Information on the War of 1812
The War of 1812 (in Britain, the American War of 1812, to distinguish from the war with
Napoleon) was fought between the United States of America, on one side, and on the
other side the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and its colonies, especially
Upper Canada (Ontario), Lower Canada (Quebec), Nova Scotia, and Bermuda. When
the war had finished, 1,600 British and 2,260 American troops had died. The war
was fought from 1812 to 1815 and involved both land and naval engagements. Britain
was at war with France and to impede American trade with France imposed a series
of restrictions that the U.S. contested as illegal under international law. The Americans
declared war on Britain on June 18, 1812 for a combination of reasons: outrage at the
impressment (seizure) of thousands of American sailors into the British navy, frustration
at British restraints on neutral trade, and anger at British military support for Native
Americans defending their tribal lands from encroaching American settlers.
The war started badly for the Americans as their attempts to invade Canada were
repeatedly repulsed by General Isaac Brock commanding a small British force,
composed largely of local militias and Native American allies. The American strategy
depended on use of militias, but they either resisted service or were incompetently
led. Military and civilian leadership was lacking and remained a critical American
weakness until 1814. New England opposed the war and refused to provide troops
or financing. Financial and logistical problems plagued the American war effort.
Britain possessed excellent finance and logistics but the ongoing war with France
had a higher priority, so in 1812-1813 they adopted a defensive strategy. After the
defeat of Napoleon in 1814 they were able to send veteran armies to invade the U.S.,
but by then the Americans had learned how to mobilize and fight as well.
At sea the powerful Royal Navy instituted a blockade of the majority of the American
coastline (allowing some exports from New England, which was trading with Britain
and Canada in defiance of American laws.) The blockade devastated American
agricultural exports, but helped stimulate local factories that replaced goods
previously imported. The American strategy of using small gunboats to defend ports
was a fiasco, as the British raided the coast at will. The most famous episode was a
series of British raids on the shores of Chesapeake Bay which included an attack
on Washington D.C. that resulted in the burning of the White House, the Capitol,
and other public buildings. This was later called "Burning of Washington".
The American strategy of sending out several hundred privateers to attack British
merchant ships was more successful, and hurt British commercial interests,
especially in the West Indies. Although few in number compared to the Royal Navy,
the American Navy's heavy frigates prevailed in several one-on-one naval battles
against British ships. The decisive use of naval power came on the Great Lakes and
depended on a contest of building ships. Ultimately, Americans won control of Lake
Erie and thus neutralized western Ontario and cut the native forces off from supplies.
The British controlled Lake Ontario, preventing any major American invasion. The
Americans controlled Lake Champlain, and a naval victory there forced a large
British invasion army to turn back in 1814.
The Americans destroyed the power of the native people of the Northwest and
Southeast, thus securing a major war goal. British trade restrictions and
impressment had both long since ended removing another root cause of the war.
Both nations eventfully agreed to a peace that left the prewar boundaries intact. In
January of 1815 after the Treaty of Ghent was signed but before the US Congress
had received a copy to ratify, the Americans succeeded in defending New Orleans,
and the British captured Fort Bowyer before news of the treaty reached the US
The war had the effects of both uniting Canadians and also uniting Americans far
more closely than either population had been prior to the war. Canadians remember
the war as a victory by avoiding conquest, while Americans celebrated victory in a
"second war for independence" personified in the hero of New Orleans, Andrew Jackson.
Americans declared war on Britain on June 18, 1812, for a combination of
reasons—outrage at the impressment (seizure) of thousands of American sailors,
frustration at British restrictions on neutral trade while Britain warred with France, and
anger at British military support for tribes in the Ohio-Indiana-Michigan area. After war
was declared Britain offered to withdraw the trade restrictions, but it was too late for the
American "War Hawks", who turned the conflict into what they called a "second war for
While the officially-stated reasons for declaring war were ending impressment, ending
harrassment of mercantile shipping, and ending British military support for western
native tribes, a major goal of the "war hawks" in the western and southern states was
aggressive territorial expansion. The intent was to drive the British out of North America,
and the Spanish out of Florida.
Although the outbreak of the war had been preceded by years of angry diplomatic dispute,
neither side was ready for war when it came.
Great Britian was still hard pressed by the Napoleonic Wars; most of the British Army
was engaged in the Peninsular War (in Spain), and the Royal Navy was compelled to
blockade most of the coast of Europe. The total number of British regular troops present
in Canada in July 1812 was officially stated to be 6,034, supported by Canadian militia.
Throughout the war, the British Secretary of State for War and the Colonies was the Earl
of Bathurst. For the first two years of the war, he could spare few troops to reinforce
North America and urged the Commander-in-Chief in North America—Lieutenant General
Sir George Prevost—to maintain a defensive strategy, which accorded with Prevost's own
inclinations. But when large-scale reinforcements of over 25,000 battle-trained regulars
became available in 1814, Prevost's invasion of New York failed when he was defeated
at the Battle of Plattsburgh, and the invasion of Louisiana was repulsed at the Battle of
Despite years of warlike talk, the United States was unready to prosecute a war, for
President Madison assumed that the state militias would easily seize Canada and
negotiations would then follow. 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, low paid and unpopular and there were initially very few 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 when outside of their home state. The U.S. had great difficulty financing its
war, especially since it had disbanded its national bank and private bankers in the
Northeast were opposed to the war.
The early disasters brought about largely by American unpreparedness and lack of
leadership drove United States Secretary of War William Eustis from office. His successor,
John Armstrong, Jr., attempted a coordinated strategy late in 1813 aimed at the capture of
Montreal, but was thwarted by logistics, uncooperative and quarrelsome commanders,
and ill-trained troops. By 1814, the United States Army's morale and leadership had
greatly improved, but the embarrassing Burning of Washington led to Armstrong's
dismissal from office in turn. The war ended before the new Secretary of War James
Monroe could develop any new strategy.
American prosecution of the war also suffered from its unpopularity, especially in
New England, where anti-war spokesmen were vocal. The failure of New England to
provide militia units or financial support was a serious blow. Threats of secession by
New England states were loud; Britain immediately exploited these divisions, blockading
only southern ports for much of the war and encouraging smuggling.
The war was conducted in three theatres of operations:
The Atlantic Ocean
The Great Lakes and the Canadian frontier
The Southern States
Britain had long been the world's pre-eminent naval power, confirmed by its epic
victory over the French and the Spanish at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. In 1812,
the Royal Navy had ninety-seven vessels in American waters. Of these, eleven were
large ships of the line and thirty-four were smaller frigates. By contrast, the United
States Navy, which was not yet twenty years old, had only twenty-two commissioned
vessels, the largest of which were frigates, though a number of the American ships
were 44-gun frigates and heavily built compared to the usual British 38-gun frigates.
The strategy of the British was to protect their own merchant shipping to and from
Halifax and Canada, and to enforce a blockade of major American ports to restrict
American trade. Because of their numerical inferiority, the Americans aimed to cause
disruption through hit-and-run tactics, such as the capture of prizes and engaging
Royal Navy vessels under only favorable circumstances.
The Americans experienced early successes at sea. Days after the formal declaration
of war, two small squadrons sailed, including 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
Meanwhile, USS Constitution, commanded by Captain Isaac Hull, sailed from Chesapeake
Bay on July 12. On July 17, a British squadron gave chase. Constitution evaded her
pursuers after two days. After briefly calling at Boston to replenish water, on August 19
Constitution engaged the British frigate HMS Guerriere. After a thirty five-minute battle,
Guerriere had been dismasted and captured and was later burned. Hull returned to
Boston with news of this significant victory.
On October 25, the USS United States, commanded by Captain Decatur, captured the
British frigate HMS Macedonian, which he then carried back to port. At the close of the
month, Constitution sailed south under the command of Captain William Bainbridge. On
December 29, off Bahia, Brazil, she met the British frigate HMS Java. After a battle
lasting three hours, Java struck her colours and was burned after being judged
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. Essex challenged this practice. She inflicted
an estimated $8,000,000 damage on British interests before she was captured off
Valparaiso, 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 Essex was taken—the Americans had
the advantage of greater size and heavier guns. However, the United States Navy's
sloops and brigs also won several victories over Royal Navy vessels of approximately
equal strength. While the American ships had experienced and well-drilled volunteer
crews, the cream of the over-stretched Royal Navy was serving elsewhere, and constant
sea duties of those serving in North America interfered with their training and exercises.
The capture of the three British frigates stimulated the British to greater exertions. More
vessels were deployed on the American seaboard and the blockade tightened. On June
1, 1813, off Boston Harbor, the frigate USS Chesapeake, commanded by Captain James
Lawrence, was captured by the British frigate HMS Shannon under Captain Sir Philip
Broke. Lawrence was mortally wounded and famously cried out, "Don't give up the ship!".
The blockade of American ports had tightened to the extent that most American merchant
ships and naval vessels were confined to port. The American frigates USS United States
and USS Macedonian ended the war blockaded and hulked in New London, Connecticut.
Some merchant ships were based in Europe or Asia and continued operations. Others,
mainly from New England, were issued licenses to trade by Admiral Sir John Borlase
Warren, Commander in Chief on the American station in 1813. This allowed Wellington's
army in Spain to be supplied with American goods, as well as maintaining the New
Englanders' opposition to the war.
Following their earlier losses, the British Admiralty had instituted a new policy in which
Royal Navy ships could engage their American counterparts only if in squadron strength
or by ship-of-the-line. An example of this was the engagement between USS President
and a heavy British squadron in January 1815. The British engaged with four ships versus
one: HMS Endymion, HMS Majestic, HMS Pomone, and HMS Tenedos. After a
desperate battle, the President was captured. Because of the utilization of heavy
squadrons and the blockade, the Royal Navy was able to transport British Army troops
to American shores, paving the way for their attack on Washington D.C., which became
known as the burning of Washington in 1814.
The operations of American privateers, some of which belonged to the United States Navy
but most of which were private ventures, 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 depredations in British
home waters carried out by the American sloop USS Argus, which was eventually
captured off St David's Head in Wales by the British brig HMS Pelican, on August 14,
1813. A total of 1,554 vessels were captured by all American naval and privateering vessels,
1300 of which were captured by privateers.
Halifax was the Royal Navy base that supervised the blockade and it profited greatly
during the war. British privateers based there seized many French and American ships,
selling their prizes in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
The war was likely the last time the British allowed privateering, since the practice was
coming to be seen as politically inexpedient and of diminishing value in maintaining its
naval supremacy. It was certainly the swansong of Bermuda's privateers, who returned to
the practice with a vengeance after American lawsuits had put a stop to it two decades
earlier. The nimble Bermuda sloops captured 298 enemy ships (the total captures by all
British naval and privateering vessels between the Great Lakes and the West Indies was
Great Lakes and Canadian theatre
Invasions of Upper and Lower Canada, 1812
America's leaders had assumed that Canada could be easily overrun. Former
President Jefferson optimistically referred to the conquest of Canada as "a matter
of marching." Many Americans had migrated to Upper Canada and it was assumed
(by both sides) they would favor the American cause. They did not. In Lower Canada,
much more populous, support for Britain came from the English élite with strong
loyalty to the Empire, and from the French élite who feared American conquest
would destroy the old order by introducing Protestantism, anglicization, republican
democracy, and commercial capitalism. The French habitants feared the loss to
potential American immigrants of a shrinking acreage of good lands.
In 1812-13 British military experience prevailed over inexperienced American
Geography dictated that operations would take place in the west principally around L
ake Erie, near the Niagara River between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario and near Saint
Lawrence River area and Lake Champlain. This was the focus of the three pronged
attacks by the Americans in 1812.
Although cutting the St. Lawrence River through the capture of Montreal and Quebec
would make Britain's hold in North America unsustainable, the United States began
operations first in the Western frontier because of the general popularity there of a war
with the British, who had sold arms to the native Americans opposing the settlers.
The British scored an important early success when their detachment at St. Joseph
Island on Lake Huron learned of the declaration of war before the nearby American
garrison at the important trading post at Mackinac Island in Michigan did. A scratch force
landed on the island on July 17, 1812, and mounted a gun overlooking Fort Mackinac.
The Americans, taken by surprise, surrendered. This early victory encouraged the Indians,
and large numbers of them moved to help the British at Amherstburg.
American Brigadier General William Hull invaded Canada on July 12, 1812, from Detroit
with an army mainly composed of militiamen. Once on Canadian soil, Hull issued a
proclamation ordering all British subjects to surrender, or "the horrors, and calamities of
war will stalk before you." He also threatened to kill any British prisoner caught fighting
alongside an Indian. The proclamation helped stiffen resistance to the American attacks.
Despite the threats, Hull's invasion turned into a retreat after receiving news of the British
victory at Mackinac and when his supply lines were threatened in the battles of
Brownstown and Monguagon. He pulled his 2,500 troops back to Fort Detroit.
British Major General Isaac Brock advanced on Fort Detroit with 1,200 men. Brock sent
a fake correspondence and allowed the letter to be captured by the Americans, saying
they required only 5,000 Native warriors to capture Detroit. Hull feared the Indians and
their threats of torture and scalping. Believing the British had more troops than they did,
Hull surrendered at Detroit without a fight on August 16.
Brock promptly transferred himself to the eastern end of Lake Erie, where American
General Stephen Van Rensselaer was attempting a second invasion. An armistice
(arranged by Prevost in the hope the British renunciation of the Orders in Council to
which the United States objected might lead to peace) prevented Brock invading
American territory. When the armistice ended, the Americans attempted an attack
across the Niagara River on October 13, but suffered a crushing defeat at Queenston
Heights. Brock was killed during the battle. While the professionalism of the American
forces would improve by the war's end, British leadership suffered after Brock's death.
A final attempt in 1812 by American General Henry Dearborn to advance north from
Lake Champlain failed when his militia refused to advance beyond American territory.
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,
strongly opposed the American invasion. However, a large segment of Upper Canada's
population was recent settlers from the United States who had no obvious loyalties to the
Crown. Nevertheless, while there were some who sympathized with the invaders, the
American forces found strong opposition from men loyal to the Empire.
American northwest, 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 January 22, 1813. Procter
left the prisoners with an inadequate guard, who were unable to prevent some of his
North American Indian allies from attacking and killing perhaps as many as sixty
Americans, 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.
In May 1813, Procter and Tecumseh set siege to Fort Meigs in northern Ohio.
American reinforcements arriving during the siege were defeated by the Indians,
but the fort held out. The Indians eventually began to disperse, forcing Procter and
Tecumseh to return to Canada. A second offensive against Fort Meigs also failed in
July. In an attempt to improve Indian morale, Procter and Tecumseh attempted to
storm Fort Stephenson, a small American post on the Sandusky River, only to be
repulsed with serious losses, marking the end of the Ohio campaign.
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 Upper 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 North American Indian alliance with the British in the Detroit region.
The Americans controlled Detroit and Amherstburg for the duration of the war.
Niagara frontier, 1813
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 had not taken advantage of this before the war and had fallen behind. By
September 1814, the British launched the largest ship built during the war— HMS St.
On April 27, 1813, American forces attacked and burned York (now called Toronto), the
capital of Upper Canada, including the Parliament Buildings and a library. However,
Kingston was strategically more valuable 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 from Lower Canada.
On May 27, 1813, an American amphibious force from Lake Ontario assaulted Fort George
on the northern end of the Niagara River and captured it without serious losses. The
retreating British forces were not pursued, however, until they had largely escaped and
organized a counter-offensive against the advancing Americans at the Battle of Stoney
Creek on June 5. On June 24, with the help of advance warning by Loyalist Laura Secord,
another American force was forced to surrender by a much smaller British and Indian
force at the Battle of Beaver Dams, marking the end of the American offensive into Upper
The burning of Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake) by American General McClure on
December 10, 1813, incensed the British and Canadians since civilian houses had mainly
been destroyed. Many were left without shelter, consequently freezing to death in the snow.
This led to British retaliation and similar destruction at Buffalo on December 30, 1813.
On Lake Ontario, Sir James Lucas Yeo took command on May 15, 1813, and created a
more mobile though less powerful force than the Americans under Isaac Chauncey. An
early attack on Sackett's Harbour by Yeo and Governor General Sir George Prevost was
repulsed. Three naval engagements in August and September led to no decisive result.
By 1814, Yeo had constructed HMS St Lawrence, a first-rate ship of the line of 112 guns
which gave him superiority, and the British became masters of Lake Ontario.
St. Lawrence and Lower Canada
The British were potentially most vulnerable over the stretch of the Saint Lawrence where
it also formed the frontier between Upper Canada and the United States. During the early
days of the war, there was much illicit commerce across the river, but over the winter of
1812 - 1813, the Americans launched a series of raids from Ogdensburg on the American
side of the river, hampering British supply traffic up the river.
On February 21, Sir George Prevost passed through Prescott on the opposite bank of the
river, with reinforcements for Upper Canada. When he left the next day, the reinforcements
and local militia attacked. At the Battle of Ogdensburg, the Americans were forced to retire.
For the rest of the year, Ogdensburg had no American garrison and many residents of
Ogdensburg resumed visits and trade with Prescott. This British victory removed the last
American regular troops from the Upper St Lawrence frontier and helped secure British
communications with Montreal.
Late in 1813, after much argument, the Americans made two thrusts against Montreal.
The plan eventually agreed upon was for Major-General Wade Hampton to march north from
Lake Champlain and join a force under General James Wilkinson which would embark in
boats and sail from Sackett's Harbour on Lake Ontario and descend the Saint Lawrence.
Hampton was delayed by bad roads and supply problems and an intense dislike of Wilkinson,
which limited his desire to support his plan. On October 25, his 4,000-strong force was
defeated at the Chateauguay River by Charles de Salaberry's force of fewer than 500
French-Canadian Voltigeurs and Mohawks.
Wilkinson's force of 8,000 set out on October 17 but was also delayed by bad weather.
After learning that Hampton had been checked, Wilkinson heard that a British force under
Captain William Mulcaster and Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Wanton Morrison was pursuing
him, and by November 10, he was forced to land near Morrisburg, about 150 kilometers
(90 mi) from Montreal. On November 11, Wilkinson's rearguard, numbering 2,500, attacked
Morrison's force of 800 at Crysler's Farm and was repulsed with heavy losses. After
learning that Hampton was unable to renew his advance, Wilkinson retreated to the U.S.
and settled into winter quarters. He resigned his command after a failed attack on a British
outpost at Lacolle Mills.
Niagara Campaign, 1814
By the middle of 1814, American generals, including Major Generals Jacob Brown and
Winfield Scott, had drastically improved the fighting abilities and discipline of the army.
Their renewed attack on the Niagara peninsula quickly captured Fort Erie. Winfield Scott
then gained a decisive victory over an equal British force at the Battle of Chippewa on July
5. An attempt to advance further ended with a hard-fought drawn battle at Lundy's Lane
on July 25. The Americans withdrew but withstood a prolonged Siege of Fort Erie. The
British raised the siege, but lack of provisions eventually forced the Americans to retreat
across the Niagara.
Meanwhile, following the abdication of Napoleon, 15,000 British troops were sent to
North America under four of Wellington’s most able brigade commanders. Fewer than
half were veterans of the Peninsula and the remainder came from garrisons. Along with
the troops came instructions for offensives against the United States. British strategy
was changing, and like the Americans, the British were seeking advantages for the peace
negotiations. Governor-General Sir George Prevost was instructed to launch an invasion
into the New York-Vermont region. He had a large invasion force which was much more
powerful than the Americans. On reaching Plattsburgh New York, however, he delayed
the assault until the belated arrival of a fleet led by Captain George Downie in the hastily
completed 36-gun "Confiance." Prevost forced Downie into a premature attack, but then
unaccountably failed to provide the promised military backing. Downie was killed and his
naval force defeated at the naval Battle of Plattsburgh in Plattsburgh Bay on September
11, 1814. The Americans now had control of Lake Champlain; Theodore Roosevelt later
termed it the greatest naval battle of the war. To the astonishment of his senior officers,
Prevost then turned back, saying it would too hazardous to remain on enemy territory
after the loss of naval supremacy. Prevost's political and military enemies forced his recall.
In London a naval court martial of the surviving officers of the Plattsburgh Bay debacle
decided that defeat had been caused principally by Prevost’s urging the squadron into
premature action and then failing to afford the promised support from the land forces.
Prevost died suddenly, just before his own court martial was to convene. Prevost's
reputation sank to new lows, as Canadians claimed their militia under Brock did the job
and he failed. Recently, however, historians have been more kindly, measuring him not
against Wellington but against his American foes. They judge Prevost’s preparations for
defending the Canadas with limited means to be energetic, well conceived, and
comprehensive, and against the odds he had achieved the primary objective of preventing
an American conquest.
American West, 1814
Little of note took place on Lake Huron in 1813, but the American victory on Lake Erie
isolated the British there. During the winter, a Canadian party under Lieutenant Colonel
Robert McDouall established a new supply line from York to Nottawasaga Bay on
Georgian Bay. When he arrived at Fort Mackinac with supplies and reinforcements, he
sent an expedition to recapture the trading post of Prairie du Chien in the far West. The
Battle of Prairie du Chien ended in a British victory on July 20, 1814.
In 1814, the Americans sent a force of five vessels from Detroit to recapture Mackinac.
A mixed force of regulars and volunteers from the militia landed on the island on July 4.
They did not attempt to achieve surprise, and at the brief Battle of Mackinac Island, they
were ambushed by Indians and forced to re-embark.
The Americans discovered the new base at Nottawasaga Bay and on August 13,
destroyed its fortifications and a schooner found there. They then returned to Detroit,
leaving two gunboats to blockade Michilimackinac. On September 4, these gunboats
were taken unawares and captured by enemy boarding parties from canoes and small
boats. This Engagement on Lake Huron left Mackinac under British control.
The British garrison at Prairie du Chien also fought off an attack by Major Zachary Taylor.
In this distant theatre, the British retained the upper hand till the end of the war because
of their allegiance with several Indian tribes that they supplied with arms and gifts.
When the war began, the British naval forces had some difficulty in blockading the entire
U.S. 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, benefitted
from the willingness of the New Englanders to trade with them, so no blockade of New
England was at first attempted. The Delaware River and Chesapeake Bay were declared
in a state of blockade on December 26, 1812. This was extended to the coast south of
Narragansett by November 1813 and to all the 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 U.S. Government was driven to issue orders to stop illicit
trading. This put only a further strain on 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 harbors.
Additionally, commanders of the blockading fleet, based at the Bermuda dockyard, were
given instructions to encourage the defection of American slaves. Many black slaves
came over to the Crown, with their families, and were recruited into the
(3rd Colonial Battalion) Royal Marines on occupied Tangier Island, in the Chesapeake.
A further company of colonial marines was raised at the Bermuda dockyard, where many
freed slaves, men women and children, had been given refuge and employment, and was
kept as a defensive force in case of an attack. These former slaves fought for Britain
throughout the Atlantic campaign, including the attack on Washington D.C.and the
Louisiana Campaign, and most were later re-enlisted into British West India regiments,
or settled in Trinidad in August, 1816, where seven hundred of these ex-marines were
granted land (they reportedly organised themselves in villages along the lines of military
companies). Many other freed American slaves had been recruited directly into existing
West Indian regiments, or newly-created British Army units.
From the probing of the British Colony of New Brunswick, Maine was an important
conquest by the British. The line of the border between New Brunswick and the District
of Maine had never been adequately agreed after the American Revolution. A military
victory in Maine by the British could represent a large gain in territory for New Brunswick,
but more immediately it assured communication with Lower Canada via the St John River
and the Halifax Road. The war did not settle the border dispute, and when Maine became
a state in 1820, it led to a border crisis called the Aroostook War. The border between
Maine and New Brunswick was not be settled until 1842 and the "Webster-Ashburton
In September 1814, Sir John Coape Sherbrooke led a British Army into eastern Maine and
was successful in capturing Castine, Hampden, Bangor, and Machias. The Americans
were given the option of swearing allegiance to the king or quitting the country. The vast
majority swore allegiance and were even permitted to keep their firearms. This is the only
large tract of territory held by either side at the conclusion of the war and was given back
to the United States by the Treaty of Ghent. The British did not leave Maine until April
1815, at which time they took large sums of money retained from duties in occupied Maine.
This money, called the "Castine Fund", was used in the establishment of Dalhousie
University, in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Chesapeake campaign and "The Star-Spangled Banner"
The strategic location of the Chesapeake Bay near the nation's capital made it a prime
target for the British. Starting in March 1813, a squadron under Rear Admiral George
Cockburn started a blockade of the bay and raided towns along the bay from Norfolk to
Havre de Grace. On July 4, 1813, Joshua Barney, a Revolutionary War naval hero,
convinced the Navy Department to build the Chesapeake Bay Flotilla, a squadron of twenty
barges to defend the Chesapeake Bay. Launched in April 1814, the squadron was quickly
cornered in the Patuxent River, and while successful in harassing the Royal Navy, they
were powerless to stop the British campaign that ultimately led to the "Burning of
This expedition, led by Cockburn and General Robert Ross, was carried out between
August 19 and August 29, 1814, as the result of the hardened British policy of 1814
(although British and American commissioners had convened peace negotiations at
Ghent in June of that year). As part of this, Admiral Warren had been replaced as
Commander-in-Chief by Admiral Alexander Cochrane, with reinforcements and orders
to coerce the Americans into a favourable peace. Governor-General Sir George Prevost
of Canada had written to the Admirals in Bermuda calling for a retaliation for the
American sacking of York (now Ontario). A force of 2,500 soldiers under General Ross,
aboard a Royal Navy task force composed of the Royal Oak, three frigates, three sloops
and ten other vessels, had just arrived in Bermuda. Released from the Peninsular War
by British victory, it had been intended to use them for diversionary raids along the
coasts of Maryland and Virginia. In response to Prevost's request, it was decided to
employ this force, together with the naval and military units already on the station, to
strike at Washington D.C.
On August 24. Secretary of War Armstrong insisted that the British would attack
Baltimore rather than Washington, even when the British army was obviously on its
way to the capital. The inexperienced American militia, which had congregated at
Bladensburg, Maryland, to protect the capital, were destroyed in the Battle of
Bladensburg, opening the route to Washington. While Dolley Madison saved valuables
from the White House, President James Madison was forced to flee to Virginia. The
British commanders ate the supper which had been prepared for the president before
they burned the President's Mansion; American morale was reduced to an all-time low.
The British viewed their actions as in retaliation for destructive American raids into
Canada, most notably the Americans' burning of York (now Toronto) in 1813. Later, that
same evening a furious storm swept into Washington D.C. sending one or more
tornadoes into the city and extinguishing the fires with torrential rains. The British left
Washington D.C. as soon as the storm subsided.
Having destroyed Washington's public buildings, including the White House and the
Treasury, 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 withdrew when General Ross was killed at an American
outpost. 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. All the lights
were extinguished in Baltimore the night of the attack, and the fort was bombarded for
25 hours. The only light was given off by the exploding shells over Fort McHenry, which
gave proof that the flag was still over the fort. The defense of the fort inspired the
American lawyer Francis Scott Key to write a poem that would eventually supply the
lyrics to "The Star-Spangled Banner".
In March 1814, Jackson led a force of Tennessee militia, Cherokee warriors, and U.S.
regulars southward to attack the Creek tribes, led by Chief Menawa. On March 26,
Jackson and General John Coffee decisively defeated 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 until they
surrendered. Most historians consider the Creek war as part of the War of 1812, because
the Indians were a cause and the British supported them.
Treaty of Ghent and Battle of New Orleans
On December 24, 1814, diplomats from the two countries, meeting in Ghent, United
Kingdom of the Netherlands (present Belgium), signed the Treaty of Ghent. This was
ratified by the Americans on February 16, 1815.
Unaware of the peace, Jackson's forces moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, in late 1814 to
defend against a large-scale British invasion. Jackson decisively defeated the British at the
Battle of New Orleans on January 8, with over 2000 British casualties and fewer than 100
American losses. It was hailed as a great victory, making Andrew Jackson a national hero,
eventually propelling him to the presidency. The British gave up on New Orleans but moved
to attack the town of Mobile. In the last military action of the war 1000 British troops won
the battle of Fort Bowyer. When news of peace arrived on Feb. 13 they sailed home. The
campaign was to be the last time the United States was ever attacked by another country
until the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 during World War II.
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 St. Lawrence; and all outstanding
debts and property taken was to be returned or paid for. Instead of returning captured slaves,
large numbers of which had been recruited as free men into the British services, the British
paid cash for them.
The Treaty of Ghent established the status quo ante bellum; that is, there were no territorial
changes made by either side. The issue of impressing American seamen was made moot
when the Royal Navy stopped impressment after the defeat of Napoleon. Relations between
the United States and Britain remained generally peaceful for the rest of the nineteenth
century (except for disputes over the border and the American Civil War), and the two
countries became close allies in the twentieth century. Border adjustments between the
United States and British North America were made in the Treaty of 1818. (A border
dispute along the Maine-New Brunswick border was settled by the 1842 Webster-Ashburton
Treaty after the bloodless Aroostook War, and the border in the Oregon Territory was settled
by the 1846 Oregon Treaty.)
The US ended the Indian threat on its western and southern borders. The nation also
gained a psychological sense of complete independence as people celebrated their
"second war of independence.", though in fact US independence as such was never
actually under threat. Nationalism soared after the victory at the Battle of New Orleans.
The opposition Federalist Party collapsed and an Era of Good Feelings ensued. Three
of the war heroes used their celebrity to win national office: Andrew Jackson (elected
president in 1828 and 1832) Richard Mentor Johnson (elected vice president in 1836)
and William Henry Harrison (elected president in 1840).
British North America
The War of 1812 was seen by the people in British North America, and later Canada, as a
reprieve from an American takeover. The outcome gave Empire-oriented Canadians
confidence and, together with the postwar "militia myth" that the civilian militia had
been primarily responsible rather than the British regulars, was used to stimulate a new
sense of Canadian nationalism. A long-term implication of the militia myth that
remained popular in the Canadian public at least until World War II was that Canada
did not need a regular professional army.
The Battle of York demonstrated the vulnerability of Upper and Lower Canada. In the
1820s, work began on La Citadelle at Quebec City as a defence against the United States.
The fort remains an operational base of the Canadian Forces. In the 1820s, work began on
the Halifax citadel to defend the port against American attacks. This fort remained in
operation through World War II. In the 1830s, the Rideau Canal was built to provide a
secure waterway from Montreal to Lake Ontario avoiding the narrows of the St. Lawrence
river where American cannon could block traffic. The British also built Fort Henry at
Kingston to defend the Rideau Canal. This fort remained operational until 1891.
Bermuda had been largely left to the defences of its own militia and privateers prior to
American independence, but the Royal Navy had begun buying up land and operating
from there in 1795 as its location was a useful substitute for the lost American ports. It
originally was intended to be the winter headquarters of the North American Squadron,
but the war shoved it into a new prominence. As construction work progressed through
the first half of the century, Bermuda became the permanent naval headquarters in
Western waters, housing the Admiralty, and serving as a base and dockyard. The military
garrison was built up to protect the naval establishment, heavily fortifying the archipelago
that came to be described as the Gibraltar of the West. Defence infrastructure would
remain the central leg of Bermuda's economy until after the Second World War.
The war is scarcely remembered in Britain because it was overshadowed
by the far larger conflict against Napoleon Bonaparte. Britain's goals of impressing
seamen and blocking trade with France had been achieved and were no longer needed.
The Royal Navy, however, was acutely conscious that the United States Navy had won
most of the single-ship duels during the early stages of the War. This had many causes,
including the advantage larger size and heavier armament of American ships of the same
rate as their Royal Navy counterparts, the typically undermanned strength of British crews,
and the poor training (due to the shortage of qualified seamen, a significant number of Royal
Naval crewmembers were rated as landsmen) and morale of many of the Royal Navy's
involuntary conscripts. The US Navy, by comparison, with an abundance
of cheap timber could build its ships larger than the norm for their rate, and with 55,000
seamen made unemployed, even before the war, by the 1807 Embargo Act, it had no
trouble recruiting large, trained crews for each of its handful of warships. The Royal Navy
made some changes to its practices in construction and gunnery and focused more on
accuracy than on rate of fire as had been the case. It remained the most powerful navy
in the world until after the First World War.
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