History Week 9. The War of 1812

Note: This is a long essay, so do not feel inclined to read it

War of 1812

Fought from 1812 to 1814, the War of 1812, though short, had a large impact on the young nation of America. The War of 1812 was fought between America and her old mother country Britain and was the second time the two met in war, since the founding of America. After The War for Independence, relations between the two countries had gone from bad to worse, eventually culminating in a war.

In the next twenty years following the birth of America as an independent nation, Europe was teetering on the brink of war. The war debts accumulated by world powers France, (through the debts incurred by helping the Americans in the War for Independence) and Britain’s loss of the colonies, shifted the tables in already weakened Europe. Also, the continent was still suffering from the seven years war, which had occurred between 1750 and 1763, this having taxed many countries in Europe. 

Then, in 1789, the French people revolted against their monarchy in France. This would later be known as the start of the French Revolution. The revolution succeeded and the monarchy lost all of its power in France, as the revolutionaries started to form a new government, called the Republic of France. Soon after, King Louis XVI of France was executed, signalling the end of the monarchy in France. The revolution quickly drew other countries into alliances to defeat the young Republic and restore the monarchy. Soon Britain and France were fighting yet another war, as they were the two dominant powers at the time.

The British navy, which had the most powerful fleet in the world, soon became short of sailors. In peacetime, there were usually enough volunteer seamen to man the few warships that where deployed during peacetime. But when war broke out with France, all available ships needed to be manned, as sea battles with France were inevitable. The common perspective was, “whoever controlled the sea, controlled the world.”

America, under President Thomas Jefferson, suffered from the wars that were going on in Europe. This was because both Britain and France thought that American trade ships were bringing goods to the other. And since France and Britain were at war, they would not allow American trade ships to cross the Atlantic without being searched. British ships though, would sometimes impress American sailors into the navy.

One such affair was the Leopold-Chesapeake engagement, where the American trading ship Chesapeake was engaged by the British warship Leopold. This was the result of the fact that three British sailors had deserted from the Royal Navy and enlisted as crew for the Chesapeake. The Leopold had been commissioned with a search warrant to board the Chesapeake, look for the deserters and bring them back. But the warrant was refused by the captain of the Chesapeake and so a brief fight broke out between the two ships. The result was that the American captain was forced to give in to the British demands.

This engagement angered the Americans, as they saw these events as proof that Britain still hadn’t accepted American Independence. In 1807, Thomas Jefferson made the Embargo Act of 1807. This restricted American trade with foreign countries, as Jefferson believed that Britain would suffer from no trade with America and would then stop their demeaning behaviour. But the British seemed to get along nicely without imports from America, and the Embargo Act quickly backfired, as American merchants lost a lot of money. In 1809, James Madison was elected to office, beating Thomas Jefferson, who, just before leaving office, had repealed the Embargo Act.

Madison could not have been elected at a worse time, as anger in America against Britain had grown more and more. This led to the want for war with Britain and a party of Americans called “The War Hawks” led by senator Henry Clay, pushed for war with Britain. The War Hawks stated that war would solve Britain’s demeaning behaviour. They also stated that America could capture British-held Canada and so therefore prosper from the war. In 1812, Madison finally asked Congress for a declaration of war, to which Congress agreed. America then declared war on Britain and the War of 1812, officially begun.

The British, who were busy fighting the French, did not really have time to fight the Americans. This meant that the British had few regular troops stationed in Canada and many of their ships could not be spared from fighting with France. When the declaration of war by the US reached Isaac Brock, one of the British commanders in Canada, he quickly warned everyone in Canada of the coming war. British forces in Canada were composed of Indians, Canadian Militia and about 8,000 British troops. The American forces on the other hand, were made up of 12,000 regulars, with thousands of additional militia. 

The war started when general William Hull led American forces against the British Canada in July, 1812. Contrary to the beliefs that seizing Canada would be easy, the well-trained British troops quickly defeated the American forces and captured Detroit. Shortly after, Hull and 2,500 of his troops surrendered to the British. Another attempt into Canada from Lake Erie was defeated by Isaac Brock and his troops at the Battle of Queenston heights. Unfortunately for the British though, Brock died in the battle.

But the British luck did not hold forever. In 1813, the US navy managed to decisively defeat British warships on Lake Erie. This showed the US navy at it’s best and although the British had no large amount of ships available to fight the Americans, these victories were still important.   

In 1814, the war sped up, as the wars with France had just ended and Britain was now free to send more troops to assist in the war in America. This sudden influx of troops and ships was decisive and in April 1814, British troops defeated American forces in the Battle of Bladensburg and subsequently managed to take Washington DC. It was here were the British famously burned many of the government buildings, including the White House. At the battle of Baltimore Harbour however, the Americans managed to hold their own as they were bombarded by a large British fleet. It was from this battle that the famous song “The Star-Spangled Banner” originated.

By now though, both sides started to realise that they could not best the other. The Americans realised that invading Canada was impossible, while the British had been unable to suppress the American trade. So, in August 1814, The Treaty of Ghent was drawn up and signed in late 1814. The treaty stated the end of the war and also declared a state of status quo antebellum, which basically means that every piece of land taken during the war would be given back to the original owner.  But news travelled slowly back then, so the Americans managed to pull off one last victory, when at the Battle of New Orleans, they managed to repel a British attack. But by and by the war eventually came to an end. There was no clear winner, as both sides claimed victory.

The War of 1812 was considered by Americans to be “The Second War for Independence” and restored a lot of national pride, especially after the victory at New Orleans, which made many Americans feel that the war had been an American victory. In Britain, the war was soon forgotten, as it was shadowed by the wars with France, which had been ten times as large. From 1815, relations between Britain and America got better and better and the two countries have been allies in many other wars since. In the end, the war did not have any clear winner and was really just that push needed for better relations between America and Britain.

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