Overview of the War of 1812
The War of 1812 began when the United States declared war on June 18, 1812 and ended with the Treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814. The treaty reached Britain for approval four days later but would take much longer to reach the US. As we will soon learn, this meant the war’s most significant battle took place after the war was supposed to have ended. First, let’s look at how the US and Britain ended up at war less than 30 years after the American Revolution.
The first and probably most prominent reason was the impressment of American sailors into the Royal Navy. From 1803-1812 as many as 9,000 sailors were forced into service with the British navy, about 75% from America. American ships were routinely stopped by British vessels and searched for suspected British deserters. When James Madison, Secretary of State at the time, insisted the British cease the practice of impressment, the British Foreign Secretary dismissed the demands as ‘too extravagant to require any serious refutation.’
It was not only the seizure of American sailors but of American commercial vessels docked in Europe that led to war. American merchants were caught up in the lengthy commercial struggle between the British and French during the Napoleonic Wars. Hundreds of American ships were seized by France and Britain as the Royal Navy blockaded much of Europe and Napoleon prohibited trade with Britain. The Embargo Act of 1807 was a response to the actions of both powers, blocking most foreign trade, but ultimately hurt the US far more than Britain or France.
Not only were there grievances out at sea, there was also the matter of American expansion. The 1803 Louisiana Purchase brought in over 800,000 square miles of new territory that would eventually be organized into 13 states. There were also strong voices in the House of Representatives for a conquest of Canada. Kentucky’s Henry Clay was of the opinion that his state’s militia alone would be enough to bring Canada into the Union. With Britain so consumed with the war effort against France, it appeared to be an ideal time to seize further territory. But when dealing with expansion to the west, there was a strong opposition by Tehcumseh’s Confederation.
Tecumseh was a Shawnee leader who organized a confederation of Native American tribes to oppose further settlement. William Henry Harrison, most famous for the extreme brevity of his presidency, was then Governor of the Indiana Territory and feared the threat of Tecumseh’s Confederacy. While Tecumseh was rallying further support to the south, Harrison and his men surrounded and defeated part of the Confederacy at the Battle of Tippecanoe in November 1811. When the war broke out in 1812, the Tecumseh Confederacy sided with the British, believing that a British victory would stop the westward expansion of the US.
A combination of the impressment of sailors, trade interference, and a desire for territorial expansion pressed James Madison to seek war. The declaration narrowly passed Congress 79- 49 and the Senate 19-13, the narrowest margin for war in American history. The unpopularity of the conflict was strongest in New England, where it was known as ‘Mr. Madison’s War.’ If the Americans seemed reluctant, the British were even less enthused by the prospect of war. The declaration was a shock and an unwelcome distraction from more important events in Europe.
In the early stages of the war, the United States took the offensive by launching an invasion of Canada. The plan was to move from three points: The Great Lakes, Niagara, and Montreal. What had been envisioned as an easy conquest soon descended into a farce. The Great Lakes expedition, led by William Hull, ran into difficulty when Ohio militia refused to cross the border. Such was the lack of organization that the commander of Fort Mackinac, a key point of Hull’s supply line, was not even aware of the war. Hull’s men were soon pushed back to Detroit and surrendered to a combined force of Canadian militia, British regulars, and Tecumseh’s warriors.
The Niagara expedition fared just as badly; only part of the force made it across the river, only to be caught by a British-Canadian counterattack. Like Hull’s militia from Ohio, Pennsylvania militia also refused to leave American soil, leaving another American army to be taken with minimal British losses.
As for the eastern thrust, it was, as one contemporary put it, ‘a miscarriage without the heroism of a disaster.’ The group’s leader, Henry Dearborn, never made it to Montreal as recruits were hard to come by and militia under his command also refused to cross the border.
American disasters upon land were eased by the success at sea. Isaac Hull, nephew of the disgraced William Hull, oversaw a crucial victory. His ship the USS Constitution escaped a Royal Navy squadron and then bested a British frigate in combat. The British cannons had little effect on the hull of the Constitution, leading to the nickname, Old Ironsides. The loss of one frigate meant very little to the strength of the Royal Navy but had a major impact on the morale of the United States. The euphoria of besting the world’s greatest naval power galvanized support for the war and helped secure Madison a second term. Old Ironsides claimed another frigate, the HMS Java, on December 29, 1813.
A renewed effort to take Canada in spring 1813 met with initial success overland but in June another army was captured at the Battle of Beaver Dams. The ambush was made possible by the intelligence gathered by a Canadian woman, Laura Secord who walked 20 miles to deliver news to the British. An American naval victory at Lake Erie in September softened the blow, with naval commander Oliver Perry recording “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”
Without naval support the British and Native army was forced to retreat but was caught and defeated at the Battle of the Thames. Tecumseh was among the dead and his confederacy fell with him.
The war took an uglier turn towards the end of 1813. While abandoning Fort George, the Americans burned the Canadian village of Newark. This act would be repaid following the capture of Fort Niagara by the British. Several villages including Lewiston and Buffalo were burned to the ground as a reprisal for the destruction of Newark. A much greater act of arson would take place the following year.
The war entered a new phase in 1814. The Sixth Coalition defeated the French Empire and sent Napoleon into what would prove to be a short-lived exile. Freed of European commitments, a much greater proportion of the British military could be brought against the United States.
Meanwhile in the South, another prominent figure from the War of 1812 was making a name for himself. Andrew Jackson, alongside Choctaw and Cherokee allies, led the US to victory in the Creek War against the Red Sticks in 1814. This victory led to the signing of the Treaty of Fort Jackson, which gave the US 20 million acres of land.
By then, the British had finally arrived in strength in Canada and launched a major offensive towards the end of August 1814. The campaign came to a crashing halt with the defeat of the British force at the Battle of Plattsburgh.
Some success was achieved by the Royal Navy; a blockade of the northeast stifled the American economy while British marines led by Robert Ross and George Cockburn conducted the infamous raid on Washington. A hastily assembled militia was easily swatted aside at the Battle of Bladensburg, leaving the capital defenseless.
On hearing of the imminent arrival of the British, Dolley Madison grabbed what she could, a portrait of George Washington, and fled. The soldiers helped themselves to whatever valuables they could plunder. Shortly afterward, the President’s House, as the White House was then known, was in flames along with a handful of other government buildings. After a short rampage through the American capital, the British troops returned to the ships waiting at the Potomac.
The raid was more of a reprisal for declaring war than an object of any real military value.
By the winter of 1814 neither side had achieved anything decisive, no territory had changed hands and the victories had little more than symbolic value. The upside was that if nothing was taken, nothing had to be given up.
An American delegation arrived in Europe to thrash out a peace deal. Both sides were keen to reach a peace agreement and willing to make concessions. The British agreed to rescind any claims on northwestern territory, while the matter of impressment, supposedly the main driving force behind the war declaration, was not pursued by the Americans. The treaty was agreed upon on December 24, 1814.
With the invention of the telegraph still 30 years away, news of peace traveled slowly. The British parliament received and approved the treaty on December 28, but it would be several weeks before it would cross the Atlantic. Enough time for the most famous battle of the war.
New Orleans, at the mouth of the Mississippi, was a vital commercial hub in the 19th century and the target of one last offensive by the British, still quietly hopeful of getting something out of the war. On January 8, the British attacked a smaller American force commanded by Andrew Jackson, but the attack was poorly planned. Jackson’s men, in fortified positions, inflicted heavy casualties on the attackers. The victory propelled Jackson to national prominence and helped foster a feeling of purpose that had not been present at the start of the conflict. The loss at New Orleans was swiftly forgotten about in Britain as Napoleon escaped from Elba and was defeated once and for all at Waterloo.
The War of 1812’s most important outcome was not any great victory or conquest but in helping to create a sense of national identity that had been lacking before. The perception of besting one of the world’s great powers for a second time bred confidence and the sense that the United States had matured into a great nation in its own right. With the removal of British interests in much of North America and the death of Tecumseh in battle, the way was clear for the United States to expand west at the expense of the Native population.
Okay, now that we’ve covered the important people and events of the war, let’s look at a couple of review questions to test your knowledge.
1. Tecumseh was killed in which battle?
- New Orleans
- The Thames
- Horseshoe Bend
- Lake Erie
The correct answer is B, the Battle of the Thames.
2. What seemed to be the main driving force behind the declaration of war from the US?
- Impressment of American sailors into the Royal Navy
- Westward expansion
- The pursuit of Napoleon’s defeat
- The acquisition of Canada
The correct answer is A, the impressment of soldiers into the Royal Navy.
3. Which treaty ended the War of 1812?
- Fort Jackson
The correct answer is B, the Treaty of Ghent.
I hope this review was helpful! Thanks for watching, and happy studying!