In many ways a forgotten war, the War of 1812 was America’s first test as a nation. Had it ended differently, we might have been colonies again.
Reenactors and Living Historians in 2013 reveled in the 150th anniversary of Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and Vicksburg, some of the most monumental battles of the American Civil War. Thousands of participants, tens of thousands of spectators, and merchants of all kinds have gathered to relive these events that shaped our nation and its people forever.
2013 and 2014 have seen anniversaries of other battles from an earlier war which has also shaped American History, the War of 1812. Though overshadowed by its later, longer and bloodier cousin, the War of 1812 was the first major military test of new United States, the only conflict in our history in which a foreign power invaded our states, and the only one in which our capital, Washington DC, was captured. The War of 1812 is famous for Fort McHenry’s valiant stand against the British fleet, the setting of Francis Scott Key’s Star Spangled Banner, and for Andrew Jackson’s (Old Hickory) decimation of the British forces at the Battle of New Orleans.
The main show on the world stage in 1812 was the struggle between the French and the Allied Powers in Europe. French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte had brought continental Europe to its knees and in 1812 invaded Russia. Britain was winning its guerilla campaign against French forces in Spain and its navy ruled the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, a harbinger of the worldwide English supremacy in the decades to come.
America in 1812 was an insignificant power. Though its land area was 1.7 million square miles (France 250,000 square miles, UK 90,000 square miles) its population was only 7.2 million (France 38 million, UK 15 million). America’s army in 1812 had 7,000 soldiers, compared with over 500,000 in France and over 250,000 in the United Kingdom. The United States was also far behind Great Britain in industrial output.
In 1807, Britain and France declared their intention to seize neutral ships entering or leaving the enemy’s ports. Because France was much weaker and had lost much of their naval force at Trafalgar in 1805, they had trouble acting on their threat. With its dominating blue water navy, Britain, though hard pressed against France on land, took naval action against the United States to strengthen their navy against Napoleon.
The Royal Navy had 175 ships of the lines and 600 total ships arrayed against France, requiring 140,000 sailors to man them. Since it could not meet the requirements at home, Britain captured American seamen and forced them to join the Royal Navy. The United Kingdom supported Indian raids on American settlers, wreaking havoc on the frontier. Finally the British blocked US trade with France, causing economic hardship on both sides of the Atlantic. President Thomas Jefferson refused to fight but tried diplomatic and economic means to stop these practices, but they failed. In June 1812 President James Madison presented Congress with a list of grievances and war hawks like Henry Clay led as Congress declared war.
As a result of the war against Napoleon, Canada had only about 6000 British regulars. Hoping to exploit that vulnerability, about 3000 US troops under General William Hull invaded Canada across the Detroit River in July 1812. By August the poorly trained and equipped force had surrendered to smaller British forces and much of the Michigan Territory was lost. The American fortress at Detroit fell to a smaller combined British and Shawnee Indian army. The US invaded Canada in October and again failed.
In one of the most famous naval engagements of the war, the frigate USS Constitution, one of only 20 ships in the entire US Navy, eluded five British pursuers in July 1812. Armed with 44-55 guns compared to the 36-40 guns in European frigates, in August the Constitution defeated the HMS Guerriere. The London Times reported “Never before in the history of the world did an English frigate strike to an American.” In December the Constitution destroyed the British frigate HMS Java in a three hour battle. Finally in 1815 she captured the HMS Cyane and the HMS Levant.
Napoleon’s defeat and withdrawal from Russia in December 1812 and Britain’s victories in the Iberian campaign in early 1813 resulted in more British forces being available for operations in North America. A British naval advance was checked by weaker forces under Commodore Oliver Perry in the Battle of Lake Erie in September. Never before had an American fleet defeated an entire British squadron. In October, a combination British and Native American force was beaten by General William Henry Harrison’s forces at the Battle of the Thames. Critical to the war, the Chief Tecumseh, leader of the native confederation, was killed, and unified native support to the British was gone.
After defeat in the Battle of Leipzig (October 1813) and a long retreat into France, Napoleon abdicated on 6 April 1814. This allowed the British to bring large ground and naval forces against the Americans. British General George Prevost invaded New York in August but Master Commandant Thomas MacDonough’s naval victory at Lake Champlain and Brigadier General Alexander Macomb’s land victory against Prevost at the Battle of Plattsburgh in September ended their northern campaign.
The War of 1812 involved action as far away as the Pacific Ocean. In October 1812, Captain David Porter, accompanied by the young midshipman David Farragut, took his ship, the USS Essex, to the South Atlantic to raid British merchant vessels. In December they captured a British mail ship and took $55,000 in gold. Through 1813 the Essex captured 12 British whalers with oil worth over $2 million. In March 1814 while trying to escape from Valparaiso in Chile, British warships ambushed the Essex. After a stiff battle, Porter surrendered. His ship a floating wreck, the British allowed him to sail back to the US.
Meanwhile the Royal Navy was blockading the US seacoast, raiding and looting villages at will. Rear Admiral George Cockburn was in command of the Chesapeake Bay fleet and landed Royal Marines on the eastern shores of the Patuxent River. They defeated Maryland militia at “The Plains” and moved north and west, routing US forces at Bladensburg and burning Washington DC in August 1814. A similar attempt to move up the Chesapeake to conquer Baltimore was foiled by a British army defeat at North Point and a British naval failure against Fort McHenry in September. This battle occasioned Francis Scott Key’s writing of the “Star Spangled Banner”, which became the US national anthem in 1931.
With neither side able to achieve a decisive victory, Britain and the United States signed a peace treaty at Ghent, Belgium, in December 1814. Nonetheless one great battle remained. Unaware of the peace treaty, a British force of 8000 under General Edward Pakenham attacked General Andrew Jackson’s hodgepodge force of 1000 regulars and 3000 auxiliaries outside the city of New Orleans on 8 January 1815. The British suffered nearly 25% casualties while the Americans lost 81.
The War of 1812, sometimes known as the Second American Revolution, proved to the world that America could maintain her independence. It also proved that America could stand as an independent power alongside the great states of the time. While historians and reenactors enjoy the cataclysmic battles of the Civil War, they would do well to remember the War of 1812. Both have much to savor.