Blundering Into War: The War of 1812

Inhabitants of Canada! After thirty years of peace and prosperity, the United States have been drive to arms…To the peaceable, unoffending inhabitant, it brings neither danger nor difficulty. I come to find enemies, not to make them; I come to protect, not to injure you…In the name of my country, and by the authority of my government, I promise you protection to your persons, property, and rights; remain at your homes, raise not your hands against your brethren, pursue your peaceful and customary avocations…You will be emancipated from tyranny and oppression…If, contrary to your own interest and the just expectation of my country you shall take part in the approaching contest, you will be considered and treated as enemies, and the horrors and calamities of war will stalk before you…The first stroke of a tomahawk, the first attempt with the scalping knife, will be the signal of one indiscriminate scene of desolation…Instant destruction will be your lot.

— William Hull, message to the people of Canada, July 12, 1812 —

As Europe lay in the grip of the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, tensions began to rise between the two great English-speaking powers: Great Britain and the United States. Just three decades earlier the American colonies had broken free of the mother country, and leaders on both sides felt there was unfinished business to attend to. British leaders pointed to America’s willingness to trade with revolutionary France as evidence of their perfidy, while in Washington a group known as the “war hawks,” led by Congressman Henry Clay of Kentucky, railed against the Royal Navy’s practice of pressing American sailors into service and London’s support of Tecumseh’s Shawnee Confederacy as casus belli. President James Madison, who had authored the US Constitution and now sat in the White House, had resisted calls to war, but by the summer of 1812 the diplomatic crisis between the two countries had reached its peak. On June 1st, Madison sent a letter to Congress and asked for a declaration of war, citing British impressment on the high seas as the cause. On the 18th, only days before Napoleon’s invasion of the Russian Empire, Congress declared war on Great Britain.

Neither side was truly prepared for the war. The British fleet, though victorious over the French at Trafalgar seven years earlier, was engaged in a blockade that was slowly strangling Napoleon’s economy, and the British Army under the Duke of Wellington was locked in combat in Spain and Portugal. The United States Army was in a shambles, having endured brutal funding and personnel cuts under Thomas Jefferson. The Navy was in better shape, with six topof-the-line frigates that could match any other warship in their class, but they were outnumbered more than one hundred to one on the high seas! The Army and Navy departments were disorganized, and field commanders tended to disobey orders from the higher commands. Most importantly, the American political climate was bitterly divided on the issue of war. The Federalists opposed any conflict with Great Britain, citing their commercial interests and the threat of invasion from Canada, while Madison’s Democratic-Republicans were eager for war no matter the cost. As the two nations readied their forces, it was clear that this “Second War of American Independence” would be a case study in rapid preparations, disorganized command, and last-minute turns of the tide.

The War on Land, 1812-13

The early land campaigns in the War of 1812 were disastrous for the United States. Less than a month after the war began, General William Hull marched an army of twelve hundred men into Canada from Detroit, calling on the Canadians to surrender or suffer the “horrors and calamities of war.” When he learned of a Shawnee uprising in northern Illinois and Indiana, he promptly retreated back to Detroit and then surrendered to a British force one-third his own strength under General Isaac Brock without firing a shot. The Shawnee pledged to allow the defenders of Fort Dearborn (now Chicago) and Detroit to return to Kentucky and Ohio unharmed, but they then ambushed the retreating Americans and murdered more than half of them—including women and children. The twin defeats at Fort Dearborn and Detroit meant that the United States had lost control of the northern two-thirds of the Northwest Territory (what is now the Midwest), and the eastern three Great Lakes were now closed to the Americans. Later that year, the United States tried to invade Canada across the Niagara River near Buffalo. General Brock, now in overall command of the Canadian defenders, held the line, though he was killed in the fighting.

The United States fared better in 1813. Hull had been courtmartialed and succeeded by General William Henry Harrison, the “Hero of Tippecanoe” who understood Native American battlefield tactics. After a reversal at Frenchtown in January, Harrison maneuvered and struck enemy targets to hold the British and Shawnee in Michigan and block their advance into Ohio. At the same time, an American army under Zebulon Pike, crossed into Canada and burned the capital city of York (now Toronto). Pike died in battle, and the Canadians were eager for revenge at the destruction of this very important city. By October, General Harrison had driven the enemy back into Canada, and he attacked along the Thames River in Ontario in October 1813.

The Battle of the Thames was decisive for the United States in three ways. First, it put an end to the British threat to the Northwest Territory; second, the leader of the Shawnee Confederacy, Tecumseh, was killed during the battle; and third, it propelled General Harrison to great fame as one of the two leading military figures of the war.

The War at Sea, 1812-13

The United States fared much better at sea in the first eighteen months of the war. America’s six frigates, augmented by smaller vessels, began raiding British shipping on the high seas. These ships were faster and more modern than their British counterparts—able to outfight or outrun anything the Royal Navy had afloat. On August 19, 1812, the most famous sailing warship in American history, the USS Constitution, engaged the British warship Guerriere in a fierce battle four hundred miles southeast of Halifax, Nova Scotia. The Constitution’s hull was reinforced by iron bands and packed with surplus cotton unsold thanks to Thomas Jefferson’s Embargo Act, and many British shots bounced off her. Captain Isaac Hull, nephew to the defeated General William Hull, expertly maneuvered the Constitution to destroy Guerriere’s rudder, and the British ship struck her colors. For the first time in American military history, an American warship had claimed a vessel of the Royal Navy as a prize (though she was too badly damaged to be captured, and was burned instead). The Constitution’s victory earned her the nickname “Old Ironsides,” and she remains today a symbol of the strength and resilience of the United States Navy. The ship is now a museum in Boston Harbor, and she is still a commissioned vessel in the US Navy.

America’s frigates soon faced the wrath of the British in the Atlantic, and the USS Chesapeake was captured by HMS Shannon in June 1813. The US Navy was unable to win any major victories in the Atlantic after 1813 and failed to prevent the British invasions the following year. However, attention turned to the Great Lakes, where an arms race was heating up over which side could build the largest and most powerful ships on these placid waters. Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry took command of all American forces on the Great Lakes in January 1813 with orders to prevent a British invasion of New York from across the lake. His fleet of nine ships faced six enemy vessels, and the two fleets engaged each other on September 10, 1813, in the Battle of Lake Erie. Perry’s flagship, USS Lawrence, was the first to meet the enemy, as it was the fastest American ship, and it took broadsides from all sides. Four-fifths of the crew was killed, and the Lawrence was soon a burning wreck. Perry and the survivors piled into lifeboats and sailed through the battle toward the Niagara, where he took command and soon defeated the British fleet. His message to President Madison and the Navy Department was curt and memorable: “We have met the enemy and they are ours!” With this victory, America had secured the eastern Great Lakes and ended the threat of a British invasion by water.

Britain Attacks

After Napoleon’s defeat in Russia and the coup de grâce at Leipzig in 1813, London began planning a final offensive to bring the Americans to their knees. They hoped to launch a threepronged invasion of the United States: from Lower Canada down the Hudson River Valley to cut New England off from the rest of the country, up the Chesapeake Bay to capture Washington and Baltimore, and at the mouth of the Mississippi River to seize New Orleans, America’s largest harbor. The northern attack never materialized, but four thousand British troops landed in Maryland in July 1814 and quickly overran a militia force at Bladensburg before marching toward Washington, DC.

President Madison received word of the British attack just hours before the enemy arrived. Having just sat down to dinner, the president and his wife Dolley quickly evacuated the White House with the Cabinet and members of Congress in tow. (Dolley saved a famous portrait of George Washington, which is the only surviving artifact in the White House.) The British were held up briefly by another small militia band outside the city, but they soon entered the capital on August 24th. Hoping to ransom the city for peace terms, they were unable to find any American official with whom to negotiate. After looting the city, they burned the Capitol, the White House, and every other public building except the Patent Office, which held numerous British copyright documents.

After destroying Washington, the British began preparations for an advance on Baltimore, America’s third-largest city, which would be a staging area for a planned move west toward the Ohio Valley. They planned to sail up the Chesapeake and land north of the city while the Royal Navy shelled Fort McHenry, which protected Baltimore Harbor. However, the British underestimated the resilience of the American defenders at Baltimore—while they were unwilling to protect the national capital (whose loss would have crippled any European nation), they were determined to halt the British then and there. Thousands of Maryland militiamen and civilians flocked to Baltimore to prepare its defenses, and Fort McHenry was reinforced with additional cannons and steeled itself for the assault. By the time the British had landed, they were outnumbered three-to-one and were defeated at the Battle of North Point on September 12th. The redcoats then pulled back and waited for the navy to destroy Baltimore’s defenses; they would then move in and occupy the burning ruins of the city.

The Royal Navy fired nearly eighteen hundred rounds at Fort McHenry and the floating batteries in Baltimore Harbor for a full day, but they were unable to subdue its defenders. In the evening of September 13th, a young Baltimore lawyer and vocal critic of the war named Francis Scott Key led a delegation under a flag of truce out to the British flagship to negotiate a ceasefire. Watching from the deck of the British warship, he saw the explosions of rocket and cannon fire over Fort McHenry, and as dawn broke he could see the tattered American flag still flying high. Taking up his pen, he wrote a poem that opened with the words, “Oh say can you see by the dawn’s early light…” Having failed to destroy Fort McHenry, the British withdrew their forces from the Chesapeake region. Their second offensive had failed.

Undaunted, the British now pressed on with a final attack on the United States far to the south. New Orleans had been a French possession until 1803, and its population was the most diverse of any American city. Its garrison was commanded by General Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, and when he learned that the British were approaching he cobbled together a motley force of nearly six thousand regulars, militiamen, freed slaves, civilian volunteers, and even a band of French pirates to defend New Orleans against eight thousand British regulars (many of them veterans of the war against Napoleon). General Sir Edward Pakenham, nephew of the Duke of Wellington, led the British attack, and he was confident of victory.

Jackson deployed his men just off the beaches along a narrow strip of land between the Mississippi River and a large swamp. From this position he controlled the only approach to New Orleans. Pakenham attacked on January 8, 1815, and the result was a slaughter of epic proportions. Two thousand British soldiers were killed or wounded, while the Americans lost only 71 men. General Pakenham was mortally wounded by cannon-fire and died later that day.

As the smoke cleared over the battlefield, Andrew Jackson stood atop the defenses and surveyed the carnage below. His glorious victory had made him the greatest hero of the War of 1812 (and a future president). He returned the body of General Pakenham to his family after having it pickled in a barrel of rum—one of many examples of Jackson’s macabre sense of humor.

The Lasting Peace

The irony of New Orleans was that Jackson had won his victory after the war had formally ended. Peace negotiations between the British and American diplomats in the Netherlands had opened only weeks after the war had begun. A new group of envoys led by John Quincy Adams, son of the former president, arrived in October 1814 with instructions to end the war at any cost, and they sought the best terms they could get from the British. The terms of the Treaty of Ghent, signed on Christmas Day 1814, were status quo antebellum, “all things as they were before the war.” No territories were exchanged, which angered the “war hawks” who had hoped to annex part or all of Canada, and the British did not promise to stop aiding the Native Americans or end their pressing of sailors into the Royal Navy.

In the end, the War of 1812 represented the lowest point of Anglo-American relations outside the Revolution itself, but it was also the turning point between the two nations. From 1815 onward, the United States and Great Britain began to regard each other cautiously as potential friends and, perhaps, even allies. British and American interests were aligned for much of the 19th century, as both nations sought to maintain open commercial markets in Central and South America. There would still be conflicts between America and Britain—in the 1840s over Oregon, during the American Civil War, in the 1890s during a border dispute in Maine—but eventually the two countries would form a lasting “special relationship” cemented by blood during two terrible world wars, and one that endures to this day.

So what did America gain in the War of 1812? Not land, or glory, or treasure. Rather, America gained its true freedom from outside influence. For most of the thirty years between the Revolution and this war, America had been pulled in one of two directions: toward revolutionary France or reactionary Britain. The war forever severed all political and cultural ties between the United States and Great Britain, but these would be rebuilt even stronger than they had been during the colonial period. America also gained its freedom from outside interference in Native American affairs. Never again did a European power seek to aid native tribes in their resistance to American expansion, and that expansion soon accelerated across the North American continent. Fifteen thousand Americans perished in the war, in battle, of wounds, or of disease, and historians continue to debate the merits of the conflict. Nevertheless, as the country emerged from its second war of independence, it was now free to chart its own course in the world.

AVAILABLE ANYWHERE YOU LISTEN TO PODCASTS