From 1792 to 1815 a series of large-scale wars between the Republic (later Empire) of France and the nations of Europe shook the world.
The young United States found itself caught in the middle as Great Britain and France vied for supremacy on the high seas and on land.
American citizens were pressed into service in the British Royal Navy and American merchant ships were seized by both sides. Presidents
Thomas Jefferson and James Madison responded with the Embargo Act of 1807 and the Non-Intercourse Act of 1809 to stop exports to the
warring powers. Tension continued to grow between the United States and Great Britain.
American leaders also suspected British agents of aiding the Indian resistance movement which was led by the Shawnee chief Tecumseh.
From 1806 to 1811 Tecumseh sought to unite the Northwest Indian tribes against American expansion into their lands. In 1811 William
Henry Harrison, the governor of the Indiana Territory, led a punitive expedition to disperse Tecumseh's followers. At the Battle of
Tippecanoe he managed to stave off an Indian attack on his camp. Upon reaching Tecumseh's village he reported the discovery of a cache
of supplies and arms from the British agents in Canada.
On June 18, 1812 President James Madison signed an Act of Congress formally declaring war on Great Britain. In his message to the
people, President Madison cited Britain's impressment of American citizens as well as support for hostile Indians. Unknown to
him, the British formally rescinded their policy of impressment on June 23. By the time news of this reached America, it was too
late. The War of 1812 had been set in motion.
The Madison administration planned a three-pronged invasion against Canada. At each point of attack, the small British and Canadian
garrisons would be outnumbered by American armies mostly composed of state militia and volunteers.
General Hull was assigned to march to Detroit and cross the Detroit River to capture the major British base at Fort Amherstburg (Malden).
General Hull's army finally reached Detroit on July 5, 1812. The British only had a small garrison at Fort Amherstburg and Hull
decided to launch his invasion on July 12. The Americans landed at the town of Sandwich and sent detachments out to seize supplies
and to scope out the British defenses. General Hull decided that he would not be able to take the fort without heavy artillery. When
he heard that Fort Mackinac in the north had surrendered to a surprise attack, Hull retreated back to Detroit.
General Sir Isaac Brock, the British commander of Upper Canada, was able to rush up Lake Erie with reinforcements for Malden. After a
short bombardment, General Brock threatened Hull with an Indian massacre if he did not surrender. Cut off from supplies and
reinforcements, Hull's army laid down its arms on August 16, 1812.
The fall of Detroit meant that control of the Michigan Territory, from the straits of Mackinac all the way south to the Maumee River,
reverted to the British. The loss of Hull's army also mean that forts and settlements throughout the Northwest frontier were threatened.
The Americans on the Northwest frontier, especially in the states of Ohio, Kentucky and Pennsylvania were not idle after the fall of Detroit.
Several thousand volunteers had already been raised to reinforce Hull's army. William Henry Harrison, former governor of the Indiana
Territory, was given command. He marched to Fort Wayne and sent out detachments to burn Indian villages in retaliation for siding with the British.
General Stephen Van Rensselaer decided to launch an attack across the Niagara River in October. On October 13, he ferried US regulars and
New York militia to attack British outposts on Queenston Heights. The Americans succeeded in capturing the British positions, but several
regiments of New York militia refused to cross over to reinforce them. General Isaac Brock rallied his troops and attempted to storm the
heights, but was killed. His second in command, General Roger Sheaffe, surrounded the remaining Americans and forced them to surrender.
This was the second major disaster of the war for the United States.
In 1812 Great Britain had the largest navy in the world, numbering over 600 commissioned vessels and nearly 100 ships of the line. However,
it was chronically short on manpower, and the fleet was worn out from two decades of blockading French ports. The British frigates of the
time were smaller than 50-gun American ships like the Constitution, so while collectively they had a bigger force, the Royal Navy was weaker
ship-to-ship than the US Navy.
The Americans kicked off the war by setting their big frigates, including the USS Constitution, loose in the Atlantic to attack British
shipping. In the first months of the war the defeats at Detroit and Queenston Heights were balanced by victories in ship to ship duels
between USS Constitution and HMS Guerriere, the USS United States versus HMS Macedonian, and the United States versus HMS Java.
Congress also authorized private vessels to sail for the United States as privateers, and hundreds of small schooners and brigs were
soon cruising the world's oceans. Combined with French privateers, this soon took a drastic toll on British shipping and forced
Great Britain to adopt a convoy system.
January 1813 found a large army of American soldiers advancing on Detroit in three columns. General James Winchester with Kentucky volunteers
and US regulars had been at Fort Wayne since September, and slowly marched down the Maumee River towards the rapids. Generals Harrison and Joel
Leftwich were advancing from Central Ohio with Virginia militia and regular infantry and artillery. A Pennsylvania brigade under General Richard
Crooks and Ohio militia were marching from the east. Harrison was in overall command and wanted his forces to meet at the Maumee River.
Winchester and his men were far ahead of the other columns. When they reached the Maumee rapids, they met French-American citizens from Frenchtown
(modern-day Monroe, Michigan) and were convinced to liberate the town from the British. A successful attack on January 18 turned bad a few days
later when General Henry Procter led a surprise assault on the American camp on the morning of January 22.
In the wake of the battle, American prisoners of war and wounded soldiers were massacred by Procter's Indian allies. The massacre led to
outcry in the US and especially fury in Kentucky, where most of the victims were from. The battle cry of the American army became "Remember the Raisin!"
General Harrison had lost one third of his army, and wet weather prevented the rest of his men from marching to Detroit. He settled down at the Maumee
rapids and ordered Fort Meigs built to protect his supplies and artillery. Over the next few months, Harrison's army dwindled to 700 men as militia
enlistments ran out.
In the spring and summer of 1813, General Procter led several attempts to destroy Fort Meigs and other American forts in Ohio. In September, after
Oliver Hazard Perry led the American Lake Erie squadron to victory at the Battle of Lake Erie (September 10), General Harrison was able to launch an
invasion of Canada. He recaptured Detroit and Malden and caught up with General Procter at the Battle of the Thames on October 5. Procter fled and
Tecumseh was killed, leading to the end of large scale warfare in the west.
Americans took control of Lake Ontario and landed troops to capture York (modern Toronto) on April 27 and Fort George a month later. American troops
looted and burned some public buildings in York. The British later retaliated by burning Buffalo, NY and Washington D.C.
Later in the year, two large American divisions converged on Montreal. In two separate battles, at the Battle of the Chateauguay on October 26 and the
Battle of Crysler's Farm on November 11, the American invasion was turned back.
A new theater of war was opened with hostilities between American settlers in the Southeast and the Creek tribesmen known as the Red Sticks. These
tribes had been in contact with Tecumseh before the war. Strife between factions led to a civil war within the Creek people. As the Americans got
involved, militia General Andrew Jackson led forces from Tennessee and other southern states. The Conflict intensified after the massacre of 400
white settlers at Fort Mims on August 30, 1813.
In June, Captain James Lawrence of the USS Chesapeake was challenged to a single ship duel by Captain Sir Philip Broke of the HMS Shannon. The
Chesapeake was captured and Lawrence died from wounds, but his last words, "Don't give up the ship!" were soon immortalized by his
friend Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry.
The third year of the war found American and British forces at a stalemate. The United States government was going deep into debt and many politicians
doubted whether it could afford to pay for the war through several more years. Recruitment for the Regular Army was flagging, and Congress raised the
bounty for recruits dramatically. For the first time, black soldiers served alongside whites in the US Infantry Regiments. There was also talk of
systematically raising regiments of black soldiers.
In Europe the Napoleonic Wars had ended with the abdication of Napoleon, and Great Britain was able to shift many veteran regiments to fight in North
America. Governor General Sir Prevost began planning a counter offensive against the Americans.
Brigadier General Winfield Scott had spent much of the spring training his brigade in camp. In early July, his and two other brigades under the overall
command of Major General Jacob Brown crossed over into Canada on the Niagara River and captured Fort Erie. The Americans met and defeated a British
force at the Battle of Chippewa on July 5. They later met a reinforced British army at the Battle of Lundy's Lane on July 25, leading to a bloody
but inconclusive fight.
By August, General Brown had been cornered by the British at Fort Erie, where he successfully defended the fort against a British assault on August 13.
After several successful American counter attacks the British retreated on September 21, 1814.
To the east, General Prevost assembled a force of 11,000 men, including veterans of the war in Spain, to descend Lake Champlain and threaten American
posts in the Northeast. On September 11 his land forces fought an indecisive battle with American defenders at Plattsburgh New York. His naval force,
however, was completely defeated by the American squadron led by Thomas Macdonough. Without naval support, Prevost refused to advance any further and
retreated back into Canada.
A British fleet, reinforced with a force of about 4,500 soldiers and Royal Marines, landed in the Chesapeake Bay region in August 1814. On August 24,
these troops defeated a larger American force at the Battle of Bladensburg, Maryland. Led by General Robert Ross, the British marched into Washington,
D.C. and set fire to the public buildings and navy yard there before returning to their ships. The White House was reduced to a charred shell.
On September 12, the same British force landed at North Point near Baltimore. They advanced inland, pushing back an American army at the Battle of
North Point. General Ross was killed by an American rifleman, but his successor pushed on to the outskirts of Baltimore. The British fleet sailed
into range of the Baltimore defenses (including Fort McHenry) on September 13. They failed to make a dent in the fortifications, and the British
decided to withdraw instead of fighting their way into the city. The bombardment of Fort McHenry gave rise to Francis Scott Key's famous poem
of the same title, which in turn provides the words for the National Anthem of the United States.
The American and British negotiators at Ghent in Belgium had settled on a peace settlement in December of 1814. Since no major territory had been
gained or lost through the three years of war, the status of the United States and Canada was to return to what it had been before the war started.
The Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812 was signed on December 24, 1814.
Word took time to reach the American coast, and it wasn't until January that the news of peace reached most armies in the field. Congress
ratified the treaty in February, 1815. In the meantime, the British had sent a fleet and an army of over 8,000 men to capture New Orleans.
On January 8, the British advanced in force on the American earthworks outside New Orleans. The frontal attack was quickly repulsed by artillery,
musket and rifle fire. The British commander, General Edward Packenham, and nearly 300 British soldiers were killed, as well as over 1,200 wounded.
Only a handful of Americans were killed or wounded.
Results of the War
After hostilities ceased, the forts and territory gained by either side were returned. Little had been accomplished towards the American goal of
invading Canada. However, the American Indians in the Northwest signed two treaties, in 1814 and 1817, which gave up most of their lands in the
modern Midwestern states. The War of 1812 spelled an end to warfare between Great Britain and the United States. Despite several rebellions and
attempts by private groups, the United States would never again attempt an invasion of Canada.