War of 1812 Overview
The War of 1812 pitted the young United States in a war against Great Britain, from whom the American colonies had won their independence in 1783. The conflict was a byproduct of the broader conflict between Great Britain and France over who would dominate Europe and the wider world.
In Britain’s effort to control the world’s oceans, the British Royal Navy encroached upon American maritime rights and cut into American trade during the Napoleonic Wars. In response, the young republic declared war on Britain on June 18, 1812. The two leading causes of the war were the British Orders-in-Council, which limited American trade with Europe, and impressment, the Royal Navy’s practice of taking seamen from American merchant vessels to fill out the crews of its own chronically undermanned warships. Under the authority of the Orders in Council, the British seized some 400 American merchant ships and their cargoes between 1807 and 1812. Press gangs, though ostensibly targeting British subjects for naval service, also swept up 6,000 to 9,000 Americans into the crews of British ships between 1803 and 1812. Some of the impressed sailors were born in British possessions but had migrated to the United States, while many others had attained citizenship that was either in question or simply could not be documented.
With only 16 warships, the United States could not directly challenge the Royal Navy, which had 500 ships in service in 1812. Instead, the new nation targeted Canada, hoping to use the conquest of British territory as a bargaining chip to win concessions on the maritime issues. Most Americans assumed that the conquest of Canada would be, in the words of former president Thomas Jefferson, “a mere matter of marching.” The United States enjoyed a huge population advantage over Canada—7.7 million to 500,000—and it was widely believed in America that U.S. troops would be welcomed as liberators. But events did not play out as Americans expected. Waging war at the end of extended supply lines over the vast distances of the North American wilderness was no easy task. The British and their allies from indigenous nations in North America proved a formidable foe.
American armies invaded Canada in 1812 at three points, but all three campaigns ended in failure. One army surrendered at Detroit at the western end of Lake Erie, a second army surrendered at Queenston Heights at the other end of the lake, and a third army withdrew after little more than a skirmish north of New York. A similar multi-pronged invasion went better in 1813, but only in the West, where an American victory on Lake Erie paved the way for a land victory at the Thames in Upper Canada, which restored U.S. ascendancy throughout the region. But further east, American forces made little headway.
In 1814, the United States was thrown on the defensive because the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte in Europe enabled the British to shift additional resources to the war in America. The U.S. continued to remain on the offensive on the Niagara front, but the bloody fighting there was inconclusive. Elsewhere the British took the offensive, although their forces encountered the same problems waging wilderness warfare across vast distances that had plagued the United States earlier in the war. The British occupied Washington, DC, burning the public buildings there, and successfully occupied a hundred miles of the Maine coast. Elsewhere however, the British were rebuffed. British forces withdrew from New York when they lost another inland naval battle, this time on Lake Champlain. They had to give up an assault on Baltimore when they were unable to compel Fort McHenry to submit, and they were decisively defeated at New Orleans.
If the war went worse than Americans expected on land, it went surprisingly well at sea, at least initially. Early in the war, the new nation won a series of single-ship duels between American and British warships. Especially noteworthy were the four successful cruises made by USS Constitution in the war. The frigate outran a large British squadron in 1812 and subsequently defeated four Royal Navy ships in combat. Constitution also earned her nickname, “Old Ironsides,” when round shot in the duel with HMS Guerriere appeared to bounce off the ship’s 22-inch-thick hull. An American seaman exclaimed, “Huzza! Her sides are made of iron!” Soon after, Constitution was known as “Ironsides,” which in time became “Old Ironsides.” American privateers also took a toll on British shipping early in the war.
In the end, however, British naval power held. The British used their navy to ship troops to Canada, to keep them supplied, and to blockade and raid the American coast. The blockade had a devastating impact on the U.S. economy and public finance, and also kept most American warships in port. The British convoy system—in which warships escorted merchant vessels—cut down on the success of American privateers. Furthermore, the British evened the score in single ship duels by defeating USS Chesapeake, USS Essex, and USS President.
Ultimately, the War of 1812 ended in a draw on the battlefield, and the peace treaty reflected this. The Treaty of Ghent was signed in modern-day Belgium on December 24, 1814, and went into effect on February 17, 1815, after both sides had ratified it. This agreement provided for returning to the status quo ante bellum, which meant that the antagonists agreed to return to the state that had existed before the war and restore all conquered territory.
Both sides could claim victory, the British because they held on to Canada and their maritime rights, and the United States because just fighting the “Conqueror of Napoleon” and the “Mistress of the Seas” to a draw vindicated its sovereignty and earned the respect of Europe. As British diplomat Augustus J. Foster acknowledged at war’s end, “The Americans . . . have brought us to speak of them with respect.”
The only real losers in the war were the indigenous nations of North America, who were defeated in two wars connected to the War of 1812: Tecumseh’s War in the Old Northwest and the Creek War in the Old Southwest. American success in these wars opened the door for westward expansion and threatened the indigenous peoples and their ways of life east of the Mississippi River.
The war was fraught with a host of other consequences. It laid the foundations for the emergence of Canada as an independent nation and induced the British to seek peaceful relations with the United States for the remainder of the 19th century and beyond. It also helped forge the United States into a nation. Americans could celebrate their victories on the high seas and on Lake Erie and Lake Champlain, as well as at Fort McHenry and New Orleans. These victories introduced new American heroes (including Oliver H. Perry and Dolley Madison) and future United States presidents (William Henry Harrison and Andrew Jackson), developed new expressions (including “We have met the enemy and they are ours” and “Don’t give up the ship!”), established American symbols (USS Constitution, the Fort McHenry flag, and Uncle Sam), and inspired a patriotic song that eventually became the national anthem (“The Star-Spangled Banner”).
The War of 1812 may have been a small war, but it left a profound and lasting legacy that reverberated through history and continues to be felt even today.