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The War of 1812

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Laura Secord earned a place in Canadian history as a heroine of the war when she warned British authorities that the Americans were coming – the equivalent of Paul Revere in the American War for Independence

I. Introduction

  • Remembering the War of 1812
  • Was the War of 1812 necessary and just?
  • Could the war have been avoided?

II. Causes of the War of 1812

  • Impressments
  • Trade restrictions
  • Territorial expansion

III. Covert action against Spanish Florida

IV. Costs and conduct of the War of 1812

  • Casualties
  • Military and naval campaigns

V. Domestic divisions, debates, and opposition to war

  • The African American divide
  • Federalists and other dissenters
  • Debate in Great Britain

VI. The Treaty of Ghent and beyond

  • Remembering the war
  • Historical perspective


Recommended resources for the War of 1812

About the author

Did you know?

  1. The United States invaded Canada in the War of 1812.
  2. Many U.S. leaders believed that conquering Canada would be easy because most British forces were fighting against Napoleon’s French forces in Europe.
  3. The United States almost declared war on France as well as Great Britain, as the navies of both countries had seized hundreds of U.S. merchant vessels.
  4. Every Federalist Party member in Congress opposed the declaration of war against Great Britain in June 1812.
  5. The Madison administration secretly authorized a paramilitary invasion of Spanish Florida in the hope of annexing the territory.
  6. During the War of 1812, the U.S. fought numerous battles and side wars against Native Americans:  Tecumseh’s confederacy in the Ohio Valley, Seminoles in Spanish Florida, “Red Stick” Creeks in Mississippi Territory, Sauk and other tribes in the Upper Mississippi Valley, and the Grand River Iroquois and other First Nation allies of the British in Upper Canada.
  7. More than twice as many U.S. soldiers died from disease as from war wounds.
  8. At least 3,600 African American slaves escaped to British ships during the war, and 600 took up arms against the U.S., joining the British Colonial Marines.
  9. Napoleon’s defeat in April 1814 enabled the British to send more ships and soldiers to the American front, placing the U.S. on the defensive.
  10. British troops burned public buildings in Washington in August 1814, in retaliation for an earlier American attack on York (Toronto), the capital of Upper Canada.
  11. The single most important influence on the outcome of the war was not a battle, but the British economic blockade of American ports.
  12. In the Treaty of Ghent that ended the war, the United States gained neither territory nor British recognition of the maritime “rights” it demanded at the outset of the war.

I. Introduction

Francis Scott Key

Francis Scott Key

One iconic moment in the War of 1812 is perpetually remembered in the United States.  It is rekindled at the beginning of every sports game, as players and fans stand to hear the Star Spangled Banner.  The words to this song were penned by Francis Scott Key, an American lawyer, on the morning of September 14, 1814.  He had spent the night aboard a British ship in the Chesapeake Bay, watching the British fleet bombard Fort McHenry with “a sheet of fire and brimstone.”  When the smoke cleared in the morning, he saw the huge American flag still flying above the fort, indicating that the Americans had not surrendered.  Elated, he wrote his patriotic poem to the tune of an English drinking song.  Within weeks, the Baltimore Patriot printed it under the title, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”  More than a century later, on March 3, 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed a congressional act making “The Star Spangled Banner” the official national anthem of the United States.

Remembering the War of 1812

The War of 1812 is popularly remembered in the United States as a war to defend American rights and honor on the high seas and, later in the war, to protect American cities such as Baltimore and New Orleans from British attacks.  It is also known as “the second American war of independence,” in which Americans stood up to the powerful British empire and gained a new sense of national pride and international respect.

It is said that the victors write history, but in this case, it was the victorious political party, the Democratic Republicans, that wrote this heroic account of the war.  This is the party that agitated for war, pursued it through the Madison administration, and promoted a “mission accomplished” history of it in its aftermath.  President James Madison fashioned the message just after the peace treaty was signed, telling the world that the war had been “necessary,” its conduct had been a “success,” and the American people had supported it:

The late war, although reluctantly declared by Congress, had become a necessary resort to assert the rights and independence of the nation.  It has been waged with a success which is the natural result of the wisdom of the legislative councils, of the patriotism of the people, of the public spirit of the militia, and of the valor of the military and naval forces of the country.”[1]

Madison’s partisan account has been carried forward into popular American history, overriding the views of the opposition party (Federalists), antiwar dissidents, and other governments.  Scholarly accounts, of course, offer a more complex analysis of the issues, but many American accounts nonetheless elevate the claims of the White House over other views and secure those claims in the annals of history.  “As a result of the war,” writes Robert P. Watson in America’s First Crisis: The War of 1812 (2014), “a nation emerged on the world stage stronger, more confident, and more united.”[2]

In fact, American citizens were sorely divided over this war.  Not one of the 42 Federalists members of Congress voted to authorize the war in June 1812.  Nor did one-fourth of Democratic Republicans in the House of Representatives, who either abstained or voted against the war.   According to the historian Charles DeBenedetti, “Domestic opposition to the War of 1812 was as vehement and widespread as any in American history.”[3]  The dissenters argued that the war was unnecessary, dishonorable, and ruinous to the nation.  It was unnecessary because the British had not attacked the United States and because compromise was still possible.  It was dishonorable because the Madison administration was intent on attacking America’s peaceful neighbor to the north, British Canada, and perhaps annexing it.  It was potentially ruinous because Great Britain could blockade American ports and attack vulnerable east coast cities and towns – which indeed happened as the war progressed.  The U.S. began the war on the offensive and ended it on the defensive.  The American historian Donald Hickey offers this sober assessment of the outcome of the war:

Far from bringing the enemy to terms, the nation [United States] was lucky to escape without making extensive concessions itself.  The Treaty of Ghent (which ended the conflict) said nothing about the maritime issues that had caused the war and contained nothing to suggest that America had achieved its aims.  Instead, it merely provided for returning to the status quo ante bellum – the state that had existed before the war.[4]

Battle of York, April 1813

“The Death of Captain Neal McNeale at the Battle or York, 27 April 1813,” by B.T.A. Griffiths, circa 1830, Fort York, City of Toronto Museum Services

To Canadians, the War of 1812 was clearly a war of aggression on the part of the United States, evident in the fact that the Americans invaded Canada and the British Canadians and their First Nation (Indian) allies defended it.  The American assault on York, the capital of Upper Canada, on April 27, 1813, is particularly remembered, its memorabilia on display at the Fort York museum in Toronto:

The outnumbered defenders fought for six hours before retreating east to Kingston. American forces occupied Toronto for six days, took supplies, looted private property, abused townspeople, and torched Parliament Buildings and lieutenant-governor’s house.  A year later, when British forces captured Washington, they burnt the Congress and White House in retaliation.[5]

From the British point of view, the War of 1812 was an unwelcome diversion from the main event of the era, the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, which Great Britain and its allies eventually won.  As the British historian Jon Latimer writes, “For Britain the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars were wars of national survival and the war in America an irritating distraction.”[6]  While Americans recall British depredations on the high seas and the burning of Washington in August 1814, the British remember that Americans supplied Napoleon with $15 million through the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, which Napoleon used to initiate a new round of military campaigns in Europe (and threatened to invade Great Britain); and that the U.S. took advantage of British vulnerability in 1812 to launch an invasion of its North American colony – the equivalent of hitting a man when he’s down.  While British historians recognize that Great Britain had its own imperial interests in securing British trade advantages and limiting American expansionism, most argue that responsibility for the war lay with the Americans.[7]



Native American viewpoints are less prevalent in the historical literature on the War of 1812 but nevertheless significant.  More than twenty First Nations took up arms against the United States, while a few segments of tribes fought with the U.S.  The war is generally viewed as part of a larger struggle to stem the tide of U.S. “western expansionism” at a time when this seemed possible.  Shawnee leader Tecumseh is regarded as a hero for his attempt to unite the diverse Indian nations and create a common Indian Territory in the Trans-Appalachian region.  The Canadian government honors the First Nations for without their help Canada would most likely have fallen to the U.S. invaders.[8]

The 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 provided an opportunity for historians to discuss their different perspectives and to investigate new dimensions of the war.  Between 2000 and 2015, well over one hundred scholarly books were published on the War of 1812.  This commendable outpouring of scholarship nevertheless produced no consensus as to whether the war was necessary and just.

Was the War of 1812 a necessary and just war?

Was there reasonable and legitimate cause for the War of 1812?  This question logically leads to the philosophical question of what is a just war.  Is war to be regarded as a duel between nations, where an insult to one’s honor is enough to justify a shooting match to the death?  Should war be accepted as a legitimate method for pursuing national economic and political goals, such as territorial and trade expansion?  Or is war justifiable only in self-defense, permissible when a nation is attacked?  Historians, on the whole, have tended to avoid this line of questioning, preferring to approach each war idiosyncratically, without a clear or common set of moral standards for judging the conduct of nations.  Nonetheless, the narrow standard of self-defense is arguably the most appropriate, as it conforms to both domestic legal principles and modern international law, which ban aggression but allow for self-defense.[9]
President James Madison

President James Madison

In justifying the War of 1812, U.S. leaders made the case that British actions were of sufficient offense as to require war. President James Madison presented his arguments in a message to Congress on June 1, 1812.  He charged that the British Royal Navy had impressed thousands of American sailors, in effect kidnapping them and forcing them to crew Royal Navy ships; that the British had repeatedly harassed American merchant ships and cut off their “legitimate markets” in Europe and the Caribbean; and that British agents were colluding with hostile Native Americans on the northwestern frontier.  As negotiations had failed to end these “injuries and indignities which have been heaped on our country,” Madison insisted that the only recourse was war.[10]

Do these accusations meet the criteria of self-defense?  Arguably no.  This was a war of choice.  Great Britain did not attack or threaten to attack the United States in 1812; its economic warfare was aimed at France, not at the United States; and it undertook a number of conciliatory actions (to be discussed) in an attempt to keep war at bay.  The United States had legitimate grievances against Great Britain as well as against France, but diplomatic options had not been exhausted and the suffering and death caused by the war was disproportionate to the original grievances.  Moreover, what U.S. leaders defined as America’s maritime “rights” were in fact contested concepts in an uncertain international order.  The idea that neutral nations such as the U.S. had the right to trade with any nation or colony anywhere at any time, irrespective of the mercantile policies of imperial nations, constituted a radical demand to establish a new international order of trade, an order that would benefit the U.S. at the expense of Great Britain, France, and Spain.   As the American historian Paul Gilje notes, “The most important trading partners with the United States – France, Spain, and Great Britain – did not accept the ideal of free trade in any form.”[11]  For the Democratic Republicans, however, there was great propaganda value in demanding trade “rights” instead of trade advantages.

A two dollar Canadian coin issued in 2012, commemorating the victory of the British frigate HMS Shannon in capturing the American frigate USS Chesapeake outside Boston harbor in 1813.

Many historians have also noted expansionist motives – the desire to acquire more territory – as a driving force for the war.  This view is commonly accepted in Canada, but it is controversial in the United States as it points to the U.S. as the aggressor rather than the defender.  Evidence for the expansionist interpretation lies in the ample rhetoric of U.S. leaders, the Madison administration’s diplomatic instructions, and the actual conduct of U.S. foreign policy, which includes not only U.S. efforts to conquer Canada but also military incursions into Spanish Florida and the suppression of Indian resistance to U.S. expansion.  Critics of the expansionist interpretation discount “war hawk” rhetoric and deem aggressive U.S. diplomatic and military initiatives as calculated maneuvers designed to persuade Great Britain to acquiesce to U.S. maritime demands. The issues of impressment and “free trade,” they argue, were the real causes of the war, with expansionist motives playing only a minor role.  Canadian historian Carl Benn argues to the contrary that “free trade and sailor’s rights” were the public rationales that hid more menacing motives:

‘Free trade and sailor’s rights’ was not the simple cry of justice that popular history would have us believe.  It was fraught with its own ambiguities and, perhaps more importantly, it was a cry co-opted to promote belligerency by annexationists who drove most of the government’s thinking.  Combined with the native crisis on the western border, and Madison’s struggles to preserve his presidency, this led, in June 1812, to war.[12]

Historians have explored many issues and questions in regard to the War of 1812, but the question of the war’s legitimacy has not necessarily been a priority.  For the American historian J. C. A. Stagg, the “central question posed by the war” is why the U.S. failed “to mount a more effective military effort than it did and in ways that would have permitted the Madison administration to hold enough Canadian territory to force concessions from Great Britain.”[13]  This is undoubtedly an interesting question from a military standpoint, but it should not supersede the question of whether a war is necessary and just, lest the accolade of “success” be attributed to a wrongful war.  One might ask instead:

Could the War of 1812 have been avoided?

This question is hypothetical, of course, but worth exploring, as it discounts the idea of inevitability in history and draws attention to the alternatives available at the time.  One indication that the War of 1812 could have been avoided is that all of the problems cited by Madison in justifying the war were long running concerns that had risen and fallen in importance over the previous two decades.  The U.S. and Great Britain had managed their differences without resort to war.  The British exerted no sudden demands on the U.S. in 1812, and in fact, belatedly attempted to appease the U.S. in the hope of avoiding war.  The U.S. could have taken some initiative toward maintaining the peace by enacting a law that prohibited the employment of British deserters on American merchant ships, as suggested by British officials in 1806.  This would have ameliorated a major reason for British searches of American ships.  Great Britain, for its part, could have rigorously enforced its own regulations prohibiting ship commanders from impressing American citizens; and if mistakes were made, to promptly rectify the situation by returning the American seamen with compensation.  Both governments could have negotiated an acceptable compromise on definitions of citizenship, as thousands of British-born immigrants to the U.S. were recognized by the U.S. as naturalized American citizens but were still claimed by Great Britain as British subjects (and thus were subject to conscription into the British Royal Navy).  Any one of these actions would likely have opened the door to further cooperation.
War was not inevitable.  Roughly forty percent of the members of Congress opposed the declaration of war.  The House of Representatives passed a war resolution on June 4, 1812, by a vote of 79 yeas and 49 nays.  This was followed on June 17 by a Senate vote of 19 yeas and 13 nays.  The delay in the Senate vote was due to a flurry of Federalist proposals aimed at heading off war.  One proposal aimed to limit military actions to naval confrontations rather than an all-out (land) war, but the measure was defeated on a 16 to 16 tie vote.  One vote change would have prevented the U.S. from invading Canada.

View of American Fort Niagara from the Canadian side of the Niagara River on a peaceful day (painting by Edward Walsh, circa 1813, Library and Archives Canada)

Even after the U.S. declared war on Great Britain on June 18, peace was possible.  On June 23, Great Britain repealed its much despised Orders-in-Council, which had placed restrictions on U.S. maritime trade, thus removing one of the major barriers to peace.  The British government fully expected the U.S. to revoke its war declaration and instructed Lieutenant General George Prevost, the governor-in-chief of Canada, to implement an armistice with General Henry Dearborn in the field.  General Dearborn also expected the war to be called off and thus signed an armistice on August 9, temporarily ending hostilities.  The Madison administration, however, repudiated the agreement on September 8, citing the British impressment policy as sufficient reason for continuing the war.  The American invasion of Canada proceeded.

It is notable that, in the aftermath of the war, the spirit of compromise returned.  Between 1815 and 1818, the United States and Great Britain signed treaties that settled outstanding boundary issues and created a largely demilitarized border between the U.S. and Canada.  Americans and Canadians have since maintained a peaceful and constructive relationship, a model for neighborly relations in a still-violent world.  Could this peaceful relationship have been achieved without the intercession of the War of 1812?

II. Causes of the War of 1812

The most direct answer to the question of what caused the War of 1812 is that the United States declared war on Great Britain.  This, of course, leads to the next question of what caused the United States to declare war.  In answering the latter question, one must keep in mind that different parties had different reasons for going to war (and different reasons for opposing the war) and that the war proponents employed numerous arguments, both realistic and extreme, to garner public support and push their agenda through Congress.  In sifting through these reasons and arguments, historians assign different degrees of importance, thus making for a never-ending debate as to which of the causes was more important.  The schema below provides a synthesis of the main motives for war.


Multiple causes of the War of 1812

As causes for the War of 1812, both maritime issues and territorial expansion cannot be understood without reference to the Napoleonic wars in Europe (1803-1815).  British impressments and restrictions on American maritime trade were products of a titanic struggle between Great Britain and France, the global superpowers of the day.  Both countries engaged in economic warfare, attempting to cut off trade to and from the other.  Great Britain’s humiliating policy of searching U.S. merchant vessels and seizing British-born seamen and deserters was directly related to its need for seasoned sailors in the war.

Napoleon’s rule in Europe, 1810

U.S. territorial ambitions were also stimulated by the Napoleonic wars.  The occupation of Spain by Napoleon’s French forces in 1808 meant that Spain could do little to protect or control its colonies in the Americas.  Revolutions broke out across South and Central America, eventually leading to independent nations.  In the U.S., expansionists opportunistically eyed the acquisition of Spanish West and East Florida.  In 1810, the Madison administration conspired with Americans residing in Spanish West Florida to wrest control of the colony for the U.S.  This was followed in January 1811 by a secret Congressional authorization to conduct paramilitary operations against Spanish East Florida (see Section III).

Opportunism was also a key factor in the U.S. invasion of Canada and the U.S. declaration of war itself.  As of June 1812, British forces had been fighting on the Iberian Peninsula for five years.  Americans knew that Great Britain could ill-afford to divert its troops and warships to protect its Canadian provinces – and Canada was the only realistic military target for the U.S.  The miniscule U.S. Navy had no capacity to launch an attack on Great Britain or even its Caribbean colonies.  The U.S. quest for Canada dated back to the outset of the War for Independence, when American forces attacked Quebec.  Unable to succeed by force, American negotiators tried but failed to obtain all or part of British Canada at the end of that war.  In 1812, with Great Britain under duress, another opportunity appeared to be at hand.
To maritime issues and territorial expansion one can add party politics, national honor, and a ripened war spirit as adjunct causes of the War of 1812.   As has often occurred in U.S. history, the party that sought war employed the rhetoric of national honor to wrap the flag around itself and besmirch the opposing party as unpatriotic.  The smear campaign began before the war began.  On March 9, 1812, President Madison informed Congress that British agents were conspiring with New England Federalists “to foment disaffection and resistance to the law and prepare the way for a British invasion to destroy the Union and bring New England into a political connection with Britain.”  The president claimed to have proof of the conspiracy, having paid $50,000 to a wily informer named John Henry for secret documents, but the proof turned out to be nothing of the kind.  Henry had merely recorded dissident opinions in New England, none of which were threatening to the nation.  Such charges of disloyalty continued throughout the war, prompting Rufus King, a Federalist senator from New York, to comment, “The charge that opposition encourages the enemy and injures the cause has at all times been made as an excuse for the failure and defeat of a weak administration.”[14]
National honor was often invoked in relation to maritime issues and more generally linked to territorial expansion – equating national honor with American dominance over the North American continent and its indigenous peoples, or what Thomas Jefferson described as an “empire of liberty.”  War itself was deemed a proving ground for manly honor.  In April 1812 Henry Clay warned that any let-up in the momentum toward war would bring “shame and indelible disgrace” upon the United States.[15]  Once war was declared, national and personal honor were linked to winning battles (and disgrace linked to losing them), which tended to drown out reflection on the necessity and justness of the war.  The war spirit also reinforced territorial ambitions.  As the Boston Chronicle editorialized in 1813, “the Canadas ought in no event to be surrendered. . . . Too much valuable blood has already been shed, and too much treasure expended, to permit us to indulge for a moment the idea of resigning this country.”[16]
The following three sections look at the main causes in more depth and from the vantage points of different parties.  In terms of historical assessment, President Madison’s justifications for war should be understood as accusations or claims, much like those of a plaintiff in a court case.  No jury or judge would make a decision without viewing all evidence and hearing arguments from the other side.


The Royal Navy was the backbone of the British war against France as well as the protector of British trade.  The navy grew from 16,000 sailors in 1792 to 145,000 in 1812.  To meet its need for manpower, the British government employed naval press gangs to forcibly conscript every available young man throughout the British Isles, except those exempted from service because they worked a trade important to the empire.  The Royal Navy also stopped both British and foreign merchant ships at sea and impressed any British-born sailor.  Not surprisingly, many of these impressed sailors were ready to jump ship at the first opportunity – and thousands did so in the United States.  Donald Hickey estimates that desertions averaged about 500 per month during the Napoleonic Wars.  A sizable proportion of these deserters found employment on higher paying U.S. merchant ships.  The loss of these trained seamen was intolerable to the British government.  Especially galling was the fact that the U.S. government did nothing to assist the recapture of British deserters nor prevent their employment on American ships.  “Had the United States created a credible and effective system for removing British subjects from American ships,” writes the American historian Troy Bickham, “Britain probably would have  backed down and stopped aggressively seizing men on merchant vessels.”[17]

In 1809, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin estimated that about 9,000 British-born sailors were working on American merchant ships.  “In other words,” writes the American historian Bradford Perkins, “about one-half of the able-bodied seamen serving on ships engaged in foreign trade were British.  The Secretary of the Treasury calculated that the Americans recruited about 2,500 Englishmen each year.”  The Royal Navy was intent on impressing these British-born sailors as well as capturing deserters.  It was not interested in impressing American citizens, but many were nonetheless swept up in the navy’s search and seizure operations.  Perkins calculates a “rock-bottom figure” of 3,800 American impressments between 1803 and 1812, but suggests a figure of over 6,000 may be more accurate.  Bickham estimates a net total of 7,000 Americans seized over sixteen years:

Ideally, Britain would have preferred that the United States prevent British subjects from working on American ships and hand over violators.  Stopping and searching merchant vessels on the high seas was ineffective.  Roughly 30 percent of the men impressed from American ships were later released after providing satisfactory proof of their American citizenship.  As a result, the Royal Navy’s efforts to seize British subjects aboard American ships netted a paltry seven thousand sailors between 1796 and 1812.[18]

The Royal Navy takes alleged British-born seamen and deserters from American ships

The impressment issue was complicated by the fact that U.S. and British law defined American citizenship differently.  U.S. law allowed immigrants to become naturalized American citizens after five years residence.  British law recognized American citizenship only for those residing in the U.S. before 1783 or those born in the U.S. since then.  All others who were born in Great Britain or its colonies were deemed British subjects forever.  There was no established international system defining citizenship, but England had been impressing sailors for some 400 years, giving the practice an aura of established legality.

Further muddying the waters was the easy availability of false citizenship papers, which led many British commanders to disregard such papers and simply pick out the seamen they wanted or perhaps those needed to replace deserters.  The American press publicized the tragic stories of these kidnapped Americans, provoking widespread anger at the British.  Federalists pressed for a diplomatic solution, while Democratic Republicans pressed for stronger measures against Great Britain.

In 1806, the British Ministry of All Talents contemplated “sharply limiting impressment in return for firm American commitments on the return of deserters,” in the words of Bradford Perkins, but British leaders were unwilling to give up the right to impress their subjects and they were skeptical that the U.S. would follow through on its end.  The Jefferson administration, for its part, showed little interest in the deal after a Treasury Department report “showed the American merchant marine unable to stand the loss of men.”  The reality was that the U.S. needed British-born sailors (and deserters) to crew its merchant vessels.  According to the U.S. diplomatic historian Thomas A. Bailey:

The Americans, unfortunately for their case against “sailor snatching,” openly connived at desertion.  Their prospering merchant marine was urgently in need of sailors, and in a position to offer alluring bounties, better working conditions, and seductively higher wages. . . . Every British warship that touched at American ports during the years of Napoleonic wars was in danger of losing some men.  In 1804 twelve ships of the Royal Navy were detained at Norfolk, Virginia, because of deserters, some of whom paraded the streets cursing their officers and thumbing noses at them.  Such episodes do much to explain why British press gangs made “mistakes” at the expense of the Americans on the high seas.[19]

USS Chesapeake vs. HMS Leopard, 1807. Courtesy American Memory, Library of Congress).'

USS Chesapeake vs. HMS Leopard, 1807 (U.S. Library of Congress)

Had the issue of impressments been the sole motivation for war against Great Britain, the war would likely have begun in June 1807, when the British warship, H.M.S. Leopard, fired on the American warship, U.S.S. Chesapeake, killing three and wounding eighteen.  A few weeks earlier, four sailors had deserted from a Royal Navy ship as it lay in harbor in Norfolk, Virginia.  Rather than returning the deserters, as demanded by British officers, U.S. authorities allowed the four men to enlist on the Chesapeake.  Fully aware of their employment, the commander of the Leonard ordered the Chesapeake to stop and allow the British to board.  When the commander of the Chesapeake refused, the firing began.  The British obtained their four deserters, of whom three were American-born; the fourth was British-born – and later hanged.[20]

News of the incident provoked indignation across the U.S. and prompted preparations for war; but the British government was sufficiently apologetic (normally only merchant ships were searched) and a number of U.S. leaders counseled patience.  The Jefferson administration settled for issuing a proclamation on July 2, 1807, that prohibited all British warships from entering American coastal waters.
Over the next four years, the issue of impressments remained a sore point for Americans but was deemed of less importance than trade restrictions.  Another violent incident took place on the high seas on May 16, 1811, when the 40-gun American frigate, President, fired on the 20-gun British corvette, Little Belt, killing ten and wounding twenty-two.  It was a case of mistaken identity, as the U.S. commander believed the Little Belt to be another ship that had impressed an American sailor.  The U.S. offered no apology and popular opinion seemed to take pride in bloodying the British nose.  As war talk gained momentum in Washington in the fall of 1811, Great Britain attempted to placate the U.S.  First, it settled the Chesapeake affair by returning the remaining two American seamen (one had died in a Halifax hospital) and offering to pay reparations.  Next, in the spring of 1812, “the British navy began to treat American ships and seamen with new tact,” according to Donald Hickey.  “The Admiralty ordered all naval officers to take ‘especial care’ to avoid clashes with the American navy and to exercise ‘all possible forbearance’ toward American citizens.  The commanding officers at both Halifax and Bermuda ordered their ships to keep clear of the American coast to avoid incidents.”[21]
In May 1812, the British made further accommodations on trade issues, then repealed its Orders-in-Council in June. These attempts at conciliation were brushed aside by the Madison administration and Democratic Republicans.  President Madison painted an entirely different picture of recent developments in his war message of June 1, 1812, claiming that the U.S. had exhausted all possible avenues of diplomacy and that the British were entirely lacking of “conciliatory dispositions.”  According to Hickey, “Republican leaders were so blinded by their distrust of Great Britain and so burdened by the ideological legacy of the Revolution that they saw significant British concessions as meaningless gestures.”[22]

Trade restrictions

Atlantic trade between Western Europe, the Caribbean, and North America

The United States and Great Britain were both competitors and partners in global trade.  In the years leading up to the War of 1812, British restrictions on neutral carriers were not so onerous as to inhibit Americans from enjoying a profitable and growing maritime business.  According to the historian Troy Bickham, “American merchant shipping boomed during Britain’s wars with France to become the world’s second largest carrier, not only transporting American and French products but also making sizable inroads into routes between Britain and its colonies in Asia and the Caribbean…. With ‘free trade’ as their slogan, Americans gained access to an unprecedented number of ports and routes.”  As Britons struggled under a heavy burden of taxation and debt to maintain their war against France, many came to view American traders as “profiteers of the worst possible kind,” and thus supported measures to limit American trade expansion and sustain British dominance in global trade.[23]

On the cooperative side, the United States and Great Britain each profited from abundant trade with the other.  Oceanic trade was the lifeblood of port cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York.  It was also very important to agricultural interests in the interior, which depended on foreign markets for the sale of foodstuffs, cotton, tobacco, lumber, and other goods.  In Great Britain, trade provided jobs and income for British manufacturing centers such as Manchester and port cities such as Liverpool, “whose merchant community had evolved to specialize in importing American cotton, exporting British manufactures, and organizing the finances for the complicated exchanges,” notes Bickham.  Most important to the British government, American wheat fed British troops on the Iberian Peninsula.  “Throughout the summer and fall of 1810 and 1811,” writes John R. Grodzinski, “unprecedented quantities of American wheat and flour – over one million barrels of flour alone – were shipped to the Peninsula, the greater share destined for the British army operating there.”  With American grain exports selling at high prices, “American farmers and merchants clamored to share in this wealth.”[24]
Trade restrictions were nonetheless a long-standing problem for American maritime interests.  When Great Britain and France went to war in 1793, both belligerents restricted the trade of neutral countries in order to deprive the adversary of economic goods and profits.  The U.S. worked out many of its differences with Great Britain in the Jay Treaty of 1794, which resulted in a tripling of U.S. trade with Great Britain over the next decade.  The French took offense and increased their seizures of U.S. merchant ships, leading to a Quasi-War in 1798, in which U.S. and French navies and privateers captured each other’s merchant vessels.  Peace was reestablished in the Mortefontaine Treaty of 1800.  The outbreak of a new war between Great Britain and France in 1803 prompted a return to the practice of confiscating neutral merchant ships.  J. C. A. Stagg estimates that between 1803 and 1812, Great Britain seized more than 900 U.S. vessels and France took more than 500.[25]  Although American maritime trade remained robust despite the seizures, cries of “free ships, free goods” and “free trade and sailors’ rights” grew louder, especially after France and Britain issued a new set of competing decrees in 1806 and 1807 (Napoleon’s Berlin and Milan decrees and British Orders in Council).  The British decrees carried more weight as Great Britain had the means to prevent neutral trade with French-controlled Europe and French colonies.

The Jefferson administration passed up an opportunity to resolve many of the trade tensions plaguing U.S.-British relations when it dismissed a treaty signed by U.S. envoys James Monroe and William Pinckney in late 1806.  According to the terms of the treaty, U.S. merchant ships would be allowed access to the British East Indies and to re-export goods; duties would be lowered at British ports; proper notice of blockades would be given to avoid unwarranted captures of U.S. vessels; compensation would be paid in the event of illegal captures; and the Royal Navy would not interfere with American vessels within five miles of the American coast.  The U.S., in exchange, would deny the use of American harbors to French ships, prevent Americans from joining the armed forces of Great Britain’s enemies, and give up the doctrine of “free ships, free goods.”  The agreement did not contain any provision to end impressments but the British promised to observe “the greatest caution” in impressing British seamen and to promptly address any claims that Americans had been taken.  President Jefferson rejected the treaty, citing a lack of guarantees on the impressment issue and perhaps believing that he could get a better deal if the French were to gain ascendancy in the European war.  Donald Hickey comments:

The rejection of the Monroe-Pinckney Treaty was a great turning point in the Age of Jefferson.  Republicans would later claim that the only options the United States had in this era were submission, commercial sanctions, or war.  But the Monroe-Pinckney Treaty offered another alternative, that of accommodation.  By rejecting this treaty, the United States missed an opportunity to reforge the Anglo-American accord of the 1790s and to substitute peace and prosperity for commercial restrictions and war.  After the loss of the Monroe-Pinckney Treaty, Anglo American relations steadily deteriorated.[26]

President Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809)

President Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809)

Having passed up a reasonable diplomatic option, the Jefferson administration and its allies in Congress passed a series of embargo laws between December 1807 and January 1809, which prohibited American ships from trading in all foreign ports.  The embargo was meant to deprive Great Britain of needed goods and markets, but the larger effect was to create economic hardship and unemployment at home, especially in the Northeast.  The embargo essentially halted American oceanic trade in the name of “free trade.”  With smuggling rife, the Jefferson administration and Congress passed the Enforcement Act in April 1808, which allowed port authorities to seize cargoes without a warrant.  This act did little more than raise popular fears of governmental authoritarianism.  In March 1809, Congress replaced the Embargo Act with the Non-Intercourse Act, a watered-down version that forbade commerce only with France and Great Britain.  This, too, was routinely evaded.

The embargo did have an effect on the British economy.  It forced a number of textile factories dependent on American cotton to close, which in turn prompted manufacturers and laborers to petition the British government for a revocation of the Orders-in-Council.  Yet the embargo also enhanced British trade profits, as “British shippers joyfully took over the carrying trade abandoned by their Yankee rivals,” writes Thomas Bailey; and it eased the Royal Navy’s perennial manpower shortage.  “Unemployed American seamen were faced with the alternative of starving or finding jobs elsewhere.  Hundreds of Yankee sailors, as well as British subjects or deserters, were thus driven into Britain’s merchant marine or navy – with an incidental easing of impressment.”  The French surreptitiously took advantage of the situation by declaring their support for the embargo, then confiscating American vessels and cargoes in French harbors on the pretext that “they must be disguised British craft.”[27]
Soon after taking the presidential oath on March 4, 1809, James Madison met with the British minister in Washington, David M. Erskine, who had an American wife and felt sympathetic toward the United States.  Eager to resolve the tensions between the two countries, Erskine put forth a proposed agreement to end the British Orders-in-Council and Madison readily signed it.  The president announced the agreement on June 10, 1809, which prompted celebrations around the country.  Unfortunately, Erskine went beyond his instructions and London repudiated the agreement.  Deeply embarrassed and publicly mocked, Madison was obliged to reinstate the Non-Intercourse Act on August 9.  The experience seems to have hardened Madison toward future compromise.  Still searching for a solution, in May 1810 Congress replaced the Non-Intercourse Act with Macon Bill Number Two, a fuzzy law that reopened American trade with France and Great Britain but contained a provision that if either nation repealed its restrictive policies, the U.S. would ban trade with the other.  When France declared its intention to do so, without actually doing so, the Madison administration demanded that Great Britain rescind its latest Orders-in-Council.  When it did not, Congress passed a new measure in March 1811 that banned imports only from Great Britain.
The motif of the Revolutionary War was revived for propaganda purposes in the War of 1812 (1814 painting)

The motif of the Revolutionary War was revived in the War of 1812 (oil painting, circa 1814, by John Archibald Woodside)

The British government was not inclined to rescind its Orders-in-Council, but it did make a conciliatory gesture in May 1812 by offering the U.S. an equal share of the licensed trade enjoyed by the British on the European continent.  This would have opened the continent to U.S. trade again but under rules set by Great Britain.  The Madison administration declined the offer, “believing that accepting it would be tantamount to surrendering American independence,” according to Hickey.  Finally, on June 23, the British made the concession that the Madison administration had demanded, repealing its Orders-in-Council, but the news did not reach the U.S. until August 13.  President Madison suspected that the repeal was “a trick to turn America from war,” according to Perkins, but it was not a trick.  It was a sincere attempt to avoid war as well as to repair the economic damage wrought by American trade restrictions.  British officials, in fact, believed that the U.S. had been tricked by Napoleon into demanding accommodations from Great Britain that France itself had not made.  London expected Washington to retract its war declaration, but the Madison administration was intent on the war.  The only change was in American propaganda, as “free trade” could no longer be used to justify the war.  “War Hawk journals quickly shifted to impressment and indemnities for past seizures,” notes Perkins.[28]  They also revived the patriotic fervor of old, portraying the war as a fight for independence, as if the British were intent on returning the U.S. to colonial status.

One problem for President Madison in terms of justifying war against Great Britain was that France never ceased preying on American merchant ships, contrary to its verbal assurances.  In his war message to Congress on June 1, 1812, Madison left open the possibility that the U.S. would take action against France in the future.  Yet it was hardly possible for the U.S. to undertake two wars against the world’s greatest powers.  Madison’s rhetoric conveyed a sense of balance and justice in the administration of American foreign policy, but the reality was that the United States, by declaring war on Great Britain, was indirectly aiding Napoleonic France.  The reverse was true as well.  The success of the American war effort would at least partly depend on the military success of Napoleon, for if Napoleon’s forces were defeated, British forces would be released to fight against the United States.  As it turned out, Napoleon’s invasion of Russia – which began on June 24, six days after the U.S. declared war on Great Britain – turned into a disastrous defeat, with some 400,000 French soldiers losing their lives; but it would take until April 1814 before British forces could be redeployed.  Thomas Bailey writes:

America plunged into the conflict at such a time as to be a virtual ally of the dreaded Bonaparte.  The Madison administration was counting on him to pin down British strength in Europe and thus clear the path for the invasion of Canada.  During the ensuing months Napoleon’s victories were greeted in Madisonian circles with joy; his defeats with gloom.  The reactions of the New England Federalists were precisely the opposite.  In Federalist eyes, America was fighting against her true long-range interests.  As the leading champion of constitutional government in the New World, she should have been waging war on the greatest despot of the age, Napoleon, at the side of England, the surviving champion of constitutional government in the Old World.[29]

Territorial expansion

It is difficult for Americans today to conceive of the United States as anything other than a coast-to-coast land mass.  Yet the present boundaries were not foreordained.  Nor was it decided in 1812 that Native Americans should be removed from their homelands and confined to reservations.  The U.S. was growing rapidly in population at the time and small groups were pushing beyond white-settled areas into areas already settled by Native American tribes – the First Nations. The U.S. population expanded from 5.3 million in 1800 to 7.2 million in 1810, to 9.6 million in 1820.  The population in 1810 included 1.4 million African Americans of whom 1.2 million were enslaved (one out of every six Americans).  The U.S. population in 1810 was smaller than that of Great Britain, about 12 million, and much smaller than that of France, about 30 million, but significantly larger than the combined indigenous population.[30]
image011Estimates of the indigenous population are conjectural, notes the historian Walter Nugent, “but there were likely 200,000 to 250,000 east of the Mississippi in the late eighteenth century.”   Most of the latter were living in Trans-Appalachian region (located between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River, and between the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes).  Tribes included the Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Seminoles in the southern part, and moving further to the north, Shawnees, Delawares, Mingoes, Ottawas, Wyandots, Miamis, Potawatomis, Kickapoos, Chippewas, and others.[31]  None of these tribes were consulted when the British transferred “ownership” of their lands to the United States in 1783.  As with all such treaties, however, it was understood that claims of political sovereignty by European and American states did not negate the rights of Native Americans to occupy their lands.  Taking actual possession of these lands required additional imperial efforts.
Treaties of land cession in the Old Northwest Territory

Treaties of land cession in the Old Northwest Territory

One such imperial effort took place in the Old Northwest Territory in the fall of 1809.  William Henry Harrison, the governor of the Indiana Territory and superintendent of Indian affairs, convinced leaders of the Miami, Potawatomi, and Delaware tribes to transfer three million acres to the United States in exchange for payments to the tribes.  The Shawnee leader, Tecumseh, met with Harrison in August 1810 to protest.  “Sell a country!” he told Harrison.  “Why not sell the air, the clouds and the great sea, as well as the earth?  Did not the Great Spirit make them all for the use of his children?”[32]  Tecumseh warned Harrison not to allow American settlers into the area.  He and his brother Tenskwatawa, known as the Prophet, had a vision of establishing a permanent pan-Indian homeland in the Old Northwest Territory and reviving Native ways of life.  They traveled across the Trans-Appalachian region gathering recruits and forming a loose confederacy of tribes and factions of tribes.

On November 7, 1811, while Tecumseh was away on a recruiting drive, Harrison led a force of 1,000 men on a mission to destroy Tecumseh’s camp at Prophetstown, located in Indian territory.  As Harrison and his men neared the town, Tenskwatawa led a surprise attack against the invading force.  Harrison’s men suffered heavy casualties but still managed to burn the town as well as stores of food, imperiling the Indians’ survival in the coming winter.  Harrison’s attack was meant to throttle Tecumseh’s confederacy in its infancy, but the effect was rather to encourage more tribes and warriors to join it and take up arms against encroaching Americans.  Fighting spread to the west, with Indian raids taking place in present-day Indiana, Missouri, Illinois, and Iowa.  As the region became embroiled in violence, the Madison administration commended Harrison for his attack and blamed the British for supplying arms and ammunition to the various tribes.  The British indeed supplied some arms but they counseled patience and restraint, not wishing to become embroiled in an American war.  As the American diplomatic historian George Herring writes, “The British in fact responded with notable caution to Indian unrest, but Americans could not concede the legitimacy of Indian grievances without admitting their own guilt.  They blamed the agitation on the British.”[33]  Once the U.S. declared war against Great Britain, however, Tecumseh cemented an alliance with the British and provided critical support in battles around Lake Erie.  He died in the Battle of the Thames on October 5, 1813.
Land (lined) ceded by the Creek nation in the Treaty of Fort Jackson, August 1814

Land (lined) ceded to the United States by the Creek nation in the Treaty of Fort Jackson, Aug. 1814

The War of 1812 pitted the U.S. against Great Britain, but it encompassed a number of Indian wars as well.  In addition to the war against Tecumseh’s confederacy in the Ohio Valley, U.S. forces engaged Native Americans in the Upper Mississippi Valley led by Sauk chieftain Black Hawk, Red Stick Creeks in the Mississippi Territory (which had little to do with the British), Seminoles in Spanish East Florida, and First Nation allies of the British in Upper Canada.  These associated Indian wars all played into U.S. expansionist ambitions.  Although the U.S. failed to conquer Canada, it succeeded in gaining large cessions of land from Native American tribes.  The Creeks were forced to cede 23 million acres to the United States in 1814.  Following the War of 1812, the U.S. signed treaties of cession with eighteen different tribes between 1816 and 1823.  The treaty with the Delaware, signed on October 3, 1818, was the first to completely remove a tribe to reservation lands west of the Mississippi River.  In Florida, the U.S. revived its war against the Seminoles, which had begun in mid-1812, impelling the Spanish government to cede the peninsula to the United States in the Transcontinental Treaty of 1819.

Understanding the expansionist motive in the War of 1812 requires an appreciation of both the wider geographical context and the deeper historical context.  The wider context places the war in relation to the Napoleonic wars in Europe and the opportunity this provided for extending U.S. control over the North American continent.  The deeper context places the war in a longer time frame of American “western expansionism” and Native American resistance.  It took nearly one hundred years (1750-1850) to transform the Trans-Appalachian region from an area almost wholly populated by Indians into one almost wholly populated by white Americans and their black slaves.  The process was punctuated by formidable resistance movements led by Pontiac (Ottawa) in the 1760s, Little Turtle (Miami) in the 1790s, Tecumseh (Shawnee) in the 1810s, and, in Florida, Osceola (Creek/Seminole) in the 1830s.  Expansionism then shifted to the American West, which took only forty years to eradicate Native American resistance.
Ridding the continent of European powers was equally important in gaining control over the continent.  Between 1810 and 1850, the U.S. forcefully deprived Spain and Mexico of large land holdings in North America – Florida, Texas, and the American Southwest.  In 1812, U.S. expansionists focused on Spanish Florida and British Canada.  “Americans fully realized the many advantages that might accrue from the acquisition of Canada,” writes Donald Hickey.  “It would remove Great Britain, a powerful rival, from the nation’s northern flank; it would put an end to foreign influence over American Indians and leave Americans in control of the still lucrative fur trade; it would eliminate trade barriers on the northern frontier and secure an invaluable east-west transportation route that included the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River; and it would open vast new expanses of farmland to American settlers.”[34]  The goal was not simply to gain new lands for American farmers and investors in the immediate, but also to establish American control over the continent in the future.

From a geopolitical perspective, the War of 1812 was a contest between an emerging empire, the United States, and an established one, Great Britain.  “The British knew all about aggrandizement,” writes Tony Bickham, “having added a further seventeen colonies to its empire along with tens of millions of people since going to war with France in 1793.”  Although the United States had broken away from Great Britain in 1776, it was nonetheless following in the footsteps of the British empire.  According to Bickman:

The United States was undeniably imperialist in 1812.  Within two generations it had doubled its size, dispossessing the native inhabitants of their land and stripping the declining Spanish Empire of huge swaths of its territory.  Like their colonial forefathers, Americans interchangeably employed violence, diplomacy, and commerce (sometimes simultaneously) in an impressive pace of growth. . . . Cheap and abundant land was crucial to the Republicans, who idealized the small farmer and relied heavily on his vote.  Expansion was also highly controversial, as opponents, particularly in New England, worried about the necessity, cost, legality, and consequences of expansion.[35]

American views on expansionism

Canada Americans in 1812 did not all agree on imperial expansion.  Their views can roughly be divided into three categories:  those who favored aggressive expansionism (hard-core); those who favored it under certain conditions (soft-core); and those who opposed aggressive expansionism (dissenters). The hard-core expansionists were intent on taking over Canada.  They believed this would reduce Indian resistance to American expansion by depriving hostile tribes of British arms and Canadian refuges across the border.  Americans would also benefit by taking over the Canadian lumber and fur trades, obtaining additional lands for settlers, and securing permanent fishing and whaling rights off Newfoundland.
Rep. Henry Clay

Rep. Henry Clay of Kentucky

Many aggressive expansionists furthermore envisioned U.S. dominion over the whole of North America. “I shall never die contented,” said Representative Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky, “until I see her [Great Britain’s] expulsion from North America, and her territories incorporated with the United States.”  Former President Thomas Jefferson thought similarly, writing to a friend on June 28, 1812, ten days after the war began, “Upon the whole, I have known no war entered into under more favorable auspices.  Our present enemy will have the sea to herself, while we shall be equally predominant at land, and shall strip her of all her possessions on this continent.”  Such imperial views were voiced in all parts of the country.  Rep. John A. Harper of New Hampshire proffered an early version of the Manifest Destiny doctrine, saying, “To me, sir, it appears that the Author of Nature has marked our limits in the south, by the Gulf of Mexico; and on the north, by the regions of eternal frost.” The leading “war hawk,” Representative Henry Clay of Kentucky, was likewise intent on mastery of the continent, telling his colleagues on the House floor:

It is absurd to suppose that we will not succeed in our enterprise against the enemy’s Provinces.  We have the Canadas as much under our command as Great Britain has the ocean, and the way to conquer her on the ocean is to drive her from the land.  I am not for stopping at Quebec or anywhere else; but I would take the whole continent from them, and ask them no favors. . . . We must take the Continent from them.  I wish never to see peace till we do.  God has given us the power and the means; we are to blame if we do not use them.[36]

Rep. Felix Grundy of Tennessee

Rep. Felix Grundy of Tennessee

The outbreak of war in the northwestern frontier on November 7, 1811, strengthened the hand of the hard-core expansionists.  They could now claim that Great Britain was complicit in the murder of American settlers on the frontier.  “We shall drive the British from our Continent,” declared Representative Felix Grundy of Tennessee on December 9; “they will no longer have an opportunity of intriguing with our Indian neighbors, and setting on the ruthless savage to tomahawk our women and children.”  Like other expansionists, Grundy regarded Native American resistance to American encroachments as aggression against American “settlers,” thus requiring forceful and punitive actions by the U.S. government in response.  This was a common pattern in U.S. history.  Grundy viewed the United States as an expanding empire.  “I feel anxious therefore,” he continued, “not only to add the Floridas to the South, but the Canadas to the North of this empire.”

As the momentum toward war gathered strength in Congress in the spring of 1812, Representative John C. Calhoun of South Carolina countered the idea that the U.S. was unprepared, telling his colleagues, “So far from being unprepared, sir, I believe that in four weeks from the time that a declaration of war is heard on our frontiers the whole of Upper and a part of Lower Canada will be in our possession.”[37]

Secretary of State James Monroe

The soft-core expansionists were more sensitive to domestic and international criticism of aggression, and thus were more hesitant in their demands for Canada.  President Madison and Secretary of State James Monroe were of this mindset, waiting to see how the war progressed, whether Great Britain would give in on maritime issues, and whether public opinion would support, or demand, annexation.  Both men publicly asserted that the invasion of Canada was primarily a means to an end, the end being British acquiescence to America’s maritime demands.  Their diplomatic correspondence, however, tells a different story.  Only one week after war was declared, Monroe wrote to Jonathan Russell, the American chargé d’affaires in London, stating that, should the U.S. invasion of Canada succeed, American public opinion could make it “difficult to relinquish Territory which had been conquered.”  After American forces invaded and burned York, the capital of Upper Canada, in April 1813, Monroe instructed his commissioners in London to negotiate for the transfer of Upper Canada to the United States.  At the war’s end, despite the fact that Canada had successfully fended off U.S. invasions, American negotiators were instructed to work for the cession of all of Canada, arguing that this would foreclose the possibility of future war – a veiled threat that the U.S. would try again to acquire Canada through forceful means.  The British negotiators were not moved and Canada remained British.[38]

Rep. Josiah Quincy

Rep. Josiah Quincy of Massachusetts

Opposing all of the expansionists were the dissenters.  “Opponents charged that the war was not a defense of maritime rights against British arrogance and rapacity, but an aggressive grab for territory,” according to the historian Jerald A. Combs.  Lending support to this assertion, Combs asks why, if “maritime grievances were the genuine motivation for the war . . . did the opposition to the war center in the New England area, where maritime grievances were most felt, while young western war hawks like Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Felix Grundy led the congressional movement for war?”  

Dissenters opposed the war against Great Britain in general, and the invasion of Canada in particular.  The idea of attacking Canada was particularly loathsome.  Why attack a peaceful neighbor because of British abuses at sea?  The point was raised by Congressman Josiah Quincy, a Federalist from Massachusetts and future president of Harvard University.  “If you had a field to defend in Georgia,” he said, “it would be very strange to put up a fence in Massachusetts.  And yet, how does this differ from invading Canada for the purpose of defending our maritime rights?”[39]
Rep. John Randolph

Rep. John Randolph of Virginia

Representative John Randolph of Virginia was among the twenty Democratic Republicans in Congress who voted against the war resolution.  Speaking on the House floor on December 16, 1811, he declared, “Agrarian cupidity, not maritime right, urges the war.”  He was also one of the very few to acknowledge American responsibility for the outbreak of the Indian war in the Ohio Valley:

Advantage had been taken of the spirit of the Indians, broken by the war which ended in the Treaty of Greenville [1795].  Under the ascendancy then acquired over them, they had been pent up by subsequent treaties into nooks, straightened in their quarters by a blind cupidity, seeking to extinguish their title to immense wilderness . . . It was our own thirst for territory, our own want of moderation, that had driven these sons of nature to desperation, of which we felt the effects.[40]

President Madison, in his war message of June 1, 1812, tried to avoid giving the dissenters more ammunition with which to attack him.  He made no reference to his plans to invade Canada or to the actual invasions of Spanish Florida already underway.  Instead, he kept the focus on British abuses of American maritime rights and alleged British intransigence in negotiations, making war appear to be the last resort in defense of American sovereignty and honor.  Madison also made numerous references to international law, citing the “law of nations,” the “acknowledged laws of war,” the “unlawfulness” of British actions on the high seas, the British “war against the lawful commerce,” and British “lawless violence.”  Such rhetoric hid a double standard of international conduct, as Madison did not subject U.S. territorial violations against Spanish Florida to the same moral scrutiny.  Moreover, U.S. covert operations in Florida were more egregious than British abuses on the high seas in terms of loss of life and suffering.  Madison kept American transgressions out of public view while shining a spotlight on British indiscretions.

III. Covert action against Spanish Florida

Some historical accounts of the War of 1812 exclude U.S. efforts to take possession of Spanish West and East Florida, deeming them separate affairs.  They are included here because they were part of the overall U.S. expansionist drive that was partly responsible for the War of 1812.  Moreover, had it not been for a narrow vote (rejection) in Congress, the Madison administration would have formally added the military conquest of the Florida peninsula to its war aims.  American expansionists desired Spanish Florida for a variety of reasons:  economic trade would be enhanced by the full possession of the navigable rivers that opened into the Gulf of Mexico; American settlers would have access to more land; escaped slaves and hostile Indians would lose their Florida sanctuaries; and military security as well as trade would be enhanced by the acquisition of ports in Pensacola and Mobile.  The Spanish government furthermore maintained a free black militia, which challenged the racist prejudices of American southerners.
The Louisiana Purchase, 1803

The Louisiana Purchase, 1803

When the Jefferson administration purchased the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803, the American minister, Robert Livingston, asked the French foreign minister, Charles Talleyrand, whether the purchase included West Florida.  Talleyrand gave no definitive response, saying only, “You have made a noble bargain for yourselves, and I suppose you will make the most of it.”[41]  The Treaty of San Ildefonso that ceded the Louisiana Territory from Spain to France in 1800 did not include the Florida colonies.  What it did include was a proviso that France could not transfer or sell the Louisiana Territory to a third power.  That, of course, is exactly what Napoleon did in 1803, and why Spain and Great Britain deemed the Louisiana Purchase illegal.

In 1804, the Jefferson administration commissioned James Monroe to negotiate the cession of East and West Florida to the United States, but the Spanish Crown adamantly refused.  The impetus to military action came when Napoleon took over the Spanish government in May 1808.  Speculation arose in the U.S. that Spain might transfer its territories to either France or Great Britain, or perhaps allow British warships to be stationed at Florida ports – since the Spanish government-in-exile was now allied with Great Britain in the war against Napoleon.  In any case, Spain was in no position to protect its Florida colonies.
The Spanish colonies of West and East Florida

The Spanish colonies of West and East Florida

President James Madison moved first against Spanish West Florida.  In 1810 he instructed his agents to encourage American residents living near Baton Rouge to rebel against Spanish authority, form a provisional government, and request annexation by the United States.  The resident Americans carried out the plan, capturing a small Spanish fort at Baton Rouge – and killing two soldiers and wounding three in the process – then proclaiming the independent “Republic of West Florida” and requesting annexation by the United States along with protection from any Spanish counterattack.  Two days after hearing news of the insurrection, President Madison ordered the governor of Louisiana to station troops in the area.  On October 27, 1810, he issued a formal proclamation taking possession of West Florida (from the Perdido River to the Mississippi River) on behalf of the United States.  Spanish forces nevertheless remained at Fort Mobile until April 1813, when they evacuated to Pensacola.

The Madison administration’s plan for taking over East Florida followed along the same lines as that for taking West Florida, but the operation proved more difficult.  On Jan. 15, 1811, Congress authorized the president to “take possession” of East Florida if requested by a “local authority” or in the event of occupation “by any foreign government.”[42] Federalists opposed the bill but were outvoted by Madison’s Democratic Republicans.  Congress also voted to keep the authorization secret, prohibiting its publication.  The president thereupon appointed General George Mathews, a veteran of the Revolutionary War and former governor of Georgia, as his secret agent to put the plan into effect.  Mathews met with Secretary of State Robert Smith and Colonel John McKee to work out the details.  The plan involved recruiting a mercenary army of American “Patriots” by offering each man fifty acres of land, persuading or intimidating as many East Florida residents as possible to rebel against Spanish authority, then establishing a base from which to declare allegiance to the U.S. and request annexation.
A bird’s eye view of the Kingsley Plantation, now a federal museum, located on Ft. George Island between Fernandina and St. Augustine.

A bird’s eye view of the Kingsley Plantation, now a federal museum, located on Ft. George Island between Fernandina and St. Augustine.

In 1812, the population of Spanish East Florida was less than 10,000, a mixture of Anglos, Spaniards, blacks (both slave and free), Greeks, and some 3,000 Seminoles living in the interior.  The population of Georgia, in contrast, was about one-quarter million.  The main towns on the Florida east coast were Fernandina, a prosperous trading center, and St. Augustine, the governmental and military center – protected by the sizable Spanish fort, Castillo de San Marcos.  Black slaves, numbering about 2,000, were generally treated better in Spanish East Florida than their counterparts in the U.S., with some serving in the Spanish military.  A number of the Anglo businessmen in the area were raising families with black women, former slaves they had bought and freed; and some were married, such as Zephaniah and Anna Kingsley.  These families and their biracial children were accepted in the Spanish colony.  The arming of blacks, the acceptance of multi-racial families, and the refuge provided for escaped slaves from the U.S. by the Seminoles were all intolerable to most white Georgians.[43]

Contested Florida terrain ran from Fernandina, just south of St. Mary's, Georgia, to St. Augustine.

Georgia-Spanish Florida border area

Gen. Mathews and Col. McKee arrived at St. Marys, Georgia, just north of the Florida border, on February 25, 1811.  By March 1812, Matthews had recruited about 125 men, mostly from Georgia, along with a handful of residents of Spanish East Florida.  Mathews was ready to launch an attack on fortified St. Augustine, but the detachment of U.S. Army troops at St. Marys had received no orders to attack; hence, Major Jacint Laval refused to allow his troops to accompany Mathews.  After a bitter argument, Mathews settled on taking possession of Fernandina, a largely defenseless town.  Laval relented to some degree by allowing nine American gunboats to be used.  The plan was carried out on March 16.  The residents of Fernandina were sufficiently intimidated by the sight of the gunboats to surrender the town without a fight.

The ensuing American occupation of the area between Fernandina and St. Augustine proved disastrous and oppressive for area residents.  The invading Americans stole their property, ate their food, and threatened them with violence if they did not join the “rebellion” against Spanish authority.  For U.S. military officers, there was no glory in this secret war.  As Major General John Floyd wrote to a senator on March 21, “Every Officer feels little in his own esteem in this hidden policy – all the sin of direct invasion Rests on the shoulders of the Government or its agents, and too, against a weak defenseless, unoffending Neighbor.”[44] 
News of the U.S. invasion spread quickly through U.S. newspapers.  Federalist-leaning papers such as the New York Evening Post decried the American seizure of Fernandina, calling it “an outrageous act of depredation, or, if countenanced by the government, an act of open war on a nation with whom we are at peace.”  Two Democratic Republican-leaning papers, the National Intelligencer and the Niles Register, took the Madison administration’s public pronouncements at face value and ridiculed the idea that the administration was behind the attacks.  The Georgia Argus, on the other hand, endorsed the idea of U.S. military occupation of Spanish East Florida, however it occurred.  President Madison publicly disavowed his administration’s role in the invasion and placed the blame on Mathews, claiming that he had exceeded his instructions.  On April 4, Madison replaced Mathews with Georgia Governor David Mitchell but nonetheless continued the clandestine U.S. occupation.  The governor had previously written to Secretary of State James Monroe warning that the Spaniards “have armed every able-bodied negro within their power” and have received “nearly two companies of black [Cuban] troops!”  Should these black troops be permitted to remain in Florida, he continued, “our southern country will soon be in a state of insurrection.”[45]
The American incursion into East Florida drew sharp protests from both Great Britain and the Spanish government in exile.  The British instructed their consul in Washington, Augustus Foster, to “protest against any attempt to seize that Province from our Ally.”  President Madison denied U.S. government complicity.  The Royal Gazette in Nassau regarded the U.S. invasion as symptomatic of a greedy, expansionist nation:  “This proceeding well accords with the general tenor of conduct of the American Government, which, like its Prototype, of France, readily throws aside principles of Honour and Justice, to effect its objects of ambition and aggrandisement.”  The Bahama Gazette similarly editorialized that the U.S. government was engaged in “an atrocious aggression on the rights of a friendly power, at a time they are so clamourous about their own.”[46]

On June 18, 1812, the U.S. formally declared war on Great Britain.  One day later, Democratic Republican “war hawks” in Congress introduced a bill to formally authorize U.S. military occupation of East and West Florida.  The bill passed easily in the House, 70-48, but it was unexpectedly defeated in the Senate.  According to the historian James G. Cusiak:

Several factors contributed to the bill’s defeat.  Federalists in the Senate were still bitterly resentful about the declaration of war against England, which they had strenuously opposed.  Some of them thought that the war had been rammed down their throats and that their objections and calls for public debate had been ignored.  Now they were being asked to acquiesce in a war with Spain.  Determined to reassert themselves against their hawkish colleagues, they used the Florida bill to make known their dissent.  Newspaper accounts of affairs in East Florida helped them to underscore their objections. . . . [There was] so much evidence for American threats and intimidations against the residents of Amelia Island that it was impossible to maintain a pretense that the Spaniards had been the aggressors.[47]

Although the pretense of a “rebellion” had been exposed and legislation to permit U.S. occupation had been defeated, the Madison administration still carried on with the occupation of Spanish East Florida.  U.S. military forces were not recalled.  Mathews, before learning of his dismissal, increased his offer of land to new recruits from 50 to 500 acres, thereby swelling the ranks of his “Patriot” volunteers.  In September, Col. Smith organized a siege of St. Augustine, but he was forced to retreat due to ambushes and a shortage of supplies.  Shortages became more acute for the residents of East Florida, as the occupying Americans made a steady practice of stealing goods and property.  “By some estimates,” writes Cusiak, “as many as 10,000 head of cattle were either stolen away or killed and left to decompose in East Florida during the thirteen months between April 1812 and May 1813.”  Those who refused to join the rebel ranks were harassed further; and if they abandoned their homes for safer quarters, their houses were ransacked and burned down.[48]

Runaway slaves became part of Seminole tribes

Abraham escaped slavery in Florida and became a trusted interpreter for the Seminole leader Micanopy, circa 1840 (State Archives Florida)

In July 1812, the Seminoles joined the battle on the side of the Spanish, having heard that the Patriot leaders were handing out generous land grants in their territory.  Seminole warriors ambushed U.S. supply wagons and Patriot raiding parties.  One attack by a large number of black and Indian Seminoles on September 12 resulted in the death of a U.S. Army captain.  Two weeks later, Colonel Daniel Newman led a group of Georgia volunteers in a raiding expedition into the interior.  A fierce battle at Payne’s Prairie led to an anguished U.S. retreat.  A second expedition of Georgia and Tennessee militia in February 1813 did more damage.  Although the Seminoles evaded their opponents, they lost much of their subsistence.  The Americans recorded setting fires to 386 houses, seizing 1500-2000 bushels of corn, and taking 300 horses and 400 head of cattle.  Unlike the invasion of Spanish East Florida, few Americans objected to the invasion of Seminole country, as wars against Native Americans were deemed allowable under almost any circumstances.

In mid-January 1813, with the war against Great Britain well under way, the “war hawks” once again tried to move a bill through Congress authorizing formal U.S. takeover of East Florida.  Federalists once again denounced the idea.  Senator William Hunter, a Federalist from Rhode Island, told his colleagues, “I say this is not only war, but an offensive war; not only an offensive war, but an unjust war.  It is a wicked war.  It is robbery.”[49]  A vote was taken in the Senate on February 2 and the bill failed, 16 ayes to 19 nays.  With the defeat of this second bill, President Madison decided that he could no longer maintain the ruse of supporting a Spanish rebellion.  On March 7, he ordered U.S. troops to leave East Florida.
Without the backing of U.S. troops and weapons, there was little chance that the Georgia militiamen could achieve a military victory in Spanish East Florida.  They nonetheless continued their rogue operations for another year, engaging in skirmishes with the Spanish military, raiding Seminoles villages, and harassing and robbing area residents.  The robbing became more abusive when a band of Georgians led by Samuel Alexander took up raiding plantations and abducting blacks, free or slave.  The latter were sold in Georgia for a hefty profit.  One faction of the Georgia militia led by Buckner Harris set off for the interior in the winter of 1813-1814.  Arriving in what is now Alachua County, they set up an independent “Republic of East Florida” and sought recognition from the federal government.  The Madison administration, however, denied their request in April 1814.  The following month, a British squadron under Vice Admiral George Cockburn entered St. Mary’s River and secured Amelia Island.  In January 1815, Cockburn’s fleet returned to the area and established a base camp on nearby Cumberland Island for escaping slaves.  Hundreds fled to the British over the next two months, reversing for a short time American enslavement operations.
The so-called Patriot War ended in 1814, but the American quest for East Florida did not.  Under the terms of the Treaty of Ghent, signed in December 1814, East Florida remained a Spanish dominion.  Hostilities were renewed in mid-1816, when an American force attacked Negro Fort at Prospect Bluff on the Apalachicola River (Florida Panhandle), where free blacks and runaway slaves had established themselves at the end of the War of 1812.  Hot cannon fire from American gunboats hit the fort’s powder magazine, causing a massive explosion that destroyed the fort and killed 270 of the 334 defenders.  The following year, General Andrew Jackson led a force of 3,000 men against the Seminoles, burning towns, destroying crops, and killing livestock.  The Spanish government, convinced that it could not protect its colony, ceded Florida to the United States in the Transcontinental Treaty of 1819, which the U.S. ratified in 1821.  The treaty specifically stated that the U.S. must make restitution for damages caused “by the late operations of the American Army in Florida.”  This stipulation led, after much delay, to some 200 legal cases between 1836 and 1842.  Residents who had suffered personal and financial losses due to the American occupation presented their testimony to the court and in many cases, won compensation from the U.S. government.[50]

J. C. A. Stagg offers a cogent evaluation of the whole East Florida affair:

The East Florida revolution of 1812 was an embarrassing and shameful moment in the history of early American foreign policy. . . . It was shameful because its motivating force was the desire to seize a territory to which the United States had only a disputable claim by the illegal subversion of the Spanish colonial regime. In gratifying that desire, the administration of James Madison made a mockery of the idealism that justified its foreign policy, while in East Florida itself the American-backed revolutionaries inflicted widespread devastation on the local population.[51]


IV. Costs and conduct of the War of 1812

There are many historical accounts of the War of 1812 that focus on military and logistical aspects.  A few studies, such as Alan Taylor’s 1812: The Civil War of American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, and Indian Allies (2010), concentrate on how the war affected civilians, soldiers, and communities.  Taylor’s detailed study reveals the tragedy of the war for those who lived along the U.S.-Canadian border.  The war created enmity and bloodshed where friendship and peace had reigned for many years.

View of Canadian Fort George from American Fort Niagara (painting by Edward Walsh, circa 1811, Library and Archives Canada)

In 1812, Upper Canada (Ontario region) was populated by 75,000 non-Indian residents, of whom three-fifths had emigrated from the United States after the War for Independence, enticed by generous land purchase terms.  These “late Loyalists,” as they were called, joined American Loyalists from the American Revolutionary War, French-speaking Canadians, and other hearty souls who could brave the Canadian winters.  There were many cross-border family ties as well as trade and business connections.  Religious affiliations also transcended national boundaries.  Some Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist congregations shared the same itinerant preachers.  “Upper Canadians had no quarrel with their neighbours and, even among the Loyalists, the United States was scarcely seen as a foreign country,” writes the Canadian historian George Sheppard.  “The colonists were firm in their belief that they were not responsible for the deteriorating relationship between Britain and the United States.”[52]  All in all, Americans and British Canadians had no cause to fight each other.

And yet they did, or at least some did.  British Canadians had a real stake in defending themselves, their property, and their country against the invading Americans, but even here, many men wavered in their commitment, being uncertain as to whether it was possible or wise to resist the presumably stronger American forces.  Some tried to avoid military service, some deserted, and a few hundred, mainly Late Loyalists, abandoned their farms and relocated in the United States.  On the American side, despite saber-rattling war talk, enlistments were lackluster.  “The War Department could never build up the regular army to half its authorized strength and obtained only 10,000 one-year volunteers out of 50,000 authorized,” notes the American historian Samuel Eliot Morison.53  In New England, where opposition to the war was strongest, the governors of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut refused to comply with the president’s requests for militia.  Elsewhere, hundreds of men serving in the Ohio and New York militias refused to participate in any invasion of British Canada, believing that state militias were organized for defensive purposes only.  More than a few militiamen on both sides hoped to be captured and paroled.  Paroled militia were sent back to their towns and prohibited from taking part in the war unless officially exchanged for parolees from the other side.  Fraternizing with the “enemy” never entirely ceased for either civilians or soldiers.
The lack of war spirit was also evident in abundant trading with the “enemy.”  Americans flagrantly disregarded a U.S. law banning exports to Canada, marching large herds of cattle across the Canadian border at night.  British troops in Canada survived the long winters on American beef.  Royal Navy crews visiting American ports in search of fresh water and supplies also found willing sellers.  Even the U.S. government hedged in its embrace of all-out war, as it continued to allow wheat shipments to be sent to British regiments in Europe, in deference to American farmers.

Yet savagery and the spirit of revenge, the usual products of war, were not missing from the War of 1812.  Prisoners were sometimes killed – and scalped – and defenseless towns were sometimes burned.  In lieu of the normal moral restraints of civilian life, military rules-of-warfare, leadership, and troop discipline were needed to curb wanton violence and plunder.  Oftentimes, one or more of these restraints were absent.  Both the U.S. and British governments “professed to favor humane treatment,” but operations in the field often belied this intent, especially when Native American warriors were involved.  The rules of “civilized” warfare, in which soldiers were not to harm prisoners and civilians nor destroy or steal civilian property, were generally not applied to U.S.-Indian warfare.  From the vantage point of Native Americans, the European and American way of war could hardly be considered more civilized given the high number of casualties caused by their advanced weaponry.  In any case, the atrocities that occurred during the war served to reinforce dehumanizing stereotypes of the “enemy” and foster vicious cycles of retaliation.  Donald Hickey writes:

The plunder, burning, and atrocities committed by both sides left a legacy of bitterness and hatred that persisted long after the war was over.  This was especially true on the Niagara River frontier.  Such was the devastation on both sides of the river that Canadians and Americans living there probably suffered more from this war than people living anywhere else.[54]

Battle scene at Lundy's Lane, Ontario, near Niagara Falls, July 25th, 1814.

Battle scene at Lundy’s Lane, near Niagara Falls, July 25, 1814 (Library of Congress)

An Ohio militia camp during the War of 1812 (Library of Congress)

An Ohio militia camp during the War of 1812 (Library of Congress)

The War of 1812 was fought with primitive weapons by today’s standards:  muskets that took twenty seconds to reload and would often misfire; rifles that took even longer to reload but were more accurate; swords, bayonets, and pistols for close range fighting; and cannons (called guns), mortars, and rockets for longer range assaults and warship battles.  These weapons took their toll, to be sure, but the more frequent killer was disease.  According to Alan Taylor, “only 3 percent of the American troops died in combat and 8 percent died of disease.”  The debased conditions in the military camps at Buffalo and Black Rock (Niagara region) in the fall of 1812 prompted one soldier to quip, “everything that is sure to rid man of life is here practiced.”  As Taylor writes, “Afflicted by colds, dysentery, measles, pleurisy, and pneumonia, many soldiers were finished off by a typhoid fever.  They died so fast that coffin makers and grave diggers could not keep up.”  The prevalence of disease, in turn, fostered desertion, as many “would rather take the chance of being shot for desertion, than to fall a certain prey to disease,” in the words of U.S. General Morgan Lewis.  Donald Hickey estimates that the desertion rate for American land forces (regulars, militia, and short-term volunteers) “was probably around 20 percent,” while the rate for British land forces was “perhaps around 15 percent.”[55]

Providing soldiers with food rations, clean water, adequate shelter, fuel, blankets, clothing, shoes, and medical care required an immense effort.  Food was often in short supply, especially on the Canadian side.  According to Jon Latimer:

Food production in Upper Canada was barely above subsistence levels in the best of years, and mobilizing the militia distorted and reduced production.  For example, in the summer of 1814 commissariat officers in central Upper Canada had to feed 4,949 regulars and 527 militia in eight widely scattered posts.  Doing this required 75 tons of flour to provide bread for thirty days, while the Indians assembled at Burlington Heights would require about the same . . . All these people would consume almost 1,000 head of cattle, but the farmers of Burlington Heights were estimated to have only 300 between them in September 1813. . . . Every militiaman mobilized was another mouth to feed and one less to work the fields; British reinforcements only exacerbated the problem, which increased the farther west they moved.[56]

On the American side, food scarcity was more a problem of distribution than of production.  “Long supply lines, seasonal swings in weather, frontier underdevelopment, and a corrupt contracting system combined to limit the  food that Americans could accumulate for their northern armies,” writes Taylor.  The private contracting system was repeatedly denounced as “corrupt and destructive” by American commanders.  General Edmund Gaines insisted that the army “lost more men by the badness of the provisions, than by the fire of the enemy.”  American armies on the march were particularly likely to suffer shortages.  The common remedy was to steal from the local populace.  “Each American invasion attempt on Canada trailed ruination in its path,” writes Latimer.  In the fall of 1813, for example, as General James Wilkinson’s 7,000-man army moved along the St. Lawrence River, U.S. troops helped themselves to civilian stores of grain, vegetables, and meat, tore down fence rails for firewood, and also stole personal valuables.  “Worse still,” writes Dianne Graves, “some of Wilkinson’s men robbed and raped the pregnant wife of the Church of England primate of Upper Canada, the Reverend John Strachan, at Cornwall in November of that year.”  Such actions turned Canadian civilians against the invaders.  As American troops made their way across the Canadian Niagara region, one American regular officer complained, “The whole population is against us; not a foraging party but is fired on, and not infrequently returns with missing numbers.”[57]

In addition to plundering the “enemy,” both sides preyed on their own communities when short of food and fuel.  Joseph Ellicott, a resident in the Niagara River region, described the situation in the fall of 1812:  “The fact is our own [American] Troops have destroyed all the farms within the vicinity of their Encampments, plundered the people of their corn and their potatoes, and many farms are laid in open common by having all their rails consumed.”  In the town of Buffalo, notes Taylor, “infuriated citizens established a night watch, which shot and wounded four pilfering soldiers, further inflaming tensions between citizens and their supposed defenders.”  British soldiers were similarly disposed to steal from the communities they were sworn to  protect.  Pigs, sheep, apples, and even honey would disappear upon their arrival.[58]
Fanny Doyle on the gun deck at Fort Niagara (Library of Congress)

Fanny Doyle on the gun deck at Fort Niagara (Library of Congress)

Women were not expected to fight in the war, but many participated in the support networks that surrounded every army camp.  “In the United States and Canada,” writes Hickey, “women fed and nursed soldiers and civilians who participated in the war, managed businesses and farms when their men were gone . . . and in general performed a number of support services that were vital to the war effort.”  Those tasks included “cooking, sewing, washing, cleaning, nursing, and hauling food and water to the front lines.”  On occasion, women also took part in the fighting.  Most notable among the latter was Fanny Doyle, the wife of an American artillery private who had been recently captured in battle.  After obtaining permission from the commanding officer at Fort Niagara, she took part in a fierce artillery duel on November 21, 1812, working from dawn to dusk on the exposed gun deck loading six-pound cannon balls to be fired at Fort George.  Her actions won her praise from officers and soldiers, and a place in history.[509


The War of 1812 lasted two years and eight months, from June 18, 1812, when President James Madison signed the declaration of war, to February 16, 1815, when Congress ratified the Treaty of Ghent.  The total number of military and civilian deaths attributed to the war is estimated at over 35,000, according to the Encyclopedia of the War of 1812 (2012).[60]

CASUALTIESUnited StatesBritain & CanadaNative Americans
Killed in action or died of wounds2,2602,0001,500
Died of disease or accident13,0008,0008,500

Although the casualties of this war were small in comparison to the massive casualties of the Napoleonic Wars, they were significant in proportion to the population at the time.  The death toll of some 15,000 Americans in proportion to a population of roughly eight million (circa 1813) places the War of 1812 as the third most lethal foreign war in U.S. history.[61]

U.S. warsU.S. population (midway thru war)Deaths per 1,000 people
War for Independence3 million8.3
World War II138 million2.9
War of 1812    8 million1.9 
World War I100 million1.2
Vietnam War203 million0.3

On the Canadian side, if as many as 5,500 of the 10,000 who perished were Canadian residents, as distinct from British troops stationed in Canada, then the War of 1812 would top Canadian and American charts in terms of proportional losses, with ten out of every 1,000 Canadians dying in the War of 1812.  (The approximate population of the five Canadian provinces in 1813 was 550,000, with 90,000 in Upper Canada, 325,000 in Lower Canada, and 135,000 in the provinces of Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island.)[62]  The proportional losses for Native Americans were greatest.  More than two dozen tribes and about 10,000 warriors participated in the War of 1812.  According to the historian J. C. A. Stagg:

In all, as many as 3,500 warriors may have been killed on the northwestern and southwestern frontiers of the United States and possibly another 10,000 Indian men, women, and children could have died as a result of the war-related diseases and starvation that were always more regular features of Indian life than they were for Americans or Canadians.  Many of the small Indian nations, such as the Shawnee, lacked the demographic depth to absorb such losses, and if the total population of all the Indian peoples involved in the war was in the region of seventy-five thousand, their casualties can be described only as disastrous.[63]

The staggering proportion of deaths for the First Nations that participated in the war – perhaps one out of every eight persons – produced a desired outcome for U.S. expansionists.  Western tribes, said Secretary of War John C. Calhoun after the war, “have, in great measure, ceased to be an object of terror, and have become that of commiseration.”  As Donald Hickey writes:

Never again would Indians seriously threaten the United States, and never again would a foreign nation tamper with American Indians.  The subjugation of the Indians, in turn, promoted manifest destiny and the westward movement.  The heady nationalism and expansionism that characterized American foreign policy throughout the nineteenth century was at least partly a result of the War of 1812.[64]

Military and naval campaigns

The Madison administration was ill-prepared to launch an invasion of Canada in June 1812.  The U.S. lacked adequate funding, an efficient bureaucracy, a dependable supply network, competent military leadership, and sufficient military forces and training.  The administration hoped, even expected, that Canadians would offer little resistance to a U.S. takeover.  The U.S., after all, had a 15-to-one population advantage over Canada and British forces were preoccupied in Europe.  The First Nations who later allied with the British remained uncommitted at the outset of the war.  The conquest of Canada, the administration hoped, would be quick and easy.
The U. S. Army had about 13,000 soldiers and officers at the outset of the war, while the British maintained about 7,000 regulars in Canada, including 1,600 in Upper Canada.[65]  The small size of the U.S. Army was due in large part to the reigning idea of the time, embraced especially by Democratic Republicans, that large, standing armies were undesirable.  Not only were they expensive to maintain (requiring taxes), but they also tempted leaders to engage in unnecessary wars abroad and to assume undue governmental powers at home.  In lieu of a standing army, Americans placed great faith in citizen-based militias.  The British were similarly forced to rely on Canadian citizen militias, given the shortage of regular troops.  The British conscripted Canadian men of fighting age, while the U.S. offered money and land bounties to encourage enlistment.
The U.S. Navy was in somewhat better shape than the U.S. Army, having fought naval battles in the Quasi-War with France (1798-1801) and the First Barbary War (1801-1805).  It was nevertheless far inferior to the British Royal Navy in terms of the number and quality of warships.  At the outset of the War of 1812, the U.S. Navy had about twenty small- to medium-sized warships along with 7,200 sailors and marines.  The Royal Navy had 584 ships, including 102 heavily armed ships-of-the-line.[66]  Although the great majority of Royal Navy ships were deployed elsewhere, the British had enough ships under its North American command at Halifax to blockade American seaports and prevent any amphibious assault on Quebec, the capital of Lower Canada.  The British advantage on the Great Lakes was less pronounced.  U.S. naval forces gained control of Lake Erie in September 1813 and maintained equality with the Royal Navy on Lake Ontario.  This limited naval achievement enabled the U.S. to thwart a British counteroffensive at Plattsburgh in September 1814.

The American-Canadian front

image028The Madison administration devised a three-part plan for the conquest of Canada.  U.S. forces under Brigadier General William Hull would cross the Detroit River and take Fort Amherstburg.  A second force would cross the Niagara River and take Queenston Heights; and a third force led by Major General Henry Dearborn would move up the St. Lawrence River and take Montreal.  If the third invasion were successful, the British would be denied access to Upper Canada (Great Lakes region) and the U.S. would be in a position to move against Quebec and Lower Canada.

The first invasion began less than three weeks after the U.S. declared war.  General Hull, the governor of Michigan Territory, crossed the Detroit River with 2,200 regulars and militia, and set up camp at Sandwich (Windsor) just across the border.  There was no immediate opposition, only a protest by 200 Ohio militiamen who refused to join the invasion.  On July 12, 1812, Hull issued a proclamation to the townspeople designed to both persuade and threaten residents into accepting American rule:

The army under my Command has invaded your Country and the standard of the United States waves on the territory of Canada. . . . Separated by an immense ocean and an extensive Wilderness from Great Britain you have no participation in her counsels, no interest in her conduct.  You have felt her Tyranny, you have seen her injustices . . . You will be emancipated from Tyranny and oppression and restored to the dignified status of freemen. . . . If contrary to your own interest and the just expectation of my country, you should take part in the approaching contest, you will be considered and treated as enemies and the horrors, and calamities of War will stalk you. . . . No white man found fighting by the Side of an Indian will be taken prisoner.  Instant destruction will be his Lot.[67]

Hull hoped to thwart an Indian-Canadian alliance, but events were already moving in the opposite direction.  On July 17, the American fort at Michilimackinac, on the northern tip of Michigan Territory, was surrendered to a combined force of 45 British regulars, 200 Canadian militia, and 400 First Nation warriors – all without firing a shot.  Unaware that war had been declared, the American commander, Lieutenant Porter Hanks, and his men had been terrorized by the sight and sounds of Indians in the distance yelling and discharging their guns.  Fearing a massacre, Hanks surrendered to British Captain Charles Roberts, who paroled all of Porter’s men except for three British deserters.  The fort was an important way station in the Indian fur trade and its seizure convinced a number of tribes that their future lay with the British Canadians rather than the invading Americans.  The same message was promoted by Tecumseh and Canadian agents such as Robert Dickson, who had great credibility with the tribes due to his role in distributing goods to starving Indians the previous winter.[68]

With the fall of Fort Michilmackinac, hundreds of First Nation warriors – Ottawa, Ojibwa, Potawatomi, Sauk, Fox, Sioux, Menominee, and Winnebago – made their way to the Detroit area to join forces with Major General Isaac Brock’s British regulars and Canadian militia.  On August 5, Tecumseh and a small group of Shawnee and Ottawa warriors ambushed and killed about twenty American soldiers on their way to Fort Detroit, suffering only one killed.  With American supply lines in jeopardy, General Hull ordered a retreat to American Fort Detroit on August 7.  Brock then took the offensive.  With 1,300 regulars and militia under his command and 600 Indian allies, he sent Hull a summons to surrender, subtly raising the threat of extermination.  “It is far from my intention to join in a war of extermination,” Brock wrote, “but you are aware, that the numerous body of Indians who have attached themselves to my troops, will be beyond control the moment the contest commences.”  On August 16, Brock “paraded his warriors within sight of the fort, marching them in a circuit that tripled their apparent numbers,” according to Alan Taylor.  “Stripped and painted for battle, they presented a horrifying spectacle to the Americans.”  Believing his 2,500 troops to be outnumbered and already under attack by British artillery bombardment, General Hull surrendered, giving up not only Fort Detroit but the whole of Michigan Territory.  The American fort would remain in British hands until September 1813.[69]

Surrender of Fort Detroit (Library of Congress)

News of the surrender of Fort Detroit shocked and embarrassed the Madison administration.  Instead of gaining Canada, the U.S. had lost the territory of Michigan.  Democratic Republicans blamed General Hull for the defeat, while Federalists denounced the whole war as a wrong-headed escapade directed by an incompetent administration.  Among Canadians, the British victory “sent a powerful signal to bolster the faithful, encourage the wavering, and subdue the disloyal in both the white and native populations of Upper Canada,” writes Carl Benn.  “Most of the Iroquois of the Six Nations Tract along the Grand River, for instance, who had largely stood aloof before the capture of Detroit, swung behind the British, adding 400 valuable warriors to augment the Upper Canadian garrison.”[70]  Canadian resistance was also stiffened by the fact that General Hull had allowed his troops to plunder homes at Sandwich, contrary to his promises.

The alliance of British Canada and First Nation tribes intensified the U.S.-Indian war on the northwestern frontier that had begun in November 1811.  One Indian attack took place on Lake Michigan shore near Fort Dearborn (Chicago) on August 15, 1812.  A few hundred Potawatomis led by Black Bird attacked a column of military and civilian personnel, killing sixty-eight, including a number of women and children.  The attack became known as the Fort Dearborn Massacre and was avenged by U.S. forces in a series of assaults on Indian villages in the region.

The Fort Dearborn Massacre created a sensation in the American press, while U.S. attacks on Indian villages did not.  Many Americans blamed British commanders for allowing such atrocities, but the latter had only marginal control over their Indian allies, as they often noted despairingly.  Even Indian leaders such as Tecumseh and Wyandot chief Roundhead exerted only limited influence over the broad array of tribes and warriors, especially when revenge seemed justified.  The first scalping, for example, was reportedly done by Captain William McCulloch of the Kentucky militia, who killed and scalped a Menominee warrior on July 25, 1812.  According to Alan Taylor:

That mutilation enraged the Menominee, who had honored a British request not to scalp any of Hull’s men.  Carrying the corpse back to Amherstburg, the angry warriors confronted the British officers and vowed to resume scalping their enemies.  Ten days later McCulloch fell into an Indian ambush and lost his own scalp – to the delight of the Menominee.[71]

The death of Captain Isaac Brock at Queenston Heights, 13 October 1812

The death of Major General Isaac Brock at Queenston Heights, 13 October 1812

The second U.S. invasion of Canada began on October 13, 1812, and proved no more successful than the first.  U.S. troops crossed the Niagara River opposite Queenston Heights and were met by Brock and a force of 1,600 troops.  Although Brock was killed in the initial battle, his mixed force of British regulars, Canadian militiamen, and indigenous warriors counterattacked and forced the Americans to retreat.  At that point, Major General Stephen Van Rensselaer called for reinforcements to cross the river, but the New York militia refused to leave American territory “to my utter astonishment,” Van Rensselaer reported.  This sealed the American defeat and the capture of 950 soldiers.  In the aftermath of the battle, Brock became known as “the hero and savior of Upper Canada,” but, as the historian Robert Allen points out, “the victories at Michilimackinac, Detroit, and Queenston Heights were all determined in large measure by the physical presence or active military use of significant numbers of Indian allies.”[72]

Mohawk leader John Norton (Library & Archives, Canada)

Mohawk leader John Norton (portrait, Library and Archives, Canada)

Among Great Britain’s First Nation allies, the most important leader was John Norton, the son of a Cherokee father and Scottish mother.  He grew up in Scotland, came to Canada as an army private, and was adopted into the Mohawk tribe (part of the Iroquois confederacy).  Talented in languages, diplomacy, and military strategy, Norton was instrumental in convincing the Grand River Iroquois to ally with the British.  He played a key role in the British victory at Queenston Heights and participated in subsequent battles in the Niagara region.  The Grand River Iroquois did not seek war but were convinced that they would lose their lands and independence if the United States won the war.  On the American side of the U.S.-Canadian border (which the Iroquois deemed artificial), the New York Iroquois initially remained neutral but were later recruited by the United States to fight against their Grand River compatriots.

The third invasion, a major assault on Montreal, was put off after an American advance guard was repulsed by a group of Canadian militia and Kahnawake Mohawk warriors at Lacolle, just across the New York border.  General Dearborn’s invasion would not take place until October 1813.  In the meantime, more battles and skirmishes took place on the western end of Lake Erie.  On January 21, 1813, an American force of 850 men under Brigadier General James Winchester was attacked by a slightly larger force of 500 British and Canadian soldiers and 450 Indian allies in the Battle of Frenchtown, south of Detroit.  American casualties were severe: over 300 killed, about 60 seriously wounded, and over 500 taken prisoner, including General Winchester.  The British and Canadians suffered 24 killed and 158 wounded.  The British victory was tarnished, however, by the slaughter of American prisoners and civilians by Indian warriors in the aftermath of the battle.  Exactly how many was the subject of an investigation by Judge Augustus Woodward, Chief Justice of the Michigan Territory, who reported to Colonel Proctor that 57 persons had been killed, 31 military and 26 civilians, of which two were women and twelve were children.
This print received wide circulation through recruiting posters issued by the U.S. War Department. It clearly (and wrongly) shows the British camp in the background, seemingly looking on as Natives murder and scalp wounded Americans. The print caption reads: Massacre of American prisoners at Frenchtown on the River Raisin by the savages under the command of the British General Proctor, January 23rd 1813. (Clements Library, University of Michigan)

This U.S. War Department print, titled “Massacre of American prisoners at Frenchtown on the River Raisin by the savages under the command of the British General Proctor, January 23rd 1813.” received wide circulation through recruiting posters. (Clements Library, University of Michigan)

Judge Woodward traveled to Washington to report on the matter.  He furnished newspaper with lurid accounts of the slaughter based on affidavits from Frenchtown residents.  The resulting public uproar provided the Madison administration with much ammunition with which to lambaste the British for presumably allowing such atrocities.  Congress conducted an investigation and distributed its report, entitled “Barbarities of the Enemy,” to the press.  The Madison administration produced a pamphlet accusing British officers and soldiers of “silently and exultantly overseeing the slaughter.”  The slaughter became known in the U.S. as the “Raisin River Massacre” and was used to rally public support for the war and recruit soldiers.  Some Americans furthermore demanded revenge against the Indians.  The Aurora newspaper in Philadelphia editorialized, “Have four or five Indians for every American massacred, and if it does not bring them to their senses it will at least go some way towards their extermination.”[73]
As the U.S. continued to increase its army and build ships for its navy, U.S. forces became a more formidable threat to Canada in 1813.  On April 27, with the support of fourteen naval ships, General Henry Dearborn and 1,700 U.S. troops launched an attack on Fort York, which guarded the entrance to the town of York.  The fort was defended by 750 British, Canadians, Mississaugas, and Ojibways.  After six hours of fighting, the defenders gave way.  Casualties were heavy, especially for the Americans when a store of gunpowder exploded inside the fort.  For the next six days, American troops occupied the town of York.  According to Carl Benn, they “looted homes, took or destroyed supplies, and burned Government House and the Parliament Buildings.”  Unrepentant, they returned in July 1813 “to burn barracks and other buildings that they missed in April.”  This abuse of a civilian community was keenly remembered in Canada and ignored in Washington.[74]

The Niagara Peninsula was a major battleground of the war

On May 27, 1813, the U.S. initiated its second invasion of the Niagara River region, attacking Fort George, the main British garrison.  The British were forced to withdraw, allowing U.S. troops to occupy the fort.  Recognizing their vulnerability, the British also evacuated their garrisons at Queenston, Chippewa, and Fort Erie, retreating to Burlington Heights on the west end of Lake Ontario.  Americans thus controlled for the first time a slice of Canadian territory.  “Giddy with victory,” writes Alan Taylor, “the American officers insisted that the local people welcomed them as liberators.”  General Dearborn apparently thought he had succeeded, as he wrote to his superiors, “A large majority are friendly to the United States and fixed in their hatred to the Government of Great Britain.”  Taylor offers a more realistic assessment:  “In fact, relatively few felt committed to the [American] republic; a larger minority of Loyalists longed to oust the invaders; and the great majority simply hated militia service and wanted the war to end.”[75]

Laura Secord warned British authorities that the Americans were coming

Laura Secord warned British authorities that the Americans were coming (Canada Post Corp.)

The glow of victory quickly faded for Americans as the British launched a surprise attack at Stoney Creek on the night of June 5.  The attack resulted in the capture of two American generals and the retreat of American forces to Fort George.  The Americans planned their own surprise attack in response, but Laura Secord, a Queenston housewife married to a sergeant in the Canadian militia, got word of the plan and traveled on foot thirty-two kilometers (20 miles) to inform British authorities.  On June 24, the First Nation allies of the British from the Grand River intercepted 500 American soldiers led by Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Bœrstler at Beaver Dams, forcing their surrender.  Laura Secord, who was born in Massachusetts, earned a place in Canadian history as a heroine of the war – the equivalent of Paul Revere in the American Revolution.

Oliver Hazard Perry, American hero of the Battle of Lake Erie

Oliver Hazard Perry (U.S. Naval Academy Museum)

Further to the west, in northern Ohio, U.S. forces regained the initiative after resisting a British-Indian attack on Fort Meigs on May 1, 1813, and another on Fort Stephenson on August 2.  On September 10, the greatest naval battle of the war took place on Lake Erie, near Put-in-Bay.  The encounter pitted nine U.S. warships under the command of Oliver Hazard Perry against six British warships under the command of Robert Heriot Barclay.  Perry’s famous dispatch at the end of the battle summarized the results:  “We have met the enemy, and they are ours, two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop.”[76]

Control of Lake Erie enabled the U.S. to shuttle provisions and troops around the lake and to prevent the British from doing the same.  Recognizing his vulnerability, British General Henry Proctor decided, against the advice of Tecumseh, to abandon Fort Detroit and march his 900 men on a hasty retreat to the east, traveling along the road north of the lake.  Tecumseh and some 1,000 warriors accompanied Proctor, expecting a fight.  The fight came when Major General William Henry Harrison and 3,500 American troops caught up with them at Moraviantown on the Thames River on October 5, 1813.  Before the battle, Tecumseh reportedly rode in front of the British line of soldiers, shaking hands with each man.  He painted his face black, having had a premonition of his death.  The Americans quickly routed Proctor’s forces, killing Tecumseh and Wyandot leader Roundhead.  This victory for the Americans was followed by a bout of needless savagery, as Kentucky militiamen burned down the nearby village of Moraviantown, where peaceful Christian Indians resided.  “The missionaries begged Harrison to intervene ‘to protect us from the wild mob,’” writes Alan Taylor.  “But the general could not restrain the Kentuckians, who hated all Indians and despised any white men who consorted with them.”  The Americans returned to Detroit where Harrison was welcomed as a hero.[77]

The delayed invasion aimed at conquering Montreal finally began in early October 1813.  The plan called for General James Wilkinson to lead 7,000 men along the St. Lawrence River, approaching Montreal from the west, and for General Wade Hampton to lead a force of 4,500 men from the south.  It was the largest invasion of the war and once again unsuccessful.  Hampton’s forces were turned back at the Battle of Chateaugay on October 26, and Wilkinson’s forces, at Battle of Crysler’s Farm on November 11.
The year ended with mutual attacks on civilian communities.  On December 10, 1813, American General George McClure ordered the evacuation of Fort George.  His troops were living in tents in freezing weather and awaiting back pay, and they were too few to defend the fort against British forces in the area.  Upon evacuating the fort, he ordered its contents burned.  McClure also approved a request by his subordinate, Joseph Willcocks, a Canadian deserter, to burn the adjoining village of Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake) in order to deprive British soldiers of shelter.  The 400 residents received less than twelve hours warning before their houses were burned to the ground, leaving them exposed to the winter cold.  McClure reported with satisfaction that “every building in Newark is reduced to ashes” and “the Enemy is much exasperated.”[78]

Outraged by this action, British-Canadian forces under Lieutenant General Gordon Drummond and their Indian allies crossed into American territory on December 19 and conducted a midnight raid on Fort Niagara, killing or wounding 80 and capturing 350 Americans.  Leaving a detachment at the fort, Drummond ordered revenge attacks on the villages of Lewiston and Youngstown, which were put to the torch.  As the villagers ran, “Indians killed about a dozen of the slower civilians, including at least one child,” according to Alan Taylor:

Breaking into stores and homes, the warriors got drunk on plundered liquor and then wounded two British soldiers and killed two of their own people.  So impressive in surprising Fort Niagara, the discipline of the British regulars also broke down at Lewiston.  An officer reported, “Indians, Regulars & Militia were plundering every thing they could get hold of. . . . I have never witnessed such a scene before & hope I shall not again.”  The victors burned every house in Lewiston and the nearby village of the Tuscarora, a Haudenosaunee people who had helped the Americans.[79]

The British burned Buffalo on December 30, 1813, retaliating for Newark

The British burned Buffalo on December 30, 1813 (engraving)

Buffalo was next.  On December 30, a British force of 965 regulars, 50 militia, and 400 Indians assaulted the town after unnerving 2,000 American militiamen who had recently arrived to defend it.  They latter ran for their lives alongside hundreds of inhabitants.  The British pillaged and burned much of Buffalo as well as nearby Black Rock.

American and British leaders each blamed the other for violating the rules of civilized warfare, a code of conduct that presumably exempted civilians from military violence.  On January 12, 1814, General George Prevost, the Governor-in-Chief of British North America, issued a statement expressing regret for the burning of American towns but nevertheless blamed the U.S. for initiating this “departure from the established usages of war.”  In the U.S., Democratic Republicans were indignant at the charge, arguing that U.S. commanders had never ordered such savage warfare.  According to Taylor:

The Madison administration also denied responsibility for the plundering at Sandwich and York, dismissed as the unauthorized misdeeds of undisciplined troops.  The government blamed Newark’s destruction on McClure, cast as a rogue commander who misunderstood his orders.  And the U.S. secretary of state, James Monroe, dismissed Moraviantown as a worthless Indian village that should not be avenged by burning a civilized American town.”[80]

The administration’s denials notwithstanding, American troops continued to depart from the established rules of civilized warfare.  On May 15, 1814, Lieutenant Colonel John B. Campbell and 700 Pennsylvania militia crossed Lake Erie in eight boats and ravaged the Canadian village of Dover.  Experiencing no resistance, the residents pleaded with the Americans to not destroy their food supply, but to no avail.  The Americans burned every building – twenty houses, twelve barns, and three flour mills – and shot every horse, cow, and pig in sight.  Campbell described his actions as payback for the burning and plundering of Buffalo.  As Campbell’s actions were not authorized, the commanding U.S. officer, General Jacob Brown, ordered a court-martial.  Given the need for soldiers, however, the military court issued only a mild reprimand and returned Campbell to his unit.  Two months later, Colonel Isaac Stone and a small group of American militiamen plundered the tiny village of St. Davids, four miles west of Queenston, and burned down fourteen homes, two shops, and a mill.  General Brown dismissed Stone the following day, but he could not compensate the residents for the damage done.  Upon hearing of these abuses of Canadian civilians and towns, Prevost sent a letter to Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, commander of the North American division of the Royal Navy, advising him to “assist in inflicting that measure of retaliation which shall deter the enemy from a repetition of similar outrages.”[81]  The cycle of vengeance and violence would continue on the Atlantic seaboard.

Americans made one last attempt to gain Canadian territory on the Niagara front in 1814.  On July 3, U.S. forces led by General Brown attacked and captured Fort Erie, just across the Niagara River.  As they proceeded to move up the river in the following weeks, their advance was halted at the Battle of Lundy’s Lane (one mile west of Niagara Falls) on July 25.  It was one of the bloodiest battles of the war, with each side suffering about 900 killed, wounded, and missing.  U.S. forces subsequently fell back to Fort Erie, where they endured a lengthy siege and frequent skirmishes.  On November 5, the Americans blew up the British fort and returned to the American side, thus ending the war on the Niagara front.  All in all, after two and a half years of warfare and repeated invasions, the U.S. held only one small slice of Canadian territory on the northwest side of Lake Erie.   The British actually held more American territory – a large part of the sparsely settled Illinois Territory (Minnesota today) and northeastern Maine.
The war in the Niagara region succeeded only in devastating civilian communities on both sides.  As one observer noted, the region was “truly a most pitiful sight,” with “homes in ashes, fields trampled and laid waste, forts demolished, forests burned and blackened,” and people in “distress and poverty.”  On the western side of Lake Erie, Amherstburg and Detroit were similarly “in a miserable state,” according to the Canadian historian Dianne Graves, “with the surrounding countryside ravaged by the depredations of war and former farmland in as poor a condition as in the Niagara.  It would take time and industrious hands to repair the damage.”[82]

The war at sea 

The British gradually extended their blockade to all U.S. ports

The British gradually extended their blockade to all U.S. ports

The Royal Navy had five major objectives during the War of 1812:

  • Blockade American seaports
  • Control the Great Lakes
  • Protect British merchant vessels
  • Capture or sink American warships and privateers
  • Destroy American military and naval assets on land

Americans, of course, had a contrary agenda.  They sought to break through the blockade, control the Great Lakes, capture or destroy British trade vessels, defeat Royal Navy ships and privateers, and protect the American coastline.

The British blockade was by far the most important naval activity.  The fleet of Royal Navy warships guarding American ports grew from twenty in October 1812 to 135 in early 1815.  The blockade was gradually extended and tightened.  New England was initially exempted, notes Carl Benn, “because the British hoped to increase dissension between north-eastern states that opposed hostilities and the rest of America, and because the British army fighting Napoleon in Spain needed American grain to survive, which New Englanders happily supplied in American ships licensed and protected by the British.”  In May 1814, following Napoleon’s defeat, the British added New England ports.  The blockade was effective in preventing most U.S. naval ships, privateers, and merchant vessels from leaving port.  “By 1814,” writes Benn, “only one out of every 12 merchant ships in the United States even dared to leave port, dramatically exemplifying the economic impact of the war on the republic’s economy.”  U.S. exports went into steep decline between 1812 and 1814, their value decreasing from $39 million to $7 million.  The value of imports similarly plummeted, from $79 million to $13 million.  This steep drop resulted in unemployment and hardship in the maritime industry.[83]

HMS Shannon and USS Chesapeake engage on June 1, 1813

The cannon-laden sailing ships of the U.S. Navy and Royal Navy clashed more than two dozen times during the war.  These battles had less effect on the outcome of the war than on the psychology of both nations.  Three U.S. victories in the summer and fall of 1812 evoked jubilation in the U.S. and humiliation in Great Britain.  In the U.S., the naval victories partly compensated for America’s shocking defeats on land (Detroit and Queenston Heights), while in Great Britain, the naval defeats “caused a furor, with much public soul-searching about fighting quality,” according to the British historian Jeremy Black.  The Royal Navy nevertheless continued to rule the seas.  It addition to blockading U.S. ports, it was able to protect most of its merchant vessels by organizing them into convoys escorted by warships.  While American international trade went into steep decline, British international trade rose by two-thirds between 1811 and 1814.[84]

Naval battles in the War of 1812 (does not include actions involving privateers or gunboats)
* indicates victory for the United States. # indicates victory for Great Britain.


  • 17 July             # Royal Navy squadron captures USS Nautilus
  • 13 August       * USS Essex captures HMS Alert in the north Atlantic
  • 19 August       * USS Constitution defeats HMS Guerriere 400 miles SE of Halifax
  • 18 October      # HMS Poictiers captures HMS Wasp and rescues HMS Frolic
  • 25 October      * USS United States defeats HMS Maedonian near Canary Islands
  • 22 November  # HMS Southampton captures USS Vixen in West Indies
  • 29 December   * USS Constitution takes HMS Java off Brazil


  • 17 January       # HMS Narcissus captures USS Viper in the Caribbean Sea
  • 24 February     * USS Hornet sinks HMS Peacock off the coast of Guyana
  • 1 June              # HMS Shannon captures USS Chesapeake in Boston harbor
  • 14 August       # HMS Pelican captures USS Argus off the coast of Wales
  • 5 September    * USS Enterprise captures HMS Boxer near Bristol, Maine
  • 10 September  * Nine U.S. vessels captured six British vessels in Lake Erie battle
  • 25 December   # HMS Belvidera captures USS Vixen off the coast of Delaware


  • 14 February     * USS Constitution captures HMS Pictou near Barbados
  • 28 March         # HMS Phoebe & Cherub capture USS Essex & Essex Jr. off Chile
  • 20 April           # HMS Orpheus & Shelburne capture USS Frolic in Florida Strait
  • 28 April           * USS Peacock captures HMS Epervier off Cape Canaveral, Florida
  • 22 June            # HMS Leander defeats USS Rattlesnake off Nova Scotia
  • 28 June            * USS Wasp captures HMS Reindeer in the English Channel
  • 12 July             # HMS Medway captures USS Syren off South Africa
  • 1 September    * USS Wasp sinks HMS Avon in English Channel
  • 6-11 Sept.        * British assault on Plattsburgh repelled in Battle of Lake Champlain


  • 15 January       # British squadron captures USS President off New York City
  • 20 February     * USS Constitution captures HMS Cyane & HMS Levant in mid-Atlantic
  • 11 March         # HMS Leander recaptures Levant off Cape Verdes Islands
  • 23 March         * USS Hornet captures HMS Penquin off Tristan in South Atlantic
  • 22 June            # HMS Leander captures USS Rattlesnake off Nova Scotia


The 157-ft Pride of Baltimore II is a reproduction of the Privateer Chasseur, a Baltimore-built topsail schooner that served as a blockade-runner and captured or sunk 35 British vessels. In 1815, The Niles Weekly Register dubbed her “the Pride of Baltimore.” The British attacked Baltimore in 1814 in an attempt to destroy the Fells Point shipyards that built Chasseur and dozens of other privateers.

The 157-ft Pride of Baltimore II is a reproduction of the Privateer Chasseur, a Baltimore-built topsail schooner that served as a blockade-runner and captured or sunk 35 British vessels. In 1815, The Niles Weekly Register dubbed her “the Pride of Baltimore.”

The war at sea between the U.S. and Great Britain also featured the commissioning of armed private vessels – privateers – to capture or sink enemy merchant vessels, known as “prizes.”  A prize successfully brought to port could earn the captain and crew a handsome reward.  Privateering was essentially regulated piracy.  Its political purpose was to wreak havoc on the enemy’s trade.  At least 526 American privateer ships were commissioned during the war.  Lighter and faster than merchant vessels, they could slip out of a blockaded port on a dark night with a strong wind.  American privateer operations stretched from the Boston harbor to the English Channel, to the Caribbean Sea and South Atlantic.

Estimates of the number of British merchant ships captured or sunk vary widely.  Donald Hickey estimates 1,140.  Jeremy Black uses figures from the insurance agency Lloyd’s of London:  1,175 captured minus 373 recaptured by the British, for a net total of about 800.  The U.S. Navy captured an additional 250 vessels.  The total number of captures amounts to less than three percent of all British trade vessels in service at the time.[85]  Yet the effects of American privateer operations were larger, as Royal Navy ships were diverted to protect trade routes and insurance rates rose, increasing the cost of all British maritime trade.  About 40 Canadian privateers were also active.  Operating out of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, they gave chase to American vessels that escaped the blockade.  Hickey estimates that 1,400 American merchant vessels were captured overall, with British and Canadian privateers accounting for one-fourth.[86]

British troops plundering the Chesapeake region (Patuxent River Naval Air Station)

Naval battles and privateer captures were generally conducted in accordance with “civilized” rules of warfare, which meant that fighting ended when one side surrendered and that crews were taken prisoner (and often paroled), not slaughtered.  Such “civilized” warfare was more likely to falter in British coastal raids.  A fleet of British warships under the command of Vice Admiral George Cockburn arrived off the Chesapeake Bay in early March 1813.  “Guided through the countryside by runaway slaves, he devoted the spring of 1813 to plundering the Chesapeake,” writes Donald Hickey.  “His immediate aim was to destroy American warships, burn government supplies, and ruin the coasting trade.”  Any resistance to British raids brought reprisals.  According to Carl Benn, British forces “burned or took property when the locals opened fire or otherwise resisted them . . . although those who remained quietly at home generally were left in peace and were paid for supplies requisitioned to support these British operations.”[87]

On May 3, British marines plundered and burned some 40 houses in Havre de Grace, Maryland, before destroying the Principio Foundry, one of only three cannon factories in the United States.  A few days later, they burned down the towns of Georgetown and Fredericktown.  Nearby Charlestown, however, cooperated with the British and was spared.  One of the worst atrocities of the war occurred on June 25, following a battle between 2,000 British soldiers and 450 American militia near the town of Hampton, Virginia.  After routing the defenders, the British proceeded to terrorize the town.  According to a young British officer, Lt. Col. Charles Napier, “every horror was committed with impunity, rape, murder, pillage: and not a man was punished.”  These atrocities were reportedly committed by Frenchmen captured in Spain who had volunteered to fight with the British rather than go to prison.  The infamous event was widely publicized in the American press and a British investigation confirmed a number of murders.  Admiral Cockburn and other commanders subsequently established stronger measures to ensure the safety of civilians.[88]
British Colonial Marine

British Colonial Marine

However intimidating the presence of British troops and ships to white Americans, it posed the possibility of freedom for enslaved black Americans in the Chesapeake region.  Hundreds made their way to British lines, much as an earlier generation of slaves had done in the War for Independence.  The British Admiralty issued instructions not to encourage a slave revolt but to accept runaway slaves and employ any able-bodied men in the British Colonial Marines if they chose.  Those who did so received training, pay, extra rations, and red jackets.  The black recruits quickly proved their worth, as they knew the local terrain and were used as spies, guides, and messengers.  They were also disciplined and courageous, much to the surprise of Admiral Cockburn.  As he wrote, “they have induced me to alter the bad opinion I had of the whole of their Race and I now really believe these, we are training, will neither show want of zeal of courage when employed by us in attacking their old Masters.”  Irrespective of British instructions, the remaking of slaves into British soldiers evoked fears in the white community of a slave rebellion, as had happened in Haiti a decade earlier; hence, much effort was expended on patrolling for escaped slaves.  One oddity was that Cockburn allowed American slave owners to come aboard his ships and plead with their former slaves to return.  He insisted that the refugees had come to him of their own will and could only return to their “masters” under their own volition.  None did so.[89]

“Freedom Halifax, 1814,” painting by Richard Rudnicki, depicting the arrival of black refugees to Halifax during the War of 1812 (commissioned by the Army Museum at Halifax Citadel)

On April 2 1814, the commander of all North American operations, Vice-Admiral Alexander Cochrane, issued an official proclamation offering American slaves the choice of joining “His Majesty’s Sea or Land Forces” or “being sent as FREE settlers to the British Possessions in North America or the West Indies, where they will meet with due encouragement.”[90]  That same month, a base camp for escaped slaves was constructed on Tangier Island.  The British struggled to provide the refugees with food, medical care, and other necessities, and plundering the local area increased as a consequence.  The British government followed through with its promise of freedom, taking about 2,000 escaped slaves to Halifax, Nova Scotia.  Life was not easy there, but the government offered provisions for the first two years along with ten acres of land.  Other freed men and women were settled in Trinidad.

Overall, at least 3,600 people escaped from American slavery with the aid of the British, including 600 men who joined the British Colonial Marines.  More than two-thirds (2,500) were from the Chesapeake Bay region.  Virginia and Maryland slave owners, meanwhile, submitted claims for compensation for the loss of their property, and Great Britain later paid many of the claims.[91]  American slave owners thus followed in the footsteps of their slave owning presidents – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison – in demanding rights and opportunities for themselves while denying the most basic rights to African Americans.
The British counteroffensive in 1814
Three-pronged British counteroffensive in 1814

Three-pronged British counteroffensive in 1814

The defeat of French forces in Paris on March 31, 1814, and Napoleon’s subsequent exile opened the way for Great Britain to redirect its forces against the United States.  By September 1814, 13,000 British soldiers had been transferred to the American front, bringing the total British force of regulars to 30,000.  Another 10,000 would arrived by the end of the year.  The British devised a three-part counteroffensive:  from the north, British forces would move down Lake Champlain and take Plattsburgh in upstate New York; from the east, they would move into the Chesapeake Bay and capture Washington and Baltimore; and from the south, they would take possession of the Gulf Coast forts at Mobile and Pensacola, and capture New Orleans.  Possession of this American real estate would allow Great Britain to dictate the terms of peace, perhaps carving out an Indian homeland in the Old Northwest Territory.  The U.S. necessarily shifted to a defensive strategy.  The situation was aptly described by Joseph Nicholson, a Baltimore judge:  “We should have to fight hereafter not for ‘free Trade and sailors rights,’ not for the Conquest of the Canadas, but for our national Existence.”[92]

Vengeance was a secondary motive in the British counteroffensive.  On July 18, 1814, Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane ordered all British squadrons under his North American command to take aggressive action against American communities as revenge for, and in proportion to, American abuses of Canadian communities:

You are hereby required and directed to destroy and lay waste such towns and districts upon the coast as you may find assailable.  You will hold strictly in view the conduct of the American army toward his Majesty’s unoffending Canadian subjects, and you will spare merely the lives of the unarmed inhabitants of the United States.  For only by carrying this retributory justice into the country of our enemy can we hope to make him sensible to the impropriety as well as the inhumanity of the system he has adopted.  You will take every opportunity of explaining to the people how much I lament the necessity of following the rigorous example of the commander of the American forces.  And as these commanders must obviously have acted under instructions from the Executive government of the United States, whose intimate and unnatural connection with the late government of France has led them to adopt the same system of plunder and devastation, it is therefore to their own government the unfortunate sufferers must look for indemnification for the loss of property.

It was the Golden Rule in reverse:  do unto others as they have done to you – until they learn their lesson!  The order was to remain in force until the U.S. government had agreed “to make full remuneration to the injured and unoffending inhabitants of the Canadas for all the outrages their troops have committed.”  A copy of the order was sent to Washington.  By mid-July, two dozen British warships and additional transports carrying 4,500 troops had arrived in the Chesapeake Bay.  The commander of the squadron, Admiral Cockburn, issued his own orders to his troops to “lay waste” towns and villages while sparing the lives of unarmed inhabitants.  This order was coupled with a secret memorandum exempting from harm those places that furnished supplies to the British.  As there was no resistance to the British in many towns, private homes and property were often spared, while government property and ships were seized or destroyed.  The lack of resistance also seemed to have a salutary effect on some British soldiers, who “expressed ambivalence about fighting Americans at all because they realized the close kinship between Britons and Americans,” according to Jon Latimer.[93]

On August 19, 4,000 British soldiers under Major General Robert Ross began their march to Washington.  The Madison administration was ill-prepared for an invasion, believing that this city of 8,000 people was of little military value and would be left alone.  Brigadier General William Winder belatedly rounded up some 7,000 American regulars, militia, sailors, and marines to defend the city, but the force was poorly organized.  U.S. soldiers made a stand at the village of Bladensburg on August 24 but were routed in three hours.  The British then marched into Washington unopposed, arriving about 8:00 p.m.  According to Donald Hickey:

A group of British officers headed by Cockburn entered the White House.  “We found a supper all ready,” one recalled, “which many of us speedily consumed . . . and drank some very good wine also.”  Having satisfied their appetites, the British took some souvenirs and then set fire to the building.  They also burned the Capitol (which included the Library of Congress), the Treasury, and the building housing the War and State departments.[94]

British soldiers burned public buildings in Washington but spared private houses

Cockburn ordered most public buildings burned but spared private dwellings.  As one journalist put it, “This was to be a civilized sacking; no rapes, no murders, minimal plundering. They even spared the Patent Office after being persuaded that patents were private property.”[95]  There was little time for plunder, in any case, as a violent storm swept through the city the next day, dousing fires and compelling the British to leave.

Failing the defense of the city, President Madison sought to win the propaganda war by denouncing the British for immoral behavior and, of course, denying any corresponding behavior on the part of U.S. forces.  On September 1, he issued a statement charging that the British had engaged in “extended devastation and barbarism” in the Chesapeake area and exhibited a “deliberate disregard of the principles of humanity and the rules of civilized warfare.”  He furthermore challenged the “insulting pretext” that British actions were “in retaliation for a wanton destruction committed by the army of the United States in Upper Canada, when it is notorious that no destruction has been committed.”[96]  In the battle for hearts and minds, President Madison allowed no moral equivalence to be drawn between the conduct of British and U.S. forces.
Three weeks after the attack on Washington, the British began their assault on Baltimore.  Unlike Washington, the third largest city in the U.S. was protected by a substantial fort – Fort McHenry.  The ability of the American battalion in the fort to withstand a fierce British bombardment on the night of September 13-14 has become legendary, immortalized in the Star Spangled Banner.  The 1,000-man American force under the command of Major George Armistead suffered only four killed and 24 wounded.[97]  As the British could not proceed without taking the fort, they decided to end their Chesapeake campaign.
Macdonough's victory on Lake Champlain and defeat of the British Army at Plattsburg by Genl. Macomb, Sept. 17th 1814 / painted by H. Reinagle ; engraved by B. Tanner.

Battle of Plattsburg on Lake Champlain (1816 painting by Hugh Reinagle, Library of Congress)

The British invasion of Plattsburg also failed.  In early September, Sir George Prevost, the Governor-in-Chief of Canada, assembled 16,000 troops in preparation for an assault on Plattsburg.  The key battle took place on Lake Champlain.  On one side was a British squadron commanded by Captain George Downie consisting of four warships (total of 75 guns) and twelve smaller gunboats (total of 17 guns).  On the other side was an American fleet under Lieutenant Thomas Macdonough consisting of four warships (total of 70 guns) and ten gunboats (total of 16 guns).  On the morning of September 11, the cannon balls and grape shot began flying.  After two and a half hours, the largest British ship surrendered, soon followed by others.  Provost ordered a retreat, not being confident that his troops could be resupplied without control of the lake.  Total casualties were light, about 100 on each side, which led many on the British-Canadian side to question Prevost’s decision to retreat.[98]

On the southern front, Admiral Cochrane’s squadron landed troops in the Spanish port city of Pensacola in August 1814 and proceeded to arm and recruit potential allies – Seminoles, Creeks, and African Americans, both slave and free.  The following month, Major Edward Nichols led an expedition against Fort Bowyer, outside the town of Mobile, which the United States had seized from Spain in 1813.  A combined British naval bombardment and land attack failed to dislodge an American force of some 160 soldiers under Major William Lawrence, and the British withdrew.  In November, with General Andrew Jackson and a force of 4,100 regulars, militia, and Indians bearing down on Pensacola, the British withdrew from this town as well, leaving the British-allied Native Americans and African Americans to fend for themselves.

The three defensive victories in September 1814 heartened Americans, but the overall outlook was still grim – for a number of reasons.  Militarily, none of the British defeats involved heavy casualties, thus large scale invasions were still possible (one later took place at New Orleans).  British coastal raids were becoming more destructive and the blockade prevented most American warships from leaving port in 1814.  As Donald Hickey notes, “the navy actually suffered its greatest losses to British troops operating inland,” as it was forced to burn a number of its own ships – the Columbia, Argus, and Adams – in order to keep them out of British hands.  In addition, between June and September, British forces took over northern Maine, giving them “effective control over 100 miles of the Maine coast.”

The Royal Navy also cut off the nation’s coastal islands from the mainland.  Although Nantucket was dominated by Republicans who supported the war, by August of 1814 the threat of starvation was so acute that the island had to declare its neutrality.  In exchange for surrendering its public stores, supplying British warships, and discontinuing the payment of federal taxes, Nantucket won the right to import provisions and fuel from the mainland and to fish in nearby waters. . . .[99]

The British blockade was taking a toll on the whole American economy, shutting down not only oceanic trade but also coastal trade.  The federal government’s finances were also in jeopardy.  Having failed to plan for a long war, let alone an invasion of the United States, the government was running out of sources of loans to meet payroll and keep the war going, and the idea of raising taxes met with stiff resistance in the depressed economy.  Secretary of the Treasury George W. Campbell was so frustrated that he quit after only eight months in office (February to October 1814).  President Madison tried to put the best face on the situation.  In his Sixth Annual Message to Congress on September 20, 1814, he encouraged Americans to “cheerfully and proudly bear every burden of every kind which the safety and honor of the nation demand.”  Perhaps thinking of the historical record, he also assured Americans that the British were responsible for the war, having abused “the tranquility of the civilized and commercial world.”[100]

Peace negotiations began in the Belgian city of Ghent on August 8, 1814, and continued until December 24, 1814, when American and British diplomats signed a treaty.  News of the treaty reached New York harbor on February 11 and quickly spread across the country.  The Senate ratified the treaty on February 16, thereby formally ending the war.  Unaware that a treaty had been signed, however, British and American forces in the field and at sea continued to fight in early 1815.

American forces in the Battle Of New Orleans  (Library of Congress)

On the southern front, Royal Navy Admiral Alexander Cochrane had hoped to form an alliance with dissident Indians, escaped slaves, and Spanish soldiers, but this proved untenable.  The “Red Stick” Creeks had been defeated by General Andrew Jackson’s army in late March 1814 and the Spanish evacuated Pensacola in early November.  Regardless, Cochrane joined forces with British Army General Edward Pakenham for a major assault on New Orleans.

Skirmishes began in mid-December, leading up to the final battle on January 8, 1815.  “The attacking force consisted of roughly eight thousand disciplined regulars of the British army, including the Royal Fusiliers, Highlanders, Light Infantry, and Light Dragoons, a West Indian regiment, and sailors from the fleet anchored in the Gulf of Mexico,” writes the American historian Robert V. Remini.  “The defending army consisted of about four thousand frontiersmen, militiamen, regular soldiers, free men of color, Indians, pirates, and townspeople who were strung along a line from the Mississippi River to a cypress swamp and crouched behind a millrace ditch that had bales of cotton placed atop its northern edge.”[101]  The outcome was a lopsided victory for American forces under General Andrew Jackson.  Defensive land preparations, including the flooding of fields, heavy cannon fire, and a capable and diverse fighting force combined to inflict heavy casualties.  The British suffered over 2,000 killed, wounded, captured, or missing, while the Americans sustained just over 100.
News of the astonishing American victory reached the rest of the country before news of the peace treaty, leading many to believe that the American victory at New Orleans had caused the British to back down.  In fact, the British absorbed their losses and carried on.  Departing from New Orleans, Admiral Cochrane’s squadron bombarded Fort St. Philip, located 65 miles downriver, then sailed east and launched another attack on Fort Bowyer in Mobile Bay.  This time, the American commander surrendered.  British forces were about to occupy the town of Mobile when Cochrane got word of the treaty.[102]  The British still had the resources to pursue the war, but London was ready for peace.

V. Domestic divisions, debates, and opposition to the War of 1812

The War of 1812 was divisive from beginning to end.  It tested democratic principles, which call for open debate, against the pressures of war, which demand national unity.  The debate over the War of 1812 was vigorous, cantankerous, and sometimes vicious.  Newspapers aligned with one party or the other issued a steady stream of commentary and criticism.  Town meetings, especially in the Northeast, served as venues for debate, petitions, and proclamations.  Political views made their way into sermons, and sermons made their way into the broader community via printed pamphlets.  For almost three years, accusations and blistering criticism filled the air.
The War of 1812 also tested America’s commitment to justice and, like the War for Independence, the nation failed the test with regard to African Americans.  The arrival of the British on American shores posed the possibility of freedom for those in bondage.  Some who escaped chose to fight with the British Colonial Marines, while some free blacks, when allowed, joined American forces.

The African American divide

The fact that one-sixth of the U.S. population was enslaved in 1810 constituted not only an enormous injustice but also a military danger for the United States.  Had the British been able to send more ships and troops to America, one can imagine that 250,000 slaves (half the number of slaves in the Chesapeake region) might have escaped instead of 2,500, and that 60,000 men might have joined the British Colonial Marines instead of 600.  The resulting disturbance to the economy and bolstering of British power could have been overwhelming, allowing Great Britain to dictate the terms of the treaty.  It is thus fitting to consider American efforts to retain the loyalty of African Americans both slave and free.
U.S. forces in New Orleans included free blacks and Choctaw Indians

U.S. forces in New Orleans included free blacks and Choctaw Indians (U.S. Army Center of Military History)

General Andrew Jackson’s victory at New Orleans was due in no small part to his enlistment of free blacks and slaves in the defense of the city.  Jackson, a slave owner himself, had previously rejected the inclusion of African Americans under his command.  His dire need for soldiers and laborers, however, impelled him to change course.  He was well aware of the aid given to the British by escaped slaves in the Chesapeake region.  He was also aware of the slave uprising just outside New Orleans in January 1811, in which 500 slaves armed with axes, hoes, pikes, and a few firearms marched toward the town, plundering plantations and freeing slaves along the way.  That revolt was speedily suppressed, but fear and suspicion remained among whites.

In December 1814, Jackson visited a number of large plantations to make a personal appeal to both slaves and slave owners.  A slave named James Roberts later recalled that Jackson told them he wanted “to enlist five hundred negroes,” and that if “victory is gained, you shall be free.” Jackson reportedly obtained from the slave owners their word of honor that they would grant the slaves freedom once victory had been secured.  This promise motivated Roberts and other slaves to join Jackson’s forces.  Roberts suffered a head wound and lost a finger in the battle of New Orleans.  Most other slaves were employed in strenuous, large-scale projects such as erecting defensive embankments and digging a canal at Chalmette field.

General Andrew Jackson

Once victory had been attained, however, Jackson reneged on his promise.  He refused to grant the slaves freedom, telling them that he could not “take another man’s property and set it free” and to “go home and mind their masters.”  Jackson’s deceit earned him no censure in the white community.  Indeed, they celebrated him as a hero.  His false promise had not only secured the necessary means to protect the city but also dissuaded many slaves from escaping to British lines.  As it was, only 160 escaped slaves departed with the British – and not before Admiral Alexander Cochrane allowed American slave owners to board his ships and directly appeal to the liberated men and women to return.[103]

Free blacks played a significant role in the defense of New Orleans.  Prior to the U.S. acquisition of New Orleans in 1803, a free black militia had served under the Spanish government.  In September 1812, the first legislature of Louisiana continued this legacy by authorizing the organization of a free black militia corps, consisting of four companies of sixty-four men each commanded by white officers.  Jackson recruited these companies along with other free black men.  In mid-December 1814, he appealed to them “to share in the perils and to divide the glory of your white countrymen.”  Although they had no voting rights, he addressed them as “sons of freedom” and “brave fellow citizens,” terms that riled many white residents.  Jackson promised that those who joined him would “be paid the same bounty in money and lands” as white soldiers, amounting to $124 in cash and 160 acres of land.  A total of 600 free blacks enlisted, amounting to ten percent of Jackson’s forces.[104]  Free black soldiers did receive the same pay as white soldiers, but land bounties were much delayed and their opportunities remained limited.  The American historian Gene Allen Smith comments:

Unfortunately, military service did not elevate the status of free blacks, creating instead renewed suspicion and distrust.  Nor did their service win for them the immediate pensions, land warrants, and bounties promised by Jackson.  In fact, a generation passed before black soldiers began receiving pensions, and many had to be renewed periodically by the state legislature.  The promises of land were not fulfilled until the 1850s, and even then most of the survivors or their descendants sold their holdings for cash. . . . Unfortunately, many of the freemen of color had died before the federal government finally lived up to Old Hickory’s promise.[105]

1861 photograph

George Roberts, free black privateer from Baltimore (1861 photo, Maryland State Archives)

In 1812, neither the U.S. Army nor U.S. Navy officially accepted African Americans into their ranks.  Navy recruiters, however, often ignored this ban in meeting their recruitment goals, listing the men on muster rolls by occupation instead of race.  African Americans constituted about fifteen percent of the U.S. Navy during the war.  The close quarters on ships allowed for no segregation.  Commander Isaac Chauncey described the fifty black sailors on his ship as “excellent seamen” and “among my best men.”  Commander Oliver Hazard Perry found them “as good and useful as any men on board.”  Black sailors also crewed privateer ships.  Of the 6,550 American sailors captured by the British Royal Navy during the war, 955, or 14.5 percent, were African American. The acceptance of free black soldiers was much more limited.  Most state and local militias rejected black participation until the British counteroffensive directly threatened their communities.  Following the burning of Washington in August 1814, Baltimore leaders called on all “able bodied free men of colour,” of whom there were about 220 in the city, to “turn out and labour on the Fortifications or other works.”  They did so, making an important contribution to the defense of the city.[106]  Although free blacks were excluded from the Maryland militia, black sailors participated in the fighting around the city.  Among the “enemy” they sought to kill were 200 African Americans, former slaves from the region, fighting with the British Colonial Marines.

Pennsylvania historical marker

Pennsylvania historical marker

Elsewhere, the British blockade of the New York harbor during the summer of 1814 belatedly convinced state leaders to allow blacks to enlist in the state militia.  In October, the New York legislature passed a law providing for two regiments of black soldiers (2,160).  Even slaves would be allowed to participate if they had permission from their master.  (New York still had about 13,000 slaves at the time, as the state’s 1802 gradual emancipation law did not fully abolish slavery until the last slave turned 25 in 1827.)  Before the new militia policy could be implemented, however, the war ended.

The desperate recruitment of blacks in the last months of the War of 1812 did not appreciably raise the status of free blacks and did nothing to alter the momentum toward the entrenchment of slavery in southern states and its expansion into western territories.  The nation was guided, after all, by three slaveholding presidents from Virginia during the first quarter of the 19th century (Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe).  White memories of the “treasonous” activities of escaped slaves eclipsed any gratitude that might be offered to African Americans who fought for their country.  Free black aspirations for opportunity and equality undermined the racist ideological framework on which slavery and white domination depended.  “The patriotic civic efforts” of blacks, writes Smith, “would not reshape white minds about what role they should play in society.  In fact, in the aftermath of the war black-white relations would worsen as the collective memory ignored their contributions to the conflict.”[107]

Federalists and other dissenters

One of the ironies of the War of 1812 was that the Federalist Party had long been the party of national defense, advocating federal expenditures for naval ships and coastal fortifications.  The Democratic Republican Party, in contrast, had sought to minimize military appropriations in the interest of keeping taxes low and balancing the federal budget, the exception being appropriations for Indian wars.  The Federalist Party was not antiwar per se; rather, it opposed the War of 1812 for specific reasons.  Those reasons were laid out in numerous speeches, sermons, pamphlets, petitions, local and state government declarations, and a lengthy letter by thirty-four dissident members of Congress.
As Congress debated the war resolution in June 1812, the Rhode Island General Assembly warned that war would open the nation to “invasion and pillage” by the British and their allies and would incur “great expenses.”  The Massachusetts House of Representatives declared that war “would be in the highest degree impolitic, unnecessary, and ruinous,” adding that “the great body of the people of this Commonwealth are decidedly opposed to this measure, which they do not believe to be demanded by the honor or interests of the nation.”[108]  Dissenting Congressional representatives argued that British actions on the high seas, while “humiliating to our national pride,” were not of a nature to justify war; and that the Indian war in the northwest, which had been initiated by the Madison administration without “any express act of Congress,” would only aggravate the situation by adding Great Britain to America’s enemies.[109]  A New York Evening Post editorial pointed out that the members of Congress demanding war would not be the ones to suffer from it:  “The war-hounds that are howling for war through the continent are not to be the men who are to force entrenchments, and scale ramparts against the bayonet and the cannon’s mouth: to perish in sickly camps, or in long marches through the sultry heats or wastes of snow.”  Instead, it will be “the honest yeomanry of our country” who send their sons to fight a war which amounts to “perfect madness.”[110]

When the votes were cast, opposition to the war resolution was concentrated in the New England states (except Vermont), New York, and New Jersey, where the Federalist Party was strongest.  In the table below, House and Senate votes are combined for each state:

StateNumber of votesVotes for war Percentage for war
Rhode Island400%
New York16425%
New Jersey8338%
New Hampshire7457%
North Carolina11872%
South Carolina1010100%
Governor Caleb Strong of Massachusetts was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787

Governor Caleb Strong

Two weeks after the U.S. enacted a formal declaration of war, Federalists gathered in New Jersey and called for its repeal.  Governor Caleb Strong of Massachusetts, a prominent Federalist who had been a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, proclaimed July 23, 1812 a day of public fasting in order to mourn a war “against the nation from which we are descended, and which for many generations has been the bulwark of the religion we profess.”  Similar proclamations were issued by Governors Roger Griswold of Connecticut and William Jones of Rhode Island.  John Lowell, a state legislator in Massachusetts, produced a widely read pamphlet, titled “Mr. Madison’s War,” which challenged every justification for the war.  He contended that “no new cause of irritation exists against her [Great Britain] which has not existed for five years,” and that President Madison’s arguments were a “tissue of exaggerations” designed “to deceive and irritate the people, and to drive them into a ruinous war of an offensive nature.”[111]

The New England clergy weighed in on the issue, mostly against the war.  Reverend David Osgood, a resident of New Hampshire wrote in A Solemn Protest Against the Late Declaration of War that it was his duty to bear witness “against wickedness.”  George Hough’s In Defense of the Clergy explained why so many Congregational and Presbyterian ministers opposed the war.  Whereas the British had “sent their armies here to invade us” in the War for Independence, he noted, “in the present war, we have sent our armies to invade neighboring provinces which have lived peaceably by us.  That was on our part a war of self defence; this is obviously a war for conquest.”[112]  Such principled arguments appealed to secular as well as religious sensibilities.

Federalist newspapers in Baltimore (top) and Boston

Antiwar sentiments were not unanimous across the Northeast.  While the Massachusetts House condemned the war, the Massachusetts Senate, with a Democratic Republican majority, passed a resolution in support of the war:  “The rightful authority has decreed.  Opposition must cease.  He that is not for his country is against it.”  Such resolutions dispensed with logical arguments to persuade and instead relied on authority and patriotic loyalty to intimidate.  In Baltimore, intimidation turned violent when a Republican mob destroyed the office of the Federal Republican in June 1812.  When the newspaper reappeared on the streets the next month, mobs reassembled and attacked, leaving one dead and two others mortally wounded, including the publisher.  Republican partisans in Savannah, Georgia, and Norristown, Pennsylvania, also drove Federalist newspapers out of business in 1812, while other Federalist editors were warned to tone down their opposition to the war.  According to Donald Hickey, “There was enough violence and threats of violence to suggest a pattern.”  Democratic Republican newspapers had no qualms about inciting citizens against Federalist critics.  The Baltimore American editorialized, “there are but two parties, Citizen Soldiers and Enemies . . . Americans and Tories.”  The leading Democratic Republican newspaper, the Washington National Intelligencer, proclaimed, “He that is not for us must be considered as against us and treated accordingly.”[113]

In New England, where a majority of citizens opposed the war, intimidation was not successful.  The debate continued and criticism of the war was vociferous in the press.  Pro-war and anti-war advocates organized competing conventions.  On July 14, 1812, for example, the town of Northampton, Massachusetts held a peace convention attended by fifty-seven local representatives.  One week later, the same town held a convention for those who supported the war.  The latter passed a series of resolutions, including one that condemned the previous convention, stating that “all meetings and conventions for the purpose of opposing the general government and the laws of the union [are] dangerous during the existence of the present war and highly criminal.”  President Madison articulated a similar message in his refined language, telling Americans in early July, “Whatever opinions men of different sentiments may have imbibed with regard to the prevailing policy of the government, a sacred obligation is now imposed, magnanimously to drown all party contentions and political bickerings.”[110]114
Local and state leaders who opposed the war were nonetheless committed to protecting their communities from possible British attacks – a point of agreement with pro-war advocates.  Indeed, much of their animosity toward the Madison administration in the ensuing years derived from the administration’s unwillingness or inability (due to a shortage of funds) to pay for fortifications and local militia training and operations.  Local leaders, especially those in coastal towns, were infuriated that state militias were being requisitioned to fight on the western frontier or to invade Canada while their own communities were left defenseless.  In their view, the Madison administration was neglecting its constitutional responsibility to “provide for the common defense.”
British General Sir John Coape Sherbrooke, Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia

Sir John Sherbrooke

Some communities took matters into their own hands.  While Congress debated the war resolution in June 1812, the citizens of Eastport, in the District of Maine (part of the state of Massachusetts), informed their Canadian neighbors in nearby St. John, New Brunswick that they had “agreed to preserve a good understanding with the Inhabitants of New Brunswick, and to discountenance all depredations on the Property of each other.”  According to the historian James Ellis, “The British authorities responded accordingly.  Sir John C. Sherbrooke, the lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia, and his naval chief, Vice Admiral Herbert Sawyer, informed Eastporters that British forces were under orders to respect their persons and property ‘so long as they shall carry on their usual and accustomed trade and intercourse’ with the maritime provinces ‘and abstain from acts of hostility and molestation towards the inhabitants thereof and their property.’  A state of neutrality benefited both sides.”  Other Maine communities were similarly disposed toward maintaining peaceful relations with their Canadian neighbors, but a few went along with the president.  The town of Monmouth, for example, approved a resolution stating, “we do highly approve of the act of Congress declaring war” and that “we will consider all persons calculated and intended to create disunion . . . as enemies to the best interest and well-being of our common country.”[115]

Although four out of five of Vermont’s members of Congress voted for the war resolution, many small Vermont communities were disinclined to pursue war.  “Anti-war feeling had become so strong in certain Vermont towns that they refused to pay for soldiers or assist enlistment officers,” writes the historian J. I. Little, “and communities on both sides of the border entered into mutual agreements to refrain from molesting one another.”  Smuggling goods across the border became a mainstay of the local economy in northern Vermont as well in the border towns of Maine and New York.  Despite harsh penalties, occasional seizures of goods, and ongoing patriotic appeals, trade across the Canadian border continued.  The inhabitants of Alburg, Vermont, even signed a contract with the British Army in December 1812 to supply it with 2,000 fat hogs and 2,000 bushels of wheat.  An exasperated U.S. militia captain reported in early September 1813 that the whole New England countryside was being stripped of provisions (for export to Canada) and that a Canadian agent was openly contracting for supplies  Vermonters also replaced their pro-war Democratic Republican governor with an antiwar Federalist governor in 1813.[116]
Underpinning the smuggling operations was an economic depression that gripped the Northeast.  The depression was a predictable result of the war, which cut off trade with Great Britain (except for wheat shipments to the Iberian Peninsula) and left all oceanic trade vulnerable to capture by the Royal Navy or Canadian privateers.  New Englanders had experienced something similar during President Jefferson’s embargo, when domestic exports dropped from $49 million in 1807 to $9 million in 1808.  Smuggling became a way of life at that time; or put another way, New Englanders engaged in free trade while Washington prohibited it.  It was not the British and French who destroyed American prosperity in this period, argues Donald Hickey.  “It was none other than the United States government, whose policies of economic coercion and war had a devastating impact on American trade and public revenue.”  The fact that the Democratic Republicans promoted the embargo under the banner of “free trade” only added insult to injury, as the intent was to shut down all maritime trade.  As one Massachusetts legislator put it, “The interdiction of foreign commerce, for an indefinite period, by perpetual laws, is justly considered a total annihilation of it.”[117]  The embargo was also a partisan and sectional policy.  It was implemented by the Democratic Republicans, with their stronghold in the agricultural South and West, while the economic hardship fell disproportionately on the trade-dependent Northeast, where the Federalist Party dominated.  The suffering of Northeasterners was deemed acceptable for the good of the whole.  Some in the Northeast began to talk of secession at that time, as the policies of the federal government seemed as oppressive as those of Great Britain in the 1770s.
The arrival of British squadrons off the coast of New England in the spring of 1814 accentuated personal and economic insecurities.  With little ability to protect themselves, some local communities chose to accommodate the Royal Navy.  The British again responded in kind.  Following a peace agreement with the Island of Nantucket, a Boston newspaper reported, “Officers and sailors were frequently on shore and behaved very civil and polite; and were received in a very friendly manner, and entertained by the inhabitants.”[118]  Governor Strong was similarly inclined to avoid military conflict with the British, but he was also obliged to defend his state from attacks.  Hence, on September 6, 1814, he ordered “the whole of the militia to hold themselves in readiness to march at a moment’s warning.”[119]  The following day, he summoned the Massachusetts legislature to a special session.  The legislature issued a report charging that Washington was “dooming us to enormous taxation” in organizing the defense of the state, and recommended convening a regional convention.[120]

Campaign poster from the election of 1804 accusing Federalists of being Tories, traitors, and the  “hireling tools” of King George III who, if elected, will “enslave you” and impose “heavy taxation”

The idea of a regional conference excited hopes among some New Englanders, notably John Lowell, that the region might move toward more autonomy, if not secede from the national union.  That hope was thoroughly discouraged by conference organizers but nonetheless gained visibility from critics who wanted to taint the Federalists as treasonous (a well-honed tactic of political election campaigns).  The Hartford Convention met from December 15, 1814, to January 5, 1815.  Its proceedings were not published until after the conference, thus increasing speculation and accusations.  The delegates addressed a number of specific grievances and, in the end, proposed seven constitutional amendments, including recommendations that embargoes be restricted to sixty days and that war declarations require two-thirds approval of both houses of Congress (neither was enacted).  Governor Strong, meanwhile, had begun to quietly explore the possibility of a separate peace with Great Britain, sending an envoy in mid-November to meet with British General Sherbrooke at Halifax.  Such a peace agreement would be necessary only if President Madison refused to agree to peace terms in Ghent.  Should the war continue, in other words, Massachusetts might find itself in the same position as Nantucket Island, faced with the choice of desolation or a separate peace agreement.

One of the common misconceptions about the Federalist Party is that its outspoken opposition to the War of 1812 led to its demise.  The party did fade out in the late 1810s but not because of its opposition to the war.  The party actually gained seats in Congress during the war years, indicating popular support for the antiwar position in some regions.  The party’s share of Congressional seats increased from 20% to 29% in the Senate, and 25% to 37% in the House in the 13th Congress (1813-1815).  In the 14th Congress (1815-1817), the Federalist Party still held 32% of Senate seats, a slight increase, and 35% of House seats, a slight dip.[121]  In the aftermath of the war, the Democratic Republicans pounced on the Hartford Convention as “treason” and proclaimed the war a victory for national honor.
“Opposition to the war was popular during the conflict but not afterwards,” writes Donald Hickey, “and Federalists found it particularly difficult to live down the notoriety of the Hartford Convention. . . . It mattered not that the Federalists had predicted the futility of the conflict and that the Treaty of Ghent had proven them right.  What mattered was that the nation had emerged from the war without surrendering any rights or territory and with just enough triumphs – both on land and on sea – to give the appearance of victory.”[122]
Noah Worcester

Noah Worcester

Although the Federalist Party faded out of existence in the postwar era, the antiwar movement that began during the war continued to evolve.  In August 1815, David Low Dodge, a Christian pacifist and businessman, organized the New York Peace Society.  The executive committee was limited to pacifists, but the organization welcomed all citizens interested in peace.  A few months later, Noah Worcester, a Unitarian minister, founded the Massachusetts Peace Society.  The two leaders spread their views in part through Worcester’s A Solemn Review of the Custom of War (1814) and Dodge’s War Inconsistent with the Religion of Jesus Christ (1815).  Within a few years, nearly fifty peace societies had formed in a triangular area stretching from Maine to Ohio to Pennsylvania.  The leaders of these peace societies tended to speak in religious terms but pursued practical goals such as the creation of a Congress of Nations to settle disputes between nations.  They encouraged Anglo-American reconciliation and networked with their counterparts in Great Britain.  In 1828, the various groups joined to form the first national peace organization, the American Peace Society.[123]

Debate in Great Britain

British officials, political leaders, business interests, the press, and the public all debated British policies toward the United States.  The views expressed can be roughly divided into two categories:  those tending toward sympathy with the U.S. and those tending toward severity and antagonism.  The competing sentiments were not set in stone, but shifted one way or the other depending on developments and U.S. actions.
Sympathy for the U.S. derived in part from cultural roots. Many Britons viewed Americans as part of the greater British family.  Just as Governor Strong had invoked the honorable heritage of Great Britain in his call for a public fast, so many Britons regarded the United States as an English-speaking relative and fellow democratic nation (even if Americans saw themselves as superior in this dimension).  For more than a decade before the war, notes Troy Bickham, British officials had tried to impress on Jefferson and Madison administrations that “France, not Britain, was the real threat to American security and commerce.”  The Federalists were receptive to this message, but the Democratic Republicans were not.  When the United States declared war on Great Britain, many Britons were incredulous.  A British merchant who had just returned from the United States wondered how the American government could “aid and abet Napoleon, the Gallic tyrant,” and turn on Great Britain.  “Hatred of tyranny, the admiration of valour are the shared principles of the British and American people,” he wrote, “and France has laid prostrate the liberties of continental Europe, and openly aims the subjugation of the world.”  According to Donald Hickey, “Most Britons were understandably miffed, if not angered, by the American declaration of war.  They were convinced that their very survival was at stake in the European war and that the future of Western Civilization hung in the balance.”[124]
A persistent source of antagonism was the competition between the U.S. and Great Britain for trade advantage.  The British government, along with manufacturing and shipping interests and much of the public, regarded British dominance in oceanic trade as something of a right.  The fact that the United States, having sacrificed nothing, was benefiting enormously as a neutral power and, more than this, whining about its “right” to gain more advantages, struck many Britons as selfish and myopic.  Although few regarded this as a source of war, many wanted to teach the U.S. a lesson in humility.  On the other hand, there were some who judged British trade policies as too harsh, validating at least in part American criticisms of British maritime policy.  U.S. embargoes also pushed Britons to reconsider their trade policies.  According to Bickham, “The campaign to repeal the Orders in Council received enormous popular support, as evidenced by the tens of thousands of names on hundreds of petitions from all over the country.  Critics argued that the solution to the unemployment, machine breaking, and general unrest was repeal of the Orders in Council and the election of a new government.”  When the British government finally suspended its Orders-in-Council in mid-June 1812, supporters of accommodation fully expected the Madison administration to reciprocate by calling off the war.  When it did not, antagonism toward the U.S. increased, although not toward the Federalists.[125]

1812 British cartoon: Gabriel, the angel, blows a message, “Bad news for you,” to President James Madison, who stands between Napoleon and the Devil. Madison says, “‘Tis you two that have brought this Disgrace upon me – support me or I sink!”  Napoleon counsels, “I suffer greater hardships than you, but the Devil will help us both.” The Devil says, “I must carry them to hell…”  On the left, Great Britain extends her shield of protection to an Indian woman, with Canadian civilians and British troops in the background

Verbal jousting also increased antagonism, particularly attacks on character.  A “War Manifesto” issued by the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Relations Committee on June 3, 1812, for example, read, “The mad ambition, the lust of power, and commercial avarice of Great Britain, arrogating to herself the complete dominion of the ocean, and exercising over it an unbounded and lawless tyranny, have left to neutral nations an alternative only between the base surrender of their rights, and a manly vindication of them.”[126]  The British government responded in January 1813 with a “Manifesto Against America” that dismissed American grievances as “trivial,” asserted that the real American goal was aggression against British North America, and judged that the American soul was filled with “lust for power” abetted by “French tyranny.”  The Quebec Gazette similarly editorialized, “Let the hostility of the United States to Great Britain be attributed to its true cause . . . that vicious love of power, engendered by their political institutions; that insatiable thirst to gain which so invariably prevails in a country where money is the only source of distinction, and that inquietude which is never contented with present enjoyments.”[127]

However aggrieved by the real and imagined insults and challenges arising from America, the British public was thoroughly worn down by war.  “No other nation was more militarized,” writes Bickham, “with as many as one in five male Britons in arms by 1805, and the loss of life among mobilized British men was proportionately greater than any modern war before or since.”  The total number of British military deaths during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815) has been conservatively estimated at 290,000 (as compared to less than 10,000 in the American War of 1812).[128]  The peace movement in Great Britain tapped into this frustration and encouraged a more generous view of Britain’s rivals.  As in the U.S., it aided in the reconciliation of Great Britain and the United States in the aftermath of the War of 1812.

VI.  The Treaty of Ghent and beyond

Peace treaties have historically been determined by military advantage.  A defeated nation or empire has little leverage in negotiations and can be forced to cede territory and rights, and to make reparation payments to the victor.  In the lead-up to the Treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814, Washington and London vied for military advantage on the ground.  Depending on the outcome of battles, the British could lose all or part of Canada and the United States could be forced to cede a large swath of territory for a new Indian homeland.  The stakes were high.

In April 1813, Russia offered to mediate a peace agreement.  The Madison administration was quick to accept the offer, as U.S. gains were expected in Canada.  A three-person commission was chosen and instructed to pursue the transfer of Upper Canada to the U.S.  The commissioners arrived in St. Petersburg on July 21, 1813.  The British government, however, decided to forego the Russian offer and proposed direct negotiations instead, although it was in no hurry to get started.  On January 28, 1814, the Madison administration reconstituted the commission to include John Quincy Adams, James A. Bayard, Jonathan Russell, Henry Clay, and Albert Gallatin, and issued new instructions.  According to the Canadian historian Patrick C. T. White, “These instructions might be considered the product of an overvaulting ambition.”  The American instructions included demands for the abolition of the practice of impressments, reparation payments for impressed Americans, payments for the destruction of American private property, and either the return of slaves taken by the British or payments for them.  Most importantly, the delegation was to work for “the cession of Canada.”  The latter was needed, according to Secretary of State James Monroe, in order to avoid a future war over control of the Great Lakes, and secondly, in order to end British support for hostile Indian tribes on the frontier.  White comments:

As so often in the past, the United States had asked for terms which neither her power nor situation justified.  And again, as so often in the past, she hoped that the skill of her negotiators would gloss over the weakness of her case.  But America was bound to be disappointed.  Only one or two conditions would give American aspirations substance and hope.  Either Britain would have to be soundly defeated in Canada, or she would have to be desperately engaged in Europe.  Neither of these conditions existed.[129]

GhentBy June 1814, the military situation on the ground had shifted in favor of Great Britain.  Recognizing this, the Madison administration ordered its commissioners to abandon the issue of impressments and to concentrate on retaining American territory and fishing rights in the Atlantic.  The issue of impressments had lost its salience, as the end of the war in Europe meant that Great Britain no longer needed to impress sailors from American ships.  At the first meeting in Ghent on August 9, 1814, the British delegation, consisting of Henry Goulburn, Baron Gambier, and William Adams, took the diplomatic offensive.  Its first priority was to secure Canada.  According to Troy Bickham, “The theme of the British Empire standing up to the bullying American ‘aggrandizers’ was the central pillar of the British position for the first three months of the negotiations.”  In a series of formal letter exchanges in September, the British delegation accused the U.S. of extending its empire by the “progressive occupation of the Indian territories, by the acquisition of Louisiana, by the more recent attempts to wrest by force of arms from a nation in amity the two Floridas, and lastly by the avowed intentions of permanently annexing the Canadas to the United States.”  Had the U.S. invasion of Canada succeeded, the British delegates asked rhetorically, “is there any person who doubts that they [U.S. leaders] would have availed themselves of their situation to obtain on the side of Canada important cessions of Territory, if not the entire abandonment of that Country by Great Britain?”[130]

1812_proposed-British_Ghent One means of bolstering the security of Canada was to establish a permanent, internationally recognized Indian Territory in the American northwest.  The British delegation pressed for the cession of some 250,000 square miles of American territory (in the present states of Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and parts of Ohio) for this purpose.  The British controlled most of Michigan and all of Wisconsin at the end of the war.  The thinking behind the aggressive proposal was that the British had been far too generous in the peace treaty of 1783, allowing the U.S. to establish political sovereignty over a territory it had neither won on the battlefield nor settled, and that the First Nations that had defended Canada in its hour of need deserved a protected homeland.  The American delegation was shocked at the proposal and almost walked out.  The delegates subsequently abandoned their pursuit of Canadian territory and focused on retaining American territory.
The burning of Washington on August 24, 1814, gave the British delegation an edge in negotiations, but subsequent American defensive victories at Baltimore and Plattsburg negated that edge.  London came to view the war as either unwinnable or too costly to continue.  Although the U.S. was financially bankrupt, it could still put up a fight and the British public was exhausted with war.  The British were also concerned that the war in Europe may not yet be over – and, indeed, Napoleon returned to France in March 1815 – and thus resources might be needed on the more important European front.
A 1914 painting illustrates the signing of the Treaty of Ghent between Great Britain and the United States, Dec. 24, 1814

A 1914 painting illustraties the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, Dec. 24, 1814

In the end, the British delegation withdrew its proposal for an Indian homeland and settled for the restoration of Indian lands taken since 1811.  Although this did little to stop continuing American encroachment and land-grabbing, it allowed the British to save face with their Indian allies.  The two parties agreed to the principle of the status quo ante bellum – each side retaining the lands it held before the war.  Boundary disputes, fishing privileges, navigation of the Mississippi River, and naval forces on the Great Lakes were left to joint commissions and future negotiations.  “The new treaty,” writes White, “simply provided for the cessation of hostilities and the establishment of mixed commissions to settle certain boundary disputes.”

Understood in the context of the war’s origins, however, the Treaty of Ghent signified failure on the part of the United States.  As Carl Benn notes, the treaty did not change British trade and impressment policies; American merchant ships continued to be excluded from British trade routes; and “Britain defended its North American colonies successfully, and thus the Canadian experiment in building a distinct society was not brought to a violent and premature close through American conquest, but continued, as it does today.”[131]

Remembering the War of 1812

The Democratic Republicans were as intent on maintaining their “honor” at the war’s conclusion as they were at its outset, and thus they extolled the treaty as a great success.  “The terms of the treaty are yet unknown to us,” said Representative Charles Ingersoll of Pennsylvania.  “But the victory at Orleans has rendered them glorious and honorable, be they what they may. . . . Who is not proud to feel himself an American – our wrongs revenged – our rights recognized.” So began the intentional forgetting of causes and nature of the war.  “The myth of American victory continued to grow,” writes Donald Hickey, “so that by 1816 Niles’ Register could unabashedly claim that ‘we did virtually dictate the treaty of Ghent.’”  Several months later, Representative Henry Southard of New Jersey spoke of the “glorious achievements of the late war . . . and the Treaty of Ghent has secured our liberties, and established our national independence, and placed this nation on high and honorable ground.”  Hickey comments:

As the years slipped by, most people forgot the causes of the war.  They forgot the defeats on land and sea and lost sight of how close the nation had come to military and financial collapse.  According to the emerging myth, the United States had won the war as well as the peace.  Thus the War of 1812 passed into [American] history not as a futile and costly struggle in which the United States had barely escaped dismemberment and disunion, but as a glorious triumph in which the nation had single-handedly defeated the conqueror of Napoleon and the Mistress of the Seas.[132]

Marker commemorating the soldiers who died in camp (Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society, 2000)

A rare marker commemorating soldiers who died in camp (Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society, 2000)

The Federalist view of the War of 1812 as wrong-headed and dishonorable was drowned out amidst the paeans to American righteousness and glory.  So, too, were Canadian and British views, and facts and experiences that ran counter to the popular American myth.  One Federalist complained that the suffering and losses caused by the war “are carefully concealed,” while a treaty that merely re-established peace and nothing else “is represented as glorious.”  Hickey identifies as the number one American myth the notion that the “War of 1812 was a second American war of independence.”

This hearty perennial was first articulated by Republicans at the beginning of the conflict and has been repeated by countless historians ever since.  It is not true.  None of the British policies that precipitated the war actually threatened American independence, nor was American independence ever at stake in the war itself.  British policies that led to the war were a direct outgrowth of the Napoleonic Wars and would cease when that war ended.  At no time after 1783 did the British have any real designs on American independence or was American independence in any real jeopardy.  Although the War of 1812 was not an American war of independence, it was a war of independence for people living in Canada and for Indians living on both sides of the border. . . . Since Great Britain’s independence was at stake in the Napoleonic Wars, one might argue that the United States was the only belligerent on either side of the Atlantic in the War of 1812 that had nothing to fear for its independence.[133]

Statue of General Andrew Jackson in New Orleans

Statue of Gen. Andrew Jackson in New Orleans

The American heroic account helped propel two military generals to the presidency – Andrew Jackson in 1829 and William Henry Harrison in 1841.  More broadly, it exonerated the United States from any wrongdoing in its invasion of Canada and set the stage for future aggressive expansionism.   As Donald Hickey writes, “American military victories during the war encouraged an aggressive territorial expansion that later generations would call manifest destiny.”  Troy Bickham comments, “Rather than humbling the United States, the war helped to create a nation that was far more powerful and resolute in its expansionist plans.”[134]  With regard to Great Britain and Canada, however, U.S. leaders pursued a more cautious path, recognizing the limits of American power.  Canada was henceforth excluded from U.S. expansionist designs, which in turn allowed for a stable peace.  In 1817, the two nations signed the Rush-Bagot Agreement, which limited warships on the Great Lakes.  Treaties resolving boundary disputes were signed in 1818, 1842, and 1846.  Trade issues remained contentious, but no one suggested war.  According to J. C. A. Stagg:

After the war, Americans, as they had in 1783, sought unrestricted access to the [British West Indies] islands, but Great Britain refused to grant it.  Congress retaliated, in 1817 and 1818, with two navigation acts, the first excluding British colonial imports into the United States unless they were carried in American bottoms, and the second prohibiting both exports to and imports from all British colonial possessions closed to American shipping. . . . The quarrel lasted until 1830, when Andrew Jackson ended it – and on terms that favored Americans more than they did Britons or Canadians.  As these developments played out, the armistice of Ghent was gradually transformed into a permanent peace.[135]

A Fort York Museum display recounts the American attack and pillage of York (photo by author; click to enlarge)

For Canadians, the War of 1812 was most significant, as it drew Canadians together in common defense, established national heroes, and strengthened ties with Great Britain (Canada peacefully gained independence in 1867).  Popular history in Canada tends to exaggerate the national unity sparked by the War of 1812, but, unlike its American counterpart, it has the basic story right:  Canada successfully resisted foreign subjugation.  The Canadian historian Carl Benn served as curator of the Fort York museum from 1985 to 1998, and regularly inquired of his visitors what they knew about the War of 1812:

One thing we asked them was, “What was the most surprising thing you learned today?”  From the large number of replies by our guests from the United States, far and away the most common response was, “I never knew we invaded Canada” (with that particular phrase, word-for-word, appearing most often).  A little bit of probing revealed that the War of 1812 for most of them comprised the attacks on Washington and Baltimore, the Battle of New Orleans, a select grouping of frigate actions, fought in their minds in a war to protect American rights on the high seas or even to prevent the British from reconquering the United States.  This suggest that the interpretations that Americans favored at the return of peace in 1815 remain strong today.  Canadian visitors, in contrast, knew about the invasions across the border . . . At the same time, our conversations with visitors told us that Canadians tend to know few details and occasionally thought some odd things, with a number of them believing that the burning of the White House in 1814 had been carried out by Canadians who somehow marched overland from British North America.

Benn draws from these conversations an important lesson about the uses of history:   “Obviously much needs to be done to correct common misconceptions, enrich understanding, enlarge the range of subjects and horizons addressed by studying the war, and curtail the misuse of history that only achieves simpleminded patriotic reactions that are sadly subversive to encouraging civic maturity and critical engagement among a nation’s citizens.”[136]

Historical Perspective

The War of 1812 was fought more than two centuries ago amidst competing empires.  The U.S. was building its own continental empire at the time, testing the limits of resistance from Native American tribes, the Spanish, and the British, and playing off the French against the British.  The Madison administration did its utmost to frame this quest for empire in noble terms, justifying the invasion of Canada as a necessary response to British depredations on the high seas, and hiding the invasion of Spanish Florida from public view, there being no grievances to claim.  Expecting an easy victory while British forces were preoccupied in Europe, the administration neglected its constitutional duty to provide for the defense of the nation, leaving coastal towns at the mercy of the Royal Navy.  When, in the end, U.S. forces defeated the British counteroffensive at Baltimore, Plattsburg, and New Orleans, the Madison administration and its allies hailed these victories as proof of a successful war and a vindication of national honor.  Yet it was not an honorable war for the United States if judged according to just war principles.  The Federalists were arguably right:  it was an offensive and unnecessary war, and ruinous to those who suffered through it.
The question of what motivated the U.S. to go to war in 1812 has been a point of controversy among American historians for two centuries.  For most of the 19th century, historical accounts largely followed the Madison administration’s lead in judging that maritime issues were the primary cause of the war.  During the Progressive Era, some historians – Harold T. Lewis, D. R. Anderson, and Louis M. Hacker – focused on American expansionist ambitions as a major factor.  Implicit in their analyses was the idea that the war was fought for offensive purposes – a war of conquest – rather than a war to defend national sovereignty and honor.  As other historians took up this line of interpretation, notably Julius W. Pratt and Samuel Eliot Morison, the consensus position in the profession shifted toward the expansionist thesis.  During the Cold War era, however, historians such as Bradford Perkins and Reginald Horsman led the charge against the “land-hunger thesis,” prompting a shift back toward maritime issues as the major cause of the war.  Today, most historical accounts include some measure of both views, although the emphasis varies.[137]
The framework that joins these issues is the international context of empire-building and its accompanying mentality.  Competition for both territorial control and trade dominance was the order of the day.  Americans were indeed land-hungry, seeking to expropriate Native American lands and expand their borders.  They were also fearful of being hemmed in by the British, perhaps in common with the Spanish and Native American tribes in the west.  Similarly with oceanic trade, Americans were ambitious to expand their markets and profits while also fretting that Great Britain and France would exclude them from their “legitimate markets.”  It was difficult to find a stable middle ground in either sphere of competition.  The British were willing to negotiate trade advantages but not give up their protected system of trade built over centuries.  Had the Madison administration not set its sights on the acquisition of Canada, it might have been more amenable to a compromise agreement with Great Britain on maritime issues.
The contention that the U.S. would have given Canada back to Great Britain had its invasion been successful is hardly plausible, given the administration’s diplomatic instructions and the expansionist mentality of the times.  The acquisition of Spanish Florida and British Canada promised valuable waterways and natural resources, and it would move the U.S. a step closer to complete control over the North American continent.  Taking Florida would furthermore prevent runaway slaves from finding refuge there, and taking Canada would prevent hostile Native Americans in the west from obtaining British arms.  President Madison made no mention of Canada or Florida in his war message to Congress in June 1812, but the conquest of these lands was nonetheless his central military objectives.  By way of comparison, when the U.S. declared war against Mexico in 1846, President James Polk did not state at the outset that he intended to take over half of Mexico, but that is what the U.S. did in the end.  When the U.S. entered into the Spanish American War in 1898, President William McKinley made no claims on any territory, but the U.S. nonetheless acquired Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, even after Filipinos insisted on their independence.
In Canada, the question of what motivated the U.S. to declare war on Great Britain is less important than the fact that the U.S. invaded Canada without provocation.  Canadians are thus more likely to regard the war as unnecessary and unjust; which is to say, the U.S. was responsible for the suffering and destruction wrought by the war.  In the U.S., many historians and textbooks depict the war as a catalyst to national empowerment and international respect, in line with the Democratic Republican framing of it.  Walter Borneman, for example, writes in The War that Forged a Nation (2004):  “During the War of 1812, the United States would cast aside its cloak of colonial adolescence and – with more than a few bumbles along the way – stumble forth onto the world stage.  After the War of 1812, there was no longer any doubt that the United States of America was a national force to be reckoned with.”[138]

At the heart of this viewpoint is the assumption that the most important concern in history is who holds power – who wins and loses it – rather than how that power is gained, morally speaking, and whether it is used for good or ill.  More nationalistic versions of this line of thinking simply conflate national power and goodness, such that questions of right and wrong are categorically excluded.  The formula is simple:  Americans are a good people, with democratic and free institutions, and thus their foreign policies must be good and their wars must be defensive and necessary.  To question the legitimacy of the War of 1812 is to challenge this nationalistic bias, and ultimately to invite critical questioning of the whole of U.S. foreign policy.

*          *           *


[1] President James Madison, “Special Message to Congress on the Treaty of Ghent (February 18, 1815),”

[2] Robert P. Watson, America’s First Crisis: The War of 1812 (Albany: State University of New York, 2014), p. 353. Similarly, Walter R. Borneman, in The War that Forged a Nation (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), writes:  “During the War of 1812, the United States would cast aside its cloak of colonial adolescence and – with more than a few bumbles along the way – stumble forth onto the world stage.  After the War of 1812, there was no longer any doubt that the United States of America was a national force to be reckoned with” (p. 3).

[3] Charles DeBenedetti, The Peace Reform in American History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980), p. 28.  The controversy over the war continued in its aftermath.  On February 24, 1815, six days after President Madison gave his Special Message to Congress, the New York Evening Post editorialized that the war had been “adopted without cause; declared without being prepared, and carried on for more than two years amidst every disaster and disgrace.”  Similarly, the Salem Gazette rebuked Madison for “the needless suffering that has been endured, of the widows, orphans and fatherless that will ever look back to this war with sorrow!” and Rhode Island’s Newport Mercury declared, “The “blood and misery of thousands rest upon his head.”  Madison’s supporters, meanwhile, praised the president’s decision to fight and berated Federalist opponents.  “If ever there was a necessary war, a war founded on moral principles of just resistance to oppression, it was the war declared against England,” wrote Vermont’s Rutland Herald.  “Miserable federalists,” fumed the Rhode Island Republican, “go hide yourselves – you are covered with shame, and disgrace has marked you forever.”  Michael Beschloss, Presidents of War: The Epic Story, from 1807 to Modern Times (New York: Broadway Books, 2018), p. 91 and endnote 647.

[4] Donald Hickey, “An American Perspective on the War of 1812,” Public Broadcasting Service,

[5] Canadian histories of the war include James Hannay, History of the War of 1812 (Toronto: Morang & co., limited, 1905), and Carl Benn, The War of 1812 (Oxford, England: Osprey Publishing, 2002).  In 2012, the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, the Canadian government issued a number of coins honoring key events and heroic individuals:  a two dollar coin celebrating the bloody victory of the British frigate HMS Shannon in capturing the American frigate USS Chesapeake outside Boston harbor in 1813 (60 Americans were killed); a quarter dollar coin honoring heroine Laura Secord, who warned British troops and their native allies of approaching Americans; and other quarter dollar coins honoring Shawnee chief Tecumseh, who led native warriors in the fight to capture Fort Detroit from the Americans, British General Sir Isaac Brock, who died leading the charge to repulse American invaders, and Charles-Michel de Salaberry, who organized and led French volunteers to defend Montreal from the Americans.

[6] Jon Latimer, 1812: War with America (London: Belknap Press, 2007), p. 4.

[7] See, for example, Andrew Lambert, The Challenge: Britain Against America in the Naval War of 1812 (London: Faber and Faber, 2012); and Brian Arthur, How Britain Won the War of 1812: The Royal Navy’s Blockades of the United States, 1812-1815 (Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: The Boydell Press, 2011).

[8] See, for example, Donald Fixico, “A Native Nations Perspective on the War of 1812,”; “Turning Point: The War of 1812 from the Native American Perspective,”; and “Aboriginal Contributions to the War of 1812,” Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada,

[9] The United Nations Charter bans national aggression but allows for national and collective defense “until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.” Charter of the United Nations,  This prohibition against military aggression is also affirmed in the Charter of the Organization of American States.

[10] James Madison, “War Message to Congress, June 1, 1812,”

[11] Paul A. Gilje, “’Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights’: The Rhetoric of the War of 1812,” Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 30, No. 1 (Spring 2010), p. 7.  Brian Loveman, in No Higher Law: American Foreign Policy and the Western Hemisphere since 1776 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), comments on the War of 1812:  “It was a ‘war of choice,’ which need not have been fought and which would settle almost none of the issues over which Madison and Clay took the United States to war against Great Britain” (30-31).

[12] Carl Benn, The War of 1812, p. 19.  The classic study of expansionist motives is Julius W. Pratt’s Expansionists of 1812 (New York: Macmillan Company, 1925), which documents expansionist rhetoric but without discounting the importance of maritime grievances against Great Britain. Pratt’s study has been criticized by some U.S. historians, notably Bradford Perkins and Donald Hickey, who assert that maritime issues constituted the primary motivation for war.  Other historians have validated Benn’s and Pratt’s thesis that “the conquest of Lower Canada” was the first order of business, as Secretary of War Henry Dearborn wrote to President Madison.  According to the presidential historian Michael Beschloss, “It was difficult to argue that Britain’s impressments, as frustrating as they were, or its apparent cooperation with the Indians, which was actually more casual than it seemed, came anywhere close to his [the president’s] standard of imminent danger. . . . Inexperienced in military affairs, Madison deluded himself into thinking that this war would be predictable and brief, with a few quick battles against a British force distracted by the struggle against Napoleon, after which Canada would tumble into American hands and London would plead for peace.”  Beschloss, Presidents of War, pp. 58, 60.

[13] J. C. A. Stagg, in The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 157-58.

[14] “James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, [9 March 1812],” National Archives, Founders Online,; and Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, p. 308.

[15] Norman K. Risjord, “National Honor as the Unifying Force,” in Bradford Perkins, ed., The Causes of the War of 1812: National Honor or National Interest? (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962), p. 94.

[16] Donald R. Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989), p. 74.

[17] Jon Latimer, 1812: War with America (London & Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), p. 16; Donald Hickey, Don’t Give Up the Ship! Myths of the War of 1812 (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2006, p. 19; and Troy Bickham, The Weight of Vengeance: The United States, the British Empire, and the War of 1812 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 62.  Bickham is an American-born historian who studied and taught in Great Britain before returning to the U.S.; he specialty is the Atlantic world, with emphasis on the British empire.

[18] Bradford Perkins, Prologue to War: England and the United States, 1805-1812 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961), pp. 90-92; Alan Taylor, The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, and Indian Allies (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), p. 104; and Bickham, The Weight of Vengeance, pp. 32-33.

[19] Perkins, Prologue to War, pp. 94-95; and Thomas A. Bailey, A Diplomatic History of the American People, Tenth Edition (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1980), p.120.

[20] Spencer C. Tucker and Frank T. Reuter, Injured Honor: The Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, June 22, 1807 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1996).

[21] Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, p. 42.

[22] Ibid., p. 43.

[23] Bickham, The Weight of Vengeance, p. 11, 55-56.

[24] Ibid., pp. 26-27; and John R. Grodzinski, “The Duke of Wellington, the Peninsular War and the War of 1812; Part I: North America and the Peninsular War – Logistics,” The War of 1812 Magazine, Issue 5 (December 2006),

[25] J. C. A. Stagg, The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 30.

[26] Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, pp. 16-17.

[27] Bailey, A Diplomatic History of the American People, pp. 128-29.

[28] Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, p. 42; and Perkins, Prologue to War, p. 421.

[29] Bailey, A Diplomatic History of the American People, p. 144.

[30] U.S. Census of Population and Housing, “Table 1. United States Resident Population by State: 1790 – 1850,” (access 2016); and “Population of the Major European Countries” [Source: B. R. Mitchell, European Historical Statistics, 1750-1975, 2nd ed. (New York, 1980)],

[31] Walter Nugent, Habits of Empire: A History of American Expansion (New York: Random House, 2008), p. 10.

[32] Ohio History Central, “Tecumseh’s Confederation,”’s_Confederation?rec=637.  On Tecumseh and his movement, see Peter Cozzens, Tecumseh and the Prophet: The Shawnee Brothers Who Defied a Nation (New York: Knopf, 2020).

[33] George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 124.  On the relationship between the British and Tecumseh’s confederacy, see Robert S. Allen, “His Majesty’s Indian Allies: Native Peoples, the British Crown and the War of 1812,” Michigan Historical Review 14.2 (1988): 1–24.

[34] Hickey, Don’t Give Up the Ship! p. 38.  On treaties, see Donald L. Fixico, ed., Treaties with American Indians: An Encyclopedia of Rights, Conflicts, and Sovereignty (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2008), pp. 294-303.

[35] Bickham, The Weight of Vengeance, pp. 244, 43, 47.

[36] Johnson, Jefferson, and Harper quoted in Julius W. Pratt, Expansionists of 1812 (New York: Macmillan Company, 1925), pp. 51-52, 153.  Clay quoted in James Hannay, History of the War of 1812 (Toronto: Morang & Co., limited, 1905), pp. 27-28.

[37] Grundy quoted in Annals, House of Representatives, 12th Congress, 1st session, pp. 425-27; also Pratt, Expansionists of 1812, pp. 51-52.  Calhoun quoted in Henry Adams, History of the United States of America during the Administrations of James Madison (New York: Literary Classics of the U.S., 1986; first published 1889-91), p. 440.

[38] Patrick C. T. White, A Nation on Trial: America and the War of 1812 (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1965), pp. 133, 143, 145.

[39] Jerald A. Combs, The History of American Foreign Policy, Volume I: To 1917 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1986), p. 52, 49; and Donald R. Hickey, The War of 1812: A Short History (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989), p. 11.

[40] Bailey, A Diplomatic History of the American People, p. 138; and “Debate in the House of Representatives, December 10, 1811,” in Richard Hofstadter, ed., Great Issues in American History, From the Revolution to the Civil War, 1765-1865 (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), pp. 229-30.

[41] Howard Jones, Quest for Security: A History of U.S. Foreign Relations, Volume I to 1813 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996), p. 55.

[42] James G. Cusiak, The Other War of 1812: The Patriot War and the American Invasion of Spanish East Florida (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003), p. 32.

[43] Ibid., pp. 41, 205, 114.

[44] Ibid., pp. 83, 89, 130.

[45] Ibid., p. 137; and Gene Allen Smith, The Slaves’ Gamble: Choosing Sides in the War of 1812 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), p. 75.

[46] Bickham, The Weight of Vengeance, p. 92.

[47] Cusiak, The Other War of 1812, pp. 191-92.

[48] Ibid., pp. 194-95.

[49] Ibid., pp. 236, 254, 9.

[50] Smith, The Slaves’ Gamble, p. 182; and Cusiak, The Other War of 1812, p. 308.

[51] J. C. A. Stagg, “James Madison and George Mathews: The East Florida Revolution of 1812 Reconsidered,” Diplomatic History, Vol. 30, No. 1 (January 2006), p. 23.

[52] Taylor, 1812: The Civil War, p. 56, 444; and George Sheppard, Plunder, Profit, and Paroles: A Social History of the War of 1812 in Upper Canada (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1994), p. 37.

[53] Samuel Eliot Morison, Frederick Merk, and Frank Freidel, Dissent in Three American Wars (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970), p. 3.[54] Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, p. 176; and Hickey, Don’t Give Up The Ship! p.201.  On the “laws of war,” see Donald E. Graves, “’Every horror committed with impunity . . . and not a man was punished!’  Reflections on British Military Law and the Atrocities at Hampton in 1813,” The War of 1812 Magazine, Issue 11 (June 2009),

[55] Taylor, 1812: The Civil War, p. 347; and Hickey, Don’t Give Up The Ship! pp. 257-58.

[56] Latimer, 1812: War with America, pp. 262, 265.

[57] Taylor, 1812: The Civil War, pp. 346-47, 390; and Dianne Graves, In the Midst of Alarms: The Untold Story of Women and the War of 1812 (Montreal: Robin Brass Studio Inc, 2007), pp. 365-66.

[58] Taylor, 1812: The Civil War, p. 193; and Latimer, 1812: War with America, pp. 259-60.

[59] Hickey, Don’t Give Up the Ship! pp. 192-94; and Robert Kostoff, Nuggets of Niagara County History (New York: iUniverse, Inc., 2003), pp. 74-75.

[60] Spencer C. Tucker, ed., The Encyclopedia of the War of 1812: A Political, Social, and Military History (ABC-CLIO, 2012), Vol. 1, p. 113.

[61] United States Department of Veterans Affairs, “America’s Wars,”; and U.S. Censuses of Population and Housing.

[62] Statistics Canada,

[63] Stagg, The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent, pp. 156-57.

[64] Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, p. 304.

[65] Benn, The War of 1812, pp. 27, 20; and Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, p. 126.

[66] Latimer, 1812: War with America, p. 84.

[67] U.S. National Park Service, William Hull proclamation, July 11, 1812,

[68] Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, pp. 152-53; and Robert S. Allen, His Majesty’s Indian Allies: British Indian Policy in the Defence of Canada, 1774-1815 (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1993), p. 140.

[69] Allen, His Majesty’s Indian Allies, p. 135; and Taylor, 1812: The Civil War, p. 164.

[70] Benn, The War of 1812, p. 34.

[71] Allen, His Majesty’s Indian Allies, p. 138; Patrick T. Reardon, “It wasn’t the Fort Dearborn Massacre,” Chicago Tribune, August 15, 2012,; and Taylor, 1812: The Civil War, p. 210.

[72] Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, p. 87; and Allen, His Majesty’s Indian Allies, p. 140.

[73] Taylor, 1812: The Civil War, pp. 211-12, 206; Linai Taliaferro Helm, The Fort Dearborn Massacre (Chicago: Rand, McNally, 1912), pp. 9-10; and Sandy Antal, “Remember the Raisin! Anatomy of a Demon Myth,” The War of 1812 Magazine, Issue 10 (October 2008),

[74] Carl Benn, “A Brief History of Fort York,”

[75] Taylor, 1812: The Civil War, p. 302.

[76] Robert W. Neeser, “The Battle of Lake Erie, 10 September 1813,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 39/3/147 (September 1913),

[77] Taylor, 1812: The Civil War, p. 245.

[78] Ibid., pp. 249-50; and Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, pp. 141-42.

[79] Taylor, 1812: The Civil War, pp. 254-55.

[80] Ibid., p. 259; and Christopher Klein, “The Burning of Buffalo, 200 Years Ago,” December 30, 2013, History in the Headlines,

[81] Taylor, 1812: The Civil War, pp. 385-87, 391; and Robert Leckie, The Wars of America (Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 1998), p. 284.

[82] Dianne Graves, In the Midst of Alarms: The Untold Story of Women and the War of 1812″ (Quebec: Robin Brass Studio, 2007), p. 388.

[83] Benn, The War of 1812, pp. 55, 57; and Brian Arthur, How Britain Won the War of 1812: The Royal Navy’s Blockades of the United States, 1812-1815 (Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Boydell Press, 2011), p. 241.

[84] Jeremy Black, “A British View of the Naval War of 1812,” Naval History Magazine, Vol. 22, No. 4 (August 2008),; and Benn, The War of 1812, p. 56.

[85] Donald R Hickey, Don’t Give Up The Ship!  Myths of the War of 1812 (Urbana: Illinois University Press, 2006), p. 122; Black, “A British View of the Naval War of 1812”; and John A. Tures, “’A Word of ‘Captain Caution’: Myths About Privateers in the War of 1812,” The War of 1812 Magazine, Issue 14 (October 1810),

[86] Hickey, Don’t Give Up the Ship!, p. 123; and Arthur, How Britain Won the War of 181, pp. 210-21.

[87] Benn, The War of 1812, p. 57; and Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, p. 153.

[88] Smith, The Slaves’ Gamble, pp. 91, 93.

[89] Latimer, 1812: War with America, pp. 171-72; and Smith, The Slaves’ Gamble, pp. 104, 92, 96.

[90] “Proclamation of Vice Admiral Sir Alexander F. I. Cochrane, R.N.,” April 2, 1814,

[91] Smith, The Slaves’ Gamble, p. 211, 101-102.

[92] Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, p. 182.

[93] Henry Adams, The War of 1812, (New York: First Cooper Square Press, 1999; original publication circa 1890), p. 218; and Latimer, 1812: War with America, pp. 303-304.

[94] Hickey, The War of 1812: A Short History, p. 62.

[95] Joel Achenbach, “D.C.’s darkest day, a war that no one remembers,” The Washington Post, August 23, 2014,

[96] President James Madison, “Proclamation upon British Depredations, Burning of the Capitol (September 1, 1814),”

[97] Hickey, The War of 1812: A Short History, p. 64.

[98] Ibid., pp. 57, 193.

[99] Ibid., pp. 71-72; and Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, pp. 206, 194-95.

[100] President James Madison, “Sixth Annual Message (September 20, 1814),”

[101] Robert V. Remini, The Battle of New Orleans (Viking Penguin, 2001), pp. 5-6.

[102] Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, pp. 212-13.

[103] Smith, The Slaves’ Gamble, pp. 164, 170.

[104] Ibid., p. 160; and Kenneth R. Aslakson, Making Race in the Courtroom: The Legal Construction of Three Races in Early New Orleans (New York: New York University Press, 2014), p. 183.

[105] Smith, The Slaves’ Gamble, pp. 205-206, 208.

[106] Ibid., pp. 47, 183, 126.

[107] Ibid., p. 141.

[108] United States Congress (January 1, 1834), American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States, Volume 10, pp. 185-87; also cited in Ellis, A Ruinous and Unhappy War, p. 177.

[109] “An Address of Members of the House of Representatives of the Congress of the United States, to their Constituents, on the Subject of the War with Great Britain,”

[110] New York Evening Post, April 21, 1812, quoted in James H. Ellis, A Ruinous and Unhappy War: New England and the War of 1812 (New York: Algora Publishing, 2009), p. 73.

[111] Ellis, A Ruinous and Unhappy War, p. 9; and John Lowell, Mr. Madison’s War. A Dispassionate Inquiry into the Reasons Alleged by Mr. Madison for Declaring an Offensive and Ruinous War against Great Britain. Together with Some Suggestions as to a Peaceable and Constitutional Mode of Averting that Dreadful Calamity – by a New England Farmer (Boston: Russell & Cutler, 1812), pp. 4, 5.

[112] Ellis, A Ruinous and Unhappy War, pp. 28-29.

[113] Ibid., p. 8; and Hickey, Don’t Give Up The Ship! p. 206.

[114] Ellis, A Ruinous and Unhappy War, p. 11; and Bickham, The Weight of Vengeance, p. 193.

[115] Ellis, A Ruinous and Unhappy War, pp. 11-13.

[116] J. I. Little, Loyalties in Conflict: A Canadian Borderland in War and Rebellion, 1812-1840 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), pp. 37, 44.

[117]Ellis, A Ruinous and Unhappy War, p. 51; and Hickey, Don’t Give Up The Ship! p. 29.

[118] Ellis, A Ruinous and Unhappy War, pp. 185, 192.

[119] Ibid., p. 211.

[120] Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, p. 272.

[121] Senate records,; and “List of United States House of Representatives elections (1789–1822),” Wikipedia,

[122] Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, p. 308.

[123] DeBenedetti, The Peace Reform in American History, pp. 28-37; and Lawrence Wittner, “New York’s 200-Year Conspiracy for Peace,” Counterpunch,

[124] Bickham, The Weight of Vengeance, pp. 68-69; and Hickey, Don’t Give Up the Ship! p. 8.

[125] Bickham, The Weight of Vengeance, pp. 211, 217.

[126] “War Manifesto” House Foreign Relations Committee Report on a Declaration of War (excerpts) June 3, 1812, Records of the U.S. House of Representatives,

[127] Bickham, The Weight of Vengeance, pp. 162, 72.

[128] Ibid., pp. 205-206; and Hickey, Don’t Give Up the Ship! p. 7.

[129] Patrick C. T. White, A Nation on Trial: America and The War of 1812 (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1965), pp. 145-47.

[130] Bickham, The Weight of Vengeance, pp. 244-45.

[131] White, A Nation on Trial, p. 164; and Benn, The War of 1812, p. 83.

[132] Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, p. 309.

[133] Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, p. 308; and Donald Hickey, “Leading Myths of the War of 1812,” The War of 1812 Magazine, Issue 4 (September 2006).

[134] Donald Hickey, “Review Essay: Small War, Big Consequences: Why 1812 Still Matters,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 91, No. 6 (Nov.-Dec. 2012), p. 150; and Bickham, The Weight of Vengeance, p. 277.

[135] Stagg, The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent, p. 168.

[136] Carl Benn, “Introduction,” in Spencer C. Tucker, ed., The Encyclopedia of the War of 1812: A Political, Social, and Military History (ABC-CLIO, 2012), Vol. 1, p. xxiii.

[137] On the historiographical debate in the U.S., see Thomas Sheppard, “Dubious Victories: Refighting the War of 1812,” Essays in History, Vol. 46, No. 1 (2013): 1-15,; and Warren H. Goodman, “The Way of 1812: A Survey of Changing Interpretations,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 28 (September 1941): 171-186.  The debate is revived on one side in Richard W. Maass, “‘Difficult to Relinquish Territory Which Had Been Conquered’: Expansionism and the War of 1812,” Diplomatic History, Vol. 39, No. 1 (January 2015): 70-97.  Maass asserts that the Madison administration was not expansionist at heart, but only wanted to repeal the Orders in Council (p. 77).  He cites as evidence the administration’s lack of preparation for the military invasion of Canada and Federalist objections to it, neither of which prove the point.  In the end, he makes the convoluted argument “that U.S. leaders consistently rejected the possibility of absorbing Canada and merely asked Britain for sparsely populated western territories during peace negotiations” (p. 96), as if absorbing Upper Canada was not expansionist in design.  The U.S., moreover, did not “merely” ask, but used every means of force at its disposal to obtain these territories, resulting in the deaths of thousands.

[138] Walter Borneman, The War that Forged a Nation (New York: Harper Perennial, 2004), p. 3.

About the author

Roger Peace is a diplomatic historian, coordinator of this website, and former community college instructor. He is the author of A Call to Conscience: The Anti-Contra War Campaign (University of Massachusetts Press, 2012) and A Just and Lasting Peace: The U.S. Peace Movement from the Cold War to Desert Storm (Noble Press, 1991).

Cite this article:

Bibliography: Peace, Roger. “The War of 1812.” United States Foreign Policy History and Resource Guide website, 2016,
Endnotes or footnotes: Roger Peace, “The War of 1812,” United States Foreign Policy History and Resource Guide website, 2016,

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