The War of 1812 was rooted in Britain's wars with revolutionary and Napoleonic France. Unable to strike at one another directly, the British and French engaged in economic warfare via blockades and the interception of merchant vessels, including neutrals. Faced with British seizures of American shipping, the United States prepared for war by recreating its navy and beginning coastal fortifications in 1794, but John Jay's Treaty with Britain, ratified in 1796, resolved the commercial crisis, to the economic profit of both nations. Meanwhile, the rejuvenated US Army, under Anthony Wayne, defeated Indians supplied by the British at Fallen Timbers in northwest Ohio, leading Britain to withdraw its troops from US soil at Detroit, Oswego, and Niagara.
The United States and Britain enjoyed a prosperous peace for a decade, while the US Navy established to fight Britain defeated French frigates and privateers attacking American vessels in the Caribbean between 1798 and 1800. Yet Napoleon's rise to power prevented European peace; by 1805, Britain again began to seize American shipping, and increasingly sailors from those ships, who had often deserted from British vessels (a practice labeled “impressment”). President Thomas Jefferson attempted a diplomatic solution by sending James Monroe to Britain, but Monroe could not persuade Britain to end impressment, which was critical to manning the Royal Navy. Fearing the uproar with which his party had greeted Jay's Treaty, Jefferson never submitted the Monroe-Pinckney Treaty of 1806 to the Senate—probably the great lost chance for peace.
Britain and France escalated their economic warfare, and in June 1807a British frigate, the Leopard, stopped an American counterpart, the Chesapeake, outside Norfolk. When the Chesapeake refused to allow a British search for deserters, the Leopard fired on and quickly disabled the unprepared American frigate. The United States erupted, and Jefferson pondered declaring war, but chose instead to build up the army (from three regiments to eleven in 1808) and try to avoid conflict by halting exports, via the Embargo Act. The latter meant international isolation, economic ruin, and virtual tyranny, as a government previously devoted to the liberty of its citizens attempted to prevent any exports from leaving the United States, for any destination whatsoever. Faced with widespread smuggling and significant violent resistance from citizens along the Canadian border, Jefferson withdrew from policy-making and Congress replaced the Embargo with a Non-Intercourse Act in March 1809.
Under that law, US citizens could trade with anyone save the British and French, and the act promised to reopen trade (import as well as export) with whichever combatant ceased depredations against American shipping. The British attempted to take advantage of this, but negotiations broke down, and in May 1810, Congress again relaxed trade restraints, declaring in Macon's Bill No. 2 that the United States would trade with all, but would stop trading with Britain or France if the other antagonist ended its restrictions against US trade. In August Napoleon took advantage of this provision with his Cadore letter; the United States resumed non-intercourse against Britain in November, yet Napoleon immediately began seizing American vessels again. From the British perspective, Macon's Bill essentially committed the United States to choosing a side in the European conflict. The United States chose the wrong side.
President James Madison spent 1811 trying to persuade Congress to provide for military preparedness. In addition to Federalist opposition, Republican factionalism and ideological resistance to taxation and military power prevented Congress from doing so, even as an Indian confederation led by the Shawnee Tecumseh appeared in the northwest. Part of that alliance, led by Tecumseh's brother, the Shawnee prophet Tenskwatawa, was dispersed by US troops and militia under Indiana territorial governor William Henry Harrison at Tippecanoe that November, but Native American resistance to US expansion was growing across the entire arc from the Great Lakes to Missouri. British aid to these Indians helped the “War Hawks,” a coalition of young Republicans from the south and the west, gain influence, and during the first half of 1812 Congress authorized a military build-up that gradually quadrupled the army. Yet the mobilization moved slowly, since Congress had refused to reauthorize the Bank of the United States, the nation's sole central banking institution, the previous year. Financial problems were complicated by the need to recreate a military staff, which the parsimonious Jefferson had eliminated during the short European peace in 1802. Nor did recruiting go very well, signaling that patriotic rhetoric had not stimulated the fervor required for prospective soldiers to accept the poor wages and conditions of service produced by national parsimony. When Congress declared war in June 1812, the United States was less well prepared than it had been in 1776. Worst of all, Britain revoked its trade restrictions, the Orders in Council, two days before the American declaration. A decade of American refusal to accept the realities of Britain's struggle against French hegemony, combined with British blindness to American sensibilities and honor, produced a war very few on either side wanted.
Madison's national strategy was to seize Canada and trade it for an end to impressment and mercantile restrictions, but he had no clear military strategy to achieve this. Jefferson had imagined that an overwhelming mass of citizen militia would make the conquest of Canada “a mere matter of marching,” but the New England militia refused to turn out, and those in New York refused to enter Canada. Throughout the war, only the western volunteers and seaport militia, defending their homes, proved effective citizen-soldiers; the brunt of the US effort was borne by regulars, who were no better trained than militia until 1814. Even when the regulars gained experience and training, the administration and its generals were unable to come up with a winning plan, because westerners, who supported the war in order to end British support for Indians resisting white expansion, demanded concentration in the northwest.
In contrast, the great majority of Canadians, whom Americans had expected to rise against British “tyranny,” proved loyal to the crown and served effectively, while General Isaac Brock provided inspiring British leadership during the first crucial months of the war, until his death at Queenston Heights in October 1812. With British assistance, the Indians linked to Tecumseh won a series of victories in the northwest (Brownstown, Fort Dearborn, the surrender of Detroit, and Frenchtown and the River Raisin), but their momentum was broken at the siege of Fort Meigs in northwest Ohio in May 1813. The United States won the shipbuilding race on Lake Erie that summer and Oliver Hazard Perry defeated the British on the lake that September. Tennessee and Kentucky volunteers then advanced into western Ontario, shattering a British-Indian force and slaying Tecumseh on the Thames River in October, breaking the northwestern Indian confederacy. Nevertheless, the United States remained hard-pressed to defend its farther frontiers (Missouri and the Upper Mississippi Valley, from Illinois to Michilimackinac) until the British ceased support for the Indians after the war.
Lacking the naval power to attack the British naval base at Halifax directly, the United States had to advance against the centers of British power in Montreal and Quebec in order to take Canada. The most direct route would have been that of the British during the Seven Years' War, from New York and Albany up Lake Champlain, but lack of cooperation from Vermont, combined with New Yorkers' concerns for the Niagara and St. Lawrence River frontiers, prevented any US offensive along the most direct, and logistically feasible, avenue to Canada. Indeed, only a single offensive, in the autumn of 1813, advanced on Montreal, via the St. Lawrence from Sacket's Harbor on Lake Ontario, but it was hesitantly commanded by a Revolutionary War veteran and turned back after several regiments broke under British fire at Crysler's Field that November.
Instead, in 1812 (at Queenston Heights in October), 1813 (at Fort George, Stoney Creek, and Beaver Dams, during May and June), and the summer of 1814, the United States tried to seize the thinly populated Canadian peninsula abutting the Niagara River, though it never became clear what would be gained if it were taken. In any case, there was no Erie Canal; troops and supplies had to go overland through the forest wilderness between Albany and Buffalo (only about a decade old). Given the lack of population along this route, the troops had to eat from their supplies during the march, which took weeks; the United States never maintained more than several thousand soldiers on the Niagara front, and never advanced more than 20 miles into Canada there. Yet this effort, combined with the naval competition on lakes Erie and Ontario and intermittent raiding back and forth along the Niagara, Lake Ontario, and St. Lawrence frontiers, consumed the American potential for power projection against British Canada.
The US Navy proved far more successful than the army, escaping the British forces initially on station off the American coast, or defeating them in a series of ship-to-ship duels in 1812 and early 1813. The navy had far more inspiring and proficient commanders, who trained their crews to peaks of efficiency that shocked British sailors used to whipping the French, and several times surprised the British with the weight of gunfire from the larger American frigates, Constitution (vs. HMS Guerriere, and later HMS Java) and United States (vs. HMS Macedonian). Only in 1813 was the Royal Navy able to concentrate the ships necessary to contain the Americans, who were stuck in port after they returned from their initial cruises. The British blockade then began to take its toll of the American economy, yet some 500 American privateers, combined with a few intrepid navy sloops and frigates like the Wasp, Essex, and Enterprise, continued to wreak a parallel havoc upon British commerce, seizing approximately 1,500 British merchant vessels. The US Navy won the great majority of its battles, small though they were, maintaining a high tradition of aggressiveness and skill.
The small navy was unable to contest British amphibious operations, however, and these became the core of British strategy. In effect, Britain fixed American attention on Canada, then exploited the dispersal of American resources by striking along the Atlantic coast. In 1813a British flotilla raided the Chesapeake and the Norfolk region; in 1814 the British returned to the Chesapeake and blockaded New England, eager to increase dissent among the Federalists against the war there. Most significant, Napoleon's abdication enabled the British to take the strategic offensive for the first time, against Washington and Baltimore, down Lake Champlain, and against New Orleans. They hoped to win a more favorable Canadian boundary, perhaps an Indian buffer state in Michigan and Wisconsin, and even a return of Louisiana to Spain (Britain's ally against Napoleon).
The many small gunboats built by the Jefferson administration proved helpless against the British flotillas, but the coastal fortifications, designed by graduates of the Military Academy Jefferson accepted in 1802, deterred British attack at New York and Philadelphia and defeated it at Baltimore. Thus, although the Maryland militia fled, leaving the regulars to destruction at Bladensburg outside Washington in August 1814, the British could not remain in the Chesapeake region without securing a significant port, and their inability to reduce Fort McHenry on September 12 and 13 compelled them to withdraw. Farther south, a small fortification at Mobile, Alabama, Fort Bowyer, held off a British fleet on September 15, delaying its advance on New Orleans and giving Andrew Jackson, who had defeated the Creek Indians in Alabama during 1813 and 1814, time to move there and organize the defense (seizing Pensacola from the Spanish en route). Though unable to forestall the British landing, Jackson rallied the diverse population and established a strong defensive position, which the overconfident British attacked head-on, losing hundreds of brave veterans to American fire (albeit more from artillery manned by Regular Army gunners than from the popularly vaunted riflemen of Kentucky). Several weeks later news arrived of the Treaty of Ghent, which restored pre-war boundaries.
The peace treaty was made possible by two events and several larger contexts. The British defeat at Baltimore was echoed by the defeat of their large expedition down Lake Champlain by the US Navy on September 11, 1814. Without a naval force to carry supplies, the British ground commander gave up and withdrew, though his 10,000 soldiers, the largest field force of the war, vastly outnumbered and nearly outflanked the US troops at Plattsburgh. Thus, nearly four months before the Battle of New Orleans, the other two British offensives had been turned back. At home, British desire to revive international trade, combined with the costs of more than twenty years of war and the uncertain balance of power in Europe after Napoleon's abdication in 1814, encouraged a cautious policy once the offensives had been rebuffed. Ultimately, Britain had no rational reason to fight the United States once the French drive for European hegemony had been defeated, nor did the United States have good reason to fight once Britain stopped seizing ships and arming the Indians.
The War of 1812 is famously known as one that all sides claimed they had won, but what they won varied dramatically. Canada remained British. British military forces performed well but gained little strategically, besides holding onto Canada. Most important for Britain, American shipments of grain continued to feed Wellington's army in 1812 and 1813, as he drove the French out of Spain. The US Army performed poorly in 1812 and much of 1813, and Britain did not give up the right of impressment or to impose restrictions on US trade in the Treaty of Ghent. Yet the United States defeated the Indian resistance in the northwest and that among the Creeks in Alabama, opening those regions to white settlement after the war. Though the Treaty of Ghent stated that white-Indian boundaries were to return to their pre-war lines, Britain did not act to enforce this provision when Andrew Jackson seized much of Alabama from the Creeks in the treaty he negotiated following his victory at Horseshoe Bend in 1814. The war was a disaster for Native Americans across the continent.
Despite the bitterness occasioned when the armies burned civilian settlements on both sides of the Canadian border in 1813, brutality that escalated with the burning of Washington in 1814, trade between the United States and Britain surged after the war, encouraging a wave of diplomatic dispute resolution, and a tacit British offer of alliance in 1823. The United States rejected this proposal, preferring to assert the Monroe Doctrine as a sign of its independence, but the Royal Navy secured the Atlantic strategic flank of the United States throughout the remainder of the century. Never again would the United States and Britain go to war. Though this was far from certain at the time, it was made much more probable by the growth of common economic interests between the Atlantic powers after 1815. British policy-makers recognized the difficulty of finding a decisive point where they could defeat the United States; US policy-makers (to say nothing of public opinion) sometimes seem to have been more belligerent, but generally turned their expansionist energies against easier Spanish, Mexican, and Native American targets. Indeed, Britain ceased its support for Spain and the North American Indians, enabling Jackson to invade Florida a second time in 1818, which compelled Spain to cede the territory to the United States in 1821. Throughout the century, Britain steadily backed away from confronting US territorial expansion, in Texas, California, and Oregon. By doing so, however, British policy-makers were able to secure their own western, or Atlantic, strategic flank, to concentrate on Russian, and ultimately German, threats in Europe and Asia.
Within the United States, the centralizing Federalist party was discredited by its opposition to the war, which culminated in the Hartford Convention, to discuss regional defense and seek constitutional amendments to protect New England from the Republican majority, during the autumn of 1814. Yet the difficulty of the war led Republican policy-makers to recognize the need for strong, effective national government institutions, particularly financial and military ones, and for national aid for industry and rapid mass transportation. The Bank of the United States was revived by Congress in 1816, only to be caricatured and dismantled by Andrew Jackson two decades later; Jackson's “Bank Veto” heralded an era of monetary instability, and a half decade of depression beginning in 1837. Facing a wave of inexpensive British imports, Congress enacted a significant tariff in 1816; reduced by the Jacksonian Democrats during the 1840s, the tariff remained the main source of federal revenue until World War I, and tariffs to protect American industry were one of the principal policies of the Republican Party between the Civil War and the Great Depression. The federal government also began aid to canals and railroads, employing West Point graduates as surveyors during the 1820s and 1830s.
The US Army was reborn during the War of 1812 and became much more stable, effectively permanent, afterward. Though Jackson only remained in the national standing army until he could conquer Florida, and later attacked the Regular Army that provided the core of his defense at New Orleans, that army gradually discovered a cadre of inspiring, effective leaders during the war. Jacob Brown (commanding general of the army, 1821–1828), Winfield Scott (commanding general, 1841–1861), Edmund Gaines, and Thomas Sidney Jesup (quartermaster general, 1818–1860) all earned their reputations in the 1814 offensive across the Niagara, at the hard-fought battles of Chippewa (July 5), Lundy's Lane (July 25), and Fort Erie (August 15 and September 14). Zachary Taylor won his first military glory defending Fort Stephenson in the west in 1813; Alexander Macomb, commanding general between 1828 and 1841, commanded the defense of Plattsburgh in 1814, aided by John Wool, inspector general from 1816 to 1841 and a field commander in Mexico, California and the Pacific Northwest, and the early days of the Civil War.
The War of 1812 was the formative experience for these men, the source of their pride and of their zeal for reform and military professionalism. West Point was reformed after 1815, graduating five times as many cadets per year as before; the army staff was made permanent; tactical regulations were standardized; and infantry and artillery schools were created during the 1820s. In 1846, experienced quartermasters and much-practiced supply procedures enabled the United States to project its growing economic and military power against Mexico and across the North American continent, a strategic impossibility in 1812. Generals Scott, Taylor, and Wool commanded three of the four US offensives (and that to California was also commanded by a War of 1812 veteran) into Mexico; 1812 veterans commanded the divisions, brigades, and battalions in battle, and the West Pointers they had trained commanded the infantry companies, artillery batteries, and reconnaissances that outmaneuvered and overwhelmed Mexico's much larger armies. The lessons of the War of 1812 encouraged the commercial, transportation, and industrial revolutions in the United States, and helped make possible the US conquest of North America. These transformations aggravated divisions that led to civil war, but also provided the institutions and infrastructure for defeating the Confederacy and reuniting the nation.
SEE ALSO: Blockades; Economic warfare; Jackson, Andrew (1767–1845); Mahan, Captain Alfred T. (1840–1914); Napoleonic Wars (1802–1815); Perry, Commodore Oliver Hazard (1785–1819).
(2007) 1812. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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