The War of 1812: the “Forgotten Conflict.” I

It has been called the “Forgotten Conflict.” The War of 1812 took place at a time when the world at large was preoccupied with the Napoleonic struggles in Europe and elsewhere. In the North American chronology, it fell between the War of Independence and the Civil War, both of which produced libraries full of books. Little wonder it is that the stories of these wars have left little room on the shelves of bookstores for the War of 1812 literature.

No set of trifling circumstances prompted the United States to declare war on Britain in June 1812, however. And, though American leaders drew up blindly unrealistic plans at first, their intent posed a direct threat to the British/Canadian settlers and the native peoples living around the Great Lakes. Battles, steadily growing in intensity, raged on both sides of the border as the names of hitherto unknown officers and warriors became household names. Britain gradually committed men and arms to the conflict until Wellington’s own veterans had joined the fray. Broadsides roared on river, lake, and ocean; the president’s mansion burned; and Andrew Jackson held the line.

In the end, the North American community was altered. While the native peoples were left to struggle for their existence, Americans and Canadians retold the stories of the war, honoring their heroes and promulgating their legends. Thousands of booklets and pamphlets, articles, poems, and songs have been written about the war, many of its moments pictured on paper, canvas, and film. With the bicentennial of the conflict drawing near, there is every evidence that the War of 1812 will soon not be so “forgotten.”


When the Peace of Amiens failed and Britain declared war on France in May 1803, the events leading to the War of 1812 were set in motion. They quickly involved two threats to American sovereignty: the right for merchants to trade freely and the right for seamen to sail unmolested under the American flag. Though distinct issues, these matters were inextricably intertwined.

By its might alone, Britain was able to impose the Rule of 1756 and seize neutral vessels trading between France and its colonies. British courts upheld the rule with the Essex decision in the spring of 1805, much to the protest of American merchants whose profits were already suffering. Nelson’s glorious victory at the battle of Trafalgar (21 October 1805) greatly diminished French sea power, allowing the Royal Navy (RN) to focus more closely on merchantmen and, from May 1806, blockade French ports. The U.S. government prepared to retaliate by limiting British imports, but representatives of the two nations nearly resolved the differences with the Monroe-Pinkney Treaty late in 1806. President Thomas Jefferson, however, rejected the agreement, in part because it had not addressed the problem of impressment.

Britain’s naval strength also made it possible for RN officers to press suspected British subjects into service from neutral merchantmen in the same way that they could lift them off the streets of Portsmouth, England. No claim of naturalization or certification of an American birthplace could save a seaman who looked worth his salt. This insult to the right of citizenship had caused problems between the nations in the 1790s, and it sparked outrage again in April 1806, when HMS Leander ordered a merchantman to stop off New York City and killed an American seaman with its warning shot. But the real flash point came on 22 June 1807, when HMS Leopard fired on the USS Chesapeake off Chesapeake Bay after Commodore James Barron refused to allow his crew to be mustered and inspected. Totally unprepared for a fight, the Chesapeake suffered badly, and the British ended up removing four suspected deserters.

The Chesapeake–Leopard Affair nearly provoked war all by itself, but after diplomatic retaliations and the passing of legislation to strengthen the armed forces, Jefferson ended up with an embargo on trade that hurt his own nation more than it did his enemies. Meanwhile, Britain and France upped the ante with a series of orders in council and decrees that closed most of Europe to neutrals. President James Madison took office in March 1809 and tried to find a middle road with one belligerent or the other but failed, and merchants, particularly those in the South and West, still bemoaned their lost markets, ships, and cargoes; New Englanders were opposed to American restrictions to their trade with Britain.

Into this context came the group of Republican legislators who became known as the “War Hawks.” The election of 1810 sent dozens of new congressmen and senators to Washington who believed that there had been enough talk and that the nation’s honor needed to be upheld. Although they frequently criticized Napoleon’s decrees, Britain became the main object of their protests. This was fueled by the worsening hostilities between settlers and the aboriginal nations in the Old Northwest. Britain had worked for decades (rather ineffectually at times) to cultivate ties with the natives, and many Americans saw this as a surreptitious campaign to harness American rights to expand westward. The rise of Tecumseh exacerbated American fears, and William Henry Harrison’s Tippecanoe expedition (November 1811) fanned the flames.

The President–Little Belt Affair (16 May 1811) symbolized the government’s path toward war. Believing himself to be threatened by a warship, Captain John Rodgers ordered his heavy frigate to pound a British sloop, a controversy that was never resolved but that earned Rodgers praise from the navy secretary.

When he sent his message to the first session of the twelfth U.S. Congress early in November 1811, Madison suggested that it was time to put the nation “into an armor and an attitude demanded by the crisis.” Congress spent the next six months trying to do this, but the bitter debates over ways and means produced a series of acts that hampered effective war preparations. Meanwhile, Madison and his cabinet hoped for a resolution of differences with Britain while actively promoting war. By June 1812, there seemed no alternative for Madison but to recommend war to Congress. After more rancorous debate, it passed by a total of 98 to 62 votes, and Madison signed it on 18 June.

In England, Lord Liverpool had just become the prime minister, and, under pressure from British merchants and in response to the fraudulent French St. Cloud Decree, Liverpool’s cabinet repealed the orders in council. Britain’s main concern continued to be the far-flung Napoleonic campaigns, so little effort was made to improve defenses in British North America against potential hostilities. Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost was the commander in chief at Quebec with about 4,400 officers and men in the maritime provinces, 4,400 in Lower Canada (LC), and 1,200 in Upper Canada (UC), where Major General Isaac Brock commanded. The RN had fewer than 40 warships stationed at Halifax and Newfoundland, but they were widely deployed.


To declare war was one thing, but to fight it was another, and the United States was poorly prepared for the challenge. Its army and navy had been maintained at minimal levels during the Jefferson and Madison administrations. Legislated increases in the U.S. Army and the creation of a cheaper volunteer corps could not be realized by enlistments, and the Department of War was incapable of supplying basic needs; even the blue dye for uniforms was in short supply. Madison, his cabinet, and their supporters had high expectations for the role that state militias would play, but militia laws limited their deployment. Without a core of well-trained young officers, Madison was required to give army leadership to such aging veterans of the American War of Independence as William Hull and Henry Dearborn.

The grand strategy for the war was the conquest of Canada, but the actual plan for doing this was developed slowly and incompletely. It was well understood by strategists on both sides of the war that a major campaign to isolate UC by cutting the St. Lawrence River supply line and then focusing on Montreal and Quebec was the best way to conquer Canada, but such was not the American plan. Dearborn was the chief architect, promoting an invasion of UC at the Detroit River, in part as a cover of the Northwest settlements, with a simultaneous invasion of LC near Montreal and diversionary activities on the Niagara River and the upper St. Lawrence River. Although it was discussed, no effort was made to develop a naval presence on the Great Lakes. A role for the U.S. Navy (USN) was slower in forming. It had only 14 serviceable warships, some of which wanted refitting, and several flotillas of gunboats. Only through the initiative of its highly competent senior officers did the navy put to sea and achieve unexpected success.

At Quebec, Prevost determined to hold the majority of his force in LC since he expected the main thrust there. At Brock’s urgent plea, he sent some reinforcements to UC, where Brock wanted to use them in preemptive strikes against American border posts. Prevost was convinced, however, that the unpopularity of the war in the United States retarded American efforts, and he did not want Brock to do anything that might provoke anti-British sentiments. Instead, Brock distributed his force at key points, supplemented by UC militia and wavering native support, and waited.

As a result, Fort Detroit was safe when Brigadier General William Hull arrived there on 5 July at the head of about 2,000 men, most of them enthusiastic Ohio Militia volunteers. He crossed into Canada on 12 July and might have captured the weakly defended Fort Amherstburg by storm but lacked the decisiveness to do it. His invasion stalled, and he ultimately retreated to Detroit in the second week of August for three reasons: native warriors, allied to the British, cut his supply lines to the south in two sharp skirmishes near the Detroit River; word arrived that the British had seized Fort Michilimackinac on 17 July and a strong force was said to be approaching from there; and another force under Brock was rumored to be coming from the Niagara Peninsula.

Contrary to Prevost’s wishes, Brock had given tacit support to the commander at St. Joseph Island to take Michilimackinac, which was managed bloodlessly. This gave the British control of the upper lakes and influential fur-trade ties with the many aboriginal nations. It proved to be a distraction to American campaign goals for the rest of the war.

Brock arrived at Fort Amherstburg on 14 August and, with fewer than 1,500 regulars, militia, and warriors (under Tecumseh), crossed the Detroit the next day. After a light bombardment and a display of force, Hull surrendered, much to his army’s disgust. The failure of the invasion was a crushing blow to the American strategy. The British now prepared to send an expedition to attack forts in Ohio and Indiana, but it was delayed by the Prevost–Dearborn Armistice.

When dispatches reached Quebec at the end of July regarding the repeal of the orders in council, Prevost sent the details to Dearborn and proposed an armistice so that Madison and his cabinet could reappraise the situation. The administration stayed the course since the British had not relented on impressment, but the suspension of hostilities until the second week of September proved detrimental to the early British success.

Tecumseh and his senior chiefs wanted to attack American holdings in the Old Northwest with British artillery and infantry support. Colonel Henry Procter at Fort Amherstburg, with Brock’s approval, was ready to do this, but the armistice prohibited such action. Independently, native forces besieged three forts without success, displaying how tenuous Tecumseh’s control over his native allies was and provoking the Americans into action. Brigadier General William Harrison was soon in charge of a new army, forming up to secure the Old Northwest and recover what Hull had lost.

The armistice also allowed Dearborn to greatly reinforce the army on the Niagara Frontier. Originally intended only as a distraction and headed by Major General Stephen Van Rensselaer of the New York Militia, the army was ordered to invade the Niagara Peninsula. Van Rensselaer’s army greatly outnumbered Brock’s force, but whereas Brock was a career officer who knew how to deploy his assets effectively and keep them in the field, the American had no military experience, was poorly advised by his staff, and was virtually ignored by Brigadier General Alexander Smyth, U.S. Army, who reached Buffalo early in October but avoided a meeting with Van Rensselaer. On 13 October, a combined force of regulars and militia landed at Queenston, achieving success in the morning by killing Brock and occupying the high ground. But British army regulars, a party of Grand River Six Nations warriors, and local militia, all under Major General Roger Sheaffe, overwhelmed the Americans and captured more than 900 men at the end of the day. It was the first significant defense of Canadian soil, but the victory was tarnished by the loss of the highly respected Brock.

The two stunning defeats deflated the American campaign, and Dearborn, lethargic and deflecting any blame for the losses, managed only to march an army from Plattsburgh, New York, to the LC border in November, fight one small skirmish, and then return. The cap was put on the northern war when General Smyth, despite all his bombastic proclamations, was unable to cross the Niagara at the end of the month with the remains of Van Rensselaer’s army.

All would have been lost for Madison’s administration if not for the USN. The president ordered the creation of a naval force on the Great Lakes in August. Captain Isaac Chauncey was given the job, and by the end of October he had formed a squadron out of the only USN freshwater vessel, the brig Oneida, and some converted merchantmen at his base at Sackets Harbor on Lake Ontario and initiated the same effort on Lake Erie. During the second week of November, despite boisterous weather, Chauncey chased the Provincial Marine (PM) flagship into Kingston and seized several commercial craft. The navigation season ended with Chauncey in control on Lake Ontario, the significance of which would reveal itself in the spring. Lieutenant Thomas Macdonough had taken command on Lake Champlain but made little headway by the end of the year.

Of much less strategic importance but more widely known and applauded were the singular victories of the USS Constitution over HMS Guerrière (19 August) and HMS Java (29 December) and the USS United States over HMS Macedonian (25 October); two other British ships were also taken. That British frigate captains would lose to the upstart Americans in single ship actions was unthinkable, so the successes prompted jubilation in the United States and dismay and denial in Canada and Britain. The capture of three smaller U.S. warships during this same period hardly compensated for the stunning American successes.

The other element of the war at sea that developed in 1812 was the activity of privateers and letters of marque. Such vessels were outfitted in the early summer for their potentially profitable but very risky business. The numerous American privateers kept the RN patrols much busier than any warships did, while the few vessels that sailed out of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick ports impacted sharply on American commerce.

The British government reacted to the American declaration of war in several ways. Admiral Sir John Warren was sent to take on an expanded command from headquarters at Halifax and Bermuda, with a few more warships and an order to blockade portions of the eastern seaboard. Reinforcements for the army were ordered to march from New Brunswick to Quebec during the winter, while others were transported from various places in the spring. After Prevost complained about the inadequacy of the PM to maintain control of the Great Lakes, more than 450 RN personnel under Commodore Sir James Yeo and a small detachment from Bermuda were sent to command the lakes. On 9 January 1813, the British formally proclaimed a state of war with the United States.

Sheaffe succeeded Brock in UC and struggled through the winter to keep his force fed and armed while he attempted to improve defenses. With Prevost’s approval, he had a new ship laid down at Amherstburg on the Detroit River and two on Lake Ontario, and Prevost sent detachments to UC as conditions warranted. The British knew, however, that the spring was likely to bring a stronger and more determined campaign from the Americans.

This is essentially what happened. Despite the setbacks of 1812, Madison won reelection and pushed on with the war. He replaced the ineffective Secretary of War William Eustis and Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton with John Armstrong and William Jones, respectively. Jones proved to be a competent administrator who set goals for the navy, while Armstrong was more likely to confuse his generals with his orders or make their tasks more difficult by meddling. The army was gradually being equipped, while the regiments were filled up and properly trained. New ships were soon under construction on the lakes where Master Commandant Oliver Perry had joined Chauncey’s gradually expanding naval force. Several new keels were laid down in the eastern dockyards.

While preparing for war, the administration also sought peace. In September of 1812, Czar Alexander I of Russia offered to help the combatants resolve their differences, and, after some long-distance correspondence, two peace envoys, Albert Gallatin (the secretary of the treasury and, arguably, Madison’s best cabinet official) and James Bayard, a Delaware Federalist, finally headed for St. Petersburg to meet John Quincy Adams and, it was hoped, commence negotiations with the British.