The War of 1812 began in June with a U.S. declaration of war against Great Britain. At the time, U.S. grievances seemed clear to a majority of the American public and to members of Congress from the South and West who voted in favor of the declaration. They were convinced that Great Britain was supporting American Indian attacks against U.S. settlers in the Old Northwest, such as Shawnee chief Tecumseh’s clashes with settlers in the Ohio River valley, in violation of agreements dating back to the treaty that ended the American Revolution.
Although this has since been demonstrated to be false, it was widely believed at the time. In addition, British naval outrages against U.S. ships on the high seas in the context of the Napoleonic Wars had inflamed the American public. While New England and the Northeast were largely opposed to the war, mainly because of their important economic connections to the British Empire, President James Madison derived significant support from the other regions for his idea to capture Canada, making it a diplomatic bargaining chip against real and perceived British aggression.
The first half of the war was disastrous for the United States because the young nation was not at all militarily, administratively, or fiscally prepared for any war, least of all for a war against the world’s greatest power at that time. The U.S. Navy’s active ships numbered a few dozen at best. The army numbered a few thousand, and, in the early going, most of these soldiers were inadequately trained militia led by politically appointed officers or aging Revolutionary War veterans. The nation had an insufficient weaponry manufacturing base, no real means to resist a British naval blockade, nor the fiscal and administrative machinery to raise, train, or pay for military forces. The United States experienced defeat at Detroit and was repeatedly repulsed in its attempts to take Canada. The only good news for the United States in the first half of the war was victories by navy warships, but this did not prevent the British from blockading the U.S. Navy into its ports by 1813.
Bright spots for the United States in 1813 included Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry’s victory at the Battle of Put-In Bay against a British naval squadron. Coupled with Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough’s victory at the Battle of Lake Champlain in 1814, the United States was able to retake control of the Great Lakes region. In addition, by 1814 the Americans saw to it that a new army was formed, trained, equipped, and officered. Removing ineffective appointees from the higher ranks, the army commissioned newer, younger, and more aggressive officers such as Andrew Jackson, Winfield Scott, and Edmund Gaines. By 1814 these officers had trained an army made up of soldiers who were in uniform for the duration instead of short-term enlistees. These men were well enough trained in line-of-battle tactics to overcome crack British troops, fresh from helping defeat Napoleon, at the bloody Battle of Lundy’s Lane in Niagara Falls, Ontario.
In addition, Major General Jackson was able to win some of the most strategic U.S. victories. Driven by his hatred of American Indians, Jackson molded regular and militia forces into units that broke the back of American Indian military power in the Old Southwest at battles such as Horseshoe Bend. These wartime defeats, especially of the Creek Nation, would pave the way for postwar U.S. conquest and occupation of the region and eventual Indian removal in the postwar period.
After enduring humiliating British raids on Baltimore and Washington, D.C., in which the British burned public buildings and forced President Madison to flee what is now the White House, the United States belatedly achieved one final victory at the Battle of New Orleans. This clash occurred in January 1815, three weeks after a peace treaty, principally negotiated for the United States by John Quincy Adams, had been signed at Ghent, Belgium. Ultimately, the war ended as it had begun: with a miscommunication. In 1812 the British had agreed to U.S. diplomatic demands but the treaty did not get to Washington, D.C., before Congress declared war.
The war’s odd beginning and end have puzzled diplomatic historians for decades. The United States had been unprepared for war, representatives of the New England states were, by 1814, meeting in Hartford, Connecticut, to consider secession, and the United States was losing so badly at the beginning of the war that many people feared the country might lose some of its original territory to the British Empire. Almost from the day war was declared, in fact, the Madison administration had negotiators in Europe trying to bring an end to a conflict that the United States had started. But as the United States came out of the war with its territory intact, America’s public, press, and politicians somehow turned a stalemate into a spectacular U.S. victory. The United States even derived its national anthem, Francis Scott Key’s “Star-Spangled Banner,” penned during the British attack on Baltimore, from a war it nearly lost.
- Brown, Roger. The Republic in Peril: 1812. New York: W. W. Norton, 1971.
- Stagg, J. C. A. Mr. Madison’s War: Politics, Diplomacy, and Warfare in the Early American Republic, 1783–1830. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983.
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