Commonly called America’s Second War of
Independence, the War of 1812 was a major conflict with Great Britain
in the early years of the nineteenth century. Unlike the
American Revolution, the causes of the War of 1812 were far more economically
and politically motivated rather than idealistic.
Instead, the War of 1812 pitted the
fledgling United States, barely twenty years old, against Great
Britain in a conflict that centered on the recognition of American
commercial and political rights. Specifically, the reasons included
trade restrictions brought about by Britain's ongoing war with France,
the impressment of American merchant sailors into the Royal Navy,
British support of
Indian tribes against American expansion,
and outrage over insults to national honor after humiliations on the
The signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783
Revolutionary War and established the United States among
the nations of the world. The treaty, however, neither guaranteed the
new nation’s survival nor ensured that the powers of Europe would
respect its rights. In upholding its rights to trade freely with all
of the world’s countries, the United States government struggled to
find a balance between military preparedness and diplomacy. The
prolonged wars between Britain and France (1793-1815), kicked off by
the French Revolution, greatly complicated America’s ability to
protect the rights of its shipping and sailors. Additionally, many
Americans along the nation’s western frontier believed that the
British in Canada encouraged Indian raids on their settlements.
American Revolution, the United
States sought to insulate itself from European affairs and focus on
building up the new nation.
George Washington, in his Farewell Address
of 1796, laid out this policy of American neutrality in European
"The great rule of conduct for us, in
regard to foreign nations, is in extending our commercial relations,
to have with them as little political connection as possible. Europe
has a set of primary interests, which to us have none, or a very
remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies
the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence,
therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves, by
artificial ties, in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the
ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities."
However, this would prove to be impossible, as the French Revolution
sent Europe into political upheavals. Both the British and the French
expected American support during the war and would not accept American
neutrality in the matter. Both sides attacked and impounded American
shipping, trusting that the United States Navy was unable to respond
effectively to this violation of American neutrality.
The British, confident that the
American experiment in democracy was doomed to failure, continued to
harass American merchantmen and impress American seamen. Desperate for
sailors to man their warships, British captains increasingly boarded
American ships and “impressed” sailors into service, claiming that the
merchant seamen were deserters from the Royal Navy. In the meantime,
British agents in North America supported insurrections by Native
American tribes against the United States government in the Old
Northwest. America’s efforts to preserve its neutral rights by
stopping all trade with the warring powers had no effect, other than
to hurt the U.S. economy.
At the same time, the American alliance with the French, dating back
to the American Revolution was beginning to unravel. The first forts
built in the United States, beginning in the 1790’s, were designed and
overseen by French military engineers. However, with the French
Revolution and the United States’ neutral stance, the alliance was
soon tossed aside. Attacks by the French on American shipping led to
an undeclared naval war from 1798 to 1801, known as the Quasi-War.
When war between Britain and France started up again in 1803, Britain
forbade neutrals, including the United States, from trading with
France and her allies. Many Americans believed Britain’s measures were
an attempt to re-impose colonial status on them.
With the breakdown with the French, the United
States badly needed to design and build its own fortifications and
Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Williams, the commandant of the Army Corps of
Engineers and the superintendent of the United States Military Academy at
West Point, was assigned the task. Williams was a relative of Benjamin
Franklin’s and while Franklin spent the American Revolution in Paris
negotiating the French alliance, Williams studied military engineering
from the same engineers who would soon become America’s enemies. Full of
these ideas, Williams was selected to improve American coastal
fortifications in the years leading up to the War of 1812. From 1807 to
1811, Williams designed and completed construction of Castle Williams and
Castle Clinton in New York Harbor.
After all the diplomatic issues with Great
Britain, from preventing trade to impressing sailors, the United States
declared war on Great Britain on June 18, 1812.
President James Madison’s war message to
Congress echoed the language of the
Declaration of Independence.
Less than a month later, Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Williams resigned
from the Army in July, 1812 because the Secretary of War, William Eustis,
refused to give him command of Castle Williams. At that time, the State of
New York appointed Williams in charge of
construction of fortifications for New York City.
Although the outbreak of the war had been preceded by years of diplomatic
disputes, neither Britain nor the United States was prepared. Britain was heavily
engaged in war with the French and in the United States, the military was
understaffed and the government did not have the money to finance the war
properly. President Madison assumed that the state militias would easily
seize Canada and that negotiations would follow. However, from the
beginning, the war was extremely unpopular, especially in New England,
which would later make threats of secession.
The U.S. Army, consisting of fewer than 12,000
men, was not nearly enough to achieve Madison's goals. Congress authorized
the expansion of the army to 35,000 men; however, the service was
voluntary, offered poor pay, and there were few trained and experienced
officers. Britain exploited these weaknesses, blockading only southern
ports for much of the war and encouraging smuggling.
On July 12, 1812, General William Hull led a force of about 1,000
untrained, poorly-equipped militia across the Detroit River and occupied
the Canadian town of Sandwich (now a neighborhood of Windsor, Ontario). By
August, Hull and his troops, which had increased to about 2,500 men,
quickly withdrew to the American side of the river after hearing the news
of the capture of Fort Mackinac by the British. In Detroit, he also faced
American forces, which threatened to attack. Hull
surrendered Fort Detroit to Sir Isaac Brock on August 16, 1812. The surrender not
only cost the United States the village of Detroit, but control over most
of the Michigan territory.
Numerous battles and skirmishes would be fought over the next two years
while the United states suffered critically without proper leadership.
This un-preparedness eventually drove United States Secretary of War
William Eustis from office in January, 1813, though military and civilian
leadership remained a critical American weakness until 1814.
When the government turned to building warships on the Great Lakes, things
began to improve. Recruiting some 3,000 men, 11 warships were built on
Lake Ontario and in 1813, the Americans won control of Lake Erie and cut
off British and
American forces in the west from their supply base.
On October 5, 1813, the Americans attacked and won a victory over the
British and Native Americans at the Battle of the Thames in Ontario,
Canada. During the battle,
Chief Tecumseh was killed and his Indian coalition disintegrated.
At sea, the powerful Royal Navy blockaded much
of the coastline, though it allowed exports from New England, which traded
with Canada in defiance of American laws. The blockade to the south
devastated American agricultural exports, but it helped stimulate local
factories that replaced goods that were previously imported. Though the
Americans fought valiantly against the British on the coastline, their
small gunboats were no match for the Royal Navy.
The British raided the coast at will with
several successful attacks on the eastern ports and cities, including the
burning of the White House, the Capitol, the Navy Yard, and other public
buildings, in the "Burning of Washington." Britain's success in Washington
led them to levy "contributions" on bayside towns in return for not
burning them to the ground. It also resulted in U.S. Secretary of War John
Armstrong being dismissed.
After Napoleon abdicated in April, 1814, the British were able to send
their armies to the United States in full force; but, by that time the
Americans had learned how to mobilize and fight. The Treaty of Ghent, the
peace treaty that ended the War of 1812, was signed on December 24, 1814, which
restored relations between the two nations with no loss of territory
either way. Because of the era's slow communications, it took weeks for
news of the peace treaty to reach the United States. As a result the
Battle of New Orleans was fought in January, 1815, where General
Jackson defeated the British. The victory made Jackson a national hero,
restored the American sense of honor, and ruined the Federalist party
efforts to condemn the war as a failure.
In military terms, the War of 1812 was
inconclusive, though the United States benefited when Britain ended
trade restrictions and the impressment of American sailors. The three-year conflict also resulted in an
upsurge in American nationalism, increased funding of the peacetime
military, better coastal defenses, a more secure western frontier, and a
final confirmation of the
American Revolution's outcome. At the war’s
conclusion a French diplomat commented that “the war has given the
Americans what they so essentially lacked, a national character.”
Though considered one of America’s “forgotten wars,” the War of 1812 is
preserved in the National Park System in areas as diverse as Fort McHenry
National Monument in Maryland, Perry's Victory and International Peace
Memorial in Ohio, George Rogers Clark National Historical Park in Indiana,
as well as Gulf Islands National Seashore along the coast of Mississippi
and Florida, and Cumberland Island National Seashore in Georgia.
of America, updated April, 2017.
Primary Source: National Park System