The War Of 1812

Causes and battles of the War of 1812.

The War of 1812, a seemingly unnecessary war fought between Great Britain and the United States, was partly a result of the successes of Napoleon and his French army. America was officially neutral in the war between Britain and France but traded with both. One tactic of the English, due to their superior navy, was to restrict trade between France and any countries not allied with her. The Americans had been supplying many needed goods to France. England effectively blocked all trade between the French and the U.S. Atlantic and Caribbean coasts. Only vessels that had first passed through a British port were allowed to sail unimpeded to the United Sates.

The British government in Canada was actively supporting native Indian uprisings in the continental U.S. and her western territories. Most notable was the aid given to Chief Tecumseh and the Shawnee. The resulting battle of Tippecanoe served to increase the anti-British sentiment in America. The Americans, under General William Henry Harrison, were ultimately victorious but suffered heavy losses.

Impressment, Britain's practice of stopping American vessels and forcing American sailors to work on British ships, was another thorn in the side of the government in Washington. On November 5, 1811, President Madison announced to Congress that in order to protect American rights, an army would be prepared for national defense. Congress later authorized Madison to call up 100,000 militia.

On June 19, 1812, President Madison officially declared war on England. He cited four major reasons for the declaration:

1) The impressment of American sailors by the British,

2) British violation the neutral rights and territorial waters of America,

3) The blockade of U.S. ports,

4) Refusal to revoke the orders which prevented foreign ships from trading in America.

Approaching war, The United States had advantages and disadvantages.

The advantages:

1) England's heavy involvement in the Napoleonic wars prevented her from directing her full military might against the U.S.

2) The War would be fought close to home.

3) The main U.S. thrust would target Canada and America possessed a significantly larger population.

4) The small U.S. navy was efficient and well trained.

Disadvantages for the Americans included:

1) A small and poorly run army consisting mainly of volunteers and inexperienced militia. They were poorly equipped and supplied.

2) The War was not popular with Americans, particularly New Englanders.

3) America did not have a national bank, so had to borrow heavily to finance military action.

The American plan called for an attack into Canada on three fronts. General Henry Dearborn would use Lake Champlain as a route to attack Montreal, General Stephen Van Rensselaer would lead the attack along the Niagara River, and General William Hull was responsible to lead the western attack through Detroit into Upper Canada.

General Hull's campaign was a disaster for the United States. The Northwest Indians, under Tecumseh, had allied themselves with the British and had succeeded in capturing Hull's personal baggage containing battle plans as it was being transported to him at Detroit. His army of 2,200 men crossed the Detroit River on July 12 and occupied Sandwich shortly before retreating back across the water. Facing a Canadian force of 2,000 under British General Isaac Brock and the Northwest Indians, Hull surrendered without firing a shot. The British won control of Lake Erie and the Michigan country.

General Brock then moved down the Niagara River to meet the Americans under Van Rensselaer. The American General originally captured Queenston Heights but a British army of 1,000 crushed his force of 600. The New York State militia had refused to reinforce Van Rensselaer on the grounds that they weren't required to fight outside of their state. General Brock died in the battle. Van Rensselaer resigned and his successor, General Alexander Smyth, was unable to successfully cross the Niagara River.

The largest force of Americans was stationed at Plattsburg under General Dearborn. Dearborn's intention was to strike Canada simultaneously with General Smyth's attack across the Niagara. On November 19, Dearborn led his army to the Canadian border but the militia refused to go any further.

The tiny U.S. navy had surprising success against the world's most powerful fleet. A 44-gun frigate, the Constitution, under the command of General Isaac Hull, destroyed the British frigate Guerriere off the Nova Scotia coast. The 18-gun Wasp, commanded by Captain Jacob Jones defeated the British brig Frolic off the coast of Virginia. More American naval victories helped to ease the disappointment of the woeful Army campaigns in Canada.

The state governments of New England, supporting the anti-war "Federalist" party, issued several proclamations which denounced the war against the country from which they descended. The Massachusetts House of Representatives asserted that they would not enlist volunteers except for self-defense. The General Assembly of Connecticut refused to supply any militia to Washington and New Hampshire legislators issued strong official denunciations of the war while making threats of disunion with the country. A Presidential election returned Madison to office but the Federalists strengthened their hold on the New England states.

Despite their individual successes in sporadic battles with British warships, the tiny American navy was merely a pest as England continued to enforce a total naval blockade of America's Atlantic and Gulf coasts. The effect on trade and the treasury nearly bankrupted the U.S.A. in 1814. American vessels and armed privateers attempted a blockade on British ports and threatened British commerce too. The American efforts resulted in the capture of 825 English merchant ships but did nothing to offset the tight British blockade of U.S. ports.

The British had firmly established a naval base in the Chesapeake Bay. An attack by the U.S. ship, the Chesapeake, failed against the more experienced sailors of the British "Shannon". The Chesapeake was towed into Halifax as a trophy of war. Meanwhile, on Lake Erie, a makeshift American naval fleet was successful in destroying the British navy there and recapturing Lake Erie for America. The British abandoned Detroit and fell back to a defensive line near Niagara. General William Henry Harrison's Kentucky volunteers attacked and defeated the retreating British and Indians on the banks of the Thames River in Upper Canada. Chief Tecumseh was killed in the battle, which marked the end of effective Indian involvement in the War.

The Americans successfully captured York (Toronto) and burned down the House of Assembly and the Governor's mansion. This served as justification for the British to later burn Washington in 1814. The British and Americans exchanged victories on Lake Erie but no battle was decisive. The British burned Buffalo and remained firmly established at Fort Niagara until the end of the War. America made a second attempt to take Montreal via a two pronged attack. From the south they came over Lake Champlain and in the west up the St. Lawrence River. General James Wilkinson, leading U.S. troops from the west, and General Wade Hampton, commanding the Lake Champlain forces disliked each other immensely. While Hampton marched north to Chateauguay, Wilkinson put his men in winter quarters. Not wanting to risk an attack on two fronts, the British attacked the outnumbered Americans and pushed them back to Plattsburg. Wilkinson abandoned the march to Montreal.

On the home front, the British were more concerned with Napoleon and his alliance with Russia, which threatened stability and trade in all of Europe. With the defeat of Napoleon, the English were in a position to engage in an all out attack on America. America's other problem was the Creek War (1811) against and a confederacy of Indian tribes under Tecumseh. In order to divert the American attack on Canada, the British sailed up the Potomac, defeated U.S. defensive positions, and burned all of the major buildings in Washington. A subsequent attack on a well-fortified city of Baltimore was a draw as heavy casualties were suffered on both sides.

The greatest American land victory of the War was at The Battle of New Orleans. The British wanted to effect a total blockade of the Mississippi and sent 7,500 veteran troops under General Pakenham from Jamaica to New Orleans. General Andrew Jackson established an American defense at Baton Rouge with the support of the 14 gun American schooner, the Carolina. The 4,500 Americans were in their trenches while the 5,300 English attacked in formation. The Tennessee and Kentucky marksmen cut down the advancing British troops. General Pakenham, two other generals and 2,036 English soldiers died in the battle. The America casualties numbered 8, with 13 wounded.

Meanwhile, the Peace of Ghent was being signed and the battle at New Orleans had no effect on the outcome of the hostilities. The treaty was unanimously approved by Congress on Feb. 15, 1815 and proclaimed by President Madison on Feb. 17.

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