War of 1812

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(PD) Image: U.S. Army Historical Archives
A painting of the Battle of North Point, in the War of 1812.

The War of 1812 was a small war, 1812-1815, between the United States of America and the British Empire, over several disputes between the two countries. With Britain engaged in a major war with France, it ignored American demands to end the impressment (seizure) of American sailors, interference with American maritime rights, and support for hostile Indians in the American West. Another factor was an ongoing dispute over the Northwest territories and the border of Canada. After inconclusive fighting on land and sea, marked by the failures of American invasions of Canada, and British invasions of New York and Louisiana, the war ended in a draw. It was celebrated by Americans as conclusively demonstrating their independence, and by Canadians as a repulse to America's aggressive intent. Today, the War of 1812 is largely considered one of the "forgotten wars" of both the United States and Britain.

At sea the powerful Royal Navy blockaded the long American coastline (allowing some exports from New England, which was trading with Britain and Canada.) 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 that resulted in the burning of the White House and other public buildings, known as the "Burning of Washington". In July 1814, the British carried out orders to "lay waste" to American coastal towns in revenge for U.S. damage in Upper Canada; unarmed townsfolk would be spared, but military provisions and strategic positions would be taken; private property would not be seized on payment of a "tribute".[1]

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. Although few in number compared to the Royal Navy, American Navy's heavy frigates prevailed in several one-on-one naval battles against British ships. The decisive use of naval power came on the Great Lakes and depended on a contest of building ships. Ultimately, the Americans won control of Lake Erie, thus neutralizing western Ontario and cutting the native forces off from supplies. The British controlled Lake Ontario, preventing any major American invasion. 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 Indians of the Northwest and Southeast, thus securing a major war goal. With the defeat of Napoleon in 1814, British trade restrictions and impressment ended, thus eliminating that root cause of the war. 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 British also captured Fort Bowyer a day before learning of the war's end.

The war had the effects of both uniting Canadians and also uniting Americans far more closely than either population had been prior to the war. Canadians remember the war as a victory by 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.


For more information, see: War of 1812, Causes.

The American achievement of independence in 1783 was followed by a series of quarrels between Great Britain and the United States. In the West (northwest of the Ohio River) the United States was battling the Indians, who seemed to have support from the British in Canada. These general causes of disagreement became far more serious after the outbreak of war between Britain and France in 1793. This war engulfed the whole of Europe, and was to last (with only a short truce from 1802 to 1803) from 1793 to 1815, when Napoleon was finally defeated. In 1794 the Jay Treaty resolved some major disputes and opened a decade of peaceful commerce between the U.S. and Britain. After 1800 this European war rapidly developed into a struggle between a sea power, Great Britain, and a land power, France. This struggle increasingly involved maritime blockades designed to stop American trade with the other side.

Commercial Interference

From the beginning of the British-French conflict in 1793 the U.S. was a major supplier of both Britain and France, especially their colonies in the West Indies. However, both sides attempted to restrict American trade. In the case of Great Britain, attempts at blockade were aggravated by the British practice of impressment. England had great need for seamen, and tried to reclaim its deserters from American merchantmen by stopping these vessels on the high seas and removing suspected deserters. By both accident and design American seamen were often taken along with any British deserters. The British practice of impressment was a constant irritant to Americans.

The whole state of Anglo-American relations declined rapidly after 1803, for the European war was renewed in that year escalated in scope and intensity. Britain's need for seamen drove its to increase the practice of impressment from American vessels, and both Great Britain and France came to the conclusion that they could defeat each other by commercial restrictions. British restrictions on American commerce culminated in the Orders in Council of January and November 1807. By these Orders all American trade to France or its possessions (much of Europe) had to be channeled through British ports. Moreover, France, in its Berlin Decree of November 1806 and its Milan Decree of December 1807, declared the British Isles in a state of blockade, and said she would seize all American shipping that obeyed British regulations.


The steady maritime pressure of Great Britain almost drove the United States to war in 1807, for in June of that year American grievances reached a climax when the American vessel "Chesapeake" was attacked and beaten by the British "Leopard" off the American coast. War was avoided at that time primarily by the efforts of President Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson realizing American weakness and hoping to offer a solution other than war, tried to change European policies by economic means. First Thomas Jefferson, and then his successor, James Madison, restricted American trade to the belligerents in the hope of forcing a change in policy. Jefferson's Embargo (December 1807 to March 1809), which stopped all American overseas trade, proved a failure, and was succeeded by other attempts at economic coercion. See also Embargo of 1807

Between 1807 and 1810 American pride and spirits sank lower and lower as the country turned the other cheek to all insults from the European powers. The difficulties of the government were increased by the fact that the Federalist opposition was friendly toward Britain and opposed policies that might lead to war with that country.

(PD) Image: Charles Edward
The Yellow Jacket Memorial from the Battle of Tippecanoe (War of 1812).

Agitation in the West

By 1810, the national spirit began to revive, and there was increased talk of the possibility of war. The centers of this new demand for war were in the Mississippi Valley and in the South Atlantic states. Historians disagree on the causes of the war feeling in the West and South. Some have argued that the Westerners now were beginning to demand war because of the increasing Indian problem in the Northwest, and the suspicion, that the British in Canada were instigating this hostility. Certainly the Northwest had been growing increasingly agitated since 1805 owing to the growth of Tecumseh's Confederacy, and Governor William Henry Harrison of Indiana clashed with the Indians at the battle of Tippecanoe on Nov. 7, 1811. Others have suggested that the Southerners wanted to seize Florida. The notion that the Americans planned to acquire Canada was long ago exploded by historians, but remains a popular myth in Canada Some scholars argue the basis for this West-South alliance was the economic depression that was affecting both the areas. They blamed their economic ills on the British restrictions which made it so difficult for them to export their products.

Emergence of the War Hawks

By 1810 there were ample reasons for a revival of war feeling, and in the elections of that year many new men were elected to Congress. Their leaders were for the most part young, and soon became known as the War Hawks. They took their seats in the Twelfth Congress in the fall of 1811. Led by young Henry Clay, the new speaker of the House, they immediately demanded war on Great Britain. In the congressional debates of 1811-1812 they pointed out that the United States had long suffered from British restrictions, that American products were rotting for lack of an overseas market, that savage warfare was devastating the frontier, and that the means of revenge--the conquest of Canada--was within America's power. President Madison in alliance with the War Hawks sent a bellicose message to Congress.

In June 1812 Congress declared war on Great Britain. The problem was not only that there was New England opposition-- the New England shippers were tied by both commerce and sympathy to the British--but that it was also obvious that the United States was ill-prepared for war. Arguments on military preparation and finance threatened to split the Twelfth Congress, but finally the declaration of war was pushed through the House of Representatives by a vote of 79 to 49, and through the Senate by a vote of 19 to 13. Essentially the declaration of war was carried by an alliance of South and West, and it received the presidential signature on June 18. Two days before this Great Britain had announced its intention to repeal the Orders in Council, but the news did not reach America until several weeks later.

Military history

American Defeats on Land

The United States prepared to fight the British and to conquer Canada with an army of fewer than 10,000 men, a navy of under 20 vessels, and inadequate financial preparations. The leadership at the level of colonel and general was poor; at the level of Secretary of War it was worse. The Americans planned a triple-pronged attack upon Canada--along the Lake Champlain route to Montreal, across the Niagara frontier, and through Detroit into Upper Canada.

The war started badly for the Americans as their attempts to invade Canada were repeatedly repulsed by General Isaac Brock commanding a small British force. The American strategy depended on use of militias, but they either resisted service or were incompetently led. Military and civilian leadership was lacking and remained a critical American weakness until 1814. New England opposed the war and refused to provide troops or financing. Financial and logistical problems plagued the American war effort. Britain possessed excellent finance and logistics but the ongoing war with France had a higher priority, so in 1812-13 they adopted a defensive strategy. After the defeat of Napoleon in 1814 they were able to send veteran armies to invade the U.S., but by then the Americans had learned how to mobilize and fight as well.

Problems of supply and communication, together with the uncertainty of militia support, made the problems of invasion almost insuperable. General William Hull's attempts to invade Upper Canada via Detroit proved utterly disastrous when in August 1812, he surrendered the fortress of Detroit and his whole army because the British threatened to turn loose their terrifying Indian allies. The campaigns on the Niagara frontier failed as well. American forces crossed the Niagara River in October in 1812 and attacked Queenstown Heights, but after initial success were driven back across the river. The proposed attack along the Lake Champlain route toward Montreal was completely ineffective. Though Henry Dearborn led an army toward the Canadian border in November, he soon discovered that his state militia refused to leave the country. He had to turn back, having achieved none of his aims.

American Victories at Sea

The great American consolation of the first year of the war was the conduct of the American naval forces. It had been expected that they would be swept from the seas by the mighty British navy, but instead they delighted the Americans and shocked the British by winning a series of single-ship engagements. At a time when the position on land looked so bleak, American sailors did a great deal to bolster waning American confidence. On August 19 in a famous engagement Captain Isaac Hull guided the "Constitution" to a great victory over the British "Guerrière" in the Atlantic.

"A boxing match, or another bloody nose for John Bull" American cartoon by W. Charles celebrates the naval victory of the frigate "Enterprise" over the British ship "Boxer" in 1813. King George III (left), his nose bleeding and eye blackened, pleads, "Stop...Brother Jonathan, or I shall fall with the loss of blood -- I thought to have been too heavy for you -- But I must acknowledge your superior skill -- Two blows to my one! -- And so well directed too! Mercy, mercy on me, how does this happen!!!" President Madison taunts, "Ha-Ah Johnny! you thought yourself a "Boxer" did you! -- I'll let you know we are an "Enterprize"ing Nation. and ready to meet you with equal force any day." In the background, on the ocean, two ships are engaged in battle."

American sailors were proving both their own seamanship and the skill of their shipbuilders, and for a time the success continued. Stephen Decatur led his frigate the "United States" to a striking victory over the "Macedonian" on October 25, and in December the "Constitution", now captained by William Bainbridge, defeated the "Java" off the coast of Brazil.

The naval success even continued into the new year, and the "Hornet", captained by James Lawrence, sank the "Peacock" on Feb. 24, 1813, but gradually the tide began to turn. British complacency in their sea power, encouraged by the dramatic victories over the French at Trafalgar, began to give way to anger that the ill-regarded Americans should be winning naval battles. No longer did the British vessels jauntily take on American vessels of superior firepower, and the British navy began to gather its ships for a display of might off the American coasts. By the spring of 1813 a blockade began to be formed, and the American vessels found it more and more difficult to leave port.

When on June 1, 1813, the British commander of the "Shannon" invited Captain Lawrence of the "Chesapeake" to come out to sea and fight, the result was the death of Lawrence and the taking of the "Chesapeake." From this time until the end of the war Great Britain took advantage of its large navy to tighten its control around the American coasts. This kept American ships in port, and also permitted British military and naval forces to ravage sections of the eastern seaboard. For the remainder of the war the United States had to depend chiefly on privateers for aggressive action on the ocean.

Standoff in Canada

Meanwhile American land forces continued to fail because of incompetent leadership and poor morale. The Detroit front saw further American disasters in 1813, such as the January, 1813, defeat of an American force under General James Winchester by a British-Indian force at Frenchtown near Detroit. The Americans made no headway in land actions on that front in the spring and summer. However the U.S. Navy prevailed; on Sept. 10, 1813, at the battle of Put-in-Bay on Lake Erie, Captain Oliver Hazard Perry defeated a British naval force and won control of the key lake, thereby cutting the Indians off from British supplies and relieving the threats to the frontier.

With his communications cut, the British commander on the Detroit front, Henry Procter, retreated. He was pursued by an American army under William Henry Harrison, and on October 5 along the Thames River, near Moraviantown, Harrison defeated the British in the battle of the Thames. This not only won the Detroit frontier for the Americans, it also effectively destroyed the coalition of the Indians, for their leader Tecumseh was killed in the engagement. The west was now secure, and the Americans had achieved one of their main war goals.

Harrison's victory stood alone. In April 1813 Dearborn led a raid across Lake Ontario from Sackett's Harbor to York (Toronto) in Upper Canada. He burned some government buildings but made no major strategic gain. Washington planned in the fall of 1813 to march on Montreal. General James Wilkinson was ordered to sail eastwards from Sackett's Harbor down the St. Lawrence, while General Wade Hampton advanced northwards from Plattsburg along Lake Champlain. They both retired to winter quarters at the end of the year without attacking. As 1813 came to an end, the Americans had control in the outlying reaches of Upper Canada but had made no real progress towards the conquest of the British possessions.

The War in the South

The first two years of the war had also brought action in the South. Though there had been some talk of the conquest of the Floridas before the war, the United States did little to bring it about when the conflict actually started. The main gain in the region was when Congress in February 1813 gave President James Madison authorization to take possession of Florida west of the Perdido River. It was the Indians of the region who brought the main actions in the South in the first years of the war. In 1813 the Creeks, encouraged by the British rose in fierce onslaught against the Americans. The task of subduing the Indians was given to Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, with his state militia and Indian allies; Jackson's hard-fought campaign culminated in the destruction of the Creeks at the battle of Horseshoe Bend on Mar. 27, 1814.

Invading the United States

In Europe Napoleon was nearing defeat, and the British could now contemplate the sending of reinforcements to their possessions in the New World. In the spring of 1814 the British planned an invasion of the United States. They hoped to deliver attacks against the Americans through Niagara, along Lake Champlain, and in the South. It did not prove possible to advance on the Niagara frontier, for before British reinforcements had arrived, the American forces there had distinguished themselves. On July 5, 1814, Winfield Scott's force defeated the British at the battle of Chippewa, and ten days later American forces under Scott and Jacob Brown fought a stubborn action at Lundy's Lane, near Niagara Falls. Though the Americans withdrew, they were not defeated, and had well demonstrated their powers of resistance on the Niagara frontier.

The most serious British attack, however, was that delivered by Sir George Prevost along the Lake Champlain route--if successful it could have split the United States. In the late summer he advanced southward with a large force, but his fate was decided by a naval battle. On Sept. 11, 1814, an American naval force under Thomas Macdonough won a striking victory over a British force at the battle of Plattsburg Bay. Though Prevost was advancing on Plattsburg with a larger force than the Americans could muster, he now retreated, deciding that he could not risk the threat to his flanks and rear. The greatest British threat had been repulsed. Prevost, despite his earlier successes, was recalled in disgrace and died awaiting court martial in London.

Burning of Washington

The British, with their reinforcements from Europe, planned large-scale invasions in 1814. The plan by presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to defend the seacoast using small gunboats in major ports proved a fiasco as the British merely landed behind the defenses. In August a British force landed in Chesapeake Bay, routed the Americans at the battle of Bladensburg on August 24, marched into Washington and burned the public buildings before retiring. They then attacked Baltimore, but here met far more determined resistance from Fort McHenry and the American force, during which resistance Francis Scott Key wrote "The Star Spangled Banner," which became the national anthem. After the death of their commander the British retired in frustration.

Battle of New Orleans

The last major effort of the British in 1814 was an expedition against New Orleans under the command of Sir Edward Pakenham, a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars. He led an army of some 10,000 veterans of Europe against New Orleans, with the long-term plan of taking control of all of Louisians. The defense of New Orleans was organized by General Andrew Jackson. On January 8, 1815, the British force advanced against Jackson's entrenched position south of New Orleans; they met complete disaster. Bravely advancing into a relentless fire, the British suffered some 2,000 casualties, including the deaths of Packenham and his second-in-command. They retreated American casualties were fewer than 100. Jackson achieved fame, and the war ended on a glorious note as the Americans boasted they had defeated the British army that had defeated Napoleon.

Antiwar sentiment inside U.S.

In the summer of 1814 America was in danger from internal as well as external pressures. Since the beginning of the war Federalist New England had shown a marked reluctance to support it with either troops or money. The discontent that had existed throughout the conflict flared into bitter protest in 1814. In October 1814 the Massachusetts legislature voted to call a convention to discuss grievances with other New England states. The Hartford Convention met at Hartford, Connecticut, in December 1814 and January 1815. It pointed out the many supposed infractions of the Constitution that had taken place under the Democratic-Republicans, and suggested a series of constitutional amendments. These were designed to weaken the power of the Southern states, particularly Virginia. A delegation was to go to Washington to present the various complaints to Congress, but they only arrived in time to see their whole movement completely discredited by the end of the war.


Negotiations to end the conflict had been going on in desultory fashion since 1812, and with the apparent end of the wars in Europe most of the main American grievances had been removed. Accordingly, on Dec. 24, 1814, the Treaty of Ghent was signed in Europe. It provided for little else except a cessation of hostilities, the mutual restoration of territory, and mixed commissions to settle disputed portions of the boundary agreed on in 1783. Maritime grievances were omitted, for they had ended with the European war.


For the most part the war had been a sorry affair for the United States, but it ended in a burst of glory at New Orleans. All was forgiven in the moment of victory, and with the end of the long European struggle America could turn inland. Its commerce was no longer harassed on the oceans of the world, and its energies could now be devoted to internal expansion. The United States had successfully defended its independence from Great Britain, and a surge of optimism and nationalism swept through the American people. The Indians had been defeated in both north and south, and American settlers poured west in the years after 1815. Of 286,000 American soldiers and sailors, about 2,260 died of disease or in combat, and 4,505 were seriously wounded.[2]

In Canada, the British and ex-American Loyalist elite, rejecting democracy and republicanism, tried to set Canadians on a different course from that of their former enemy.[3] To foster nationalism they sponsored a popular myth to the effect that the civilian militia had won the war. The long-term implication is that Canada did not need a regular professional army.[4]


  1. Latimer (2007: 303-304).
  2. Al Nofi, "Statistical Summary America's Major Wars" at [1]
  3. Erik Kaufman, "Condemned to Rootlessness: The Loyalist Origins of Canada's Identity Crisis," Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, vol.3, no.1, (1997), pp. 110-135 online at [2]
  4. CMH, "Origins of the Militia Myth" (Feb 2006) online

See also