The War of 1812 was fought between the United States of America and Great Britain and its colonies, Upper and lower Canada and Nova Scotia, from 1812 to 1815 on land and sea. The Americans declared war on Britain on June 18, 1812, for a combination of reasons: Outrage at the impressment (seizure) of thousands of American sailors, frustration at British restraints on neutral trade while Britain warred with France, and anger at British support for native attacks along the frontier which conflicted with American expansion and settlement into the Old Northwest.
The war started unsuccessfully for the Americans as their attempts to invade Canada were repeatedly repulsed. The American strategy depended on militias, but they either resisted service or were incompetently led. The military and civilian high command was a serious American weakness that was not improved until 1814. New England opposed the war and refused to provide troops or financing. Financial and logistics problems plagued the American war effort. Britain had excellent finance and logistics but the war with France had a higher priority, so in 1812-1813 they had a defensive strategy. With the defeat of Napoleon in 1814 they were able to send veteran armies to invade the United States, but by then the Americans had learned how to mobilize and fight as well.
At sea the powerful Royal Navy instituted a blockade of the majority of the American coastline (allowing some exports from New England, which was trading with Britain and Canada in defiance of American laws). The blockade devastated American agricultural exports, but helped stimulate local factories that replaced goods previously imported. The American strategy of using small gunboats to defend ports was a fiasco, as the British raided the coast at will. The most famous episode was a series of British raids on the shores of Chesapeake Bay, which included an attack on Washington, D.C. that resulted in the burning of the White House, other public buildings, and the Library of Congress. The American strategy of sending out several hundred privateers to attack British merchant ships was more successful, and hurt British commercial interests, especially in the West Indies. American heavy frigates also prevailed in several one-on-one naval battles against British ships. The decisive use of naval power came on the Great Lakes and was a contest of building ships. The Americans won control of Lake Erie and thus neutralized western Ontario, cutting off Native Americans from supplies. The British controlled Lake Ontario. The Americans controlled Lake Champlain, and a naval victory there forced a large British invasion army to turn back.
The Americans destroyed the power of the native people of the Northwest and Southeast, thus securing a major war goal. With the defeat of Napoleon in 1814, British trade restrictions and impressment ended, so those causes of the war ceased. With stalemate on the battlefields, both nations agreed to a peace that left the prewar boundaries intact. Before Congress ratified the treaty, the Americans decisively defeated a veteran British army at the Battle of New Orleans.
The war had the effects of both uniting Canadians and uniting Americans far more closely than either population had been prior to the war. Canadians remember the war as a victory in avoiding conquest by the Americans, while the Americans celebrated victory in a "second war for independence" personified in the hero of New Orleans, Andrew Jackson.
Course of the war
Although the outbreak of the war had been proceeded by years of angry diplomatic dispute, neither side was ready for war when it came.
Britain was still hard pressed by the Napoleonic Wars; most of the British Army was engaged in the Peninsular War (in Spain), and the Royal Navy was compelled to blockade most of the coast of Europe. The total number of British regular troops present in Canada in July 1812 was officially stated to be 6,034, supported by Canadian militia. Throughout the war, the British Secretary of State for War and the Colonies was the Earl of Bathurst. For the first two years of the war, he could spare few troops to reinforce North America and urged the commander-in-chief in North America-Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost-to maintain a defensive strategy, which accorded with Prevost's own inclinations. But when reinforcements became available late in 1814, Prevost's own cautious invasion of the United States was repulsed.
Despite years of warlike talk, the United States was not ready for a fight. President Madison assumed that the state militia would easily seize Canada and the rest would be negotiations. In 1812, the regular army consisted of fewer than 12,000 men. Congress authorized the expansion of the army to 35,000 men, but the service was voluntary and unpopular and there were initially very few trained and experienced officers. The militia-called in to aid the regulars-objected to serving outside their home states, were not amenable to discipline, and as a rule, performed poorly in the presence of the enemy when outside of their home state. The United States had great difficulty financing its war, especially since it had disbanded its national bank and private bankers in the Northeast were opposed to the war.
The early disasters brought about largely by American unreadiness drove United States Secretary of War William Eustis from office. His successor, John Armstrong, Jr., attempted a coordinated strategy late in 1813 aimed at the capture of Montreal but was thwarted by logistics, uncooperative and quarrelsome commanders, and ill-trained troops. By 1814 the United States Army's morale and leadership had greatly improved, but the embarrassing Burning of Washington led to Armstrong's dismissal from office in turn. The war ended before the new Secretary of War James Monroe could develop any new strategy.An artist's rendering of the battle at Fort McHenry, where Francis Scott Key was inspired to write "The Star Spangled Banner"
American prosecution of the war also suffered from its unpopularity, especially in New England, where anti-war spokesmen were vocal. The failure of New England to provide militia units was a serious blow. Threats of secession by New England were loud; Britain immediately exploited these divisions, blockading only southern ports for much of the war and encouraging smuggling.
The war was conducted in four theaters of operations:
- The Atlantic Ocean
- The Great Lakes and the Canadian frontier
- The coast of the United States
- The Southern States
Atlantic theatreUSS Constitution defeats HMS Guerriere; a significant event during the war
Britain had long been the world's pre-eminent naval power, confirmed by its victory over the French and the Spanish at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. In 1812, the Royal Navy had 97 vessels in American waters. Of these, eleven were large ships of the line and 34 were smaller frigates. By contrast, the United States Navy, which was not yet twenty years old, had only twenty-two commissioned vessels, the largest of which were frigates, though a number of the American ships were 44-gun frigates and very heavily built compared to the usual British 38-gun frigates.
The strategy of the British was to protect their own merchant shipping to and from Halifax and Canada, and to enforce a blockade of major American ports to restrict American trade. Because of their numerical inferiority, the Americans aimed to cause disruption through hit-and-run tactics, such as the capture of prizes and engaging Royal Navy vessels under only favorable circumstances.
The Americans experienced much early success. On June 21, 1812, three days after the formal declaration of war, two small squadrons left New York. The ships included 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, President and Hornet gave chase to the British frigate HMS Belvidera. Belvidera eventually escaped to Halifax after discarding all unnecessary cargo overboard. President and Hornet returned to Boston, Massachusetts by August 31.
Meanwhile, USS Constitution, commanded by Captain Isaac Hull, sailed from Chesapeake Bay on July 12. On July 17, a British squadron gave chase. Constitution evaded her pursuers after two days. After briefly calling at Boston to replenish water, on August 19, Constitution engaged the British frigate HMS Guerriere. After a thirty five-minute battle, Guerriere had been dismasted and captured and was later burned. Hull returned to Boston with news of this significant victory.
On October 25, the USS United States, commanded by Captain Decatur, captured the British frigate HMS Macedonian, which he then carried back to port. At the close of the month, Constitution sailed south under the command of Captain William Bainbridge. On December 29, off Bahia, Brazil, she met the British frigate HMS Java. After a battle lasting three hours, Java struck her colors and was burned after being judged unsalvageable.
In January 1813, the American frigate USS Essex, under the command of Captain David Porter, sailed into the Pacific in an attempt to harass British shipping. Many British whaling ships carried letters of marque allowing them to prey on American whalers, nearly destroying the industry. Essex challenged this practice. She inflicted an estimated $8,000,000 damage on British interests before 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 one in which Essex was taken-the Americans had the advantage of greater size and heavier guns. However, the United States Navy's sloops and brigs also won several decisive victories over Royal Navy vessels of approximately equal strength. In most of these battles, the British gunnery and ship-handling was inferior to the Americans'. While the American ships had experienced and well-drilled volunteer crews, the cream of the over-stretched Royal Navy was serving elsewhere, and constant sea duties of those serving in North America interfered with their training and exercises.
The capture of three British frigates was a blow to the British and stimulated them to greater exertions. More vessels were deployed on the American seaboard and the blockade tightened. On June 1, 1813, off Boston Harbor, the frigate USS Chesapeake, commanded by Captain James Lawrence, was captured by the British frigate HMS Shannon under Captain Sir Philip Broke. Lawrence was mortally wounded and famously cried, "Don't give up the ship!"
The blockade of American ports had tightened to the extent that most American merchant ships were confined to port (some were based in Europe or Asia and continued operations). In addition to the blockade, the British Admiralty had instituted a new policy in which Royal Navy ships could engage their American counterparts only if in squadron strength or by ship-of-the-line. An example of this was the engagement between USS President and a heavy British squadron in January 1815. The British engaged with four ships versus one: HMS Endymion, HMS Majestic, HMS Pomone, and HMS Tenedos. After a desperate battle, the President was captured. Because of the utilization of heavy squadrons and the blockade, the Royal Navy was able to transport British Army troops to American shores, paving the way for their attack on Washington D.C., which became known as the burning of Washington in 1814.
The operations of American privateers, some of which belonged to the United States Navy but most of which were private ventures, were extensive. They continued until the close of the war and were only partially affected by the strict enforcement of convoy by the Royal Navy. An example of the audacity of the American cruisers was the depredations in British home waters carried out by the American sloop USS Argus, which was eventually captured off St David's Head in Wales by the more heavily armed British brig HMS Pelican, on August 14, 1813.
Halifax was the Royal Navy base that supervised the blockade and it grew rich during the war. British privateers based there seized many French and American ships, selling their prizes in Halifax.
The war was likely the last time the British allowed privateering since the practice was coming to be seen as politically inexpedient and of diminishing value in maintaining its naval supremacy. By the middle of the century, the legality of the practice under international law was being rapidly dismantled (Britain would not authorize privateers during the Crimean War, and it signed the Declaration of Paris in April, 1856). Before the war, the United States had successfully pressed claims for damages in British courts against British citizens who had been involved in privateering against American vessels.
Great Lakes and Canadian theatre
Invasions of Upper and Lower Canada, 1812Major General Isaac Brock skillfully repulsed an American invasion of Upper Canada, but his death was a severe loss for the British cause.
American leaders had assumed that Canada could be easily overrun. Former President Jefferson optimistically referred to the conquest of Canada as "a matter of marching." However, in the opening stages of the conflict, British military experience (coupled with Canadian militia) prevailed over inexperienced American commanders.
Geography dictated that operations would take place in the west principally around Lake Erie, near the Niagara River between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario and near the Saint Lawrence River area and Lake Champlain. This was the focus of the three pronged attacks by the Americans in 1812.
Although cutting the St. Lawrence River through the capture of Montreal and Quebec would make Britain's hold in North America unsustainable, the United States began operations first in the Western frontier because of the popularity there of a war with the British.
The British scored an important early success when their detachment at St. Joseph Island on Lake Huron learned of the declaration of war before the nearby American garrison at the important trading post at Mackinac Island in Michigan. A scratch force landed on the island on July 17, 1812, and mounted a gun overlooking Fort Mackinac. The Americans, taken by surprise, surrendered. This early victory encouraged the Native Americans of the area, and large numbers of them moved to help the British at Amherstburg.
American Brigadier General William Hull invaded Canada on July 12, 1812, from Detroit with an army mainly composed of militiamen, but he turned back after his supply lines were threatened in the battles of Brownstown and Monguagon. British Major General Isaac Brock sent false correspondence and allowed it to be captured by the Americans, saying they required only 5,000 Native warriors to capture Detroit. Hull was afraid of North American Indians and some tribes' practice of scalping. Hull surrendered at Detroit on August 16.
Brock promptly transferred himself to the eastern end of Lake Erie, where American General Stephen Van Rensselaer was attempting a second invasion. An armistice (arranged by Prevost in the hope the British renunciation of the Orders in Council to which the United States objected might lead to peace) prevented Brock invading American territory. When the armistice ended, the Americans attempted an attack across the Niagara River on October 13, but suffered a crushing defeat at Queenston Heights. Brock was killed during the battle. While the professionalism of the American forces would improve by the war's end, British leadership suffered after Brock's death.
A final attempt in 1812 by American General Henry Dearborn to advance north from Lake Champlain failed when his militia refused to advance beyond American territory. In contrast to the American militia, the Canadian militia performed well. French-Canadians, who found the anti-Catholic stance of most of the United States troublesome, and United Empire Loyalists, who had fought for the Crown during the American Revolutionary War, strongly opposed the American invasion. However, a large segment of Upper Canada's population was recent settlers from the United States who had no obvious loyalties to the Crown. Nevertheless, while there were some who sympathized with the invaders, the American forces found strong opposition from men loyal to the Empire.
American northwest, 1813
After Hull's surrender, General William Henry Harrison was given command of the American Army of the Northwest. He set out to retake Detroit, which was now defended by Colonel Henry Procter in conjunction with Tecumseh. A detachment of Harrison's army was defeated at Frenchtown along the River Raisin on January 22, 1813. Procter left the prisoners in custody of a few North American Indians, who then proceeded to execute perhaps as many as sixty American prisoners, an event which became known as the "River Raisin Massacre." The defeat ended Harrison's campaign against Detroit, and the phrase "Remember the River Raisin!" became a rallying cry for the Americans.Oliver Hazard Perry's message to William Henry Harrison after the Battle of Lake Erie began with what would become one of the most famous sentences in American military history: "We have met the enemy and they are ours." This 1865 painting by William H. Powell shows Perry transferring to a different ship during the battle.
In May 1813, Procter and Tecumseh set siege to Fort Meigs in northern Ohio. American reinforcements arriving during the siege were defeated by the Native Americans, but the fort held out. The Indians eventually began to disperse, forcing Procter and Tecumseh to return to Canada. A second offensive against Fort Meigs also failed in July. In an attempt to improve Indian morale, Procter and Tecumseh attempted to storm Fort Stephenson, a small American post on the Sandusky River, only to be repulsed with serious losses, marking the end of the Ohio campaign.
On the Great Lakes, the American commander Captain Oliver Hazard Perry fought the Battle of Lake Erie on September 10, 1813. His decisive victory ensured American control of the lake, improved American morale after a series of defeats, and compelled the British to fall back from Detroit. This paved the way for General Harrison to launch another invasion of Upper Canada, which culminated in the United States victory at the Battle of the Thames on October 5, 1813, in which Tecumseh was killed. Tecumseh's death effectively ended the North American Indian alliance with the British in the Detroit region. The Americans controlled Detroit and Amherstburg for the duration of the war.
Niagara frontier, 1813
Because of the difficulties of land communications, control of the Great Lakes and the Saint Lawrence River corridor was crucial, and so both sides spent the winter of 1812-13 building ships. The Americans, who had far greater shipbuilding facilities than the British, nevertheless had not taken advantage of this before the war and had fallen behind.
On April 27, 1813, American forces attacked and burned York (now called Toronto), the capital of Upper Canada, including the Parliament Buildings. However, Kingston was strategically more valuable to British supply and communications along the St Lawrence. Without control of Kingston, the American navy could not effectively control Lake Ontario or sever the British supply line from Lower Canada.
On May 27, 1813, an American amphibious force from Lake Ontario assaulted Fort George on the northern end of the Niagara River and captured it without serious losses. The retreating British forces were not pursued, however, until they had largely escaped and organized a counter-offensive against the advancing Americans at the Battle of Stoney Creek on June 5. On June 24, with the help of advance warning by Loyalist Laura Secord, another American force was forced to surrender by a much smaller British and Indian force at the Battle of Beaver Dams, marking the end of the American offensive into Upper Canada.
The burning of Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake) by American General McClure on December 10, 1813, incensed the British and Canadians since civilian houses had mainly been destroyed. Many were left without shelter, consequently freezing to death in the snow. This led to British retaliation and similar destruction at Buffalo on December 30, 1813.
On Lake Ontario, Sir James Lucas Yeo took command on May 15, 1813, and created a more mobile though less powerful force than the Americans under Isaac Chauncey. An early attack on Sackett's Harbour by Yeo and Governor General Sir George Prevost was repulsed. Three naval engagements in August and September led to no decisive result.
Yeo constructed HMS St Lawrence, and by September 1814, the British launched the largest ship built during the war. HMS St. Lawrence was a 112 gun British warship that served on Lake Ontario and was likely the only Royal Navy ship of the line ever to be launched and operated entirely in fresh water. It was a first rate ship of the line. Its 112 guns gave them superiority, and the British became masters of Lake Ontario.
St. Lawrence and Lower CanadaSakawarton (John Smoke Johnson), John Tutela, and Young Warner, three Six Nations War of 1812 veterans.
The British were potentially most vulnerable over the stretch of the Saint Lawrence where it also formed the frontier between Upper Canada and the United States. During the early days of the war, there was much illicit commerce across the river, but over the winter of 1812-1813, the Americans launched a series of raids from Ogdensburg on the American side of the river, hampering British supply traffic up the river.
On February 21, Sir George Prevost passed through Prescott on the opposite bank of the river, with reinforcements for Upper Canada. When he left the next day, the reinforcements and local militia attacked. At the Battle of Ogdensburg, the Americans were forced to retire. For the rest of the year, Ogdensburg had no American garrison and many residents of Ogdensburg resumed visits and trade with Prescott. This British victory removed the last American regular troops from the Upper St Lawrence frontier and helped secure British communications with Montreal.
Late in 1813, after much argument, the Americans made two thrusts against Montreal. The plan eventually agreed upon was for Major-General Wade Hampton to march north from Lake Champlain and join a force under General James Wilkinson which would embark in boats and sail from Sacket's Harbour on Lake Ontario and descend the Saint Lawrence.
Hampton was delayed by bad roads and supply problems and an intense dislike of Wilkinson, which limited his desire to support his plan. On October 25, his 4,000-strong force was defeated at the Chateauguay River by Charles de Salaberry's force of fewer than 500 French-Canadian Voltigeurs and Mohawks.
Wilkinson's force of 8,000 set out on October 17 but was also delayed by bad weather. After learning that Hampton had been checked, Wilkinson heard that a British force under Captain William Mulcaster and Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Morrison was pursuing him, and by November 10, he was forced to land near Morrisburg, about 150 kilometers (90 mi) from Montreal. On November 11, Wilkinson's rearguard, numbering 2,500, attacked Morrison's force of 800 at Crysler's Farm and was repulsed with heavy losses. After learning that Hampton was unable to renew his advance, Wilkinson retreated to the United States and settled into winter quarters. He resigned his command after a failed attack on a British outpost at Lacolle Mills.
Niagara Campaign, 1814
By the middle of 1814, American generals, including Major Generals Jacob Brown and Winfield Scott, had drastically improved the fighting abilities and discipline of the army. Their renewed attack on the Niagara peninsula quickly captured Fort Erie. Winfield Scott then gained a decisive victory over an equal British force at the Battle of Chippewa on July 5. An attempt to advance further ended with a hard-fought drawn battle at Lundy's Lane on July 25. The Americans withdrew but withstood a prolonged Siege of Fort Erie. The British raised the siege, but lack of provisions eventually forced the Americans to retreat across the Niagara.
Meanwhile, following the abdication of Napoleon, British troops began arriving in North America. Fewer than half were veterans of the Peninsula and the remainder came from garrisons. Along with the troops came instructions for offensives against the United States. British strategy was changing, and like the Americans, the British were seeking advantages for the peace negotiations in Ghent. Governor-General Sir George Prevost was instructed to launch an offensive into the United States. However, his invasion was repulsed by the naval Battle of Plattsburgh in Plattsburgh Bay on September 11, 1814, which gave the Americans control of Lake Champlain. Theodore Roosevelt later termed it the greatest naval battle of the war.
American West, 1814
Little of note took place on Lake Huron in 1813, but the American victory on Lake Erie isolated the British there. During the winter, a Canadian party under Lieutenant Colonel Robert McDouall established a new supply line from York to Nottawasaga Bay on Georgian Bay. When he arrived at Fort Mackinac with supplies and reinforcements, he sent an expedition to recapture the trading post of Prairie du Chien in the far West. The Battle of Prairie du Chien ended in a British victory on July 20, 1814.
In 1814, the Americans sent a force of five vessels from Detroit to recapture Mackinac. A mixed force of regulars and volunteers from the militia landed on the island on July 4. They did not attempt to achieve surprise, and at the brief Battle of Mackinac Island, they were ambushed by Native Americans were forced to re-embark.
The Americans discovered the new base at Nottawasaga Bay and on August 13, destroyed its fortifications and a schooner found there. They then returned to Detroit, leaving two gunboats to blockade Michilimackinac. On September 4, these gunboats were taken unawares and captured by enemy boarding parties from canoes and small boats. This Engagement on Lake Huron left Mackinac under British control.
The British garrison at Prairie du Chien also fought off an attack by Major Zachary Taylor. In this distant theater, the British retained the upper hand until the end of the war because of their allegiance with several Native American tribes that they supplied with arms and gifts.
When the war began, the British naval forces had some difficulty in blockading the entire United States coast, and they were also preoccupied in their pursuit of American privateers. The British government, having need of American foodstuffs for its army in Spain, benefited from the willingness of the New Englanders to trade with them, so no blockade of New England was at first attempted. The Delaware River and Chesapeake Bay were declared in a state of blockade on December 26, 1812. This was extended to the coast south of Narragansett by November 1813 and to all the 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 U.S. Government was driven to issue orders to stop illicit trading. This put only a further strain on the commerce of the country. The overpowering strength of the British fleet enabled it to occupy the Chesapeake and to attack and destroy numerous docks and harbors.
From the probing of the British Colony of New Brunswick, Maine was an important conquest by the British. The line of the border between New Brunswick and the District of Maine had never been adequately agreed after the American Revolution. A military victory in Maine by the British could represent a large gain in territory for New Brunswick, but more immediately it assured communication with Lower Canada via the St John River and the Halifax Road. The war did not settle the border dispute, and when Maine became a state in 1820, it led to a border crisis called the Aroostook War. The border between Maine and New Brunswick was not be settled until 1842 and the "Webster-Ashburton Treaty."
In September 1814, Sir John Coape Sherbrooke led a British Army into eastern Maine and was successful in capturing Castine, Hampden, Bangor, and Machias. The Americans were given the option of swearing allegiance to the king or quitting the country. The vast majority swore allegiance and were even permitted to keep their firearms. This is the only large tract of territory held by either side at the conclusion of the war and was given back to the United States by the Treaty of Ghent. The British did not leave Maine until April 1815, at which time they took large sums of money retained from duties in occupied Maine. This money, called the "Castine Fund," was used in the establishment of Dalhousie University, in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Chesapeake campaign and "The Star-Spangled Banner"
The strategic location of the Chesapeake Bay near the nation's capital made it a prime target for the British. Starting in March 1813, a squadron under Rear Admiral George Cockburn started a blockade of the bay and raided towns along the bay from Norfolk to Havre de Grace. On July 4, 1813, Joshua Barney, a Revolutionary War naval hero, convinced the Navy Department to build the Chesapeake Bay Flotilla, a squadron of twenty barges to defend the Chesapeake Bay. Launched in April 1814, the squadron was quickly cornered in the Patuxent River, and while successful in harassing the Royal Navy, they were powerless to stop the British campaign that ultimately led to the "Burning of Washington."
The expedition, led by Admiral Sir George Cockburn and General Robert Ross, was carried out between August 19, and August 29, 1814. On August 24, Secretary of War Armstrong insisted that the British would attack Baltimore rather than Washington, even when the British army was obviously on its way to the capital. The inexperienced American militia, which had congregated at Bladensburg, Maryland, to protect the capital, were destroyed in the Battle of Bladensburg, opening the route to Washington. While Dolley Madison saved valuables from the White House, President James Madison was forced to flee to Virginia; American morale was reduced to an all-time low. The British viewed their actions as retaliation for the Americans' burning of York in 1813, although there are suggestions that the burning was in retaliation of destructive American raids into other parts of Upper Canada.
Having destroyed Washington's public buildings, including the White House and the Treasury, the British army next moved to capture Baltimore, a busy port and a key base for American privateers. The subsequent Battle of Baltimore began with a British landing at North Point, but the attack was repulsed, and General Ross was killed. 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. All the lights were extinguished in Baltimore the night of the attack, and the fort was bombarded for 25 h