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