Date: June 18, 1812 - February 15, 1815.
Locations: Canada, New York, Maryland, Louisiana, the Great Lakes region,
and the Atlantic and Caribbean coasts of the United States.
Combatants: United States vs. Great Britain.
At Issue: American sovereignty and neutral rights on the seas.
Result: Military stalemate in which neither side achieved its objectives in
the peace treaty.
Principal American Commanders: William Henry Harrison, Andrew Jackson.
Principal Battles: Queenston Heights, Lake Erie, Thames, Chrysler's Farm,
Horseshoe Bend, Lundy's Lane, Bladensburg, Lake Champlain,
Baltimore, and New Orleans.
Background The War of 1812 is sometimes called the Second War of Independence because Americans believed that Great Britain's aggressive policies had forced them to fight to defend U.S. sovereignty and honor. They demanded that the British treat them with the respect usually shown to great powers and allow the new nation a freedom of action unjustified by American weakness. When George Washington insisted that London observe neutral rights on the high seas, privileges then unrecognized in international law, the two nations were placed on a course toward confrontation. (Note: It was also called Madison’s War by Madison’s opponents).
Under normal circumstances, the British would have accommodated the United States, their most important trading partner, by modifying their actions. However, Britain was locked in a life-or-death struggle against Napoleon I's France and believed that a militant stance against its former colonies was imperative to its own survival. British obstinacy and an emerging American national pride thus produced a war that many people at the time thought was unnecessary.
Impressment, the removal of sailors from American ships and their forcible enlistment in the British military, was the most objectionable of British actions. London invigorated this long-standing policy during the French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802) and Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) as a way to ensure full manning of its huge navy. Recruitment and retention of sailors became a problem, especially during wartime, because of the notoriously bad conditions and low pay aboard British ships. Potential enlistees signed up for duty with the American merchant marine, where the work was easier and the compensation higher. The Royal Navy routinely stopped Yankee merchantmen to search for British citizens and usually removed several sailors. Some were British citizens deserting their nation's cause, but others were native-born Americans or naturalized citizens, a status not recognized by British law. Probably at least 6,000 men were abducted from U.S. vessels during this period. The United States considered the decksof its ships to be an extension of its territory and viewed impressment as a violation of U.S. sovereignty and honor.
During this period, the United States emerged as a prominent advocate for the privilege of noncombatant nations to trade freely with belligerents during war, a diplomatic position later known as neutral maritime rights. Americans had taken advantage of European conflicts to establish a highly profitable carrying trade with the New Worldpossessions of Britain, France, and Spain.Mercantilist policies had mostly closed these colonies to Americans before the French Revolutionary Wars began. British and French tolerance of the American takeover of this commerce ended with the intensification of their war in 1805-1807. Britain's naval victory at Trafalgar (October 21, 1805) and France's land victory at Austerlitz (December 2, 1805) created an exclusive supremacy for the British on the seas and for the French on the European continent. Unable to come to grips militarily, Britain and France struck at each other's trade, hoping to damage their enemies’ economies. Napoleon, emperor of France, declared Britain under blockade by the Berlin Decree (November 21, 1806). He later ordered the seizure of neutral vessels stopping in the British Isles or British colonial ports by the Milan Decree (December 17, 1807).
London retaliated with a series of orders in council, beginning on January 7 and November 11, 1807, which closed the European continent to neutral ships and required these vessels to pay duties and unload their cargoes in Britain. With the world's strongest powers striking at its merchantmen, the United States suffered a serious disruption of trade. Between 1807 and 1812, the British and the French seized at least 900 Yankee ships, the majority falling into the hands of the Royal Navy. The greater effectiveness of Britain's naval power caused American anger to fall mainly on London. The United States declared war on June 18, 1812, to force the British to abandon impressment and to recognize neutral maritime rights.
Action George Washington hoped to end British aggression by seizing Canada and holding it hostage until London agreed to U.S. demands. Consequently, most of the war's land operations involved American attempts to conquer the province. The initial year of the war was the most favorable time for U.S. success. The British were surprised by the declaration of war and maintained only 7,000 regulars in Canada. The opportunity was lost, however, because of incompetent leadership, administrative and logistical inefficiency, and overreliance on an ill-prepared militia.
In the far west, an American army at Detroit was forced to surrender (August 16, 1812), leaving the upper Northwest completely in British hands. Along the Niagara River, a U.S. invasion was turned back at the Battle of Queenston Heights (October 13). In the Lake Champlain region, the main effort failed in November when the militia refused to cross over into Canada.
During 1813, serious opposition to the war in New England and northern New York forced Washington to concentrate U.S. efforts in the Detroit and Niagara regions. As Major General William Henry Harrison assembled and trained an army to recapture Detroit, the British remained on the offensive, besieging Fort Meigs and Fort Stephenson and massacring a small U.S. force at Frenchtown (January 22). Harrison was eventually able to seize the initiative after Captain Oliver Hazard Perry destroyed a British naval squadron at the Battle of Lake Erie (September 10). The triumphant U.S. fleet solved the army's supply problems and transported Harrison's troops to southern Ontario. The outflanked British army abandoned Detroit and was decisively defeated at the Battle of the Thames (October 5). The Americans later had to abandon southern Ontario, however, because they lacked the regulars to garrison the area, and the militia proved undependable for this service.
U.S. operations in the Niagara-Lake Ontario theater were initially successful. A combined expedition captured and burned York (later Toronto), the capital of Upper Canada (April 27, 1813). Colonel Winfield Scott's troops in cooperation with the U.S. fleet seized Fort George (May 27), causing the British to abandon the entire Niagara front. A small garrison under Brigadier General Jacob J. Brown repulsed a major British assault on Sackett's Harbor (May 28-29), the main U.S. naval base on Lake Ontario. American success was short-lived, however, because a British counterattack at Stony Creek (June 6) allowed them to regain both the initiative and most of the west bank of the Niagara. Late in the year, the British crossed the river, captured Fort Niagara, and burned Buffalo, New York. The year ended with Britain holding the upper hand in this theater of operations.
In the fall, the Americans launched a major offensive against Montreal. This two-pronged assault was turned back at the Battles of the Chateaugay (October 25) and Chrysler's Farm (November 11), ending American attempts to conquer Lower Canada.
The most alarming events of 1813, however, occurred in the southern United States. Distressed by continuous encroachments on Indian rights and lands, the Creek started a war against the Americans by massacring soldiers and settlers at Fort Mims (August 30). A retaliatory expedition under the command of Major General Andrew Jackson defeated the Creek at Tallasahatchee (November 3) and at Talladega (November 9) but was unable to eliminate Indian resistance because of militia desertions and supply problems.
In 1814, Jackson crushed the Creek rebellion at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend (March 27) but discovered that the British and the Spanish in Florida had been supplying and encouraging the Indians. Jackson ended this collusion by seizing Pensacola (November 7), denying its use to the British as a base. In the northern theater, Brown's forces crossed the Niagara and captured Fort Erie (July 3). At the Battle of Chippewa (July 5), the Americans routed a superior British army but were themselves driven back at Lundy's Lane (July 25). Retreating to Fort Erie, the Americans successfully endured a seven-week siege. Its lifting (September 18-19) signaled the end of significant operations in the Niagara region.
Napoleon's defeat and first abdication in April, 1814, changed British views of the war. Reinforced by ships and troops formerly employed against France, London decided to adopt major offensive operations with the goal of taking eastern Maine from the United States and setting up an Indian buffer state in the Northwest. Consequently, Britain executed three naval-land assaults: targeting upper New York, the Chesapeake Bay, and New Orleans. Britain's efforts met with limited success, despite wielding an overall force superiority for the first time during the war.
The northern expedition under Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost was turned back on land at the Battle of Plattsburgh (September 11), and the accompanying British naval squadron was crushed on Lake Champlain (September 11). The eastern expedition enjoyed early success when it routed an American army at Bladensburg (August 24) and captured Washington, burning the important public buildings. This expedition was decisively defeated, however, when it attempted to take Baltimore (September 12-14). On the southern front, Britain's Siege of New Orleans produced three battles (December 24, 1814; January 1 and 8, 1815), which resulted in one of the most humiliating reverses ever suffered by British arms. This victory propelled General Jackson, the U.S. commander, to national fame and eventually to the presidency. The failure of the 1814 offensives led London to renew negotiations for peace.
Two-and-one-half years of inconclusive fighting on land encouraged both sides to compromise. Nevertheless, it was the war on the seas that did the most to produce a military stalemate and to persuade British and American leaders that their objectives were unachievable at any reasonable cost. The U.S. Navy's performance surprised the Europeans. Its single-ship victories--such as the USS Constitution versus HMS Guerrière (August 19, 1812)--displayed Yankee superiority in seamanship and gunnery and boosted American morale.Privateering was Washington's most effective weapon, however, with approximately 1,600 British merchant vessels falling into the hands of American captains. The massive loss in ships and cargo was the single most important factor causing a restless British public to pressure Parliament for peace.
Britain also applied its maritime weapons with success. Admiral Sir John Borlase Warren, who commanded the British fleets in the Caribbean and western Atlantic through most of the war, imposed a tight blockade on the United States, beginning in February of 1813. By 1814, the American navy was effectively bottled up and useless. Yankee merchantmen were also confined to port. Neutral nations had assumed their carrying trade. New England Federalists' resis- tance to the war consequently grew to alarming proportions. The blockade seriously weakened the American economy and disrupted government finances, because Washington's revenues depended strongly on tariff income. Bankrupt, frustrated by domestic opposition, and constantly annoyed by British coastal raids, Americans were eager for peace by the summer of 1814.
Aftermath On January 15, 1815, the Treaty of Ghent (signed in December, 1814) was ratified. The treaty ignored the basic issues over which the war had been fought and instead dealt with agreements and procedures to return territories and boundaries to their prewar status.
-Michael S. Fitzgerald Books Hickey, Donald R. The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.
Horsman, Reginald. The War of 1812. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969.
Quimby, Robert S. The U.S. Army in the War of 1812: An Operational and
Command Study. 2 vols. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1997.
1783-1830. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983.
Stanley, George F. G. The War of 1812: Land Operations. Toronto: Macmillan, 1983.
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