Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
War of 1812
|Military history of Canada|
Military history of the United Kingdom
Military history of the United States
Indian Wars in the United States
|Conflict||War of 1812|
|Result||Status quo ante bellum (a stalemate)|
The War of 1812 was a conflict fought in North America between the United States and Great Britain. In British texts, the War of 1812 is sometimes known as the British-American War, to distinguish it from the concurrent British involvement in the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812 is also sometimes referred to as the "War of 1812."
Although the United States was officially at war with Great Britain, more than half of the British forces were made up of Canadian militia. Additionally, many Native Americans fought in the war for reasons of their own.
Although the War of 1812 ended in a stalemate and is often only dimly remembered, the war had many effects on the futures of those involved. The war created a greater sense of nationalism in Canada and the United States, it produced a national anthem and two future presidents for the U.S., and perhaps most consequentially, the war marked the end of European alliances with Native Americans in the United States.
Causes of the war
In the years following the American Revolutionary War, there were many disputes and aggravations between Great Britain and the United States. When revolutionary France declared war upon Great Britain in 1793, the United States sought to remain neutral while pursuing overseas commerce with both empires, which created much tension. Additionally, Great Britain had not abandoned fortifications in the Great Lakes region as called for in the 1783 Treaty of Paris, and was continuing to supply Native Americans in the Northwest Territory who were at war with the United States. In 1795, the United States secured the Jay Treaty with Great Britain and the Treaty of Greenville with the Native Americans, and thus ended these conflicts for the time being.
However, when Great Britain and France went to war again in 1803 with renewed vigor, these same issues reappeared. Great Britain, short of manpower to keep the Royal Navy at sea, strictly enforced a policy of searching neutral vessels for British deserters. Late in 1806, the Monroe-Pinkney Treaty was negotiated in England, but it was not ratified in the United States because it did not address this issue of impressment. In 1807, the British ship HMS Leopard fired upon and then boarded the American ship Chesapeake, carrying off four seamen. Though the incident itself was minor, the American public was outraged at the slight, and many called for war.
Meanwhile, France and Great Britain had implemented embargoes that made international trade precarious. President Thomas Jefferson responded with the Embargo Act of 1807, which prohibited American ships from sailing to any foreign ports and closed American ports to British ships. Although the embargo decreased the number of American ships attacked by the French and British, it seriously damaged the economy of the United States due to a lack of markets for its goods. Jefferson's embargo was especially unpopular in New England, where merchants preferred the indignities of impressment to the halting of all overseas commerce. James Madison then continued this trend of noimportation against France and Britain as he replaced the Embargo Act of 1807 with the Non-Intercourse Act of 1809.
In the United States House of Representatives, a group of young men known as the "War Hawks" came to the forefront in 1811, led by Speaker of the House Henry Clay of Kentucky and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. The War Hawks advocated going to war against Great Britain for a variety of reasons, mostly related to the interference of the Royal Navy in American shipping, which the War Hawks believed hurt the American economy and injured American prestige. War Hawks from the western states also believed that the British were instigating Native Americans on the frontier to attack American settlements, and so the War Hawks called for an invasion of British Canada to end this threat.
In the U.S. presidential election of 1812, U.S. President James Madison argued for war against Britain. The War of 1812 was thus the first war "sold" to the American public via popular appeal. On June 1, 1812 he gave a speech to the U.S. Congress, giving several reasons for war:
- Ongoing impressment of American sailors into service on British Navy ships, an insulting breach of American sovereignty;
- Britain's navy "violating the rights and the peace of our coasts";
- Britain's blockade of U.S. ports ("our commerce has been plundered in every sea");
- Britain's refusal to repeal its Order-In-Council forbidding neutral countries to trade with European countries, and the British Navy's enforcement of this order;
- Britain's incitement of Native Americans (conventionally referred to as "savages") to violence against the Americans.
- Macon's Bill No.2- passed by Congress in 1810
The Senate voted for war, 19 to 13. The conflict formally began with the American declaration of war on June 18. This was the first time that the United States had declared war on another nation. Critics of the war in the United States referred to it as "Mr. Madison's War."
Course of the war
Although the outbreak of the war had been preceded by years of angry diplomatic dispute, the United States was absolutely unready, while the United Kingdom was still hard pressed by the Napoleonic Wars, and was compelled to retain the greater part of her forces and her best crews in European waters, until successes against Napoleon left her free to send an overwhelming force of ships to American waters.
When the war began, the U.S. military was weak and inexperienced. The army consisted of only 7,000 men and small state militias. The paper strength of the army was 35,000, but the service was voluntary and unpopular, and there was an almost total lack of trained and experienced officers. The militia, called in to aid the regulars, objected to serving outside their home states, were not amenable to discipline and, as a rule, performed poorly in the presence of the enemy. The total number of British troops present in Canada in July 1812 was officially stated to be 5,004 and consisted primarily of Canadians.
The war was conducted in four theatres of operations:
- The Atlantic Ocean
- The Great Lakes and the Canadian frontier
- The coast of the United States
- The American South
Operations on the ocean
Since the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, Britain had been the world's preeminent naval power. In 1812, the Royal Navy had ninety-seven vessels in American waters. Of these, eleven were ships of the line and thirty-four were frigates. In contrast, the United States Navy, which was not yet twenty years old, had only twenty-two commissioned vessels, the largest of which were frigates.
The strategy of the British was to protect its own merchant shipping to and from Canada, and enforce a blockade of major American ports to restrict American trade. Due to their numerical inferiority, the Americans aimed to cause disruption through hit and run tactics, such as the capture of prizes and only enagaging Royal Navy vessels under favourable circumstances.
The Americans experienced much early success. On June 21 1812, three days after the formal declaration of war, two small squadrons left New York. The ships included the frigate USS President and the sloop USS Hornet under Commodore John Rodgers (who had general command), and the frigates USS United States and USS Congress, with the brig USS Argus under Captain Stephen Decatur.
Two days later, the Hornet gave chase to the British frigate HMS Belvidera . Belvidera eventually escaped to Halifax, after discarding all unnecessary cargo overboard. The Hornet returned to Boston by August 31. Meanwhile, the USS Constitution commanded by Captain Isaac Hull, sailed from the Chesapeake on July 12 without orders, to avoid being blockaded. On July 17 a British squadron gave chase. The Constitution evaded its pursuers after two days, and put in at Boston. On August 2 the Constitution engaged the British frigate HMS Guerriere. After a twenty minute battle, the Guerriere had been dismasted and captured, and was later burned.
On October 25 the USS United States commanded by Captain Decatur captured the British frigate HMS Macedonian, which he carried back to port. At the close of the month, the Constitution sailed south under the command of Captain William Bainbridge. On December 20, off Bahia, Brazil, it met the British frigate HMS Java, which was carrying General Hislop, the governor of Bombay, to India. After a battle lasting three hours, the Java struck her colours and was burned after being judged unsalvageable.
In January 1813, the American frigate USS Essex, under the command of Captain David Porter, sailed into the Pacific, in an attempt to harass British shipping. Many British whaling ships carried letters of marque allowing them to prey on American whalers, nearly destroying the industry. The Essex challenged this practice. She inflicted an estimated $3,000,000 damage on British interests, before she was captured off Valparaíso, Chile, by the British frigate HMS Phoebe and the sloop HMS Cherub on March 28, 1814.
In all of these actions, except the one in which the Essex was taken, the Americans had the advantage of greater size and a heavier guns. Despite the greater experience in naval combat of the British, a large proportion of their seamen had been impressed. This contrasted with the Americans who were all volunteers, which may have given the Americans an edge in morale and seamanship.
The capture of three British frigates was a blow to the British and stimulated them to greater exertions. More vessels were deployed on the American seaboard and the blockade tightened. On June 1, 1813, the frigate USS Chesapeake was captured, as it attempted to leave Boston Harbor, by the British frigate HMS Shannon. This somewhat offset the blow to morale caused by previous disasters. The blockade of American ports had tightened to the extent that the United States ships found it increasingly more difficult to sail without meeting forces of superior strength. Because of this the Royal Navy was able to transport British Army troops to American shores, paving the way for the burning of Washington, D.C. in 1814.
The operations of American privateers were extensive. They continued until the close of the war and were only partially affected by the strict enforcement of convoy by the Royal Navy. An example of the audacity of the American cruisers was the capture of the American sloop USS Argus at St David's Head in Wales by the more heavily armed British sloop HMS Pelican , on August 14, 1813.
Operations on the Great Lakes and Canadian border
Invasions of Canada, 1812
While they had expected little from their tiny navy, the American people had assumed that Canada could be easily overrun. Former U.S. President Thomas Jefferson dismissively referred to the conquest of Canada as "a matter of marching." However, in the opening stages of the conflict, British military experience prevailed over inexperienced American commanders. The American Brigadier General William Hull invaded Canada on July 12 1812 from Detroit, with an army mainly composed of militiamen. British Major General Isaac Brock drove back the Americans and, with the aid of Tecumseh, forced Hull to surrender at Detroit on August 16.
Brock promptly transferred himself to the eastern end of Lake Erie, where the American General Henry Dearborn was attempting a second invasion. Brock fell in action on October 13 at the Battle of Queenston Heights. While the professionalism of the American forces would improve by the war's end, British leadership suffered after Brock's death.
In contrast to the American militia, the Canadian militia performed well. French-Canadians, who found the anti-Catholic stance of most of the United States troublesome, and United Empire Loyalists, who had fought for the Crown during the American Revolutionary War and had settled primarily in Upper Canada, strongly opposed the American invasion. However, a large segment of Upper Canada's population were recent settlers from the United States who had no such loyalties to the Crown, but American forces found, to their dismay, that most of the colony took up arms against them.
Battle of Lake Erie and the death of Tecumseh, 1813
After Hull's surrender, General William Henry Harrison was given command of the American Army of the Northwest. He set out to retake Detroit, which was now defended by Colonel Henry Proctor in conjunction with Tecumseh. A detachment of Harrison's army was defeated at Frenchtown along the River Raisin on 22 January 1813. Proctor left the prisoners in custody of the Native Americans, who then proceeded to execute 60 American prisoners, an event which became known as the "River Raisin Massacre." The defeat ended Harrison's campaign against Detroit, and the phrase "Remember the River Raisin" became a rallying cry for the Americans.
Because of the difficulties of land communications, control of the Great Lakes and the Saint Lawrence River corridor was crucial, and so both sides spent the winter of 1812-13 building ships. The Americans, who had far greater shipbuilding facilities than the British, nevertheless allowed themselves to fall behind.
On April 27, 1813, American forces attacked and burned York (present Toronto), the capital of Upper Canada. However, Kingston was strategically more valuable, and vital to British supply and communications along the St. Lawrence. Without control of Kingston, the American navy could not effectively control Lake Ontario or sever the British supply line to Quebec.
On Lake Ontario, Sir James Lucas Yeo took command on 15 May 1813 and created a more mobile though less powerful force than the Americans under Isaac Chauncey. Three engagements in August and September led to no decisive result. By the close of the war Yeo had constructed a ship of 102 guns which gave him superiority, and the British became masters of Lake Ontario. The burning by the American general McClure, on December 10, 1813, of Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake), led to British retaliation (and similar destruction) at Buffalo, on December 30, 1813.
On Lake Erie, the American commander Captain Oliver Hazard Perry fought the Battle of Lake Erie on September 10, 1813. His decisive victory ensured American control of the lake, improved American morale after a series of defeats, and compelled the British to fall back from Detroit. This paved the way for General Harrison to launch another invasion of Canada, which culminated in the U.S. victory at the Battle of the Thames on October 5, 1813, in which Tecumseh was killed. Tecumseh's death effectively ended the Native American alliance with the British.
Niagara Campaign and the Battle of Lake Champlain, 1814
By 1814, American generals, including Major Generals Jacob Brown and Winfield Scott, had drastically improved the fighting abilities and discipline of the army. Their attack on the Niagara peninsula led to hot fighting at the Battle of Chippewa on July 5 and Lundy's Lane on July 25. The first was a success for the Americans, but in the second battle the Americans suffered high casualties and were forced to withdraw across the Niagara. They later resisted British and Canadian forces at the Siege of Fort Erie, and briefly held the fort. They were compelled to cross the border due to low provisions.
Meanwhile, veteran British troops no longer needed in Europe began arriving in North America. Governor-General Sir George Prevost now had enough men to launch an offensive into the United States. He hoped to gain a significant victory in order to give Britain bargaining power in the ongoing peace negotiations. However, his invasion was repulsed in the Battle of Lake Champlain on September 11 1814.
Operations on the American coast
When the war began, the British naval forces had some difficulty in blockading the whole coast, and they were also preoccupied in their pursuit of American privateers. The British government, having need of American foodstuffs for its army in Spain, was willing to benefit from the willingness of the New Englanders to trade with them, and so no blockade of New England was at first attempted. The Delaware and Chesapeake were declared in a state of blockade on December 26, 1812. This was extended to the whole coast south of Narragansett by November 1813, and to the whole American coast on May 31, 1814. In the meantime much illicit trade was carried on by collusive captures arranged between American traders and British officers. American ships were fraudulently transferred to neutral flags. Eventually the United States government was driven to issue orders for the purpose of stopping illicit trading. This only helped to further ruin the commerce of the country. The overpowering strength of the British fleet enabled it to occupy the Chesapeake, and to attack and destroy numerous docks and harbours.
Chesapeake campaign and the Star-Spangled Banner
The best known of these destructive raids was the burning of public buildings, including the White House, in Washington by Admiral Sir George Cockburn and General Robert Ross. The expedition was carried out between August 19 and August 29, 1814. On the 24th, the inexperienced American militia who had collected at Bladensburg, Maryland to protect the capital were soundly defeated, opening the route to Washington. President James Madison was forced to flee to Virginia, and American morale was reduced to an all-time low. The British viewed their actions as fair retaliation for the Americans' burning of York in 1813.
Having destroyed Washington's public buildings, the British army next moved to capture Baltimore, a busy port and a key base for American privateers. The subsequent Battle of Baltimore began with a British landing at North Point, but the attack was repulsed. The British also attempted to attack Baltimore by sea on September 13, but were unable to reduce Fort McHenry at the entrance to Baltimore Harbor. The defense of the fort inspired the American lawyer Francis Scott Key to write a poem that became "The Star-Spangled Banner," the national anthem of the United States.
Operations in the South
In March of 1814, General Andrew Jackson led a force of Tennessee militia, Cherokee Indians, and U.S. regulars southward to attack the Creek Indians, led by Chief Menawa. The Creeks had for many years been British allies. On March 26, Jackson and General John Coffee fought the Creeks at Horseshoe Bend, killing 800 of 1000 Creeks at a cost of 49 killed and 154 wounded of approximately 2000 American and Cherokee forces. Jackson pursued the surviving Creeks to Wetumpka, near present-day Montgomery, Alabama, where they surrendered.
According to one historian:
- We speak of the War of 1812, but in truth there were two wars. The war between the Americans and the British ended with the treaty of Ghent. The war between the Big Knives [American frontiersmen] and the Indians began at Tippecanoe, and arguably did not run its course until the last Red Sticks were defeated in the Florida swamps in 1818.2
The Treaty of Ghent and the Battle of New Orleans
Jackson's forces moved to New Orleans, Louisiana in November 1814. Between December 1814 and January 1815, he defended the city against a force led by Major-General Sir Edward Pakenham, who was killed in an assault on January 8 1815. The Battle of New Orleans was hailed as a great victory in the United States, making Andrew Jackson a national hero, eventually propelling him to the presidency.
Meanwhile, diplomats in Ghent, Belgium signed the Treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814, paving the way for the official end of the war. News of the treaty had not reached New Orleans, because of the slow nature of international communications. On February 17, 1815, President Madison signed the American ratification of the Treaty of Ghent, and the treaty was proclaimed the following day.
By the terms of the treaty, all land captured by either side was returned to the previous owner, the Americans received fishing rights in the gulf of the St. Lawrence River, and all outstanding debts and property taken was to be returned or paid for. full. Later that year, John Quincy Adams complained that British naval commanders had violated the terms of the treaty by not returning American slaves liberated during the war. 
Consequences of the war
The Treaty of Ghent established the status quo ante bellum; there were no territorial concessions made by either side. Relations between the United States and Britain would remain peaceful, if not entirely tranquil, throughout the 19th century. Border adjustments between the United States and British Canada would be made in the Treaty of 1818. (A border dispute between the state of Maine and the province of New Brunswick was settled in the Aroostook War in the 1830s.) The issue of impressing American seamen was made moot when the Royal Navy subsequently stopped impressment after the defeat of Napoleon.
Many Canadians considered the War of 1812 to have been an American defeat because the American invasions of 1813 and 1814 had been repulsed. Supporting this view is the fact that the British occupied some American territory at the end of the war, while the Americans did not occupy any British territory.
Effects of the war on the United States
The United States did gain a measure of international respect for managing to withstand the British Empire. The morale of the citizens was high because they had fought one of the great military powers of the world and managed to survive, which increased feelings of nationalism; the war has often been called the "Second War of Independence." The war also contributed to the demise of the Federalist Party, which had opposed the war.
A significant military development was the increased emphasis by General Winfield Scott on improved professionalism in the U.S. Army officer corps, and in particular, the training of officers at the United States Military Academy ("West Point"). This new professionalism would become apparent during the Mexican-American War (1846–1848).
The War of 1812 had a dramatic effect on the manufacturing capabilities of the United States. The British blockade of the American coast created a shortage of cotton cloth in the United States, leading to the creation of a cotton-manufacturing industry, beginning at Waltham, Massachusetts by Francis Cabot Lowell.
Effects of the war on Canada
The War of 1812 had little impact in Great Britain and was generally forgotten, since it was considered to be insignificant when compared to the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo on 18 June 1815. However, this was not the case in Canada, where the war had been a matter of national survival. The war united the French-speaking and English-speaking colonies against a common enemy, giving many inhabitants a sense of nationhood as well as a sense of loyalty to Britain. At the beginning of the War of 1812 it is estimated that perhaps one third of the inhabitants of Upper Canada were American born. Some were United Empire Loyalists but others had simply come for low-cost land and had little loyalty to the British Crown. For instance, Laura Secord was originally an American immigrant to Upper Canada, but did not hesitate to make her arduous trek to warn the British forces of a pending attack by her former country.
This nationalistic sentiment also caused a great deal of suspicion of American ideas like responsible government which would frustrate political reform in Upper and Lower Canada until the Rebellions of 1837. However, the War of 1812 also started the process that ultimately led to Canadian Confederation in 1867. Although later events such as the Rebellions and the Fenian raids of the 1860s were more directly pivotal, Canadian historian Pierre Berton has written that if the War of 1812 had never happened Canada would be part of the United States today, as more and more American settlers would have arrived, and Canadian nationalism would never have developed.
- American stats from Hickey, pp. 302-3; British manpower from Elting, p. 11; British casualties from here; New York Iroquois manpower figure from Anthony Wallace, The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca (orig. pub. 1970, New York: Vintage books, 1972), p. 295.
- Note 2: Sugden, p. 401.
- Elting, John R. Amateurs, To Arms! A Military History of the War of 1812. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin, 1991; reprinted Da Capo Press, 1995.
- Hickey, Donald. The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict. Urbana: University of Chicago Press, 1989.
- Horsman, Reginald. The Causes of the War of 1812. New York: A.S. Barnes, 1962.
- -----. The War of 1812. New York: Knopf, 1969.
- Sugden, John. Tecumseh: A Life. New York: Holt, 1997.
- Galafilm's War of 1812 website
- Key Events of the War of 1812
- Journal of the Senate, June 1, 1812, with President Madison's war message to Congress
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