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 American Indian tribes against American expansion, and outrage over insults to national honor after humiliations on the high seas.
The signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783 ended the 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.
After the 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 affairs:
“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 unfriendly Native 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.