Overview of the War of 1812

Welcome to part 2 of our series on the War of 1812. Here we look at the fighting of the war.

For very different reasons, neither the U.S. nor Great Britain really hit the ground running once war was declared. Britain was in the midst of its French wars, and its navy was blockading Europe while its army was fighting the Peninsular War in Spain. There were barely 6,000 British soldiers in all of Canada when the War of 1812 began. Because no soldiers could be spared from the battles in Europe, Britain took a defensive position with its army in Canada and sent a few warships across the Atlantic to do battle on the coast.

The U.S. was unprepared for war because it was poor, the U.S. Army had fewer than 12,000 soldiers in it, and when the federal government tried to expand the army, Americans resisted. They were happy to serve at their pleasure in their local state militias, but would not volunteer for the Army. Another major problem was the refusal of New England to join the war effort. The embargo on trade with France and England, first imposed by Jefferson and reinstituted by Madison in 1808, wrecked the trade economy New England was based on, ruining banks, merchants, and the livelihoods of countless ships’ crews. Thus New England did not support the war when it came, seeing it as another plan by Washington to ruin the New England economy. Without the fountainhead of revolutionary spirit—and shipbuilding—on board, whipping up support for the war would be difficult.

The United States’ real aim was to capture British Canada. The U.S. had always hoped to incorporate Canada into the union, and during the congress to write the Articles of Confederation in 1781 had left the door open to Canadians, saying that any time they wanted to join the union they would be immediately accepted as a state. The Canadians had not taken the U.S. up on this deal, and now the U.S. hoped to incorporate them by force.

In August 1812, the American army under General William Hull invaded Canada but was defeated, and the British chased him back to what is now Michigan, promptly capturing both Fort Dearborn and Fort Detroit with the aid of Canadian militia and Native American forces led by Tecumseh. Losing Detroit was a blow. It was the most powerful American fort in the western territories. If the U.S. continued to lose its forts in the west, it would be easy for Britain to claim those lands permanently (which was the British plan). Another invasion attampt ended in defeat for the Americans  in October at the Battle of Queenston Heights.

Despite the attractions of conquering Canada, the U.S. was forced to turn its attentions west and east rather than  north. In the west, the Americans were struggling to keep control of the frontier from the British and Native Americans. In the east, they were trying to end the British blockade of their coast and prevent the capture of their capitol city, Washington DC. The U.S. raced to build warships to take on the British Navy, but until those ships were ready the Americans had to rely on small gunboats, which was disastrous. The famous attack on Washington, which we’ll cover in the next post in more detail, was only the most important and devastating of many British attacks on the east coast. The British Navy even sent messages to seaside towns in the Chesapeake region offering them the choice of paying huge bribes to the British or being burned down. The U.S. federal government was powerless to protect its own territory east or west, and would have to rely on a small, inexperienced army and an at-first mostly civilian navy to win the day.

That private navy provided the one bit of success the Americans had in the first year of the war. Privateers were sent out to attack British shipping, from Maine to the West Indies. Owners of  private merchant ships had a long history of smuggling, stretching back to the 1760s, especially in New England. While New Englanders didn’t support the war, they couldn’t ignore a chance to make back some of the money they were losing in the embargo. Privateering, then, did most of the damage to British interests in the first year of the war.

In the west, future President William Henry Harrison led an attempt to retake Detroit, but part of his army lost the battle of Frenchtown or River Raisin in January 1813; 60 American prisoners were killed there by North American allies of the British.  In May 1813, the British moved to capture Fort Meigs in Ohio, and while U.S. army forces were defeated by Native American forces there, the fort managed to stave off capture, and a siege set in which led many Native American soldiers to eventually leave the area. Hoping to keep his invaluable Native American fighting force, British General Procter mounted a second attack on Fort Meigs in July, but it was rebuffed. Procter and Tecumseh then attacked Fort Stephenson, also in Ohio, but suffered a serious defeat, and the war in Ohio ended.

Naval battles in the first year of the war were not fought on the Atlantic Coast but on the Great Lakes, those watery territories between the U.S. and Canada. The famous American Captain Oliver Hazard Perry won the Battle of Lake Erie on September 10, 1813, carrying his battle flag which read “DON’T GIVE UP THE SHIP”  and reporting back to Harrison after his victory “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” Perry’s motto “Don’t give up the ship!” (the dying words of one of his fellow officers) would be used by U.S. sailors during WWII.

The victory gave the U.S. control of Lake Erie, which prompted the British to flee from Fort Detroit. Emboldened, the U.S. made another invasion attempt on Canada under Harrison at the Battle of the Thames in October 1813. At last the Americans had a victory, winning the battle and stripping the British of their most valuable ally, Tecumseh. When Tecumseh was killed in the battle, the alliance of Native Americans that he inspired and controlled dissolved. The British tried to keep the allies together, but they were unable to provide them with weapons from the east now that Lake Erie was in American hands. A further attempt to conquer Canada, however, ended in defeat at Crysler’s Farm in November 1813, and the U.S. gave up the attempt permanently, happy to focus on keeping control of the western forts.

1814 brought important changes. The Napoleonic Wars finally ended, leaving Britain free to send more men and ships to fight in America but also giving them less reason to do so. Now that there was no need to worry about the U.S. allying in battle against Britain with France, there was no need to blockade the American coast or impress U.S. sailors or seize U.S. ships. The U.S., for its part, no longer believed it was possible to conquer Canada, and desperately needed to remove the British threat from its coast and western frontier.

The Treaty of Ghent was signed in what is now Belgium on December 24, 1814, ending the war. News of the peace took two months to reach America, during which time fighting went on and the British lost a very important battle to take the vital western port city of New Orleans on January 8, 1815 (which we will also look at in more depth in the next post).

So we see that the actual fighting of the war took place mostly in the west, as Britain tried to take possession of  the U.S. territory it had refused to leave after the Revolutionary War, and that the great naval battles really took place on the Great Lakes, and that the British did the most damage to American morale and self-confidence on the Chesapeake coast.

Next time: the burning of Washington and the Battle of New Orleans