UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


The War of 1812
Second War for Independence

America's involvement in the War of 1812 was confusing to many people living in 1812 and is still confusing to many people today. President Madison's war message to Congress made a strong case for the need to fight with Britain for Neutral Rights. He said that Britain was preying on American commerce, seizing her sailors, and supporting restless Indians on the frontier. At the same time, some Americans had an interest in conquering Florida and annexing Canada.

As the country prepared for yet another war with Britain, the United States suffered from bitter internal divisions. The Congressional vote to enter the War of 1812 showed that many Americans were unclear about whether to fight and exactly what the war was all about. While the South and West favored war, New York and New England opposed it because it interfered with their commerce. The declaration of war had been made with military preparations still far from complete. There were fewer than 7,000 regular soldiers, distributed in widely scattered posts along the coast, near the Canadian border and in the remote interior. These soldiers were to be supported by the poorly trained and undisciplined militia of the states.

The War of 1812 is perhaps the United States’ least known conflict. Other than Andrew Jackson’s 1815 victory at New Orleans and Francis Scott Key’s poem “The Star-Spangled Banner” written in 1814 during the British attack on Baltimore, most Americans know little about the country’s second major war. Its causes are still debated by historians today. Great Britain’s impressment of American sailors, its seizure of American ships on the high seas, and suspected British encouragement of Indian opposition to further American settlement on the western frontier all contributed to America’s decision to declare war against Great Britain in June 1812.

None of these factors, however, adequately explain why President James Madison called for a war the country was ill-prepared to wage. Moreover, the war was quite unpopular from the start. Many Federalists—chiefly in the New England states—opposed an armed conflict with Great Britain, continued to trade with the British, and even met in convention to propose secession from the Union. Some members of the president’s own Republican Party objected to the war’s inevitable costs and questionable objectives, such as the conquest of Canada.

To declare war was one thing, but to prosecute it successfully was a different matter. Much of the story of the War of 1812 is about the unpreparedness of America’s Army and Navy at the conflict’s outset, and the enormous difficulties the new nation faced in raising troops, finding competent officers, and supplying its forces. Most of America’s military leaders were inexperienced and performed poorly, particularly in the first two years of war. Only gradually did better leaders rise to the top to command the more disciplined and well-trained units that America eventually fielded.

Hostilities between the two countries began with an American invasion of Canada, which, if properly timed and executed, would have brought united action against Montreal. But the entire campaign miscarried and ended with the British occupation of Detroit. The U.S. Navy, however, scored successes and restored confidence. In addition, American privateers, swarming the Atlantic, captured 500 British vessels during the fall and winter months of 1812 and 1813.

The campaign of 1813 centered on Lake Erie. General William Henry Harrison — who would later become president — led an army of militia, volunteers, and regulars from Kentucky with the object of reconquering Detroit. On September 12, while he was still in upper Ohio, news reached him that Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry had annihilated the British fleet on Lake Erie. Harrison occupied Detroit and pushed into Canada, defeating the fleeing British and their Indian allies on the Thames River. The entire region now came under American control.

Another decisive turn in the war occurred a year later, when Commodore Thomas Macdonough won a point-blank gun duel with a British flotilla on Lake Champlain in upper New York. Deprived of naval support, a British invasion force of 10,000 men retreated to Canada. Nevertheless, the British fleet harassed the Eastern seaboard with orders to “destroy and lay waste.” On the night of August 24, 1814, an expeditionary force routed American militia, marched to Washington, DC, and left the city in flames. President James Madison fled to Virginia. American morale was at an all-time low when the British captured the City of Washington and burned the White House.

As the war continued, British and American negotiators each demanded concessions from the other. The British envoys decided to concede, however, when they learned of Macdonough's victory on Lake Champlain. Urged by the Duke of Wellington to reach a settlement, and faced with the depletion of the British treasury due in large part to the heavy costs of the Napoleonic Wars, the negotiators for Great Britain accepted the Treaty of Ghent negotiated in Belgium on December 24, 1814. It provided for the cessation of hostilities, the restoration of conquests and a commission to settle boundary disputes. Many people were unhappy about the Treaty of Ghent. They felt the document was weak and would not be honored.

While the British and Americans were negotiating a settlement, Federalist delegates selected by the legislatures of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire gathered in Hartford, Connecticut, in a meeting that symbolized opposition to "Mr. Madison's war." New England had managed to trade with the enemy throughout the conflict, and some areas actually prospered from this commerce. Nevertheless, the Federalists claimed that the war was ruining the economy. Some delegates to the convention advocated secession from the Union, but the majority agreed on a series of constitutional amendments to limit Republican influence, including prohibiting embargoes lasting more than 60 days and forbidding successive presidents from the same state. By the time messengers from the Hartford Convention reached Washington, DC, however, they found the war had ended. The Hartford Convention stamped the Federalists with a stigma of disloyalty from which they never recovered.

Unaware that a peace treaty had been signed, the two sides continued fighting in New Orleans, Louisiana. Led by General Andrew Jackson, the Americans scored the greatest land victory of the war. General Andrew Jackson's leadership at the Battle of New Orleans changed everything. The battles with British troops at Chalmette on December 28, 1814, and January 1 and 8, 1815, are among the most decisive military victories in American history. The Treaty of Ghent ending the War was quickly ratified by Congress, ending for once and for all any British hopes of re-establishing continental influence south of the Canadian border.

The War of 1812 with Britain was difficult for the new Nation. There were many losses, and the White House in Washington, D.C. was burned by the British. However, the early victory of the U.S. Navy, the leadership of able generals such as Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison, and key American victories at Fort McHenry and at New Orleans finally stirred public support for the war. At its close, Americans turned their energies to exploring and settling the American continent in a fury of westward expansion.

But despite costly initial setbacks, by the time the fighting stopped American arms had won key victories at Chippewa, Lundy’s Lane, and New Orleans under excellent officers such as Winfield Scott, Jacob Brown, and Andrew Jackson. Although the United States achieved few of its political objectives in the War of 1812, its Regular Army emerged more professional, better led, and fit to take its place as the foundation of America’s national defenses.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

Page last modified: 30-06-2021 18:29:39 ZULU