The War of 1812

By Stephen

A few weeks ago, the British Embassy in Washington sparked a controversy when it released a Tweet celebrating the burning of the American capital by British soldiers in 1814.  That story was a reminder to Americans that  the nation is celebrating the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812.  More to the point, this last weekend was the same anniversary of the Battle of Baltimore,  during which Frances Scott Key wrote “The Star Spangled Banner.”

The direct cause of the War of 1812 was the impressment of American sailors by British Navy vessels.   But actually relations between the United States and Great Britain had been declining during the first decade of the  nineteenth century, while the this country had been trying stay neutral in the war between the French and the British.    The British passed trade laws which the United States stated violated international law and interfered its trade with France.  Moreover the the British had been arming Native American tribes in what now the Mid-West.

There was a split along party lines on the decision to go to war with Great Britain.  The Federalists, ancestors of the present-day Republicans, were against it, because it would interfere with New England (an area where the Federals were strong) trade with the British. On the contrary, Jefferson’s Democratic Republicans favored the war.

Like the Revolutionary War, native Americans split their allegiance with northern tribes supporting the British  and the Cherokees, Choctaw, and some of the Creeks were loyal to the Americans.  The Shawnee Chief Tecumseh was successful in building a British backed confederation in the north , but he only managed to the northern or Red Stick Creeks to join his confederation in the south, causing a civil war amongst the tribe.  Andrew Jackson was responsible for defeating the  Red Sticks with force consisting of militia from Tennessee, some regular army troops, Cherokees, and the southern Creeks at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend .

While the British were involved with fighting Napoleon in Europe, some Americans thought it would a good time annex Canada to the United States.  The war in the Canadian theater was fought both on the Great Lakes and the Niagara frontier. The Canadians, many of the Loyalists who escaped north after the Revolutionary War, with Indian allies, resisted the American invasion.

On the positive side of things, the United States Navy came into its own both on the Atlantic and the  Great Lakes, defeating the British and Canadians on the water.  In the Atlantic, American frigates, which were bigger and out gunned their British counterparts, won a number of battles. The Admiralty ordered British ships not engage the American unless they had 2 to 1 odds or greater.   However, when the British fleet were free from blocking the coast of Europe, and came across the Atlantic with their ships of the line, American frigates stayed in port.  

Where the American navy did the nation proud, the land troops, with few exceptions, performed poorly. The War of 1812 is notable for being the last time the continental United States was invaded by a foreign nation.  (Note: Japan did invade part of the Aleutian Islands during World War II. )  The British were defeated at Baltimore, but the Americans could not defend their capital, sending government officials scurrying for their lives, leaving the invaders to burn government buildings, including the Executive Mansion. When it was repainted, the president’s mansion got its new unoffical name, The White House.

The biggest land victory for the American came after the war was officially over, when Andrew Jackson’s army of westerners and pirates overcame British regulars outside New Orleans under command of General Edward Pakenham, who was killed and sent home in a barrel of alcohol. Meanwhile, American and British negotiators reached agreement on the Treaty of Ghent.  The results of the war were inconclusive, with neither side gaining any territory (“Status quo, ante bellum”).

For Further Reading:

Brookshiser, Richard.  James Madison.

Buchanan, John.  Jackson’s Way:  Andrew Jackson and the People of the Western Waters.

Cote, Richard N.  Strength and Honor:  The Life of Dolly Madison.

Molotsky, Irvin.  The Flag, the Poet & the Song.

Robotti, Frances Diane and James Vescovi. The USS  Essex and the Birth the American Navy

Roosevelt, Theodore. The Naval War of 1812.

Standiford, Les.  Washington Burning.

Toll, Ian W.  Six Frigates:  The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy.