War of 1812
█ ADRIENNE WILMOTH LERNER
The War of 1812, spawned by the European Napoleonic Wars, was the last war in which the fledgling United States fought its former colonial power, Great Britain. After three years of fighting on land and at sea, the United States military successfully drove the British forces from United States soil, but not before British troops burned Washington, D.C. The War of 1812 assured the United States the independent sovereignty it claimed after victory in the American Revolution and shaped American foreign policy for over a century.
When continental Europe erupted in conflict in 1793, the United States declared itself neutral. Not wanting to anger France or Britain, the two main rivals in the European war, the United States tried to remain out of contentious European politics, especially in regards to European colonial holdings in the Americas. Relations were further strained by British resentment of ongoing United States trade and diplomatic cooperation with France. British ships blockaded United States ports, hoping to prevent supplies and trade goods from reaching France. United States leaders, George Washington and John Adams, worked to ease tensions and lift the blockade, and by 1795, the nation again conducted trade with allies in Europe. However, by 1803, the United States government grew deeply concerned about the presence of a strong British military force in the Great Lakes region. Negotiations with Britain to reduce their military presence in the West and along the northern border of New England failed. Tensions again mounted when France sold the United States significant territories, including the Mississippi River, in the Louisiana Purchase.
In 1805, the British Navy resumed its blockade of the Unites States coast, prohibiting the export of most goods to continental Europe. The Orders in Council of 1807 further restricted neutral trade with Europe, and authorized British ships to take both the cargo and crew of seized neutral ships. The practice of impressment, forcing captured seamen into service on British ships, inflamed anti-British sentiment in the United States. The passage of the Embargo Act, confining all United States trade to the North American coast, the failure of continued diplomatic relations, and British-incited Indian attacks on United States outposts, gave credence to the opinions of the "War Hawks" in the United States government. In June 1812, the United States declared war on Britain.
The War of 1812 forced the United States to rapidly form and train military forces. After the Revolutionary War, the federal government only reluctantly allowed provisions for national forces. Most armies were maintained by individual states, with little standardization of training and equipment. The war spanned the entire breadth of the United States and its territories, from the Great Lakes region to New Orleans, Louisiana. Regional armies facilitated troop movement and deployment, but the lack of national infrastructure made travel and communication among the different battlefronts difficult. Military generals attempted to create a complex communication and espionage network, utilizing couriers on horseback and semaphore, to deliver messages. Codes were primitive and easy to break, but both British and American forces employed invisible inks to help conceal communications.
The vast expanses of rough and unfamiliar territory that both armies traversed required the extensive use of scouts. Both British and American forces preferred to use Indian scouts, who often had superior knowledge of regional terrain and could communicated in several indigenous languages. Indian scouts also aided in the recruitment of Indians to fight rival forces. British and United States military leaders also attempted to spark warfare between rival tribes with varying allegiances, hoping to distract opposing forces or break their aid network. Extensive contact with indigenous populations proved devastating, as during the American Revolution, disease ravaged Indian villages and several thousand Indian warriors died in battle.
From 1812 to 1814, the United States suffered numerous crushing defeats at the hands of superior British forces. United States offensives failed to take the Great Lakes region, and military defenses could not keep British troops from occupying Washington, D.C. Anticipated French aid never materialized in the 1813, as the tide of war in Europe had shifted decisively in favor of the British, and Napoleon's French Empire was in grave danger of collapse. American diplomats in Paris maintained a small espionage network in Europe and the Americas to monitor the British military and diplomatic corps. A French spy, posing as a local trader, rode to the White House to inform the president and cabinet members of the British plans to invade, occupy, and then destroy Washington, D.C. The government fled the British invasion of the capital city, but only by a matter of hours.
Despite the grim prospects of the United States land campaign in the early years of the war, the new United States Navy mounted surprisingly successful battles against the powerful British Navy. The United States reluctantly formed its Navy to combat the extortionist trade monopoly of the North African Barbary Pirates who dominated shipping in the Mediterranean. While wealthier European government simply paid annual tributes and occasional ransoms to the Barbary authorities, the fledgling United States Federal government could not afford to pay such large sums of money. The nation mounted a small but highly effective Navy, eventually driving the Barbary authorities to capitulation. After the conflict, the government only narrowly voted to keep naval forces.
When the British began the blockade of the American coastline, United States navy and merchant ships successfully ran the blockade. The government employed "pirate" ships to destroy British ships, and recapture seized cargo and Americans impressed into service. With the outbreak of war, naval resources were increasingly devoted to strategic sea campaigns against British vessels. The United States Navy successfully captured the British frigate Macedonian , defeated the Java , and raided several other merchant and military ships. Victories at sea, though limited, enforced the need for a permanent navy in the United States and ensured its continued survival. One hundred and forty years later, the United States Navy surpassed the British fleet to become the world's dominant sea power.
As the French were defeated in Europe, the British devoted more resources to the battlefront in America. However, United States forces rallied, turning the tide of the war in their favor by August 1814. Wishing to avoid clear military defeat, both sides began peace negotiations. The British failure to capture Baltimore prompted the government to settle their dispute with the United States, instead of continuing a lingering, expensive, and increasingly stalemated overseas war. The Treaty of Ghent formally ended the war in 1815. On January 8, 1815, after the signing of the treaty, United States forces, commanded by Andrew Jackson, achieved a stunning victory against the British at the port of New Orleans. Since communication was tedious across the Atlantic and the expansive western territory of Louisiana, news of the Treaty of Ghent did not reach either forces in time to prevent the engagement. The Battle of New Orleans gave the impression that the long-stalemated war was a sound United States victory, but the new nation was successful largely because of the failure of British offensive operations.
After the War of 1812, the United States declared firmer international policy. With the issuance of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, the nation stated its policy of non-intervention in European conflicts. Furthermore, the United States declared the New World closed to further colonization, and that attempts of foreign powers to intervene in conflicts between colonial powers and their colonies would be viewed as an act of aggression. The War of 1812 solidified the political and military preeminence of the United States in the Americas, and began the great expansion westward toward the Pacific coast.
█ FURTHER READING:
Dudley, Wade G. Splintering the Wooden Wall: The British Blockade of the United States, 1812–1815, reprint ed. Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute, 2000.
Hickey, Donald R. The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict. reprint ed. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1990.
Katcher, Philip R. The American War, 1812–1814 (Men-at-Arms, no. 226). reprint ed. Buffalo, MN: Osprey Publishing, 1990.