America and Britain fought the War of 1812 within the borders of the United States and Canada. The British set up three distinct theaters. The Atlantic region, including the ocean and eastern states, provided the first theater. The second region included the Great Lakes and Canada. The South provided the final conflict zone. Throughout the war, the American army performed poorly and the militia proved unreliable. However, the U.S. Navy won several key engagements against the greatest navy in the world. As the conflict wore on, pressure mounted on the Americans as financial, political, and military concerns nearly ripped the country apart.
The British Atlantic strategy centered around a blockade of American ports followed by invasion. The British Navy outnumbered their American counterparts within U.S. waters. His majesty claimed 85 warships to America’s 22. A decade earlier, Jefferson emasculated the American navy in favor of a small coast guard. Despite this, America claimed several heavily armed vessels. In one of the most famous engagements in U.S. naval history, the USS Constitution defeated the HMS Guerriere. The Constitution’s victory, coupled with other American naval triumphs pushed the British into more aggressive action. The Admiralty in London ordered their vessels to avoid battles when outgunned. This helped stem the tide and initiate successful blockades. The American economy, especially in New England, suffered greatly during the war. New England merchants grew resentful and openly hostile to the American cause.
To augment the blockade and naval war, the British invaded the Chesapeake, which constituted the southern region, in 1813. They began raiding the region as they sought out Washington D.C. In 1814, the British marched on Washington. The U.S. military crumbled easily. President Madison gathered the militia at Bladensburg just outside the capital. The British routed the Americans and strolled into Washington D.C. President Madison fled to Virginia while his wife stayed at the White House long enough to collect important papers, valuables, and a portrait of George Washington. She fled the city as cannon balls exploded around her. Dolley Madison became a hero while her husband was chastised for fleeing.
The British walked into Washington D.C. unopposed. They held a mock session of congress, ate dinner at the White House, and then set the city afire. The Americans burnt Toronto to the ground in 1813. This was revenge. The White House, treasury, ship yards, and other buildings burned and the army left for Baltimore. The burning of Washington D.C. is the most embarrassing incident in American military and political history. That evening, a hurricane put out the flames.
Most Americans viewed the hurricane as divine intervention. That belief was reinforced by the victory at Baltimore. The U.S. routed the British in the war’s crucial turning point. It also led to Francis Scott Key’s The Star Spangled Banner. The Battle of Fort McHenry was one of the engagements at Baltimore. After the fort’s bombardment, Key saw the flag in the breeze and changed the words to a British drinking song. It became the national anthem in 1931.
Despite the victory at Baltimore, the Americans fared poorly in the Atlantic region and abandoned Washington to the enemy. New England remained skeptical and hostile to the war effort. On top of this, the U.S. performed worse in Canada and the Great Lakes. For whatever reason, the United States felt the Canadians would rally to them if they invaded. However, Canada remained loyal. The British won several victories at Mackinac Island, Fort Mackinac, Queenstown Heights, Kingston, Ogdensburg, and others. Detroit and Chicago (Fort Dearborn) surrendered without firing a shot. Indians massacred Fort Dearborn’s inhabitants and personnel after they were granted safe passage by the Europeans.
While the Atlantic Theatre, Great Lakes, and Canada proved a mess for the Americans, the United States pulled out some major victories on the frontier and Lake Erie. In 1813, the American army was on its heals. William Henry Harrison was defeated at River Raisin and the Indians massacred 60 American prisoners. This provided a rallying cry for the young country. Afterward, Americans blunted the Native and British seige of Fort Meigs. Harrison followed this by killing the Indian leader at the Battle of the Thames. Tecumseh’s death proved important, but Oliver Hazard Perry’s conquest of Lake Erie proved decisive. The Americans defeated the British Navy which forced the English and their allies out of Detroit and cut the Native Americans off from their European sponsors. The United States controlled this theater for the remainder of the war.
The Americans won other key naval battles. In September, 1814, the British fell at Plattsburgh. The two sides fought at land and sea. This ceded control of Lake Champlain to the United States and ended the British offensive in the region. The United States controlled key Great Lakes waterways and strategic points. The Battle of Plattsburgh was a complete debacle for Britain. The war stalemated and problems mounted for Britain.
British problems in the American conflict tied directly to Napoleon. Britain fought two wars from 1812-1815. The most important of those conflicts pitted their nation in a life and death struggle with France. As a result, the American sideshow could wait. As soon as the Napoleonic Wars ended, top notch British units could shift to the American theater to break the stalemate.
The War of 1812 ended before the Napoleonic campaigns finished. Both sides blundered into a war which cost too much. The conflict was expensive and militarily stalemated. The U.S. government could not provide funds as Madison killed the Bank of the United States before the war. Additionally, the American economy suffered dramatically under the blockade. Debt exploded for both nations and Britain still had France to contend with. The two sides signed the Treaty of Ghent in 1814 which ended the war. However, the treaty failed to settle any of the issues that led to hostilities.
Despite the peace treaty ending the war, fighting continued. Poor communications led to the war in the first place and also led its slow end. The two sides fought battles at New Orleans and Fort Bowyer at Mobile, Alabama. The British took the fort at Mobile, but abandoned it and sailed home when news of the treaty reached them. At New Orleans, the United States won the only decisive land battle of the war. British losses included three generals amongst the 278 dead, nearly 1200 wounded, and 500 missing or captured. General Andrew Jackson lost 13 dead and 39 wounded. The Battle of New Orleans kept the British out of the Mississippi River, where they could have wrecked havoc on the U.S. economy, and made Jackson a hero. The battle and his subsequent exploits led Jackson to the White House in 1828.
As the war wound down, New England Federalists held a convention to protest the Madison Administration. The Hartford Convention was based on the Continental Congress of the Revolutionary War. They drew up a list of grievances and threatened secession. The New Englanders opposed the war from the outset. They also suffered greatly during the Jefferson and Madison years. Their economies shattered under the embargoes and British blockade. They were bitter and celebrated British victories. The war’s end and Jackson’s victory undercut the Federalists. Jackson’s victory turned New England Federalists into traitors and defeatists. By 1820, the party ceased to exist.
The War of 1812 stalemated militarily and politically until the two combatants signed a peace treaty. After the Treaty of Ghent, the U.S. won a spectacular victory at New Orleans which protected the Mississippi River. They also consolidated the Great Lakes. The U.S. Navy proved up to the task. The U.S. Army and militia did not. Meanwhile, the British repelled American attacks on Canada, blockaded the east coast, and decimated their opponents on the battlefields of the east. The American government survived the British invasion and burning of Washington D.C. However, the controversial war threatened to tear America apart at the seams both politically and economically. In the end, Jackson’s victory ostracized Madison’s opponents and reunited the country.