ADVANCED PLACEMENT UNITED STATES HISTORY
The War of 1812

*James Madison was elected by a comfortable margin in 1808 and sworn in as president on 4 March, 1809.  Tensions were still high between America, Britain, and France and the Non-Intercourse Act banned American trade with either of those countries. 

*However, in 1810, Macon's Bill No. 2 (which was not supported by Nathaniel Macon, but which was named after an earlier bill he had written which this one altered significantly) lifted the embargo against Britain and France, but stated that if either of them lifted its trade restrictions on American ships, the embargo would again be placed on that country's enemy.  Napoleon immediately said he would accept the offer, but did not actually lift his restrictions and soon began seizing American ships again.  However, the fact that America and France had briefly made this deal angered Britain, who continued to enforce the Orders in Council, requiring all neutral ships to dock in Britain before proceeding on to trade in Europe (at which point they were liable to seizure by the French as punishment for stopping in Britain).

*This was not America's only grievance with Britain, as a new generation of politicians from the South and West was quick to point out.  Britain was still impressing sailors on American ships on the high seas, still maintained forts in the Northwest almost thirty years after the Treaty of Paris, and Britain was supplying Indians in the Northwest with weapons and other trade goods and encouraging them to attack American settlers in the area.

*The main opponent of white settlement in the Northwest was the Shawnee chief Tecumseh.  Tecumseh, and his brother Tenskwatawa (a religious leader known as the Prophet who earned the devotion of his people by successfully predicting a solar eclipse and then urged his people to give up alcohol and European-style clothes, food, and manufactured goods), had spent over fifteen years trying to build an alliance of all the Northwestern tribes (and the Southwestern tribes, too, particularly the Creek) to fight off white encroachment. 

*The British helped Tecumseh in part because they felt they owed the Indians a debt for their assistance during the American Revolution, and because they wanted a buffer zone between the American settlements and Canada.

*The British had reason to be concerned:  many Westerners (and some Southerners) wanted to expand further, and Canada seemed very convenient.  Some Americans even thought Canada might be happy to join the United States—incorrectly, as many Canadians were bitter exiled Loyalists or their children.  Some Jeffersonian Republican congressmen even demanded war, most prominently Henry Clay of Kentucky and John C Calhoun of South Carolina.  Their opponents called them the War Hawks.

*Fighting broke out in 1811.  Having built an alliance of Indian tribes in the Northwest, Tecumseh assured the Indiana Territory’s Governor William Henry Harrison that he did not mean for his people to fight in Indiana, but that he would ally with the British if Harrison attacked the Indians there.  Tecumseh then went south to try to extend his alliance among the Southern Tribes.  Some Creek agreed to follow him, particularly after the sight of a comet and the shock of the New Madrid Earthquake were taken as signs that they should do so.

*Harrison had believed Tecumseh when he said he had no plans for war, and had left for Kentucky.  When he was sent messages that Tecumseh was seeking more allies, he returned to Indiana and made plans to attack a major settlement under the leadership of Tenskwatawa called Prophetstown on the Tippecanoe River.

*As Harrison approached, Tenskwatawa asked for an overnight cease-fire so they could hold peace talks the next morning.  However, Harrison thought this was a trick, and planned a sneak attack for the morning.  One of the tribes in Prophetstown, the Winnebago, did not want to talk peace, and attacked before dawn on the 7th of November, 1811, believing that the Prophet’s magic would protect them. 

*They surrounded Harrison’s men, who only survived because they had been sleeping with their weapons ready for their own attack in the morning.  Although Harrison’s men outnumbered the Indians, they took many casualties before sunrise, when the two sides finally realised who had the larger force and a cavalry charge forced the Indians to retreat.  They subsequently blamed the Prophet because his magic had failed them.  Although Harrison lost more men, it was regarded as an American victory because Prophetstown was subsequently abandoned and burnt, and when Harrison ran for president 29 years later, Tippecanoe was part of his campaign slogan.

*Between Indian attacks, impressment, and the cry of 'On to Canada,' Madison felt obliged to ask Congress for a declaration of War--the first in American history.  War was officially declared on 18 June, 1812.  No one knew that two days earlier the infamous Orders in Council had been suspended by the British in hopes of avoiding conflict.

*America expected to quickly and easily conquer Canada.  The main fear was that the British Navy would cut off trade and attack the American coast.  At first, though, the exact opposite occurred.

*The United States had a fairly small navy when the War began, with nothing larger than a frigate.  However, America’s frigates were larger than those of the Royal Navy, and American captains sought out opportunities to fight single British ships when they could, and often beat them.

*The first such action came on 19 August, 1812 when USS Constitution sighted HMS Guerriere.  At first they fired at maximum range, with few of their shots hitting each other, and those that hit Constitution bouncing off her thick hull, earning her the name ‘Old Ironsides.’  Eventually they got within pistol-shot and pounded away with their broadsides, until all the Guerriere’s masts were shot away and she was forced to surrender.  Her crew were taken prisoner and she was so badly damaged that she was sunk rather than taken back to America.  This was a great boost to American morale and a great embarrassment to the Royal Navy, although at the subsequent court-martial, the captain (successfully) explained Guerriere’s weakness by reminding the court that she had originally been built by the French.

*America needed a victory, because the Army had just suffered a great defeat.  On 12 July, 1812, General William Hull had invaded Upper Canada (near modern Windsor), where he was stopped by General Isaac Brock, Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada.  With the help of Tecumseh and Canadian militia, Brock pursued Hull into Michigan Territory and on 16 October, 1812, forced Hull to surrender at Detroit despite being outnumbered by American forces almost two to one during most of his counter-attack.

*Shortly afterwards, Stephen van Rensselaer III, a New York politician, planned and led an invasion of Canada near Niagara Falls, although he was let down by two other American commanders who were supposed to support him with two additional invasions elsewhere (but did not).  Brock moved east to stop van Rensselaer, and did so at the Battle of Queenston Heights on 13 October, 1812.

*The British had found out that an American force was coming, and were able to intercept the first group of soldiers who came up the heights as they crossed the Niagara River from the American side.  Brock led a charge to stop them before they could be reinforced, and was killed during the charge. 


*Van Rensselaer sent more regulars under Winfield Scott to reinforce the Americans on the Canadian side, and he pushed the British back, but when van Rensselaer tried to send militia to support him, they refused to leave American soil.  Scott was forced to withdraw, but found no boats to take him back to America, and was captured (but exchanged a year later).  Although Brock did not live to enjoy it, he had again saved Canada, even though the American forces had outnumbered Canadians 6,000 to 1,300.

*In general, despite their proximity to the most populous parts of Canada, the United States would be reluctant to send troops through New York or New England because local Federalists were so opposed to the War.

*In the West, William Henry Harrison was sent to re-take Detroit.  One of the first missions he dispatched was ambushed by Indians along the River Raisin.  Almost half the American force was killed, and many of those who surrendered were massacred by the Indians in the River Raisin Massacre.  Only 33 out of 934 American soldiers (mostly Kentucky militiamen) escaped.  Later, ‘Remember the Raisin’ would be one of America’s battle cries in the War.  Tecumseh and the British continued to push into Michigan.

*Finally, though, the United States’ fortunes began to change.  Late in 1812, the United States had begun building gunboats and other small warships on the Great Lakes.  The British were doing the same, and America made plans to attack and destroy the British shipyards at Kingston, Canada.

*At the last minute, the American general Henry Dearborn changed the plan to attack York, capital of Upper Canada.  Although it had greater symbolic value, its military value was much less than Kingston or other targets in the area.  Dearborn’s men, under the command of explorer Zebulon Pike, reached York on 27 April, 1813.  They outnumbered the British about 1,700 to 700, and the British evacuated the town after a short battle, but blew up their powder stores as they left, killing many soldiers, including General Pike.  Afterwards, American forces burnt the Parliament buildings, government printing office, and many private homes.  A few military supplies were captured, but most had been destroyed in the explosion.  Overall, it was an exciting victory, but a largely useless one, as Dearborn soon withdrew to the United States, and the Canadians and British now demanded revenge.

*So did Oliver Hazzard Perry, recently placed in command of the US Naval Forces on Lake Erie.  His friend, Captain James Lawrence, had been killed in action against a British frigate in June, 1813—his last words were ‘Don’t give up the ship!’  Perry named his flagship on Lake Erie Lawrence in his friend’s honour and flew a flag with ‘DONT GIVE UP THE SHIP’ emblazoned on it and went looking for the British.

*The British had long guns, while the Americans had short-range guns that fired much heavier shot, if they could get close enough to hit their target at all.  When the Americans first found the British on 10 September, 1813, the wind was in the British fleet’s favour, and Perry seemed doomed.  At the last minute, the wind shifted to Perry’s advantage, and he moved to close in.
 
*Perry’s fleet did a great deal of damage to the British, but the Lawrence herself was badly damaged because the two largest British ships managed to hit it from both the side and the stern, because another American ship, Niagara, was not fighting the ship she was supposed to.

*Finally Niagara moved forward, Perry took a boat over to her, carrying his battle flag with him, and made Niagara his flagship.  He was now able to fire broadsides across the two largest British ships, and soon both struck their colours.  This was one of the few times an entire British squadron has ever been forced to surrender, and Perry’s message of victory to his commanders began ‘We have met the enemy and they are ours.’ 

*With Lake Erie under American control, William Henry Harrison was ready to advance into Canada again.  He faced a British army under Henry Procter and Indian forces led by Tecumseh.  Procter knew he was outnumbered, so he tried to retreat.  Their retreat was not swift enough, though, and on 5 October, 1813, Harrison's army caught and defeated them at the Thames River in Canada.

*Among Harrison's troops were 1,000 Kentucky militiamen led by Richard Mentor Johnson.  Their battle cry was 'Remember the Raisin,' and during the battle they had their revenge:  Richard Mentor Johnson later claimed to have killed Tecumseh in the battle (and used this when running as Martin van Buren's vice-presidential candidate in 1836).  After the Battle of the Thames, the Northwest Territory was safe from Indian and British attacks.

*Tecumseh's allies in the South, the Red Stick Creek, were still on the warpath, however, against whites, against other Creek, and against other Indian tribes.  On 30 August, 1813, they massacred 513 settlers (half of them armed militia) at Fort Mims in Northern Alabama. 


*Fortunately, the Governor of Tennessee, Willie Blount, had called for volunteers to invade Canada the previous year, and placed them under the command of Andrew Jackson.  So many volunteers answered the call that Tennessee earned a new nickname (partly, perhaps, because Jackson promised the volunteers they could see Niagara Falls on the way to invade Canada, which he said would make marching across the continent worth it all by itself).  President Madison would not let him invade Canada, though, because he did not trust him.  After the Fort Mims Massacre, though, many of Jackson's militia were still ready to go.

*Jackson marched into Alabama, defeating the Creek at Tallushatchee and Talladega before reaching Horseshoe Bend on the Tallapoosa River on 27 March, 1814.  There the Creek had a village in a bend in the river, with the open landward end protected by a breastwork of logs.  Jackson prepared an assault on this breastwork, while John Coffee led militia and Cherokee allies in canoes (stolen by Cherokee who swam across the river ahead of the rest of the force) to attack the village from across the river.

*Among the first men over the wall were Lemuel Montgomery who was shot dead (and later had Montgomery, Alabama named in his honour) and Samuel Houston who was shot with an arrow (but lived and was later governor Tennessee and Texas).  Davy Crockett also fought in the battle.  The Creek were trapped, and almost all of them killed.  The few survivors signed away much of their land, and the Creek were no longer a threat to the United States.

*By 1814, America was ready to invade Canada again (after another failed attempt in 1813).  The initial assault was placed under the command of Winfield Scott, now free from Canadian captivity and soon to truly begin his career as one of the greatest commanders in American history.  He led his men across the Niagara River in July and jumped out of the boat as they reached the shore, and vanished into an underwater hole.  He was rescued and led his men ashore.  They were joined by other brigades and marched north.

*On 5 July, Scott's brigade was in the lead when the British attacked at a place called Chippawa.  There, for the first time, Americans won a major battle against British regulars in Canada, and Scott became a national hero, leading to his eventual command of the entire US Army.

*Scott was sent to scout further ahead, but on 25 July, when he asked for information from a local widow who owned a tavern, he did not believe her true information that a thousand British regulars with two cannon were waiting not far ahead on Lundy's Lane.  They surprised Scott, but rather than retreat, he sent for reinforcements, who arrived at the last minute.

*The Battle of Lundy's Lane was a slaughter for both sides, with much of the fighting being at close quarters and producing such gruesome results that even veterans of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe were horrified. 

*The fighting continued into the night, and some men fired on other units of their own army in the dark—Scott's forces were fired on by both sides at once at one point.  Eventually, the British were driven back, but the American forces chose to withdraw after taking such heavy losses.  This was one of the bloodiest battles of the War:  of 3,500 British soldiers over 800 were lost as were over 800 of 2,500 American soldiers.

*As America retreated from Canada again, the British considered invading down Lake Champlain.  The Governor-General of Canada, George Prevost, assembled 11,000 men, many of them veterans of the Napoleonic Wars, and marched them into New York (feeding them with beef purchased from Federalist New York and Vermont farmers who preferred the British to the Jeffersonian Republicans).

*The British navy already controlled the northern half of Lake Champlain, so Prevost planned to sail down the lake once the navy got control of the rest.  The British had a larger fleet, but the American fleet could afford to wait for them, while the British sailed out with ships barely finished.  The British had plans for both the Army and Navy to attack at once, in what is known as the Battle of Plattsburgh or the Battle of Lake Champlain.

*As the British sailed into Plattsburgh Bay on 11 September, 1814, their first volley only managed one hit on the American flagship, where it smashed a chicken coop, releasing the rooster inside, who crowed, leading the men on the ship to cheer, too.  Then the wind died, leaving the British ships at the mercy of the Americans.  One ship drifted off course, running aground on a small island, while another's sails were so badly damaged that it actually drifted through the American lines.  Only the two largest British ships were able to fight four American ships (both sides had gunboats, too).

*The British flagship, Confidence, had a furnace on it to heat up hot shot, and set the American flagship, Saratoga, on fire twice.  Both the main American ships were so badly damaged on the side facing the British that they could barely fire. 

*At last the Erie cut her anchor cable and turned around, firing her undamaged side at the British while drifting down the line.  Captain Thomas MacDonough on Saratoga then cut her anchor chain, but used another anchor and winches to turn his ship around in place, firing on Confidence

*The British commander had already been killed, so his second-in-command surrendered the flagship, which was sinking fast, and soon the only other large British ship in the battle surrendered, too. The British army under Prevost that was supposed to attack American forces at Plattsburgh (but had not) now withdrew.  This loss convinced the British to consider discussing peace on terms acceptable to America.

*Such victories were important, because American had recently suffered a spectacular loss.  On 24 August, 1814, British forces had landed in Maryland and defeated the US Army at Bladensburg, despite being outnumbered 6,900 to 4,500.  Almost all the Americans were inexperienced militia, however, while most of the British were veterans from Europe, and one unit were freed American slaves (later many settled in Trinidad and some in other parts of the Caribbean).

*Four hundred American sailors and Marines tried to hold off the British forces, but most of the militia broke and ran when they first came under fire, and their commander, William Winder, ran with them. 

*The British now marched on Washington, DC, which they burned in retaliation for the destruction of York they year before.  Dolley Madison managed to preserve the White House portrait of George Washington after breaking the frame to get the canvas out. 

*The British set the Capitol, the White House, and many other public buildings on fire, although the Superintendent of Patents convinced the British that the Patent Office was too valuable to all humanity to be burnt.  Within hours, though, a hurricane and a tornado blew through Washington, putting out many of the fires and killing many British soldiers, who soon withdrew, and began planning an attack on Baltimore.

*To capture Baltimore, the British landed 5,000 troops in Maryland who marched towards the city and fought American forces, but waited for the Navy to destroy Fort McHenry which protected Baltimore Harbour before marching into the city. 

*On 13 September the British began a 25-hour bombardment of the fort, firing mortars and Congreve Rockets at it.  Because both sides fired at extreme long range (mostly beyond Fort McHenry's range completely), neither did the other much damage before the British finally withdrew. 

*The battle is significant because it (along with the Battle of Lake Champlain) allowed American diplomats to negotiate from a position of some strength, but also because it was observed by a local lawyer, Francis Scott Key, who had gone out to negotiate with the British and was kept until the battle was over in case he was also a spy.  He later wrote a poem, 'The Defence of Fort McHenry,' that described the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air, and the relief when, at the dawn's early light, the giant star-spangled banner still waved over the city.

*Some Americans were still doubtful America could win the war, and many were tired of it, particularly the merchants of New England.  In December, 1814, delegates from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island met in Hartford to discuss what New England might do.  The Hartford Convention's discussion were secret, but at least some of them discussed seceding from the Union.  This earned the Federalist Party a reputation as traitors, destroying the party after the war.

*Unbeknownst to the delegates to the Hartford Convention, the war had already ended by the time their meeting did.  On Christmas Eve, 1814, the Treaty of Ghent ended the war with the status quo ante bellum—the way things were before the war. 

*The Hartford Delegates were not the only people who did not know the war was over.  Neither did General Edward Pakenham or Andrew Jackson.  Pakenham had been sent to capture New Orleans, and Andrew Jackson to defend it.  During his campaigns against the Creek, Jackson had been so tough that he earned the nickname ‘Old Hickory,’ and he was going to prove his toughness again.

*Pakenham had 11,000 veterans, while Jackson had 4,000 men, some regular soldiers, some militia (including Tennesseans under future governor William Carroll), some Choctaw Indians under John Coffee, some New Orleans gamblers, and pirates under the leadership of Jean Lafitte.

*Pakenham marched up the Mississippi River, while Jackson's men built earthworks perpendicular to it, partly out of heavy cotton bales. 

*Pakenham suffered repeated delays that prevented him making a pre-dawn assault as planned on 8 January, 1815.  He hoped the morning fog would cover his movements, but it melted away in the sun.  He then ordered his men to charge Jackson's, but they were cut down by repeated volleys, and when a few finally reached the barricades, they discovered that the men who were supposed to have brought the scaling ladders with them had not done so.  A few British soldiers managed to climb the parapet before being killed. 

*Pakenham was killed leading one of the last charges against the wall.  Over 2,000 British soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured, while Jackson only lost 13 killed and 58 wounded.  Jackson was hailed as a national hero, and two weeks after the peace treaty was signed, the War of 1812 was over.

*In 1817, the Rush-Bagot Treaty limited the number of warships the US and Britain could keep on the Great Lakes, and the Treaty of 1818 largely settled the border between the United States and Canada at the 49th Parallel, at least as far west as the Rocky Mountains.  Although several incidents brought the United States and Canada close to war over the next few decades, it never happened, and today the two countries enjoy the longest unfortified border in the world.

*Although the fact that Treaty of Ghent ended the war without changing any borders or officially ending British policies about impressment or harassment of American shipping may have made it seem like America had endured three years of fighting for nothing, the war demonstrated that the young United States could unite in a common cause and could stand up the mightiest empire on Earth, so that it has sometimes been described as the Second War of American Independence.

This page last updated Saint Valentine's Day, 2020.
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