing more Aboriginals from their homes. In the subsequent US-Native wars thousands of lives were lost.

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 Armée in Russia and the rising of Germany left her free to send an overwhelming force of ships to American waters.

When the War of 1812 first began, the U.S. military was very weak and inexperienced. The army consisted of only 7000 men and small state militias. The navy had only 16 ships. The forces actually available on the American side at the outset of the war consisted of a small squadron of frigates and sloops in a war-ready state. The States were only able to commission a total of 22 ships. The paper strength of the army was 35,000, but the service was voluntary and unpopular, and there was an almost total lack 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

Since the Battle of Trafalgar, Britain had been the worlds most prominant naval power. At September 26, 1812, the Royal Navy had ninety-seven vessels in American waters, of which eleven were ships of the line and thirty-four were frigates. In contrast, the United States Navy, which was not yet even twenty years old, only had twenty-two commissioned vessels, the largest of which were frigates.

The strategy of the British was to protect its own merchant shipping and enforce a blockade of the major American ports. The Americans aimed to cause disruption to British shipping, by the capture of prizes, and to consume the resources of the Royal Navy.

On 21st June 1812, three days after the formal declaration of war, two small squadrons left New York; the frigate USS President and the sloop USS Hornet under Commodore John Rodgers (who had general command), and the frigates USS United States and USS Congress, with the brig USS Argus under Captain Stephen Decatur.

Two days later Rodgers sighted the British frigate HMS Belvidera , and gave chase. Belvidera eventually escaped to Halifax, after discarding all unnecessary cargo overboard. Rodgers searched the North Atlantic for a West Indian convoy. Unsuccessful, he had returned to Boston by August 31.

Meanwhile, Captain Isaac Hull, commanding USS Constitution, sailed from the Chesapeake on July 12 without orders, to avoid being blockaded. On July 17 a British squadron was sighted, which gave chase the following morning. The Constitiution eventually managed to lose its pursuers after two days, after which it headed to Boston.

The Constitution was put to sea again to August 2, and on August 19 met with the British frigate HMS Guerriere. After a twenty minute battle, the Guerriere had been dismasted and captured, and was later burned.

On October 8 Rodgers sailed east, and Decatur sailed to the south. Commodore Rodgers met with no marked success, but on October 25 Captain Decatur in USS United States captured the British frigate HMS Macedonian, which he carried back to port.

At the close of the month the Constitution, now under command the of Captain William Bainbridge, sailed south. On December 20, off Bahia, Brazil, it met the British frigate HMS Java, which was carrying General Hislop, the governor of Bombay, to India. After a battle lasting three hours, the Java struck her colours and was burned after being judged unsalvagable.

The American frigate Censored page, under the command of Captain David Porter, went on to the Pacific, in an attempt to harrass British shipping. Many British whaling ships carried letters of marque allowing them to prey on American whalers nearly destroying the industry; Porter's ship challenged this practice, and inflicted an estimated $3,000,000 USD damage on British interests until she was captured off Valparaiso, Chile by the British frigate HMS Phoebe and the sloop HMS Cherub on March 28, 1814.

In all of these actions except the action between the Essex and the Phoebe and Cherub, the Americans had the advantage of greater size and a heavier guns. Despite the British having considerable more experience in naval combat, a large proportion of their seamen had been impressed, in contrast with the Americans who were all volunteers, and this may have given the Americans an edge in seamanship and gunnery.

The capture of three British frigates caused a painful impression in Britain and stimulated her to greater exertions. More vessels were stationed on the American seaboard, and the watch became stricter. On June 1, 1813, the frigate USS Chesapeake was captured by the British frigate HMS Shannon, a vessel of equal size, as it attempted to leave Boston Harbor, and this somewhat 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. Because of this the Royal Navy was successful in transporting British Army troops to American shores and the subsequent burning of the White House by British Forces.

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 single instance of the audacity of the American cruisers was the capture of the American sloop USS Argus by the more heavily armed British sloop HMS Pelican at St David's Head in Wales on August 14, 1813.

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. Former U.S. President Thomas Jefferson dismissively referred to the conquest of Canada as "a matter of marching". 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 nor 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 Lake 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 the Battle of Queenston Heights, 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. Rensselaer resigned as commander after the battle of Queenston Heights and was replaced by General Alexander Smyth , despite his having little command experience. After the unsuccessful Battle of Frenchman's Creek on November 28, Smyth left the service.

On January 22, 1813, at Frenchtown, the American troops under Winchester surrendered to a British and Indian force under Procter.

Battle of Lake Erie

Battle of Lake Erie by William H. Powell (1865)
Battle of Lake Erie by William H. Powell (1865)

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 British 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 British 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 misjudgement 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 Major Generals Jacob Brown and 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 Siege 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 Plattsburgh 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 Chesapeake Campaign and the Star-Spangled Banner

The best known of these destructive raids was the burning of public buildings, including the White House in Washington, by Sir Censored page, second in command to Sir Alexander Cochrane, 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.

The expedition was carried out between August 19 and August 29, 1814, and was well organized and vigorously executed. On the 24th the inexperienced American militia who had collected at Bladensburg, Maryland, to protect the capital, were soundly defeated, opening the route to Washington. President James Madison was forced to flee to Virginia, and after the burnings, American morale was reduced to an all-time low.

Having destroyed Washington's public buildings, the British army next moved to capture Baltimore, a busy port and a key base for American privateers. The land portion of the subsequent Battle of Baltimore began with a British landing at North Point. General Ross was killed on September 12, 1814 in fighting with American militia, and the attack was repulsed. The British also attempted to attack Baltimore by sea on September 13, but were unable to reduce Fort McHenry, at the entrance to Baltimore Harbor. The defence of the fort against the British attack, by American forces under the command of Colonel George Armistead, inspired Francis Scott Key to write a poem, "The Defence of Fort McHenry". The poem was later set to the tune "To Anacreon in Heaven" and under its new name, "The Star-Spangled Banner", was eventually adopted as the national anthem of the United States.

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.

The Treaty of Ghent and the Battle of New Orleans

Jackson's forces moved to New Orleans, Louisiana in November 1814. Between December 1814 and January 1815, he defended the city against a force led by Major-General Sir Edward Pakenham.

Although the Treaty of Ghent had been signed on December 24, 1814, news of the treaty had not reached New Orleans. Because of the slow nature of international communications, the Treaty had the following provisions:

"All hostilities, both by sea and land, shall cease as soon as this treaty shall have been ratified by both parties, as hereinafter mentioned. . . Immediately after the ratifications of this treaty by both parties, as hereinafter mentioned, orders shall be sent to the armies, squadrons, officers, subjects and citizens of the two Powers to cease from all hostilities."

The fastest means of communication in 1815 was the sailing ship, and the treaty also allowed ships of either side to be taken as prizes for a period varying from 30 to 180 days after the time the treaty was ratified, depending on where on the world's ocean the action took place.

By January 1815, Britain and the United States had not ratified the Treaty, and orders to suspend operations had not reached Jackson or Pakenham. Two assaults on January 1 and January 8 were repelled. In the latter, General Pakenham was killed. See: Battle of New Orleans

On February 17, 1815, President Madison signed the American ratification of the Treaty of Ghent, and the treaty was proclaimed the following day.

Effects of the War of 1812 on post-war 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.

Many Canadians consider the War of 1812 to have been an American defeat. From their point of view, the American invasions of 1813 and 1814 were repulsed. Further supporting this point of view is that the British occupied some American territory at the end of the war; however, the Americans did not occupy any British territory. However, from the American point of view, the war was a successful defense of American rights, which they claimed culminated 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 the line of 49 degrees North latitude as the international border west of the Lake of the Woods. Border disputes between the State of Maine and the Province of New Brunswick were settled in the 1830s (see Aroostook War).

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. However, the War of 1812 did not increase any involvement of the people in global affairs.

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. The sectionalism that eventually led to the American Civil War was beginning to deepen.

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.

Motives of the UK

Britain's intention in the War of 1812 was not to regain its former colonies, as the cost of doing so would far outweigh 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 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.

Effects of the War on Canada

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 and they took pride in being able to throw the invaders back repeatedly. 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 Britain. For instance, Laura Secord was originally an American immigrant to Upper Canada, but did not hesitate to make her arduous trek to warn the British forces of a pending attack by her own former country.

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. However, the War of 1812 also started the process which ultimately led to Canadian Confederation in 1867. Although later events such as the Rebellions and the Fenian raids of the 1860s were more directly pivotal, Canadian historian Pierre Berton has written 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.


See also

  • Journal of the Senate, June 1, 1812, with President Madison's war message to Congress
  • British Military History

External link

Key Events of the War of 1812

Last updated: 02-02-2005 23:12:39
Last updated: 02-27-2005 19:08:37