|American Regular Army uniforms of the War of 1812. Pretty spiffy, but there weren't enough of them.|
Today is the 200th anniversary of the day James Madison signed a declaration of war that began the conflict known as The War of 1812. Don’t look for the kind of hoopla that surrounds other big anniversaries associated with other conflicts—The American Revolution, Civil War, or World War II. Although considered by some historians as a “second revolution” the war is dimly remembered in this country and wouldn’t be at all if not for giving birth to the Star Spangled Banner and once popular ballad The Battle of New Orleans.
The British have effectively forgotten it. They always regarded it as a pesky side show of the world wide conflict with Napoleonic France. Only the Canadians relish the occasion, although they won’t celebrate today. Instead they will turn cartwheels at the anniversaries of battles in which Canadian provincial troops and militia beat the snot out of invading Yankees thus giving themselves a national identity.
In June 1812 the United States Congress declared war against the British Empire. Probably never in history has a less prepared nation had the effrontery to declare war on a world power. The military result was predictably disastrous, the results so ambiguous historians cannot agree on a winner or even if there was a winner.
War fever had been building in the U.S. since at least 1807. Several issues stoked resentment of the former Mother Country. As a result of the war with Napoleon the British placed harsh restrictions on neutral shipping to France, its colonies, and allies. They seized American ships and damaged American trade. The British also reserved the right to board any American ship in any waters and seize Royal Navy “deserters.” In practice they kidnapped and impressed into service any sailors they suspected of being born in England, Scotland or Ireland.
An Embargo of American trade with the European combatants, meant to punish Britain, imposed by the Jefferson administration, had devastated the economies of mercantile New England with little effect of British behavior. Although the British made some minor concessions shortly before the war broke out on neutral shipping, they refused to stop impressments.
The cry of the War Hawks was “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights!” But the supposed main beneficiary of a war fought on these grounds, New England, was Anglophone by sympathy and united in the belief that war would be even more disastrous to its trade and possibly lead to more rapid Western Expansion, to the detriment of it power within the union. Throughout the war, support by New England states was tepid at best and an anti-war fever brought the region to the brink of secession.
Another irritation was the continued support of the British for Native tribes who had been fighting a long, bloody frontier war in the Northwest and parts of the South almost continuously since the Revolution. The British hoped to protect their remaining North American holdings and hem in American expansion by establishing a “neutral” Indian state north of the Ohio River and possibly another one north of Florida.
And then there was the matter of Canada. Although never an explicit war aim, it was an open secret that some of the War Hawks hoped to expel Britain from North America entirely and extend U.S. territory to Hudson Bay and the Pacific.
The War Hawks were a group of mostly Southern and Western Congressmen, most elected in 1810 on the Democratic-Republican ticket but at odds with Jefferson and his successor James Madison who wished to avoid war and seek a diplomatic solution. Leaders of the War Hawk faction included Henry Clay of Kentucky, who was elected Speaker of the House, and the ever volatile John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. Both men began their long careers at the center of American politics with the push to war.
It had been a long time since the Revolution. Few men in public life remembered the horrors of war. Younger men like Clay and Calhoun were imbued with a myth of the Revolution that citizen soldier militia had defeated the strongest military power in the world. Forgotten was the fact that the war would have been unwinnable without the intervention of a French fleet and army or that the main American fighting force, the Continental Army, had been transformed into a reasonably capable body of regular troops.
Although the fledgling Navy was in reasonably good shape, having recently been engaged in the Pseudo War with France and the wars against the Barbary Pirates, its 6 heavily armed Frigates, were outmatched by the mighty Royal Navy with 11 heavier Ships of the Line, 34 Frigates, and 54 other armed ships.
On land, the nation was utterly unprepared for war. The Regular Army had an unfilled roster of 7,000 men scattered across half a continent in frontier outposts and a half dozen major coastal defense forts. Most posts had no more than a single company. None of the regiments had ever served or drilled together as a whole. While the army included experienced Indian fighters, only a handful of senior officer had fought in the Revolution against European troops.
Hundreds of thousands of men were enrolled in state militia, but under the laws of the time those militias were strictly under the command and control of state governors and there was no power to bring them into Federal Service. Many would serve only in “defense of the state” meaning that they would not serve outside their boundaries. Militias were generally poorly armed and even more poorly trained, although there were we a handful of “crack” units. Even if state militias agreed to join with Regular forces, there was no clear cut line of command.
After the war began states were asked to raise Volunteers—many of them from the militia—to serve short terms of Federal Service. Volunteer officers were elected or selected by state Governors as political plums. The war was fraught with disputes between Regular officers and Volunteer officers over command issues. New England states uniformly kept their militias from coordinating with Federal troops and failed to raise the requested volunteers so that by the end of the war the Federal fighting force of Regulars and Volunteers was 35,000 was overwhelmingly from the Mid-Atlantic, the South, and the West.
Facing them at the beginning of the war were 5,200 well trained British regulars concentrated along the U.S. Canadian border and 10,000 Provincial Regulars raised in Canada, armed, equipped, and drilled to British standards. There were also 4,000 Provincial militia, about as poorly trained and armed as their American counterparts.
More important, the British had an estimated 10,000 warriors from allied tribes who were used to fighting in concert with their troops and who could conduct a ferocious proxy war on the frontier. By the end of the war Britain had more than 48,000 Regulars engaged.
The American Navy, reinforced by licensed privateers concentrated on commerce raiding with good results. It avoided fleet-to-fleet actions where it would inevitably be overwhelmed. In single ship-to-ship battles with British warships, the nimble Frigates frequently bested heavier Royal Navy ships. News of some of these battles buoyed American moral and confidence. But the British were largely able to maintain a successful blockade of American Ports despite some daring blockade running adventures crippling the economy of New England and the Northeast.
An early war invasions of Canada did not result, as War Hawks had predicted, with elated Canadians eager to join the union. Americans attempted three invasions of Upper and Lower Canada in 1812. All ended badly. William Hull at the head of a largely militia force dithered belligerently along the north shore of Lake Erie, before scurrying back to the “safety” of Ft. Detroit. Hull learned that Ft. Mackinac had fallen without resistance and fearing Indian uprising across the frontier ordered the evacuation of Ft. Dearborn (the site of present day Chicago.) British commander Major General Isaac Brock had no trouble convincing Hull that he vastly outnumbered him with thousands of Indian allies. Hull surrendered Detroit and its garrison without a shot. The evacuating garrison of Ft. Dearborn, including dependents and civilians, was ambushed and massacred less than a mile from the fort. The entire western frontier was then wide open to Indian operations.
Brock rushed east to repel a second American invasion across the Niagara River by the New York Militia and a handful of Regulars under the command of General Stephen Van Rensselaer. The Provincial Militia and Regulars under Brock decisively defeated the Americans at Queenstown, although Brock was killed in action.
A third attempt to attack across Lake Champlain under General Henry Dearborn ended when his militia refused to leave the state.
The next year General William Henry Harrison failed in a bid to recapture Ft. Detroit and at least 60 of his Kentucky Militia men, were captured by the British and massacred by their Indian allies.
British troops supporting a large force of native auxiliaries under the command of Tecumseh opened a series of attacks on strategic outposts in Ohio, including Ft. Meigs. While the Indians terrorized isolated frontier farms and settlements, they failed in multiple attempts to take the forts.
A naval battle on Lake Erie by Captain Oliver Hazard Perry gave America its first important victory of the war, rallied moral, and forced the British and their Indian allies to fall back on Ft. Detroit.
A strategic victory followed when Harrison launched a second invasion of Canada and won a decisive victory against mainly native forces at the Battle of the Themes at which Tecumseh was killed. With Detroit and Lake Erie in American hands, the British could no longer support and supply their Indian allies and they largely withdrew from the war giving the Americans undisputed sway over the Northwest Territories.
Seeking to match that advantage in the Eastern Theater along the Niagara. Commander Isaac Chauncey built and impressive fleet on Lake Ontario. He and Dearborn launched yet another invasion. Dearborn defeated the British at the Battle of York and then burned the provincial capital of Upper Canada, an action that would have enormous consequences later. But Dearborn neglected to secure more strategic choke points that would have cut off supplies and reinforcements from Lower Canada.
An attack on Ft. George at the outlet of the Niagara river was a success, but fleeing British and Canadian forces were not pursued and were rallied to defeat the invaders at the battles of Stony Creek and Beaver Dams. Commodore Chauncey repelled a British Naval attack at the Battle of Sackett’s Harbor, but two more engagements were indecisive. Neither side could maintain undisputed mastery of the Lake. Forced to withdraw from the territory around Ft. George, retreating Americans burned the civilian village of Newark that December and many inhabitants froze to death.
When the British attacked across the river into New York the following year, they retaliated by likewise burning Buffalo. There were also battles across the St. Lawrence in 1812-13. By early 1813 American Regulars were swept from the upper St. Lawrence. An ill conceived two prong attack on Montreal ended with distrust between the two American commanders, Major General Wade Hampton and General James Wilkerson, and logistical problems dooming the campaign. Hampton’s 4000 men were defeated by a much smaller force of French Canadians and Mohawks on the Chateauguay River. Wilkerson’s 8000 men were forced to land more than 90 miles from Montreal and his 2500 man rear guard was mauled by only 800 British at Chysler’s Farm aborting the offensive.
In 1814 Generals Jabob Brown and Winfield Scott with newly trained and equipped regiments of American Regulars acquitted themselves well against the British in a renewed attack across the Niagara, but despite winning tactical victories they were forced to retreat as British reinforcements poured in.
With the abdication of Napoleon, the British sent 15,000 troops, half of them hardened veterans, under able commanders to Canada for an invasion of the U.S. through the Lake Champlain corridor besieging the strategic town of Plattsburg. An unlikely naval battle on the lake with ships built by both sides on the spot soundly scattered the British fleet and left the invasion force inadequately supported to continue the siege. Governor-General Sir George Prevost in personal command had to order an ignominious retreat to Canada. He was heavily criticized, but he did prevent any further American moves north.
More than two years of hard fighting along the border ended in essential stalemate with neither side able to successfully take and hold territory of the other.
In the far west the British maintained Ft. Mackinac despite American attempts to retake it and controlled Lake Huron. With their Indian allies they took isolated American garrisons and repelled forays keeping mastery of the upper Mississippi region. British supported Sauk warriors harassed eastern Missouri but were prevented from major gains at the battles of Cote Sans Dessein and the Sink Hole. But the Sauk would continue a low grade frontier war until 1817.
With most of the action on the border and along the frontier, the rich Chesapeake Bay region and the capital at Washington were left shockingly defenseless. Virtually the only Regular Army troops were the costal artillery garrisons at places like Ft. McHenry in Baltimore harbor. The rest of the defense rested on a slapped together fleet of gun boats and armed barges commanded by Commodore Joshua Barney. Despite harassment from the puny American flotilla, a powerful squadron under Admiral Alexander Cochrane advanced to the Potomac where it unloaded a powerful force of more than 4000 Royal Marines, Regular Army Sappers, Royal Artillery racketeers, “Colonial Marines” made up mostly of freed slaves, plus naval gunners and sailors from the fleet under the command of Major General Robert Ross and Admiral Rear Admiral George Cockburn.
Barney burned his boats and retreated with guns and supplies and 400 sailors and Marines to join a slapped together American defense of the capital under General William H. Winder, the newly appointed regional commander who had arrived only days earlier after being paroled as a prisoner of war. Winder had at his disposal 150 Dragoons, 300 Regular Infantry, and 1,500 hapless Maryland Militia. With the addition of Barney’s men and guns, they had 18 cannon.
Not only were the forces inadequate confusion about the British route made it difficult to establish a fortified defense line. None the less Winder tried to make a stand a Blandenburg. There was sharp fighting and some militia and the Naval forces under Barney held for as long as they could. But most of the militia broke and ran when the never-before seen Congreve Rockets were fired to terrifying, if not murderous, effect leaving a wounded Barney and his sailors to be overwhelmed and captured.
Nothing then stood in the way to Washington. The Capital was alerted to the debacles by the sight of panicked militia running through the streets. The rest of the story is familiar. Dolly Madison hastily evacuated the President’s House with the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington and a trunk full state papers. Her husband President James Madison was somewhere in the country side on horseback trying to avoid capture. Ross and Cockburn occupied the city, dined at the President’s table and then torched all of the public buildings including the President’s House and Capital in reprisal for the American burning of York. It was the most humiliating American military debacle in history.
The British next turned their attention to Baltimore. Ross was killed by an American sniper during a sharp engagement with militia after a landing at North Point. That stalled the land advance and an attempt to take the city by sea was foiled when Ft. McHenry famously withstood a night of intensive bombardment. Troops re-embarked their ships and sailed away to be used later.
Meanwhile in the South a large force of Volunteers, Regular Army troops, and Cherokee allies under Major General Andrew Jackson of Tennessee attacked and defeated the powerful Creek Confederacy, which was allied with and armed by British agents in Florida. Acting without orders, he invaded Florida, loosely held by Britain’s ally Spain, hanged British traders who had supplied the Creeks, and captured Pensacola.
Meanwhile peace negotiations were grinding along at Ghent, Belgium. Both sides were war weary, but maybe the British even more than the Americans because they had been involved in the great Napoleonic wars for years which had drained the Exchequer and bled the nation. After first demanding huge territorial concession in the west and in Maine, the British reconsidered when Madison published their proposals and roused even most diehard Federalists war opponents to his side. Then the most respected man in Britain, the Duke of Wellington refused to take command in America and bluntly told the Prime Minister that the war was stalemated and he had no right to demand territorial concessions.
On Christmas Eve 1814 diplomats signed the Treaty of Ghent essentially restoring all boundaries to pre-war positions, including the British evacuation of parts of Maine and the upper Mississippi area. Britain pledged to stop supporting tribal warfare against the U.S. With the end of the European war the issues of respecting neutral shipping and impressments of seamen were moot and not mentioned in the treaty. The war was an official draw.
Unfortunately for the British, a large fleet and army destined for New Orleans was unaware of peace. Their landing was repulsed with heavy losses by General Jackson. The greatest victory of the war came after it was over.
Who really won the war? Hard to tell. Some American historians liken it to a second American Revolution which confirmed the permanence of the American democratic experiment and infused a first-ever sense of real nationalism into the country.
On the other hand, the British had successfully and permanently defended their North American possessions from the rapacious Americans.
The real winners were the Canadians, who began to forge their own national identity and mythology from their resistance to repeated American invasions. Only in Canada is this mostly forgotten war a celebrated event.
The Americans also won because the threat of Indian warfare was largely erased east of the Mississippi. By 1850 the once sparsely populated West was thickly settled with bustling cities stitched together with networks of railroads, roads and canals.
Conversely the biggest losers were the Native tribes who were defeated in battle and deprived of the support of the British. Crusty Andrew Jackson would ascend to the Presidency and relentless pursue a policy of removal for all of the nations east of the Mississippi. Except for pockets here and there, they were all gone by 1850.