The United States declared war on Great Britain partly in response to British interference with American maritime commerce and partly out of a desire to gain territory to the north and west. The Americans failed in their attempt to gain Canadian territory, but after the war’s end, international commerce was able to resume unhindered.
By 1812, many sailors in Great Britain’s Royal Navy had deserted to sign on with American naval and merchant ships, where pay and conditions were better. Constantly needing sailors, British naval vessels frequently stopped American ships to take, or “impress,” sailors, whether they were British deserters or not. This practice was supported by the Orders in Council issued by the British cabinet, and it formed a major American grievance against the British. A particularly egregious incident in 1807 involved the British warship Leopard, which stopped the American ship Chesapeake and impressed four sailors, hanging one before sailing off. In an attempt to halt such outrages, the Americans resorted to economic measures: The
Although the British government repealed the onerous Orders in Council in June, 1812, President James Madison requested and Congress granted a declaration of war against Britain on June 18, 1812, before the news of the repeal reached the United States. The initial actions of the war were naval engagements in the Atlantic Ocean connected with the British blockade of the American coast. The American navy was small but boasted several impressive ships, especially the Constitution, which bested the British ship Guerrière on August 19, 1812, in a three-hour battle and earned the nickname “Old Ironsides,” because British cannonballs could not penetrate its hull. Campaigns in the West did not go well for the Americans, as Fort Mackinac in Michigan, Fort Dearborn (Chicago), and Fort Detroit fell during July and August of 1812, and the American invasion of
The most significant action in the Great Lakes was the Battle of Lake Erie (September 10, 1813), as Oliver Hazard Perry transferred from his disabled flagship Lawrence to the Niagara, from which he continued the battle and forced a British surrender. Throughout 1813 and 1814, British raiding parties devastated coastal towns along the Chesapeake Bay, causing fear and disrupting commerce, but the most humiliating episode of the war for the Americans was the British burning of Washington, D.C., on August 24 and 25, 1814, in retaliation for the American burning of the Parliament building in York, Canada. Such a blow was difficult to recover from, as most of the government buildings and some private residences were destroyed.
The British targeted Baltimore, Maryland, because it was a center for American privateers who preyed on British shipping. A two-pronged British attack by land and sea in September, 1814, failed, inspiring Francis Scott Key to write the poem that became known as The Star Spangled Banner and later became the national anthem. The British fleet sailed off, ending the threat in the Chesapeake. As part of their tactics, the British had offered slaves their freedom and transported several thousand slaves to British possessions. This was done both for humanitarian reasons and to disrupt the economic life of the region. During September, 1814, the British attempted to split New England states from New York by moving south from Canada through Lake Champlain. After this thrust was thwarted, the British withdrew.
Although the United States had beaten back British military efforts on land and sea, the Americans had not conquered Canada and had acquired a huge debt, and the economy was in serious decline. Meanwhile, Britain’s debt was increasing and it faced economic problems of its own. Both sides therefore agreed to peace talks in Ghent, the Netherlands. Britain desired to end the war to reach closure in Europe after Napoleon’s first defeat and exile. The United States was troubled when members of the Federalist Party in New England met at the Hartford Convention (December, 1814-January, 1815) to consider succession from the nation because the war had seriously damaged the New England economy.
The Treaty of Ghent was signed on December 26, 1814, before Andrew Jackson’s defense of New Orleans, (December, 1814-January, 1815) prevented Britain from choking off American trade to the interior of North America. A British victory at New Orleans might have altered the provisions of the Treaty of Ghent, which was ratified by the United States on February 16, 1815. The main provisions of the treaty were a return of territories to their prewar status and recognition of the prewar border between Canada and the United States. In 1827, Britain agreed to pay 250,000 compensation for slaves carried away during the war. With the final defeat of Napoleon in June, 1815, impressments of sailors by the British ceased to be an issue.
Benn, Carl. The War of 1812. Osceola, Wis.: Osprey, 2002. Short treatment with excellent maps and illustrations; useful coverage of the war’s military engagements. Borneman, Walter R. 1812: The War That Forged a Nation. New York: Harper Collins, 2004. Focuses on the war’s importance for securing American independence and providing a basis for additional territorial expansion. Langguth, A. J. Union, 1812: The Americans Who Fought the Second War of Independence. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006. This narrative focuses on the key personalities of the conflict and the role that individual effort played in the major battles. Latimer, Jon. 1812: War with America. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2007. Written from a British perspective, this scholarly work views the war as part of the much larger conflict with Napoleon. Mahon, John K. The War of 1812. Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1972. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1991. Detailed, scholarly, analytical study that covers the background, events, and ending of the war.
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