The War of 1812
by Reginald Horsman

click here for the Key Events & Causes of this war

The Action Betwieen U.S.S. Constitution & H.M.S. Java by Henry Scott

The War of 1812 was fought between the United States and Great Britain from June 1812 to the spring of 1815, although the peace treaty ending the war was signed in Europe in December 1814. The main land fighting of the war occurred along the Canadian border, in the Chesapeake Bay region, and along the Gulf of Mexico; extensive action also took place at sea.


From the end of the American Revolution in 1783, the United States had been irritated by the failure of the British to withdraw from American territory along the Great Lakes; their backing of the Indians on America's frontiers; and their unwillingness to sign commercial agreements favorable to the United States.

American resentment grew during the French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802) and the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15), in which Britain and France were the main combatants.

In time, France came to dominate much of the continent of Europe, while Britain remained supreme on the seas. The two powers also fought each other commercially: Britain attempted to blockade the continent of Europe, and France tried to prevent the sale of British goods in French possessions. During the 1790s, French and British maritime policies produced several crises with the United States, but after 1803 the difficulties became much more serious. The British Orders in Council of 1807 tried to channel all neutral trade to continental Europe through Great Britain, and France's Berlin and Milan decrees of 1806 and 1807 declared Britain in a state of blockade and condemned neutral shipping that obeyed British regulations (see CONTINENTAL SYSTEM). The United States believed its rights on the seas as a neutral were being violated by both nations, but British maritime policies were resented more because Britain dominated the seas. Also, the British claimed the right to take from American merchant ships any British sailors who were serving on them. Frequently, they also took Americans. This practice of impressment became a major grievance.

The United States at first attempted to change the policies of the European powers by economic means. In 1807, after the British ship Leopard fired on the American frigate CHESAPEAKE, President Thomas Jefferson urged and Congress passed an EMBARGO ACT banning all American ships from foreign trade. The embargo failed to change British and French policies but devastated New England shipping. Later and weaker economic measures were also unsuccessful.

Failing in peaceful efforts and facing an economic depression, some Americans began to argue for a declaration of war to redeem the national honor. The Congress that was elected in 1810 and met in November 1811 included a group known as the War Hawks who demanded war against Great Britain. These men were all Democratic-Republicans and mostly from the West and South. Among their leaders were John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, Henry Clay of Kentucky, and Felix Grundy of Tennessee. They argued that American honor could be saved and British policies changed by an invasion of Canada. The FEDERALIST PARTY, representing New England shippers who foresaw the ruination of their trade, opposed war.

Napoleon's announcement in 1810 of the revocation of his decrees was followed by British refusals to repeal their orders, and pressures for war increased. On June 18, 1812, President James Madison signed a declaration of war that Congress--with substantial opposition--had passed at his request. Unknown to Americans, Britain had finally, two days earlier, announced that it would revoke its orders.

Campaigns of 1812-13

U.S. forces were not ready for war, and American hopes of conquering Canada collapsed in the campaigns of 1812 and 1813. The initial plan called for a three-pronged offensive: from Lake Champlain to Montreal; across the Niagara frontier; and into Upper Canada from Detroit. The attacks were uncoordinated, however, and all failed. In the West, Gen. William HULL surrendered Detroit to the British in August 1812; on the Niagara front, American troops lost the Battle of Queenston Heights in October; and along Lake Champlain the American forces withdrew in late November without seriously engaging the enemy.

American frigates won a series of single-ship engagements with British frigates, and American privateers continually harried British shipping. The captains and crew of the frigates CONSTITUTION and United States became renowned throughout America. Meanwhile, the British gradually tightened a blockade around America's coasts, ruining American trade, threatening American finances, and exposing the entire coastline to British attack.

American attempts to invade Canada in 1813 were again mostly unsuccessful. There was a standoff at Niagara, and an elaborate attempt to attack Montreal by a combined operation involving one force advancing along Lake Champlain and another sailing down the Saint Lawrence River from Lake Ontario failed at the end of the year. The only success was in the West. The Americans won control of the Detroit frontier region when Oliver Hazard PERRY's ships destroyed the British fleet on Lake Erie (Sept. 10, 1813). This victory forced the British to retreat eastward from the Detroit region, and on Oct. 5, 1813, they were overtaken and defeated at the battle of the Thames (Moraviantown) by an American army under the command of Gen. William Henry Harrison. In this battle the great Shawnee chief TECUMSEH, who had harassed the northwestern frontier since 1811, was killed while fighting on the British side.

Campaigns of 1814

In 1814 the United States faced complete defeat, because the British, having defeated Napoleon, began to transfer large numbers of ships and experienced troops to America. The British planned to attack the United States in three main areas: in New York along Lake Champlain and the Hudson River in order to sever New England from the union; at New Orleans to block the Mississippi; and in Chesapeake Bay as a diversionary maneuver. The British then hoped to obtain major territorial concessions in a peace treaty. The situation was particularly serious for the United States because the country was insolvent by the fall of 1814, and in New England opponents of the war were discussing separation from the Union. The HARTFORD CONVENTION that met in Connecticut in December 1814 and January 1815 stopped short of such an extreme step but suggested a number of constitutional amendments to restrict federal power.

The British appeared near success in the late summer of 1814. American resistance to the diversionary attack in Chesapeake Bay was so weak that the British, after winning the Battle of Bladensburg (August 24), marched into Washington, D.C., and burned most of the public buildings. President Madison had to flee into the countryside. The British then turned to attack Baltimore but met stiffer resistance and were forced to retire after the American defense of FORT MCHENRY, which inspired Francis Scott Key to write the words of the "Star-Spangled Banner."

In the north, about 10,000 British veterans advanced into the United States from Montreal. Only a weak American force stood between them and New York City, but on Sept. 11, 1814, American Capt. Thomas MACDONOUGH won the naval battle of Lake Champlain (Plattsburg Bay), destroying the British fleet. Fearing the possibility of a severed line of communications, the British army retreated into Canada.

Peace Treaty and the Battle of New Orleans

When news of the failure of the attack along Lake Champlain reached British peace negotiators at Ghent, in the Low Countries, they decided to forego territorial demands. The United States, although originally hoping that Britain would recognize American neutral rights, was happy to end the war without major losses.

The Treaty of Ghent, signed by both powers on Dec. 24, 1814, supported, in essence, the conditions in existence at the war's onset. The U.S. Senate ratified the treaty unanimously on Feb. 17, 1815.

Because it was impossible to communicate quickly across the Atlantic, the British attack on New Orleans went ahead as planned, even though the war had officially ended, and isolated naval actions continued for a few months. In January 1815, Gen. Andrew JACKSON won a decisive victory at New Orleans over the attacking British forces: the British suffered more than 2,000 casualties; the Americans, fewer than 100. The accidental linking of the peace treaty with Jackson's victory at New Orleans convinced many Americans that the war had ended in triumph. The Hartford Convention was discredited, and a surging nationalism swept the country in the postwar years.

Bibliography: Berton, Pierre, Flames across the border (1981; repr. 1988) and The Invasion of Canada (1980; repr. 1988); Caffrey, Kate, The Twilight's Last Gleaming: The British against America 1812-1815 (1977); Coles, Harry L., The War of 1812 (1965); Horsman, Reginald, The War of 1812 (1969); Mahon, John K., The War of 1812 (1972); Tucker, Glenn, Poltroons and Patriots: A Popular Account of the War of 1812, 2 vols. (1954).

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