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War of 1812 Detailed


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The War of 1812 was a conflict fought in North America between the United States and Great Britain from 1812 to 1815. 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 American Indians (now generally called Native Americans in the United States and First Nations in Canada) 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.

Contents

1 Causes of the war
2 Course of the war
2.1 Operations on the ocean
2.2 Operations on the Great Lakes and Canadian border
2.2.1 Invasions of Canada, 1812
2.2.2 Battle of Lake Erie and the death of Tecumseh, 1813
2.2.3 Operations along the Saint Lawrence and Lower Canada
2.2.4 Niagara Campaign and the Battle of Lake Champlain, 1814
2.3 Operations on the American coast
2.3.1 Chesapeake campaign and the Star-Spangled Banner
2.4 Operations in the South
2.5 The Treaty of Ghent and the Battle of New Orleans
3 Consequences of the war
3.1 Effects of the war on the United States
3.2 Effects of the war on Canada

Causes of the war

In the years following the American Revolutionary War, relations between Great Britain and the United States were often strained. 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 those 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.

Great Britain and France went to war again in 1803, and the Royal Navy, short of manpower, began boarding American merchant ships in order to seize some of the many British seamen serving on American vessels. Although this policy of impressment was supposed to reclaim only British subjects, between 1806 and 1812 about 6,000 American citizens were taken against their will (“pressed”) into the Royal Navy.2 One reason for this was that the British did not recognise American citizenship certificates issued to naturalised Britons and considered that anyone born a British subject remained British subject. Great Britain did not want to stop impressment because it was seen as an effective way of combating desertion from the Royal Navy. The Monroe-Pinkney Treaty (1806) between the U.S. and Great Britain was not ratified in the United States because it did not end impressment.

This issue came to the forefront with the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair of 1807, when the British ship HMS Leopard fired on and boarded the American ship USS Chesapeake, killing three and carrying off four “deserters”, of whom three were Americans thereby pressed into the Royal Navy. The American public was outraged by the incident, and many called for war in order to assert American sovereignty and national honor.

Meanwhile, Napoleon’s Continental System (beginning 1806) and the British Orders in Council (1807) established embargoes that made international trade precarious. From 1807 to 1812, about 900 American ships were seized as a result.3 American 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. Jefferson’s embargo was especially unpopular in New England, where merchants preferred the indignities of impressment to the halting of overseas commerce. This discontent contributed to the calling of the Hartford Convention during the war.

The Embargo Act had no effect on Great Britain and France, and was replaced by the Non-Intercourse Act of 1809, which lifted all embargoes on American shipping except for those bound for British or French ports. As this proved to be unenforceable, the Non-Intercourse Act was replaced in 1810 by Macon’s Bill Number 2. This lifted all embargoes, but offered that if either France or Great Britain were to cease their interference with American shipping, the United States would reinstate an embargo on the other nation. Napoleon, seeing an opportunity to make trouble for Great Britain, promised to leave American ships alone. He had no intention of honoring this promise, but the ruse de guerre worked, and the United States reinstated the embargo with Great Britain and moved closer to declaring war.4

In the United States House of Representatives, a group of young Democratic-Republicans 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 they called for an invasion of British North America to end this threat.

On June 1, 1812 U.S. President James Madison gave a speech to the U.S. Congress, recounting American grievances against Great Britain, though not specifically calling for a declaration of war. After Madison’s speech, the House of Representatives quickly voted (79 to 49) to declare war, and after much debate, the U.S. Senate also voted for war, 19 to 13. The conflict formally began on June 18, 1812 when Madison signed the measure into law. This was the first time that the United States had declared war on another nation, and the Congressional vote would prove to be the closest vote to declare war in American history. None of the 39 Federalists in Congress voted in favor of the war; critics of war would subsequently refer 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, neither side was ready for war when it came. 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. The total number of British troops present in Canada in July 1812 was officially stated to be 5,004 and consisted primarily of Canadians. During the war, successes against Napoleon left the United Kingdom free to send an overwhelming force of ships to American waters.

The United States was unready to prosecute a war. In 1812 the regular army consisted of fewer than 12,000 men. Congress authorized the expansion of the army to 35,000 men, 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 war was conducted in four theatres of operations:

1. The Atlantic Ocean
2. The Great Lakes and the Canadian frontier
3. The coast of the United States
4. 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. However in compensation, a number of the Americans were 44 gun frigates and very heavily built compared to the usual British 38 gun 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 later retired 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.
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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 sent false correspondence and allowed it to be captured by the Americans, saying they required only 5,000 Native warriors to capture Detroit. Hull was deathly afraid of Native Americans and some tribes’ practice of scalping. Hull surrendered 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.
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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 Procter in conjunction with Tecumseh. A detachment of Harrison’s army was defeated at Frenchtown along the River Raisin on 22 January 1813. Procter left the prisoners in custody of a few American Indians, who then proceeded to execute perhaps as many as 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 Canadians, nevertheless had not taken advantage of this before the war, and had fallen behind.

On April 27, 1813, American forces attacked and burned York (present Toronto), the capital of Upper Canada, including the Parliament Buildings. 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.
Oliver Hazard Perry’s message to William Henry Harrison after the Battle of Lake Erie began with what would become one of the most famous sentences in American military history: “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” This 1865 painting by William H. Powell shows Perry transferring to a different ship during the battle.

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 American Indian alliance with the British in the Detroit region. The Americans would control Detroit and Amherstburg for the duration of the war, but would not be able to expel the British and their western Indian allies from Fort Mackinac in Michigan and Prairie du Chien in Wisconsin.

Operations along the Saint Lawrence and Lower Canada

In October and November 1813, two American thrusts against Montreal were defeated – one by a force of British regulars and Canadian Militia at Crysler’s Farm to the west of the city on the Saint Lawrence River; the other by a force of mostly French Canadian militia with some Mohawks under the command of a native son, Charles de Salaberry at Chateauguay to the south of the city on the Richelieu River.

In October of 1813, American Major-General Wade Hampton marched from Lake Champlain towards the Saint Lawrence River. The initial plan was for Hampton to join up with Wilkinson attacking on the Saint Lawrence. On October 25, 1813, Hampton’s 4,000-strong force was defeated near Chateauguay by de Salaberry’s force of less than 500 French-Canadian Voltigeurs and Mohawks.

U.S. General James Wilkinson planned to attack Montreal from the west, leaving with a fleet from Sackett’s Harbor on Lake Ontario. The British under Captain William Mulcaster chased him, and by November 10 Wilkinson was forced to land near John Crysler’s farm outside of Morrisburg, Ontario on the Saint Lawrence River, about 150 kilometers from Montreal. The British force under Colonel Joseph Morrison only had 800 men while Wilkinson had 8,000. Wilkinson was defeated on November 11 and retreated back to the US.

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 by the naval Battle of Lake Champlain in Plattsburgh Bay on September 11, 1814 which gave the Americans control of Lake Champlain. Theodore Roosevelt termed it the greatest naval battle of the war.

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 (later renamed Toronto) 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 warriors, and U.S. regulars southward to attack the Creek tribes, 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 1,000 Creeks at a cost of 49 killed and 154 wounded of approximately 2,000 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 1818.5

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 in full. Later that year, John Quincy Adams complained that British naval commanders had violated the terms of the treaty by not returning American slaves captured 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.

This war was also the first and only time since its independence that the US Capital was invaded and pillaged.

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.

The Southwestern campaign led to increasing contact and conflict with the Seminole tribes in Florida. The subsequent Seminole Wars eventually lead to American annexation of Florida in 1819.

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 and some pride of being largely successful in repulsing the invaders, 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. In fact, a primary reason Canadians remember the war is because they managed to repulse the American invaders and maintain their borders against poor odds; a conclusion many Canadians consider a victory in its own way.

This nationalistic sentiment also caused a great deal of suspicion of American ideas like democracy and republicanism 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.

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