War of 1812

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War of 1812
Date 1812 - 1815
Location North America
United States of America British Empire
James Madison Lord Liverpool
35,800 soldiers
450,000 militia
125 natives
48,160 regulars
10,000 militia
10,000 natives
21,000 8,000

The War of 1812 was fought between the United States and Britain and lasted from June 18, 1812 until February 18, 1815. Americans had various grievances against Britain: Suppressing American trade with France, impressing (seizing) sailors with U.S. papers, and supplying and inciting hostile Indian tribes in the West. The specific grievances counted for less than the feeling that many Americans had that Britain did not respect U.S. sovereignty. It was "a war for honour, like that of the Greeks against Troy," as Virginia Republican John Taylor put it.[1] For its part, Britain felt that emergency measures were justified by the struggle against Napoleon.

With the Napoleonic Wars raging, the British issued "Orders in Council" in January 1807 that banned the vessels of neutral nations, including the U.S., from trading with France and its allies. To restrict U.S. trade to Britain would restore colonial trade relations. To President Thomas Jefferson, this was tantamount to a denial of U.S. sovereignty. Congress responded by enacting the Embargo of 1807. The embargo hurt the U.S. economy, especially in New England, and was unpopular. After it collapsed in 1809, President James Madison tried other forms of economic pressure to overturn the Orders in Council. In July 1811, he told Congress that if there was no diplomatic solution by November, he would call a special session to approve preparations for war. A military buildup was authorized in January 1812. Madison requested war on June 1, which Congress declared on June 18. Critics called it "Mr. Madison's War," while supporters rallied under the banner, "Free trade and sailors' rights."[2]

At the beginning of the war, the U.S. had fewer than 7,000 soldiers and only sixteen naval vessels.[3] The British has over 250,000 soldiers and over 600 vessels in active service.[3] The war began with a disastrous U.S. invasion of Ontario led by William Hull. Hull's force surrendered and a British counteroffensive took Detroit on August 16. Hull's retreat and surrender sparked a revival of the Federalist party in the fall elections. Madison won reelection with only 50 percent of the popular vote. The Battle of the Thames in October 1813 was the turning point of the war. The fighting at sea was characterized by a tight British blockade that shut down most American shipping, together with some dramatic naval battles that added glory to the small U.S. Navy. When the Napoleonic Wars ended, the British could move large forces to North America and go on the offensive. They attacked Washington, New York state, and New Orleans. Washington was a success but the other invasions were abject failures. By late 1814, with Napoleon gone, Britain friends with France, and the Indian tribes defeated, the causes for the war had largely vanished. A treaty was agreed to that left the prewar boundaries unchanged.

At the end of the war, Americans celebrated a great victory. They called it their Second War of Independence and acclaimed General Andrew Jackson a national hero for his decisive victory at New Orleans. In Canada, anti-American and pro-British elements celebrated the repulse of an American invasion. Just as the peace took hold, Napoleon returned and the British had to deal with him; they largely forgot about the war.



With Britain engaged in a life-and-death war with France, the efforts of a small country like the U.S. to remain neutral were futile. The British Royal Navy controlled the seas and stopped American shipments headed to France. Worse, the Royal Navy, needing more men, boarded American merchant ships and "impressed" (seized) 6,000 sailors who were American citizens but had been born in Britain. Finally Americans were convinced that the British were using their base in western Canada to supply and encourage Indian raids on American frontier settlements.

The British action that irked American leaders most was the Orders in Council, issued in January 1807. These orders banned U.S trade with France and its allies. They were issued in response of to Napoleon's Berlin Decree of November 1806, which embargoed Britain. Both blockades were illegal in international law as neither country had sufficient naval forces to enforce them systematically. Restricting trade to Britain alone would make the U.S. a dependency of Britain and restore the earlier colonial trading relationship. Both Jefferson and Madison leaned toward France and against Britain in the Napoleonic Wars. As a matter of national honor, they were determined that the U.S. would assert its right to follow a foreign policy of its own choosing. When a British warship in June 1807 attacked and disabled the USS Chesapeake and impressed several crewmen, a general wave of indignation followed. Even the shipping interests were outraged. Jefferson decided against war in the hope that the embargo would give the U.S. sufficient leverage. The embargo annoyed the British and outraged New England, where shipping was shut down and the economy badly hurt.

Madison tried to negotiate a revocation of the ban on U.S. trade with France. Congress passed "Macon's Bill No. 2" in 1810 that promised if Britain or France allowed American shipping, the U.S. would put an embargo on the other country. Napoleon tricked the U.S. into believing, falsely, that France had dropped its restrictions. In February 1810, Madison slapped an embargo on trade to Britain, which was by far the largest trading partner of the U.S. Despite the renewed embargo, war remained far from the minds of America's leaders. In April, Congress voted to reduce the size of both the army and the navy.[4] In the 1810 midterm election, many older congressmen retired and there was a generational shift. In the following Congress, sixty three of 142 House members were newly elected.[5] The new Congress was more hawkish and revisited the old disputes with fresh eyes. In July 1811, Madison told Congress he would call a special session in November to consider preparations for war. The only grievance Madison mentioned in his November 5 "war message" to Congress was the Orders in Council.[6] By the end of the November, the administration and congressional leaders had privately reached a consensus that country needed to prepare for war.[7] The report of the House Foreign Relations Committee on November 29 also focused on the Orders in Council, although it mentioned impressment as well.[8]

A military buildup was approved in January 1812. This recreated the regular Army that Congress had voted to dismantle in 1810. Madison and other Republican leaders still objected to this institution. They argued for a summer offensive using militia and short term volunteers.[9] In early April, a package of measures were approved that were considered preliminary to war. Madison sent a war message to Congress on June 1 listing all the complaints against Britain and asking for a declaration of war. "Under pretended blockades, without the presence of an adequate force and without the practicality of applying one, our commerce has been plundered in every sea, the great staples of our country have been cut off from their legitimate markets, and a destructive blow aimed at our agricultural and maritime interest," according to Madison's message. Madison's most passionate words emphasized the plight of impressed sailors, the "thousands of American citizens...torn from their country and from everything dear to them." Although sailors' rights had played a minor role in pre-war politics and diplomacy, they would be remembered as a central theme of the war.[10]

On June 4, the House of Representatives voted 79 to 49 for war. In the U.S. Senate, the outcome was in doubt for a time and the final vote was 19 to 13. With New England vehemently opposed, Congress declared war on June 18. The Federalist response, written by Josiah Quincy, emphasized the absurdity of going to war over maritime issues when so few naval preparations had been made. Quincy also denounced the war as an election-year stunt to help the Madison and the Republicans in the fall. The hearings on the war were held in secret session, so Quincy moved that they be opened to the public. Quincy's motion was rejected by the Republican majority.[11]

Support for war was strongest in the West and in the South, the regions least likely to suffer from British retaliation. For New England, trade was about economics and jobs. For the rest of the country, it was a question of the nation's honor. By the time war was declared, the grievances it was based on were already outdated. In May 1812, Britain had offered to license U.S. merchant ships on the same basis that British ships were licensed. In June, it had revoked the Orders in Council altogether. At the time war was declared, news of these concessions had not yet arrived in the U.S. But American leaders did know that Britain was in the process of forming a new government which would reformulate policy on this issue.

The role of the War Hawks

Various historians argue that the United States was pushed into war a group of congressman called the War Hawks. The group consisted of about a dozen congressmen, most elected in 1810. "The War Congress contained a new faction, one capable of providing leadership and firmness that had hitherto been lacking," according to historian Donald Hickey.[12] The memory of Republican losses in election of 1808 made the older generation reluctant to press this issue. The War Hawks were led by Speaker of the House Henry Clay of Kentucky and by John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee. The War Hawk thesis remains controversial among historians. In this era, congressional activity focused on responding to proposals made by the executive. There was no opportunity for a minority faction to initiate policy.

Since the War Hawks came from the West and South, historians who blame them for the war have further argued that they were motivated by grievances specific to these two regions. Westerners were supposedly fixated by the prospect of land in Canada, while Southerners eyed Spanish Florida. This interpretation ignores the entire public debate of 1811 to 1812. Virtually every speech in Congress on relations with Britain during this period acknowledges that trade and sailors' rights were the central issues.[13] The idea of a War Hawk faction comes from Federalist congressmen who listened to the fiery anti-British speeches of Clay, Calhoun, and others. They concluded, or hoped, that the Republicans were divided. An analysis of private letters does not support the view that the Republican leadership was split into pro-war and pro-peace factions.[7]

The myth of land hunger

The eminent historians of the war—Bradford Perkins, Reginald Horsman, Donald R. Hickey, and J. C. A. Stagg—agree that maritime issues far outweighed frontier and land issues in 1812. Yet Canadians will often argue that the war was motivated by an American desire to annex their country.

The Americans did not seek to permanently take over Canada, but wanted to seize western Ontario as a bargaining chip. The main British war goal was to defeat France and therefore stop neutrals like the U.S. from helping France. Britain also wanted to assert its dominance of the seas. A secondary British goal was the creation of a "neutral" Indian state in the area of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Illinois, that would be "guided" (or controlled) by Britain and serve to block American expansion.[14]

Many Canadians falsely believe that a main cause of the war was American expansionism or desire for Canadian land. The topic was much discussed among historians before 1940, but is rarely cited by experts any more.[15] The myth was propounded after the war by pro-British Canadians who tried to incite anti-Americanism.[16]

Madison and his advisers did believe that conquest of Canada would be easy and that economic coercion would force the British to come to terms by cutting off the food supply for their West Indies colonies. Furthermore, possession of Canada would be a valuable bargaining chip. Frontiersmen demanded the seizure of Canada not because they wanted the land (they had plenty), but because the British were thought to be arming the Indians and thereby blocking settlement of the west.[17] As Horsman concludes, "The idea of conquering Canada had been present since at least 1807 as a means of forcing England to change her policy at sea. The conquest of Canada was primarily a means of waging war, not a reason for starting it."[18] Hickey flatly states, "The desire to annex Canada did not bring on the war."[19]

The opposing forces

James Madison was president of the United States during the war. He had been Thomas Jefferson's secretary of state.

At the outbreak of the war, the United States had a population of about 7.7 million people and was very unprepared for war. A series of border forts garrisoned by very small Regular Army detachments stretched along the Canadian boundary: Fort Mackinac, on the straits between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron; Fort Dearborn, on the site of what is now Chicago; Fort Detroit; and Fort Niagara, at the mouth of the Niagara River on Lake Ontario. The actual strength of the Regular Army in June 1812 totaled 11,744 officers and men, including an estimated 5,000 recruits enlisted for the additional force authorized the preceding January, in contrast to an overall authorized strength of 35,600. The weak U.S. Navy consisted of 20 vessels: the three large 44-gun frigates such as USS Constitution, three smaller frigates of the Constellation class rated at 38 guns, and fourteen others. Jefferson's policy had been to build large numbers of small gunboats which could defend American harbors but which could not sail long distances and thus could not be an offensive weapon. The gunboats were a total failure and historians have been highly critical of Jefferson's policy.[20]

The war hawks in Congress hurriedly tried to remedy years of neglecting the military. In March 1812 it had tried to place the Army’s supply system on a more adequate footing by establishing a Quartermaster Department on the military staff in place of the inefficient and costly military agent system. At the same time Congress created the Office of the Commissary General of Purchases in the War Department, and for the first time since the Revolution the Army’s supply system was placed under the exclusive control of the Secretary of War. In May Congress had made provision for an Ordnance Department responsible for the inspection and testing of all ordnance, cannonballs, shells, and shot; the construction of gun carriages and ammunition wagons; and the preparation and inspection of the "public powder." It enlarged the Corps of Engineers by adding a company of bombardiers, sappers, and miners and expanded and reorganized the Military Academy at West Point. In addition to increasing the Regular Army, Congress had authorized the President to accept volunteer forces and to call upon the states for militia. The difficulty was not planning for an army, but raising one.

The main flaw in the American strategy was the assumption that inexpensive amateur militia units could fight a war with a very well trained professional army. The war revealed that the militia units sometimes did fight well, if under strong leadership like that of Andrew Jackson. The militia did very poorly in offensive warfare—refusing at one critical point to cross the border into Canada when a battle was raging. The U.S. lost that battle. John C. Calhoun learned the lesson well. After the war he became Secretary of War and built a professional army under the leadership of very good generals, especially Winfield Scott.

One of the world’s major powers was ranged against the United States; but on the basis of available resources, the two belligerents were rather evenly matched. Most of Britain’s forces were tied up in the war against Napoleon, and for the time being very little military and naval assistance could be spared for the defense of Canada. At the outbreak of the war, there were about 7,000 British and Canadian regulars in Upper and Lower Canada (now the provinces of Ontario and Quebec). With a total white population of only half a million, Canada itself had only a small reservoir of militia to draw upon. When the war began, Maj. Gen. Isaac Brock, the military commander and civil governor of Upper Canada, had 800 militiamen available in addition to his 1,600 regulars. In the course of the war, the two provinces put a total of about 10,000 militiamen in the field; whereas in the United States, probably 450,000 of the militiamen saw active service, though not more than half of them ever got near the front.

The support of Indian tribes gave Canada one source of manpower that the United States lacked. After the Battle of Tippecanoe, Tecumseh, the Shawnee chief, had led his warriors across the border into Canada. There, along with the Canadian Indians, they joined the forces opposing the Americans. Perhaps 3,500 Indians were serving in the Canadian forces during the Thames River campaign in the fall of 1813, probably the largest number that took the field at any one time during the war.

The bulk of the British Navy was also fighting in the war against Napoleon. In September 1812, three months after the outbreak of war with the United States, Britain had no more than eleven ships of the line, thirty-four frigates, and about an equal number of smaller naval vessels in the western Atlantic. These were all that could be spared for operations in American waters, which involved the tremendous tasks of escorting British merchant shipping, protecting the St. Lawrence River, blockading American ports, and at the same time hunting down American frigates.

A significant weakness in the American position was the disunity of the country. In the New England states, public opinion ranged from mere apathy to actively expressed opposition to the war. A good many Massachusetts and Connecticut ship owners outfitted privateers (privately owned and armed vessels that were commissioned to take enemy ships), but how much of this was a result of patriotism and how much was hope for profit remains a matter of conjecture. Many New Englanders went so far as to sell grain and provisions to the British. Throughout the war, there were serious problems in raising and sustaining the militia from New England. Nevertheless, several of those states spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on local defense even if they contributed little directly to the federal effort. And despite the regional disaffection with the war, New England was second only to the Mid-Atlantic States in providing regular units: New England raised thirteen regiments of soldiers, whereas New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania combined provided fifteen.

Canada was not faced with the same degree of public opinion challenges. Nevertheless, many inhabitants of Upper Canada were recent immigrants from the United States who had no great desire to take up arms against their former homeland. Other Canadians thought that the superiority of the United States in men and material made any defense hopeless. That General Brock was able to overcome this spirit of defeatism and obtain the degree of support he needed to defend Canada is a lasting tribute to the quality of his leadership.

The strategic pattern

main areas of the fighting

The fundamental military strategy of the United States was simple enough. The primary undertaking would be the conquest of Canada. The United States also planned an immediate naval offensive, whereby a swarm of privateers and the small Navy would be set loose on the high seas to destroy British commerce. The old invasion route into Canada by way of Lake Champlain and the Richelieu River led directly to the most populous and most important part of the enemy’s territory. The capture of Montreal would cut the line of communications upon which the British defense of Upper Canada depended, making the fall of that province inevitable. But this invasion route was near the center of disaffection in the United States from which little local support could be expected. The places where enthusiasm for the war ran high and where the Canadian forces were weak offered a safer theater of operations, though one with fewer strategic opportunities. Thus, in violation of the principles of objective and economy of force, the first assaults were delivered across the Detroit River and across the Niagara River between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario rather than along the Hudson–Lake Champlain–Montreal line of advance.

The war progressed through three distinct stages. In the first, lasting until the spring of 1813, England was so hard pressed in Europe that it could spare neither men nor ships in any great number for the conflict in North America. The United States was free to take the initiative, to invade Canada, and to send out cruisers and privateers against enemy shipping. During the second stage, lasting from early 1813 to the beginning of 1814, Britain was able to establish a tight blockade but still could not materially reinforce the troops in Canada. During this stage the American Army, having gained experience, won its first successes. The third stage, in 1814, was marked by the constant arrival in North America of British regulars and naval reinforcements, which enabled the enemy to raid the North American coast almost at will and to take the offensive in several quarters. At the same time, in this final stage of the war American forces fought their best fights and won their most brilliant victories.

The first campaigns

The first blows of the war were struck in the Detroit area and at Fort Mackinac. President Madison gave Brig. Gen. William Hull, Governor of the Michigan Territory, command of operations in that area. Hull arrived at Fort Detroit on July 5, 1812, with a force of about 1,500 Ohio militiamen and 300 regulars, which he led across the river into Canada a week later. At that time the whole enemy force on the Detroit frontier amounted to about 150 British regulars, 300 Canadian militiamen, and some 250 Indians led by Tecumseh. Most of the enemy forces were at Fort Malden, about twenty miles south of Detroit, on the Canadian side of the river. General Hull had been a dashing young officer in the Revolution, but by this time age and its infirmities had made him cautious and timid. Instead of moving directly against Fort Malden, Hull issued a bombastic proclamation to the people of Canada announcing their imminent liberation from "tyranny and oppression"; but he stayed at the river landing almost opposite Detroit. He sent out several small raiding detachments along the Thames and Detroit Rivers, one of which returned after skirmishing with the British outposts near Fort Malden.

In the meantime General Brock, who was both energetic and daring, sent a small party of British regulars, Canadians, and Indians across the river from Malden to cut General Hull’s communications with Ohio. By that time Hull was discouraged by the loss of Fort Mackinac, whose sixty defenders had quietly surrendered on July 17 to a small group of British regulars supported by a motley force of fur traders and Indians who at Brock’s suggestion had swiftly marched from St. Joseph Island, forty miles to the north. Hull also knew that the enemy in Fort Malden had received reinforcements (which he overestimated tenfold) and feared that Detroit would be completely cut off from its base of supplies. Taking counsel of his fears, on August 7 he began to withdraw his force across the river into Fort Detroit. The last American had scarcely returned before the first men of Brock’s force appeared and began setting up artillery opposite Detroit. By August 15 five guns were in position and opened fire on the fort, and the next morning Brock led his troops across the river. Before Brock could launch his assault, the Americans surrendered. Militiamen were released under parole; Hull and the regulars were sent as prisoners to Montreal. Later paroled, Hull returned to face a court-martial for his poor conduct during the campaign, was sentenced to be shot, and was immediately pardoned.

On August 15, the day before the surrender, the small garrison at distant Fort Dearborn, acting on orders from Hull, had evacuated the post and started out for Detroit. The column was almost instantly attacked by a band of Indians who massacred the Americans before returning to destroy the fort. With the fall of Mackinac, Detroit, and Dearborn, the entire territory north and west of Ohio fell under enemy control. The settlements in Indiana lay open to attack, the neighboring Indian tribes hastened to join the winning side, and the Canadians in the upper province lost some of the spirit of defeatism with which they had entered the war.

Immediately after taking Detroit, Brock transferred most of his troops to the Niagara frontier, where he faced an American invasion force of 6,500 men. Maj. Gen. Stephen van Rensselaer, the senior American commander and a New York militiaman, was camped at Lewiston with a force of 900 regulars and about 2,300 militiamen. Van Rensselaer owed his appointment not to any active military experience, for he had none, but to his family’s position in New York. Inexperienced as he was in military art, van Rensselaer at least fought the enemy, which was more than could be said of the Regular Army commander in the theater, Brig. Gen. Alexander Smyth. Smyth and his 1,650 regulars and nearly 400 militiamen were located at Buffalo. The rest of the American force, about 1,300 regulars, was stationed at Fort Niagara.

Van Rensselaer planned to cross the narrow Niagara River and capture Queenston and its heights, a towering escarpment that ran perpendicular to the river south of the town. From this vantage point, he hoped to command the area and eventually drive the British out of the Niagara peninsula. Smyth, on the other hand, wanted to attack above the falls, where the banks were low and the current less swift; and he refused to cooperate with the militia general. With a force ten times that of the British opposite him, van Rensselaer decided to attack alone. After one attempt had been called off for lack of oars for the boats, van Rensselaer finally ordered an attack for the morning of October 13. The assault force numbered 600 men, roughly half of them New York militiamen. The attack did not go well. Several boats drifted beyond the landing area; and the first echelon of troops to land, numbering far fewer than 500, was pinned down for a time on the riverbank below the heights. The men eventually found an unguarded path, clambered to the summit, and, surprising the enemy, overwhelmed his fortified battery and drove him down into Queenston.

Later in the morning the Americans repelled a hastily formed counterattack, during which General Brock was killed. This, however, was the high point of van Rensselaer’s fortunes. Although 1,300 men were successfully ferried across the river under persistent British fire from a fortified battery north of town, less than half of them ever reached the American line on the heights. Most of the militiamen refused to cross the river, insisting on their legal right to remain on American soil; and General Smyth ignored van Rensselaer’s request for regulars. Meanwhile, British and Canadian reinforcements arrived in Queenston, and Maj. Gen. Roger Sheave, General Brock’s successor, began to advance on the American position with a force of 800 troops and 300 Indian skirmishers. Van Rensselaer’s men, tired and outnumbered, put up a stiff resistance on the heights but in the end were defeated, with 300 Americans killed or wounded and nearly 1,000 captured.

After the defeat at Queenston, van Rensselaer resigned and was succeeded by the unreliable Smyth, who spent his time composing windy proclamations. Disgusted at being marched down to the river on several occasions only to be marched back to camp again, the new army that had assembled after the battle of Queenston gradually melted away. The men who remained lost all sense of discipline, and finally at the end of November the volunteers were ordered home and the regulars were sent into winter quarters. General Smyth’s request for leave was hastily granted, and three months later his name was quietly dropped from the Army rolls.

Except for minor raids across the frozen St. Lawrence, there was no further fighting along the New York frontier until the following spring. During the Niagara campaign the largest force then under arms, commanded by Maj. Gen. Henry Dearborn, had been held in the neighborhood of Albany, more than two hundred and fifty miles from the scene of operations. Dearborn had a good record in the Revolutionary War and had served as President Jefferson’s Secretary of War. Persuaded to accept the command of the northern theater, except for Hull’s forces, he was in doubt for some time about the extent of his authority over the Niagara front. When it was clarified, he was reluctant to exercise it. Proposing to move his army, which included seven regiments of regulars with artillery and dragoons, against Montreal in conjunction with a simultaneous operation across the Niagara River, Dearborn was content to wait for his subordinates to make the first move. When van Rensselaer made his attempt against Queenston, Dearborn, still in the vicinity of Albany, showed no sign of marching toward Canada. At the beginning of November he sent a large force north to Plattsburg and announced that he would personally lead the army into Montreal, but most of his force got no farther than the border. When his advance guard was driven back to the village of Champlain by Canadian militiamen and Indians and his Vermont and New York volunteers flatly refused to cross the border, Dearborn quietly turned around and marched back to Plattsburg, where he went into winter quarters.

In Action, depicting the battle between USS Constitution and HMS Guerriere, by Michel Felice Corne (1812)

If the land campaigns of 1812 reflected little credit on the Army, the war at sea brought lasting glory to the infant Navy. Until the end of the year the American frigates, brigs of war, and privateers were able to slip in and out of harbors and cruise almost at will; in this period they won their most brilliant victories: USS Constitution would claim HMS Guerierre off New England and HMS Java off Brazil; USS United States would capture HMS Macedonian; the sloops USS Hornet and USS Wasp would wreak havoc off England itself; and USS Essex would decimate the British whaling fleet in the Pacific. At the same time, American privateers were picking off English merchant vessels by the hundreds. Having need of American foodstuffs, Britain was at first willing to take advantage of New England’s opposition to the war by not extending the blockade to the New England coast; but by the beginning of 1814 it was effectively blockading the whole coast and had driven most American naval vessels and privateers off the high seas.

The second year, 1813

On land, the objects of the American plan of campaign for 1813 were the recapture of Detroit and an attack on Canada across Lake Ontario. For the Detroit campaign, Madison picked Brig. Gen. William Henry Harrison, governor of the Indian Territory and hero of Tippecanoe. The difficulties of a winter campaign were tremendous, but the country demanded action. Harrison therefore started north toward Lake Erie at the end of October 1812 with about 6,500 men. In January 1813 a sizable detachment of around 1,000 men pushed on to Frenchtown, a small Canadian outpost on the Raisin River, twenty-six miles south of Detroit. There, the American commander, Brig. Gen. James Winchester, positioned his men, their backs to the river with scant natural protection and their movements severely hampered by deep snow. A slightly larger force of British regulars, militiamen, and Indians under Col. Henry Proctor soundly defeated the Americans, killing over 100 Kentucky riflemen and capturing about 500. The brutal massacre of wounded American prisoners by their Indian guards made "Remember the Raisin" the rallying cry of the Northwestern Army, but any plans for revenge had to be postponed, for Harrison had decided to suspend operations for the winter. He built Forts Meigs and Stephenson and posted his army near the Michigan border at the western end of Lake Erie.

The Ontario campaign was entrusted to General Dearborn, who was ordered to move his army from Plattsburg to Sackett’s Harbor, where Commodore Isaac Chauncey had been assembling a fleet. Dearborn was to move across the lake to capture Kingston and destroy the British flotilla there, then proceed to York (now Toronto), the capital of Upper Canada, to capture military stores. Finally, he was to cooperate with a force from Buffalo in seizing the forts on the Canadian side of the Niagara River.

The American strategy was basically sound. The capture of Kingston, the only tenable site for a naval station on the Canadian side of Lake Ontario, would give the United States control of the lake and, by cutting the British lines of communications, frustrate enemy plans for operations in the west. After the fall of Kingston, the operations against York and the Niagara forts would be simple mopping-up exercises. When the time came to move, however, Dearborn and Chauncey, hearing a rumor that the British forces in Kingston had been reinforced, decided to bypass that objective and attack York first. About 1,700 men sailed up Lake Ontario without incident, arriving off York before daybreak on April 27. Dearborn, who was in poor health, turned over the command of the assault to Brig. Gen. Zebulon Pike, the explorer of the Southwest. The landing, about four miles west of the town, was virtually unopposed. The British garrison of 600 men, occupying a fortification about halfway between the town and the landing, was overwhelmed after sharp resistance; but just as the Americans were pushing through the fort toward the town, a powder magazine exploded, killing or disabling many Americans and a number of British soldiers. Among those killed was General Pike. Remnants of the garrison fled toward Kingston, 150 miles to the east. The losses were heavy on both sides—almost 20 percent of Dearborn’s forces had been killed or wounded. With General Dearborn incapacitated and General Pike dead, the troops apparently got out of hand. They looted and burned the public buildings and destroyed the provincial records. After holding the town for about a week, they recrossed the lake to Niagara to join an attack against the forts on the Canadian side of the Niagara River.

Meanwhile, Sackett’s Harbor had been almost stripped of troops for the raid on York and for reinforcing the army at Fort Niagara. At Kingston, across the lake, Sir George Prevost, the Governor General of Canada, had assembled a force of 800 British regulars in addition to militia. Taking advantage of the absence of Chauncey’s fleet, which was at the other end of the lake, Prevost launched an attack on Sacked’s Harbor with his entire force of regulars on the night of May 26. The town was defended by about 400 regulars and approximately 750 militiamen under the command of Brig. Gen. Jacob Brown of the New York militia. Brown posted his men in two lines in front of a fortified battery to cover a possible landing. Coming ashore under heavy fire, the British nevertheless pressed rapidly forward, routed the first line, and pushed the second back into the prepared defenses. There, the Americans held. The British then tried two frontal assaults but were repulsed with heavy losses. While they were re-forming for a third attack, General Brown rallied the militia and sent it toward the rear of the enemy’s right flank. This was the turning point. Having suffered serious losses and in danger of being cut off, the British hurriedly withdrew to their ships.

Battle of Lake Erie, by William Henry Powell, 1873.

On the same day Prevost sailed against Sacked’s Harbor, General Dearborn at the western end of Lake Ontario was invading Canada with an army of 4,000 men. The operation began with a well-executed and stubbornly resisted amphibious assault led by Col. Winfield Scott and Comdr. Oliver Hazard Perry, U.S. Navy, with Chauncey’s fleet providing fire support. Outnumbered by more than two to one, the British retreated, abandoning Fort George and Queenston to the Americans. An immediate pursuit might have sealed the victory; but Dearborn, after occupying Fort George, waited several days and then sent about 2,000 men after the enemy. The detachment advanced to within ten miles of the British and camped for the night with slight regard for security and even less for the enemy’s audacity. During the night a force of about 700 British soldiers attacked the camp and thoroughly routed the Americans. Dearborn withdrew his entire army to Fort George. About two weeks later, a 500-man detachment ventured fifteen miles outside the fort and, when attacked, surrendered to a force of British and Indians that was half as large. After these reverses there was no further action of consequence on the Niagara front for the remainder of the year. Dearborn, again incapacitated by illness, resigned his commission in early July. Both armies were hard hit by disease, and the American forces were further reduced by the renewal of the war in the west and by an attempt against Montreal.

Control of Lake Erie

Hull’s disaster at Detroit in 1812 and Harrison’s unsuccessful winter campaign had clearly shown that any offensive action in that quarter depended upon first gaining control of Lake Erie. Commander Perry had been assigned the task of building a fleet and seizing control of the lake. Throughout the spring and summer of 1813, except for the time he had joined Dearborn’s force, the 27-year-old Perry had been busy at Presque Isle assembling his fleet, guns, and crews. By the beginning of August his force was superior to that of the British in every respect except long-range armament. Sailing up the lake, he anchored in Put-in-Bay, near the line still held by General Harrison in the vicinity of Forts Meigs and Stephenson. There, on September 10 Perry met the British Fleet, defeated it, and gained control of Lake Erie.

Battle of the Thames

As soon as the damage to Perry’s ships and the captured British vessels had been repaired, Harrison embarked his army and sailed against Fort Malden. A regiment of mounted Kentucky riflemen under Col. Richard M. Johnson moved along the shore of the lake toward Detroit. Vastly outnumbered on land and now open to attack from the water, the British abandoned both Forts Malden and Detroit and retreated eastward. Leaving a detachment to garrison the forts, Harrison set out after the enemy with the Kentucky cavalry regiments, five brigades of Kentucky volunteers, and a part of the 27th Infantry, a force of about 3,500 men. On October 5 he made contact with the British on the banks of the Thames River about eighty-five miles from Malden. The enemy numbered about 2,900, of whom about 900 were British regulars and the remainder Indians under Tecumseh. Instead of attacking with infantry in the traditional line-against-line fashion, Harrison ordered a mounted attack. The maneuver succeeded completely. Unable to withstand the charging Kentuckians, the British surrendered in droves. The Indians were routed; Tecumseh, who had brought so much trouble to the western frontier, was killed. Among those who distinguished themselves that day was Commander Perry, who rode in the front rank of Johnson’s charge.

American victory in the west

As a result of the victory, which illustrated successful employment of the principles of offensive and mass and highlighted the importance of combined land-sea operations, Lake Erie became an American lake. The Indian confederacy was shattered. The American position on the Detroit frontier was reestablished, a portion of Canadian territory was brought under American control, and the enemy threat in that sector was eliminated. There was no further fighting here for the rest of the war. It was a decisive victory.

The small remnant of the British force that had escaped capture at the Thames—no more than 250 soldiers and a few Indians—made its way overland to the head of Lake Ontario. Harrison, after discharging his Kentucky volunteers and arranging for the defenses of the Michigan Territory, sailed after it with the remainder of his army. He arrived at the Niagara frontier at an opportune time, since the American forces in that theater were being called upon to support a two-pronged drive against Montreal.

Attack on Montreal fails

The expedition against Montreal in the fall of 1813 was one of the worst fiascoes of the war. It involved a simultaneous drive by two forces: one, an army of about 4,000 men assembled at Plattsburg on Lake Champlain under the command of Brig. Gen. Wade Hampton, and another of about 6,000 men under the command of Maj. Gen. James Wilkinson, which was to attack down the St. Lawrence River from Sackett’s Harbor. Hampton and Wilkinson were scarcely on speaking terms, and there was no one on the spot to command the two of them. Neither had sufficient strength to capture Montreal without the other’s aid; each lacked confidence in the other, and both suspected that the War Department was leaving them in the lurch. At first contact with the British, about halfway down the Chateaugay River, Hampton retreated and, after falling back all the way to Plattsburg, resigned from the Army. Wilkinson, after a detachment of about 2,000 men was severely mauled in an engagement just north of Ogdensburg, also abandoned his part of the operation and followed Hampton into Plattsburg.


In the meantime, during December 1813 the British took advantage of the weakened state of American forces on the Niagara frontier. They recaptured Fort George and crossed the river to take Fort Niagara, which remained in British hands until the end of the war. Before evacuating Fort George, the Americans had burned the town of Newark and part of Queenston. In retaliation the British, after assaulting Fort Niagara with unusual ferocity, loosed their Indian allies on the surrounding countryside and burned the town of Buffalo and the nearby village of Black Rock.

Jackson defeats Indians in South

see Creek War

During 1813 a new theater of operations opened in the south. Maj. Gen. (of the Tennessee militia) Andrew Jackson, an ardent expansionist, wrote the Secretary of War that he would "rejoice at the opportunity of placing the American eagle on the ramparts of Mobile, Pensacola, and Fort St. Augustine." For this purpose Tennessee had raised a force of 2,000 men to be under Jackson’s command. Congress, after much debate, approved only an expedition into that part of the gulf coast in dispute between the United States and Spain and refused to entrust the venture to the Tennesseans. Just before he went north to take part in the Montreal expedition, General Wilkinson led his regulars into the disputed part of West Florida and without meeting any resistance occupied Mobile, while the Tennessee army was left cooling its heels in Natchez.

Inspired by Tecumseh’s earlier successes, the "Red Stick" anti-assimilation faction of the Creek Indians took to the warpath in the summer of 1813 with a series of outrages culminating in the massacre of more than 500 men, women, and children at Fort Mims. Jackson, with characteristic energy, reassembled his army, which had been dismissed after Congress rejected its services for an attack on Florida, and moved into the Mississippi Territory. His own energy added to his problems, for he completely outran his primitive supply system and dangerously extended his line of communications. The hardships of the campaign and one near defeat at the hands of the Indians destroyed any enthusiasm the militia might have had for continuing in service. Jackson was compelled to entrench at Fort Strother on the Coosa River and remain there for several months until the arrival of a regiment of the Regular Army gave him the means to deal with the mutinous militia.

Jackson's campaigns

At the end of March 1814 Jackson decided he had sufficient strength for a decisive blow against the Indians, who had gathered a force of about 900 warriors and many women and children in a fortified camp at the Horseshoe Bend of the Tallapoosa River. Jackson had about 2,000 militia and volunteers, nearly 600 regulars, several hundred friendly Indians, and a few pieces of artillery. The attack was completely successful. A bayonet charge led by the regulars routed the Indians, whom Jackson’s forces ruthlessly hunted down and killed all but a hundred or so of the warriors. "I lament that two or three women and children were killed by accident," Jackson later reported. The remaining hostile tribes fled into Spanish territory. As one result of the campaign Jackson was appointed a major general in the Regular Army. The campaign against the Creeks had no other effect on the outcome of the war, but for that matter neither had any of the campaigns in the north up to this point.

Americans reorganize

The conduct of the war in 1812 and 1813 revealed deficiencies in the administration of the War Department that would plague the American cause to the end. In early 1813 Madison replaced his incompetent Secretary of War William Eustis with John Armstrong, who instituted a reorganization that eventually resulted in the substitution of younger, more aggressive field commanders for the aged veterans of the Revolution. Congress then authorized an expansion of the Army staff to help the Secretary manage the war. In March it re-created the Offices of the Adjutant General, Inspector General, Surgeon, and Apothecary General and assigned eight topographical engineers to the staff.


Competent leadership meant little, however, without sufficient logistical support; and logistics, more than any other factor, determined the nature of the military campaigns of the war. Lack of transportation was a major problem. The United States was fighting a war on widely separated fronts that required moving supplies through a wilderness where roads had to be built for wagons and packhorses. For this reason, ammunition and clothing supplies proved inadequate. General Harrison had to depend on homemade cartridges and clothing from Ohio townsmen for his northwestern campaign, and Brig. Gen. Winfield Scott’s regulars would fight at Chippewa in the gray uniforms of the New York militia. Winter found the troops without blankets, inadequately housed, and without forage for their horses. Most important, the subsistence supply failed so completely that field commanders found it necessary to take local food procurement virtually into their own hands.

Transportation difficulties accounted for only part of the problem. The supply system devised in 1812 proved a resounding failure. Congressional intent notwithstanding, the Quartermaster General had never assumed accountability for the money and property administered by his subordinates or administrative control over his deputies in the south and northwest. Moreover, the functions of his office, never clearly defined, overlapped those of the Commissary General. In a vain attempt to unravel the administrative tangle, Congress created the Office of Superintendent General of Military Supplies to keep account of all military stores and reformed the Quartermaster Department, giving the Quartermaster General stricter control over his deputies. In practice, however, the deputies continued to act independently in their own districts.

Both Congress and the War Department overlooked the greatest need for reform as the Army continued to rely on contractors for the collection and delivery of rations for the troops. With no centralized direction for subsistence supply, the inefficient, fraud-racked contract system proved to be one of the gravest hindrances to military operations throughout the war.

The last year of the war, 1814

After the setbacks at the end of 1813, a lull descended on the northern frontier. In March 1814 Wilkinson made a foray from Plattsburg with about 4,000 men and managed to penetrate about eight miles into Canada before 200 British and Canadian troops stopped his advance. It was an even more miserable failure than his attempt of the preceding fall.

In early 1814 Congress increased the Army to 45 infantry regiments, 4 regiments of riflemen, 3 of artillery, 2 of light dragoons, and 1 of light artillery. The number of general officers was fixed at 6 major generals and 16 brigadier generals in addition to the generals created by brevet. Secretary of War Armstrong promoted Jacob Brown, who had been commissioned a brigadier general in the Regular Army after his heroic defense of Sacket’s Harbor, to the rank of major general and placed him in command of the Niagara–Lake Ontario theater. He also promoted the youthful George Izard to major general and gave him command of the Lake Champlain frontier. He appointed six new brigadier generals from the most able, but not necessarily most senior, colonels in the Regular Army, among them Winfield Scott, who had distinguished himself at the battle of Queenston Heights and was now placed in command at Buffalo.

Niagara again

British control of Lake Ontario, won by dint of feverish naval construction during the previous winter, obliged the Secretary of War to recommend operations from Buffalo, but disagreement within the President’s Cabinet delayed adoption of a plan until June. Expecting Commodore Chauncey’s naval force at Sackett’s Harbor to be strong enough to challenge the British Fleet, Washington decided upon a coordinated attack on the Niagara peninsula. Secretary Armstrong instructed General Brown to cross the Niagara River in the vicinity of Fort Erie and, after assaulting the fort, either to move against Fort George and Newark or to seize and hold a bridge over the Chippewa River, as he saw fit.

Brown accordingly crossed the Niagara River on July 3 with his force of 3,500 men, took Fort Erie, and then advanced toward the Chippewa River, sixteen miles away. There, a smaller British force, including 1,500 regulars, had gathered to oppose the Americans. General Brown posted his army in a strong position behind a creek with his right flank resting on the Niagara River and his left protected by a swamp. In front of the American position was an open plain, beyond which flowed the Chippewa River; on the other side of the river were the British.

In celebration of Independence Day, General Scott had promised his brigade a grand parade on the plain the next day. On July 5 he formed his troops, numbering about 1,300; but on moving forward discovered British regulars had crossed the river undetected and had lined up on the opposite edge of the plain. Scott ordered his men to charge, and the British advanced to meet them. The two lines approached each other, alternately stopping to fire and then moving forward, closing the gaps torn by musketry and artillery fire. They came together first at the flanks, about sixty or eighty yards apart at the center. At this point the British line crumbled and broke. By the time a second brigade sent forward by General Brown reached the battlefield, the British had withdrawn across the Chippewa River and were retreating toward Ancaster on Lake Ontario. Scott’s casualties amounted to 48 killed and 227 wounded; British losses were 137 killed and 304 wounded.

Brown followed the retreating British as far as Queenston, where he halted to await Commodore Chauncey’s fleet. After waiting two weeks for Chauncey, who failed to cooperate in the campaign, Brown withdrew to Chippewa. He proposed to strike out to Ancaster by way of a crossroad known as Lundy’s Lane, from which he could reach the Burlington Heights at the head of Lake Ontario and at the rear of the British.

Meanwhile, the British had drawn reinforcements from York and Kingston and more troops were on the way from Lower Canada. Sixteen thousand British veterans, fresh from Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington’s victories over the French in Europe, had just arrived in Canada, too late to participate in the Niagara campaign but in good time to permit the redeployment of the troops that had been defending the upper St. Lawrence. By the time General Brown decided to pull back from Queenston, the British force at Ancaster amounted to about 2,200 men under General Phineas Riall; another 1,500 British troops were gathered at Fort George and Fort Niagara at the mouth of the Niagara River.

Lundy's Lane

As soon as Brown began his withdrawal, Riall sent forward about 1,000 men along Lundy’s Lane, the very route by which General Brown intended to advance against Burlington Heights; another force of more than 600 British troops moved out from Fort George and followed Brown along the Queenston road; while a third enemy force of about 400 men moved along the American side of the Niagara River from Fort Niagara. Riall’s advance force reached the junction of Lundy’s Lane and the Queenston road on the night of July 24, the same night Brown reached Chippewa, about three miles distant. Concerned lest the British force on the opposite side of the Niagara cut his line of communications and entirely unaware of Riall’s force at Lundy’s Lane, General Brown on July 25 ordered Scott to take his brigade back along the road toward Queenston in the hope of drawing back the British force on the other side of the Niagara. In the meantime, that force had crossed the river and joined Riall’s men at Lundy’s Lane. Scott had not gone far when much to his surprise he discovered himself face-to-face with a strong enemy element.

The ensuing battle, most of which took place after nightfall, was the hardest fought, most stubbornly contested engagement of the war. For two hours Scott attacked and repulsed the counterattacks of the numerically superior British force, which, moreover, had the advantage of position. Then both sides were reinforced. With Brown’s whole contingent engaged, the Americans now had a force equal to that of the British, about 2,900. They were able to force back the enemy from his position and capture his artillery. The battle then continued without material advantage to either side until just before midnight, when General Brown ordered the exhausted Americans to fall back to their camp across the Chippewa River. The equally exhausted enemy was unable to follow. Losses on both sides had been heavy, each side incurring about 850 casualties. On the American side, both General Brown and General Scott were severely wounded, Scott so badly that he saw no further service during the war. On the British side, General Riall and his superior, General Drummond, who had arrived with the reinforcements, were wounded. Riall was taken prisoner.

Both sides claimed Lundy’s Lane as a victory, with some justification, but Brown’s invasion of Canada was halted. Commodore Chauncey, who failed to prevent the British from using Lake Ontario for supply and reinforcements, contributed to the ambiguous outcome. In contrast to the splendid cooperation between Harrison and Perry on Lake Erie, relations between Brown and Chauncey were far from satisfactory. A few days after the Battle of Lundy’s Lane the American army withdrew to Fort Erie and held this outpost on Canadian soil until early in November.

Reinforced after Lundy’s Lane, the British laid siege to Fort Erie at the beginning of August but were forced to abandon the effort on September 21 after heavy losses. Shortly thereafter General Izard arrived with reinforcements from Plattsburg and pushed forward as far as Chippewa, where the British were strongly entrenched. After a few minor skirmishes, he ceased operations for the winter. The works at Fort Erie were destroyed, and the army withdrew to American soil on November 5.

During the summer of 1814 the British had been able to reinforce Canada and to stage several raids on the American coast. Eastport, Maine, on Passamaquoddy Bay, and Castine, at the mouth of the Penobscot River, were occupied without resistance. This operation was something more than a raid since Eastport lay in disputed territory, and it was no secret that Britain wanted a rectification of the boundary. No such political object was attached to British forays in the region of Chesapeake Bay.

Raids on Washington and Baltimore

Bombardment of Ft McHenry, Baltimore Harbor, September 13, 1814

On August 19 a force of some 4,000 British troops under Maj. Gen. Robert Ross landed on the Patuxent River and marched on Washington. At the Battle of Bladensburg, five days later, under the eyes of President Madison, who had arrived on the scene with a number of civilian officials just before the battle, Ross easily dispersed the 5,000 militia, naval gunners, and regulars hastily gathered together to defend the capital. The British then entered Washington, burned the Capitol Building, the White House, and other public buildings and returned to their ships.[21]

Baltimore was next on the schedule, but that city had been given time to prepare its defenses. A rather formidable line of redoubts covered the land approach; the harbor was guarded by Fort McHenry and blocked by a line of sunken gunboats. On September 13 a spirited engagement fought by Maryland militia, many of whom had run at Bladensburg just two weeks before, delayed the invaders and caused considerable loss, including General Ross, who was killed. When the fleet failed to reduce Fort McHenry, the assault on the city was called off.

The British attacks in the Chesapeake Bay region were both high and low points for the American cause. The destruction of Washington after a humiliating defeat was certainly demoralizing. However, the successful defense of Baltimore, and in particular the stirring events around the defense of Fort McHenry that would be enshrined forever in Francis Scott Key’s poem, "The Star-Spangled Banner," had a far-reaching impact on the war and on later American history.

Fort McHenry today, flying a replica of the "Star Spangled Banner" that flew over the fort on September 13, 1814

Invasion of New York

Two days before the attack on Baltimore, the British suffered a much more serious repulse on Lake Champlain when they launched a major invasion of New York state. After the departure of General Izard for the Niagara front, Brig. Gen. Alexander Macomb had remained at Plattsburg with a force of about 3,300 men. Supporting this force was a small fleet under Commodore Thomas Macdonough. Across the border in Canada was an army of British veterans of the Napoleonic Wars whom Prevost was to lead down the route Burgoyne had taken in 1777. Moving slowly up the Richelieu River toward Lake Champlain, Prevost crossed the border and on September 6 arrived before Plattsburg with about 11,000 soldiers. There, he waited for almost a week until his naval support was ready to join the attack. With militia reinforcements, Macomb now had about 4,500 men manning a strong line of redoubts and blockhouses that faced a small river. Macdonough had anchored his vessels in Plattsburg Bay, out of range of British guns but in a position to resist an assault on the American line. On September 11 the British flotilla appeared and Prevost ordered a joint attack. There was no numerical disparity between the naval forces but an important one in the quality of the seamen. Macdonough’s ships were manned by well-trained seamen and gunners, the British ships by hastily recruited French-Canadian militia and soldiers with only a sprinkling of regular seamen. As the enemy vessels came into the bay the wind died; and the British were exposed to heavy raking fire from Macdonough’s long guns. The British worked their way in and came to anchor; and the two fleets began slugging at each other, broadside by broadside. At the end the British commander was dead and his ships battered into submission. Prevost immediately called off the land attack and withdrew to Canada the next day. He was bitterly criticized by his subordinates and recalled to London for a court martial, but died before it took place.

Macdonough’s victory ended the gravest threat that had arisen so far. More important, it gave impetus to peace negotiations then under way. News of the two setbacks, Baltimore and Plattsburg, reached England simultaneously, aggravating the war weariness of the British and bolstering the efforts of the American peace commissioners to obtain satisfactory terms.

New Orleans

The progress of the peace negotiations influenced the British to continue an operation that General Ross, before his repulse and death at Baltimore, had been instructed to carry out: a descent upon the gulf coast to capture New Orleans and possibly sever Louisiana from the United States. Maj. Gen. Sir Edward Pakenham, one of the Duke of Wellington’s distinguished subordinates, was sent to America to take command of the expedition. On Christmas Day, 1814, Pakenham arrived at the mouth of the Mississippi to find his troops disposed on a narrow isthmus below New Orleans between the Mississippi River and a cypress swamp. They had landed two weeks earlier at a shallow lagoon some ten miles east of New Orleans and had already fought one engagement. In this encounter, on December 23, General Jackson, who had taken command of the defenses on December 1, almost succeeded in cutting off a British advance detachment of 2,000, but after a three-hour fight in which casualties on both sides were heavy, he was compelled to retire behind fortifications covering New Orleans.

Opposite the British and behind a ditch stretching from the river to the swamp, Jackson had raised earthworks high enough to require scaling ladders for an assault. About 3,500 men with another 1,000 in reserve manned the defenses. It was a varied group, composed of the 7th and 44th Infantry Regiments, Major Beale’s New Orleans Sharpshooters, LaCoste and Daquin’s battalions of free African Americans, the Louisiana militia under General David Morgan, a band of Choctaw Indians, the Baratarian pirates, and a motley battalion of fashionably dressed sons and brothers of the New Orleans aristocracy. To support his defenses, Jackson had assembled more than twenty pieces of artillery, including a battery of nine heavy guns on the opposite bank of the Mississippi.

Jackson at New Orleans

After losing an artillery duel to the Americans on January 1, Pakenham decided on a frontal assault in combination with an attack against the American troops on the west bank. The main assault was to be delivered by about 5,300 men, while about 600 men under Lt. Col. William Thornton were to cross the river and clear the west bank. As the British columns appeared out of the early morning mist on January 8, they were met with murderous fire, first from the artillery, then from the muskets and rifles of Jackson’s infantry. Achieving mass through firepower, the Americans mowed the British down by the hundreds. Pakenham and one other general were killed and a third badly wounded. More than 2,000 of the British were casualties; the American losses were trifling.

Suddenly, the battle on the west bank became critical. Jackson did not make adequate preparations to meet the advance there until the British began their movement, and by then it was too late. The heavy guns of a battery posted on the west bank were not placed to command an attack along that side of the river; and only about 800 militia, divided in two groups a mile apart, were in position to oppose Thornton. The Americans resisted stubbornly, inflicting greater losses than they suffered, but the British pressed on, routed them, and overran the battery. Had the British continued their advance, Jackson’s position would have been critical; but Pakenham’s successor in command, appalled by the repulse of the main assault, ordered Thornton to withdraw from the west bank and rejoin the main force. For ten days the shattered remnant of Pakenham’s army remained in camp unmolested by the Americans, then reembarked and sailed away.

The British appeared off Mobile on February 8, confirming Jackson’s fear that they planned an attack in that quarter. They overwhelmed Fort Bowyer, a garrison manned by 360 regulars at the entrance to Mobile Harbor. Before they could attack the city itself, however, word arrived that a treaty had been signed at Ghent on Christmas Eve, two weeks before the Battle of New Orleans. The most lopsided victory of the war, which helped propel Andrew Jackson to the Presidency, had been fought after the war was officially over.

Victory, defeat or stalemate?

Popular views

The popular image of the war in the U.S. was an American victory, and in Canada a Canadian victory. The British paid little attention since they were preoccupied with Napoleon.

Men who promoted British imperialism in Canada called the war a victory for Canada—meaning a victory for British control of Canada. They systematically attacked and harassed democratic spokesmen as too "American" until the spokesman finally erupted in futile revolts in 1837 and the Empire clamped down on them, hanging some and forcing others into exile in the United States. A "militia myth" became popular in Canada to the effect that a spontaneous uprising of the Canadian people defeated the American invaders (historians say it was the British army).

The news of the peace settlement followed so closely on Jackson’s triumph in New Orleans that the war as a whole was popularly regarded in the United States as a great victory. Yet, at best, it was a draw. American strategy had centered on the conquest of Canada and the harassment of British shipping. The land campaign had failed miserably, and during most of the war the Navy was bottled up behind a tight British blockade of the North American coast. The initial success of the privateering effort had enriched a few individuals but was no substitute for a robust navy and did little to achieve the war aims. Ironically, the greatest losers in the war were probably the Indians. The Battles of the Thames in the north and Horseshoe Bend in the south dealt them blows from which they never recovered and in the south set the stage for the forcible removal of most members of the tribes of the "Five Civilized Nations" to the west.


Historians have differing and more complex interpretations. They are in full agreement that the native Indian tribes were the war's clear losers, losing land, power and any hope of keeping their semi-autonomous status. Historians also agree that neither side gained or lost territory.

In recent decades the consensus of the majority of American, British and Canadian historians is that the war ended in stalemate, with the Treaty of Ghent closing a war that had become militarily inconclusive. Neither side wanted to continue fighting since the main causes had disappeared. These historians often add that the war could have been avoided in the first place. It is seen as a mistake for everyone concerned because it was marked by multiple fiascoes and failures on both sides, as shown especially by the repeated American failure to seize parts of Canada, and the failed British invasions of New York and New Orleans. However, some noted historians have called the war a British victory and an American defeat, arguing that the British achieved their military objectives in 1812 (resisting American incursions) while the Americans failed to conquer Canada. Many non-academic Canadians share this view.[22]

A third view,[23] argues that both the U.S. and Britain were successful. Britain was successful because it had repelled the invasion of Canada and lost no territories while achieving their huge war goal, the complete defeat of Napoleon. The U.S. was successful because (1) the U.S. had restored its honor and successfully resisted a powerful Empire for a second time, thus winning a "second war of independence"; (2) the threat of Indian raids ended as did the British plan for a semi-independent Indian sanctuary.


While the treaty favored neither belligerent, the war at least taught the Americans several important lessons. Although the Americans were proud of their reputation as the world’s most expert riflemen, the rifle played only a minor role in the war. On the other hand, the American soldier displayed unexpected superiority in gunnery and engineering. Artillery contributed to American successes at Chippewa, Sacket’s Harbor, Norfolk, the siege of Fort Erie, and New Orleans. The war also boosted the reputation of the Corps of Engineers, a branch that owed its efficiency chiefly to the Military Academy. Academy graduates completed the fortifications at Fort Erie, built Fort Meigs, planned the harbor defenses of Norfolk and New York, and directed the fortifications at Plattsburg. If larger numbers of infantrymen had been as well trained as the artillerymen and engineers, the course of the war might have been entirely different.

Sea power

Sea power played a fundamental role in the war; and when combined sea-land operations went well, the resulting campaign was generally successful. In the west, both opponents were handicapped in overland communication, but the British were far more dependent on the Great Lakes for the movement of troops and supplies for the defense of Upper Canada. In the east, Lake Champlain was strategically important as an invasion corridor to the populous areas of both countries. Just as Perry’s victory on Lake Erie decided the outcome of the war in the far west, Macdonough’s success on Lake Champlain decided the fate of the British invasion in 1814 and helped influence the peace negotiations.


The much-maligned militia performed, on the whole, as well and as poorly as the Regular Army. The defeats and humiliations of the regular forces during the first years of the war matched those of the militia, just as in a later period the Kentucky volunteers at the Thames and the Maryland militia before Baltimore proved that the state citizen-soldier could perform well. The keys to the militiamen’s performance, of course, were training and leadership, the two areas over which the national government had little control. The militia, occasionally competent, was never dependable; though in relationship to the regulars its record was comparable. However, in the nationalistic period that followed the war, when the exploits of the regulars were justly celebrated, an ardent young Secretary of War, John Calhoun, would be able to convince Congress and the nation that the first line of American defense should be a standing army.

War goals

In terms of war goals, the Americans achieved the war goals of stopping the Indian raids, reopening trade with France (now that Napoleon was gone and France was a British ally), and regaining national honor though they failed to get maritime issues addressed in the treaty of Ghent. However, the British did not officially end impressment, but they suspended the practice, never to resume it. The Americans thus achieved most of their main war goals. The British achieved their main war goal of stopping American trade with France (using the blockade), as well as keeping Canada, but they failed to gain the neutral Indian state. Indeed, the Indians were the big losers.

Indians lose

The Indians allied to the British came out as losers. The British also had the long-standing goal of creating a large "neutral" Indian state that would cover much of Ohio, Indiana and Michigan; it would be a British satellite and block American expansion in the Great Lakes region. They made the demand as late as 1814 at the peace conference, but lost battles at Thames and New Orleans that would have validated their claims.[24] The British proposal to create a "neutral" Indian zone was rejected by the Americans at Ghent and never resurfaced. In the decade after 1815, many Americans assumed that the British continued to conspire with their former Indian allies in an attempt to forestall American hegemony in the Great Lakes region. Such perceptions were faulty. After the Treaty of Ghent, the Indians became an undesirable burden to British policymakers who now looked to the United States for markets and raw materials. British agents in the field continued to meet regularly with their former Indian partners, but they did not supply arms or encouragement for Indian campaigns to stop American expansionism in the Midwest. Abandoned by their powerful sponsor, Great Lakes Indians ultimately migrated or reached accommodations with the Americans.[25] In the Southwest, Indian resistance had been crushed by General Andrew Jackson. As president (1829–37), Jackson systematically removed the major tribes to reservations west of the Mississippi.[26]

See also


  • Most of this article was copied directly from Maurice Matloff, American Military History (2005 edition). This is a government publication with no copyright. it is online here.
  • Benn, Carl. The War of 1812 (2003). short survey with British perspective online edition
  • Berton, Pierre; The Invasion of Canada: 1812-1813 (1980); Flames Across the Border: 1813-1814 (1981). popular Canadian narrative
  • Borneman, Walter R. 1812: The War That Forged a Nation (2004), popular
  • Brown, Roger H. The Republic in Peril: 1812 (1964). on American politics online edition
  • Burroughs, Peter. "Prevost, Sir George," Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online online version
  • Burt, Alfred L. The United States, Great Britain, and British North America from the Revolution to the Establishment of Peace after the War of 1812. (1940), detailed history by Canadian scholar; online
  • Coles, Harry L. The War of 1812 (1965) brief scholarly survey* Goodman, Warren H. "The Origins of the War of 1812: A Survey of Changing Interpretations," Mississippi Valley Historical Review, XXVIII (September, 1941), 171-86. in JSTOR
  • Egan, Clifford L. "The Origins of the War of 1812: Three Decades of Historical Writing," Military Affairs, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Apr., 1974), pp. 72–75. short article on historiography in JSTOR
  • Engelman, Fred L. The Peace of Christmas Eve (1962), popular account; online excerpt from American Heritage Magazine (Dec 1960) v 12#1
  • Heidler, Donald & Jeanne T. Heidler (eds) Encyclopedia of the War of 1812 (2nd ed 2004) 636pp; most comprehensive guide; 500 entries by 70 scholars
  • Heidler, David S. and Heidler, Jeanne T. The War of 1812. (2002). 217 pp.
  • Herbert C. W. Goltz, "Tecumseh" Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online online version
  • Hickey, Donald. The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict. (1989). the standard history; by leading American scholar exvcerpts and text search
  • Hickey, Donald R. Don't Give Up the Ship! Myths of the War of 1812. (2006) ISBN 0-252-03179-2
  • Hitsman, J. M. The Incredible War of 1812 (1965), survey by Canadian scholar
  • Horsman, Reginald. The Causes of the War of 1812 (1962). online edition
  • Kaplan, Lawrence S. "France and Madison's Decision for War 1812," The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 50, No. 4. (Mar., 1964), pp. 652–671. in JSTOR
  • Langguth, A. J. Union 1812: The Americans Who Fought the Second War of Independence (2006) 495pp, popular history
  • Latimer, Jon. 1812: War with America (2007), 656pp; the most recent survey; has a British perspective
  • Malcomson, Robert. Historical Dictionary of the War of 1812. (2006). 699 pp.
  • Mahan, Alfred T. Sea Power in Its Relation to the War of 1812, (1903), famous history full text online
  • Mahon, John K. The War of 1812, (2d ed. 1991), standard military history
  • Misiak, Zig "Western Hooves of Thunder", McArthurs Raid on the Six Nations 1814, ISBN 978-098118803-4, www.warof1812rph.com
  • Owsley, Frank L., Jr. Struggle for the Gulf Borderlines: The Creek War and the Battle of New Orleans, 1812–1815, (2d ed. 2000)
  • Perkins, Bradford. (1962). The Causes of the War of 1812. short survey
  • Perkins, Bradford. Prologue to War: England and the United States, 1805-1812. (1961). detailed diplomatic history by American scholar
  • Pratt, Julius W. "Western War Aims in the War of 1812," Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 12 (June, 1925), 36-50. in JSTOR, influential article
  • Quimby, Robert S., The US Army in the War of 1812: an operational and command study (1997) online version
  • Remini, Robert V. Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Empire, 1767–1821, (1977), standard scholarly biography; Remini has other books on Jackson and on the battle of New Orleans
  • Risjord, Norman K. "1812: Conservatives, War Hawks, and the Nation's Honor," William and Mary Quarterly, 18 (April, 1961), 196-210. in JSTOR
  • Roosevelt, Theodore. The Naval War of 1812 (1885) full text online
  • Sheppard, George. Plunder, Profit, and Paroles: A Social History of the War of 1812 in Upper Canada (1994) the Canadians were reluctant to fight; British regulars and Indians did the fighting excerpt and text search
  • Smelser, Marshall. The Democratic Republic 1801-1815 (1968) general survey of US politics & diplomacy
  • Stacey, C.P. "Brock, Sir Isaac," Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online online version
  • Stagg, John C. A. Mr. Madison's War: Politics, Diplomacy, and Warfare in the Early American Republic, 1783-1830. (1983), major overview (by a leading scholar; he is from New Zealand)
  • Stagg, J. C. A. "James Madison and the 'Malcontents': The Political Origins of the War of 1812," William and Mary Quarterly (Oct., 1976) in JSTOR
  • Taylor, George Rogers, ed. The War of 1812: Past Justifications and Present Interpretations (1963), selections from historians and primary sources online edition



  1. Wood, Gordon S. Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (Oxford History of the United States Book 4) (p. 313). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition. p. 658-659.
  2. The banner "Free trade and sailors' rights" was first hoisted on the USS Essex by Captain David Porter on July 2, 1812. (See Free Trade and Sailors' Rights in the War of 1812 by Paul A. Gilje (p. 1))
  3. 3.0 3.1 Wood, Gordon S. Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (Oxford History of the United States Book 4) (p. 313). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition. p. 659.
  4. Wood, Gordon S. Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (Oxford History of the United States Book 4). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition. p. 671.
  5. Wood, p. 660.
  6. Hickey, Donard R., The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, p. 29-30.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Brown, Roger H., "The War Hawks of 1812: An Historical Myth", Indiana Magazine of History, Vol. 60, No. 2 (June 1964), pp. 137-151.
  8. Hickey, p. 30.
  9. Hickey, p. 32.
  10. Gilje, Paul A., Free Trade and Sailors' Rights in the War of 1812, p. 7.
  11. David Stephen Heidler,Jeanne T. Heidler, Encyclopedia of the War of 1812, "Quincy, Josiah", pp. 438-439.
  12. Hickey, Donard R., The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, p. 29.
  13. Gilje, Paul A. Free Trade and Sailors' Rights in the War of 1812, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2013, ISBN 9781107607828, p. 147.
  14. Canadian opinion was not consulted, but the people favored the British and feared the Americans because they opposed monarchy and Catholicism. Relatively few Canadians volunteered to fight the Americans; the fighting was done by British regulars and their Indian allies.
  15. it was refuted by Warren H. Goodman, "The Origins of the War of 1812: A Survey of Changing Interpretations," Mississippi Valley Historical Review, v 28 (September, 1941), 171-86. in JSTOR.
  16. W. Arthur Bowler, "Propaganda in Upper Canada in the War of 1812," American Review of Canadian Studies (1988) 28:11-32; C.P. Stacey, "The War of 1812 in Canadian History" in Morris Zaslow and Wesley B. Turner, eds. The Defended Border: Upper Canada and the War of 1812 (Toronto, 1964)
  17. Stagg (1983)
  18. Horsman (1962) p. 267
  19. Hickey (1990) p. 72. Likewise Brown (1964) concludes, "The purpose of the Canadian expedition was to serve negotiation not to annex Canada." Roger H. Brown, The Republic in Peril: 1812 (1964) p. 128. Burt, a leading Canadian scholar, agrees completely, noting that Foster, the British minister to Washington, also rejected the argument that annexation of Canada was a war goal. Alfred L. Burt The United States, Great Britain, and British North America from the Revolution to the Establishment of Peace after the War of 1812 (1940), pp 305-10.
  20. Merrill D. Peterson, Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation: A Biography (1975) pp 836-39.
  21. The British probably were not acting in response to American burning of York in Canada, as some speculated.
  22. Carl Benn, “The War of 1812” ( ), by a Canadian; Latimer, 1812 War with America (2007), by a Brit.
  23. Wesley B. Turner, "The War of 1812: The War That Both Sides Won" (2000), a Canadian; Mark Zuehlke, For Honour's Sake: The War of 1812 and the Brokering of an Uneasy Peace (2007), a Canadian; Walter L. Hixson, "War of 1812," in Paul Finkelman ed, Encyclopedia of the United States in the Nineteenth Century (2001) 3:360.
  24. Dwight L. Smith, "A North American Neutral Indian Zone: Persistence of a British Idea" Northwest Ohio Quarterly 1989 61(2-4): 46-63; Francis M. Carroll, A Good and Wise Measure: The Search for the Canadian-American Boundary, 1783-1842 (2001) p 23 online
  25. Colin G. Calloway, "The End of an Era: British-Indian Relations in the Great Lakes Region after the War of 1812," Michigan Historical Review 1986 12(2): 1-20. 0890-1686
  26. Robert V. Remini, Andrew Jackson and His Indian Wars (2002)