A Brief History of the War of 1812
By 1812, the young United States was expanding outward at a remarkable rate. Vermont entered the Union in 1791, followed soon after by Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio. President Thomas Jefferson’s purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803 nearly doubled the size of the United States and in 1812 Louisiana became the first new state to emerge from this new Territory. At the same time, the American merchant marine more than doubled in size. Great Britain and France were the superpowers of the age and America’s most important trading partners. They were also embroiled in the Napoleonic Wars and the United States found it increasingly difficult to remain a neutral trading partner with both countries. Disagreements with France led to an undeclared war from 1798-1800 and by 1812 the United States approached the brink of war with Great Britain, whose Royal Navy ruled the world’s oceans.
from the War of 1812
period. It was the only
American flag to have
more than thirteen stripes.
Western expansionism and hostilities along the Canadian border contributed to the outbreak of the War of 1812. However, it was maritime disagreements that became the catalyst. The U.S. merchant marine constituted the world’s largest neutral fleet during the Napoleonic Wars. Both France and Britain made efforts to prevent U.S. trade with the opposite power, but it was British laws and the forcible seizure of American ships and cargoes that outraged the American public. Britain maintained that the Royal Navy could stop vessels of any nation at sea and force into Royal Navy service any British-born man, despite current nationality. This practice, called impressment, kept the Royal Navy flush with able-bodied seamen and their enormous fleet afloat. The impressment of sailors from American vessels was widely unpopular among the American public and many called for President Madison to draw a harder line with the British government.
In 1807, the HMS LEOPARD boldly demanded that the USS CHESAPEAKE stop to be boarded, a typical precursor to the impressment of sailors. When American Commodore James Barron refused to allow British officers to board, the LEOPARD opened fire and killed several American sailors. The incident drew international attention and enflamed the American populace’s hostility to the British government further. Negotiations temporarily averted war. It was not until 1812 when the combination of British maritime practices and blatant disregard of neutrality agreements led to an intractable diplomatic situation for the United States.
When the United States declared war on June 18, 1812, the country was woefully unprepared for the challenge. A small standing army supported by state militias and a navy without even one ship of the line faced a British army of more than 220,000 troops and a Royal Navy of 600 ships with 175 ships of the line. However, Britain’s attention and military might was occupied with the much larger Napoleonic Wars against France. A dispute with the upstart Americans was viewed primarily as annoying distraction.
captures the HMS GUERRIERE.
American naval victories soon changed initial British impressions. The heavily constructed and armed American frigates quickly proved their worth, shocking the world with their victories over the Royal Navy in single ship actions. By the end of 1812, the HMS GUERRIERE and HMS JAVA had fallen to the USS CONSTITUTION and the HMS MACEDONIAN to the USS UNITED STATES.
from the USS LAWRENCE to the
USS NIAGARA during the Battle of
Battles on land were another matter. Encouraged by the War Hawks in Congress, General William Hull launched an invasion of Canada from Detroit in July 1812. Within a month, Hull was forced back to Detroit, where he surrendered his entire command to British and Native American forces. In October 1812, American forces made another attempt to invade Canada, this time from the Niagara frontier of New York. At the Battle of Queenston Heights, American forces were served a crushing defeat and withdrew. Many Americans began to question the war. A large anti-Republican faction, headed by Federalists, decried the war and called for peace. Merchants in the strongly Federalist New England even disobeyed the existing trade blockade with Britain and provided Royal Navy ships and British soldiers in Canada with food and supplies. At the heel of embarrassing land defeats, the war’s support seemed to be floundering.
Then America’s luck began to change. In 1813, General William Henry Harrison and Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry secured Lake Erie and the Ohio River Valley with land and sea victories. On Lake Ontario, American forces took and burned York, the provincial capital of British Upper Canada. Both nations then engaged in a naval build up in which neither country gained a clear advantage. In the St. Lawrence River valley an attempt by American forces to invade was repulsed in 1813. However, Lake Champlain was secured under American control with another U.S. naval victory at the Battle of Plattsburgh on September 11, 1814.
In 1814, the British began to tighten their control over North America. Their blockade of southern U.S. ports was extended northward and veteran troops from Europe soon bolstered their forces in the Chesapeake Bay. British forces landed along the Patuxent River in Maryland and marched on Washington D.C. Ill prepared for this thrust, American troops posed little more than a speed bump at the Battle of Bladensburg on August 24, 1814. Washington D.C. was subsequently burned and the city of Alexandria captured before British forces retired. Sensing another easy victory, the British troops landed near Baltimore, MD while the Royal Navy bombarded Ft. McHenry at the mouth of the harbor. British troops were bloodied at the Battle of North Point before running into strong American defenses along the outskirts of Baltimore. The British attempts to take Ft. McHenry frustrated the Royal Navy and inspired Francis Scott Key to write what is today the U.S. National Anthem.
In the south, General Andrew Jackson led U.S. forces in defeating Native Americans of the Creek Nation who were supported by the British and their Spanish allies in Florida. Aiming to close down lucrative trade out of the Mississippi River and potentially gain territory before a negotiated peace, British forces landed near New Orleans in late 1814. They were brutally repulsed by Jackson and his army of frontiersmen, pirates, freed slaves and Native American allies on January 8, 1815. Due to the length of transatlantic journeys at this time, neither the British nor the American forces were aware that peace had already been negotiated in Europe.
Peace negotiations had reached an accord on Christmas Eve, 1814 and President Madison signed the Treaty of Ghent on February 18, 1815, ending the War of 1812. Both sides returned to their pre-war territory and neither side could point to substantial gains from the conflict. However, the circumstances leading to the war and the world’s view of the United States changed substantially. By 1815, the Napoleonic Wars came to an end, relieving the Royal Navy of their massive manpower needs and ending the practice of impressments. American ships could again trade freely with both Great Britain and France. In the American Northwest, the death of Chief Tecumseh and the end of British support to tribes calmed U.S. fears of a Native Confederation that could threaten U.S. settlements. By 1817, the U.S. and Great Britain would sign treaties demilitarizing the Great Lakes region.
America emerged from the War of 1812 with a renewed sense of nationalism. The land and sea victories, although gaining no territory, secured national borders and allowed for continued western expansion. Regional differences within the U.S., at least temporarily, melted away and resulted in an “Era of Good Feelings”. For the U.S. Navy, the War of 1812 marked a turning point. American naval officers became household names. Young men flocked to the Navy and merchant services and the U.S. Navy became an integral component to the defense of American interests both at home and abroad.