War of 1812

Date: From 1812-06-18 to 1815-01-08

During the Napoleonic Wars, Britain maintained a naval blockade on the French Empire. This strategy fundamentally challenged America's free trade policy, especially as held by Jeffersonian-Republicans. The United States had maintained an uneasy neutrality throughout the conflict, but these policies increasingly caused friction with Britain. The British policy of impressment exacerbated the matter. British vessels were seizing American merchant ships and impressing any British citizens on board into the Royal Navy, often targeting Americans they simply believed or claimed were British.

Other developments exacerbating Anglo-American discord included Britain's tacit support of Tecumseh's and Tenskwatawa's plan for a Native American confederacy to block American expansion in the Old Northwest. Conflict between Americans and Native Americans actually commenced in 1811. On November 7, American forces under William Henry Harrison and Native Americans under the leadership of Tenskwatawa fought a battle at the confluence of the Tippecanoe and Wabash rivers in the Indiana Territory. Harrison's victory at the Battle of Tippecanoe struck a severe blow to Tecumseh’s confederacy, and the battle itself was a catalyst for the War of 1812, which commenced six months later.

President Thomas Jefferson had tried to combat the problems with the British over the blockade and impressment peacefully—primarily through the Embargo Act and the Non-Intercourse Act—and James Madison, his successor, also attempted to redress grievances through diplomacy, while petitioning Congress for more money for military preparedness. But a growing body of "War Hawks" in Congress, led by Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, coupled with war in the Northwest and American desires to expand into or annex British North America, eventually convinced Madison to ask Congress for a declaration of war on June 18, 1812.

The American strategy was to harass the Royal Navy at sea while waging a land campaign against British-controlled Canada, which could then either be conquered or ransomed in exchange for reparations, the end of impressment, and respect for American neutral trading rights. Although militarily weaker than Britain, the Americans believed this strategy would work because most of Britain's resources were committed to the continental war with Napoleon. This was divisive in Congress, as the Federalists, who had long advocated closer ties with Britain over France, opposed the war. Their opposition culminated in the Hartford Convention, which primarily offered a refutation of the war and its strategy but was marred by discussion of New England seceding in protest.

Although the United States achieved limited success at sea and on the Great Lakes, invasions of Canada in 1812 and 1813 failed. Particularly devastating to American morale was the failure of Harrison's campaign to retake Detroit in the winter of 1812-13, which culminated in the defeat of American forces at the Second Battle of Raisin River on January 22, 1813, and the subsequent massacre of American prisoners of war.

American forces had more success in the war against Tecumseh's confederacy. In May and July 1813, Harrison's forces withstood combined British-Native American units in two sieges of Fort Meigs, forcing the British to retreat to Canada. Harrison's victory at the Battle of the Thames, fought on October 5, 1813 near present-day Chatham, Ontario, shattered Tecumseh's confederation. Native American demoralization over Tecumseh's death in the battle effectively ended Native American resistance in the Northwest.

American forces also had success against Indians in the Southwest. In August 1813, Muscogee (Creek) Indians known as Red Sticks perpetuated the Fort Mims Massacre, starting what would be called the Creek War. American forces under Andrew Jackson moved into the area to stop the Indian attacks, and Jackson's victory at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, fought on March 27, 1814, shattered Indian resistance and led to the Treaty of Fort Jackson, which saw the Indians cede vast areas of land in Alabama and Georgia.

British victory over Napoleon in Europe gave the empire a freer hand in 1814, resulting in a planned three-pronged invasion of the United States, striking from Canada, through Chesapeake Bay, and up the Mississippi River. The result was the capture and burning of Washington, DC, as well as several small military engagements. With little concrete gains by either side, British and American ministers negotiated the Treaty of Ghent on December 24, effectively reestablishing status quo antebellum with most of the war's original causes already settled by the changing situation in Europe.

News of the treaty, however, did not reach British forces headed for Louisiana, resulting in the third part of the original British invasion plan still playing out. The ensuing American victory on January 8, 1815, over British regulars at the Battle of New Orleans, turned the war into a nationalistic triumph for the young American nation and made the victorious general, Andrew Jackson, into a celebrity.

Paul S. Boyer, et al., eds., The Oxford Companion to United States History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 814-15; Donald R. Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, Bicentennial Ed., (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012); Robert V. Remini, The Battle of New Orleans (New York: Penguin, 2001).