The War of 1812 was a war between the United States and Great Britain but also involved Britain’s colony Canada and several Native American tribes. It marked the first time the United States formally declared war and boosted the morale and pride of both the United States and Canada, while Native Americans suffered devastating losses.
In the early 1800s, Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) emerged as a military leader and eventual emperor of France. Under Bonaparte’s rule, France became the dominant force in Europe and conquered much of the continent while Britain and several other European powers united to oppose him, a struggle that became known as the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815).
Britain attempted to use its navy to cut off French trade and prevent France from moving troops or supplies by sea. The British contacted US officials and forbid Americans from trading with France and also attempted to increase its manpower through a practice called impressment, which involved stopping American ships at sea, kidnapping sailors, and forcing them to work on British vessels.
The British navy mostly targeted sailors who had been born in Britain but were living and working in the United States. While Britain argued that they were British citizens, and since they were not helping with the current war effort, they were considered deserters, the United States said that the sailors had become American citizens and impressment was violating their rights.
At this time, Americans were attempting to expand westward into territory that included present-day Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana. The territory was occupied by Native Americans, who were outraged at the invasion of their lands and the violence displayed by some white settlers. Several local tribes united under the Shawnee warrior chief Tecumseh (1768–1813) and his brother Tenskwatawa (1755–1836) to fight back against US expansion, and Britain supported this Native American effort against the United States.
American authorities felt that all of these actions demonstrated that Britain did not respect the United States as a nation and was still treating the country as a colony that it controlled, but the US government was divided on how to handle the situation. At the time, America’s two major political parties were the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans. The Federalists were traditionally in favor of treating Britain like an ally, and the United States was a former British colony, so the two countries had much in common. Britain was one of the world’s most powerful nations and a valuable ally to the United States. Democratic Republicans also saw the importance of strong alliances but preferred France as an ally over Britain. France had come to America’s aid during the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783) and had not shown the disrespect that Britain was displaying.
Because of their pro-British stance, along with the belief that the young United States was not prepared for war with a powerful enemy, the Federalists called for a peaceful resolution. The Democratic Republicans, on the other hand, believed that only a strong show of force would earn Britain’s respect. A group of influential Democratic Republicans in Congress were especially supportive of declaring war and became unofficially known as the War Hawks. They saw war as an opportunity to expand into Native American territory more aggressively, as well as push into the British-controlled Canada. After the War Hawks helped convince the US Congress of their pro-war stance, Democratic Republican president James Madison (1751–1836) signed America’s first declaration of war on June 18, 1812.
Communication technology of the time had a significant effect on the war. Britain was in the process of reversing many of its naval policies in mid-1812, but since it took many weeks for news to cross the Atlantic Ocean, the United States was already mobilizing for war.
Britain was primarily focused on battling France, and only a fraction of its forces were in North America, concentrated in Canada. The United States planned to invade Canada, and many US strategists believed that Canadian colonists would appreciate being freed from British rule to join with Americans. This assumption proved false, however, and American troops met heavy resistance in Canada and were forced to retreat. Although outnumbered, British and Native American forces used surprise tactics to capture American forts on Mackinac Island and in Detroit, and these early victories helped rally more Native Americans against US forces.
Many of the war’s battles were fought at sea. America was just starting to develop its navy, but its frigates were substantially larger and more heavily armed than any ships Britain sent to North America, which allowed the United States to overwhelm the British navy in several early battles. One particular frigate, the USS Constitution, became famous among Americans for its role in multiple naval victories. After one battle, in which enemy cannon fire appeared to bounce harmlessly off its hull, the vessel gained the nickname “Old Ironsides.”
However, even with most of its fleet fighting France, British ships far outnumbered those of the Americans. The British adjusted their tactics, avoiding ship-to-ship battles with the massive US frigates and instead focused on controlling the ocean by blockading the United States and cutting it off from outside trade.
Attacks on Cities
In early 1813, US troops captured York—present-day Toronto—and burned the Legislative Assembly building. British and Canadian forces retreated and were able to avoid substantial losses, but US troops struggled to advance farther into Canada.
Federalists opposed the war effort even more strongly, especially since the United States appeared to be making little progress, and several party leaders proposed that Federalist states break away from the United States. Shortly afterward, the US forces won several notable victories, making the Federalists appear unpatriotic in the eyes of the American public.
One such victory was the Battle of Lake Erie, which helped secure the northern United States from potential invasion and helped the United States reclaim Detroit, setting up another American victory at the Battle of the Thames. Tecumseh was killed in this battle, and his death threw the Native American confederacy into disarray. The Native American forces had very little impact on the war from that point onward.
In 1814, British troops invaded Washington, DC and set fire to several buildings, including the Capitol and the White House. Later that year, the British moved on Baltimore, Maryland, and their ships bombarded Fort McHenry, which was built to defend the city. The Americans were able to withstand the attack. American Francis Scott Key (1779–1843) was being held prisoner on a British ship during the battle, and throughout the bombardment saw that the American flag remained over Fort McHenry, which meant that the British were not able to capture it. The experience inspired him to write a poem, which he called “Defence of Fort M’Henry.” His lyrics were later set to music and became the US national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
End of the War
After more than two years of battling, neither the Americans nor the British had gained significant ground because when either side won a battle, it lacked the equipment and manpower to follow up on its victory to hold the territory it had gained. The war continued to divide Americans, and the conflict was extremely unpopular in Britain. In late 1814, representatives of both nations met in Ghent, in the present-day Netherlands, and drafted a treaty known as the Treaty of Ghent, which they signed on December 24, 1814. The treaty basically erased any changes of territory that occurred during the war.
Again, the lack of fast long-distance communication had a direct effect on the war, and news of the treaty signing had not reached North America by the following January, when American general Andrew Jackson (1767–1845) led his troops into the Battle of New Orleans. Although they were outnumbered by their British opponents, Jackson’s troops won a decisive victory with only minimal casualties. When news of the battle spread, Jackson quickly became a hero to the American people, and the war came to a true conclusion shortly afterward.
Effects of the War
The one clear outcome of the War of 1812 was the fate of its Native American participants. With Tecumseh dead, the Native American confederacy defeated, and lack of support from their British and Canadian allies, the Native Americans could no longer mount a strong resistance against US force. In the following years, the United States would continue to push into former Native American territory, forcing them to move westward.
In British history, the War of 1812 has most often been considered a small part of the Napoleonic Wars because Britain was much more concerned with France at the time. The war has been an essential part of Canadian history and national identity. Canada did not have many tangible losses or gains from the war, but the fact that an invasion of Canada was successfully thwarted was a substantial source of national pride.
The United States did not gain significant territory from the war, although Native American territory became more vulnerable to American expansion. The war did boost Americans’ morale because the notion that the United States was able to declare war on a global superpower and hold its own was empowering. It also changed the country’s political landscape. The Federalist Party did not survive, while the Democratic Republicans became even more influential. Andrew Jackson in particular became extremely popular, eventually winning the presidency.