The War of 1812

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Podcast Transcript

After the American War of Independence, Britain recognized the United States, but it didn’t necessarily make them close allies. 

Each country had its own agendas, and a generation later, they were butting heads again over a host of issues. 

The result was another war, but unlike the Revolutionary War, everyone claimed victory, and no one really won anything. 

Learn more about the War of 1812, its causes, and its resolution on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily. 

The War of 1812 was a very odd war, and its legacy has been very odd as well. 

So what happened, and why did the United States and Great Britain go to war? 

There were two major issues, one of which involved American aggression, and the other involved British aggression. 

The American Revolution was now 30 years in the past. A new generation had grown up who didn’t know anything other than being an independent country. 

The United States was also growing rapidly. By the start of the war, the 13 original colonies had grown to 18 states. The country’s population had more than doubled during that period, and there was increased pressure for it to expand. 

There was a group of Americans that became known as the “War Hawks” who wanted the United States to annex British territory in Canada and Spanish territory in Florida. 

The desire to annex Canada was a combination of acquiring additional territory and removing the British from the continent. 

This was a minority position in the United States. The annexation of Canada was neither a national policy nor an objective of the president at the time, James Madison. Most people were happy to let things be. However, former President Thomas Jefferson was a big fan of kicking the British out of North America.

However, Americans were expanding into what was known as the Northwest Territory at the time. The Northwest Territories consisted of what are today Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and parts of Northern Minnesota. 

The Northwest Territories, like the rest of the country, was occupied by native tribes. They were having conflicts with the settlers moving into the region, and the British supported the natives in the region, which earned the ire of the Americans. 

The conflict in the Northwest Territories culminated in the Battle of Tippecanoe, fought on November 7, 1811, where American forces led by Governor William Henry Harrison of the Indiana Territory battled Native American warriors associated with Shawnee leader Tecumseh.

There was also a matter of attitude. Many Americans wanted to assert themselves on the world stage and prove that they were equals, at least morally, to the European powers. 

All of this that was happening in North America was one of the major causes of the war. However, this alone probably wouldn’t have sparked a war. 

The other issue had to do with what was going on in Europe. 

Britain was in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars on the European continent, which required enormous amounts of manpower and money. This was their primary focus, and what was happening in North America was really just a minor sideshow.

Both Britain and France attempted to block each other’s trade with neutral parties, including the United States. The British Orders in Council, a series of decrees passed by the privy council in 1807,  restricted American trade with France, and Napoleon’s Continental System aimed to disrupt British commerce as well. 

This unilateral disruption of trade with France was a big issue, but what was even bigger was the British Royal Navy’s practice of impressing American sailors into service. 

As the conflict with Napoleonic France continued, Britain faced a severe shortage of sailors and resorted to this practice to maintain its naval strength. British naval officers would board American vessels, often claiming that the sailors were deserters from the Royal Navy, regardless of their American citizenship. This practice violated American sovereignty and maritime rights, leading to significant tensions and resentment in the United States.

The impressment of sailors and the blockage of trade with France was a bigger deal to most policy makers in Washington DC than the issue of national expansion. 

There was no singular moment like the attack on Pearl Harbor or the assassination of Franz Ferdinand that sparked the war. It was really just a matter of the United States being sick of their treatment by Britain.

On June 1, 1812, President Madison sent a list of grievances to Congress about Britain. He did not explicitly ask for a deceleration of war, but after several days of deliberation, Congress exercised its war powers under the Constitution for the first time on June 18.

It passed by 61% in the House and 59% in the Senate, the closest vote for a declaration of war in American history. None of the members of the Federalist Party voted to declare war, and many opponents of the war began calling it “Madison’s War.”

Nothing happened immediately. 

The British didn’t have many forces in Canada, given the ongoing war in Europe. They had about 6,300 soldiers, plus local Canadian militia.

The Americans didn’t have much of an army either. Thiers were about 12,000 men, but hardly anyone wanted to join because of poor pay.

On July 12, General William Hull invaded Canada from Detroit. He basically crossed into Windsor and proclaimed everyone there free of British tyranny. The problem was the people who lived there didn’t think that way. 

On August 16, the British, making a show of force to the local Canadian population, crossed over into Detroit and managed to take Fort Detroit without firing a shot.

In October, another group of Americans attempted to invade Canada and were defeated at the Battle of Queenston Heights, located just north of Niagara Falls.

The war was not off to a good start for the Americans. One of the problems was that Madison just assumed state militias would waltz into Canada and size it quickly because of the small British contingent. In reality, none of the state militias had any desire to send troops outside of their state.

On January 22, 1813, the Battle of Frenchtown occurred south of Detroit, and the Americans lost again. 

There were a host of small battles, and every battle in this war was a small battle compared to what was happening over in Europe. They took place along the Mississippi River, the Norwest Territories, and the Great Lakes.  Even though the American grievances that started the war were mostly about the high seas, most of the initial fights took place inland. 

On April 27, the Americans finally saw some success. A group led by General Zebulon Pike crossed Lake Ontario and landed in the town of York, today known as Toronto, the capital of what was then Lower Canada. 

The Americans took York, and most of their casualties came from the British detonating the entire store of gunpowder at Fort York, which made an incredible explosion kill General Pike.

In response, the Americans burned down the Legislative Assembly building and Government House. They also took the speaker’s mace from the assembly building and kept it until 1934, when it was returned to Canada by Franklin Roosevelt as a goodwill gesture. 

In June, an American force of 600 was defeated at the Battle of Beaver Dams near Niagara Falls. One reason why the Americans lost was because a woman by the name of Laura Secord walked 20 miles through swamps and forests to notify a British garrison of the advancing Americans. 

1813 continued with some American success. 

On September 10, at the Battle of Lake Erie, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry defeated the British fleet, securing control of the lake for the United States.

On October 5, at the Battle of the Thames, American forces under General William Henry Harrison defeated the British and killed the Shawnee leader Tecumseh.

However, in October, American attempts to take Montreal failed miserably. 

Over in the Atlantic, the powerful British navy began a blockade of American ports, causing serious hardship among some local communities who relyed on shipping and fishing. 

By 1814, opinions on the war were not universally positive, either in the United States or in Britain. 

The New England states suffered the most from the blockade, and the British occupied some territory in Maine. New Englanders openly discussed breaking away from the Union, and there was an actual meeting to that effect, but nothing happened.

There was also a southern front to the war. British ships attempted to take several important port cities. Their biggest target was perhaps the most important strategic city in the region that controlled all shipping out of the Mississippi River: New Orleans….but more on that in a bit. 

1814 saw the end of the wars with Napoleon and his exile to the Island of Elba. This allowed the British to free up more resources to fight the Americans. 

This manifested itself in what was without question the biggest event of the entire war: the Burning of Washington. 

On August 24, 1814, British forces, led by Major General Robert Ross, invaded the American capital following their victory at the Battle of Bladensburg in Maryland. Bladensburg was a disaster for the Americans when a much larger American force was routed by an amphibious British force.

In retaliation for the American attack on York, British troops set fire to multiple government buildings, including the White House, the Capitol, and other public structures. First Lady Dolley Madison famously saved a portrait of George Washington and other valuable items before fleeing.

The only reason why the fires in Washington didn’t spread was a freak thunderstorm that hit the city. Two hours of torrential rain put out the flames. There was also a tornado that spawned doing significant damage to the city. The National Weather Service estimated that flying debris from the tornado did more damage to the British than American guns. 

After Washington, the British tried to extend their luck by taking Baltimore. From September 12-15, the Battle of Baltimore and the defense of Fort McHenry were fought.  British forces failed to capture Baltimore, and Fort McHenry’s defense inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner”, the United States national anthem. 

The burning of Washington sparked outrage back in London. Many complained that the Americans were not extended the same courtesies as European opponents. The burning of a European capital was not something that the British would have considered.

Washington and the White House was not a military encampment or a fort. 

In fact, many back in Britain worried that their actions in Washington weakened their position at the Congress of Vienna in the aftermath of Napoleon. 

The domestic backlash was one of the reasons why the British sought peace terms to end the war. There were also economic concerns as the blockade was preventing American goods from reaching Britain. British manufacturer was also concerned that the blockade would force the Americans to develop their own manufacturing base.

In reality, the end of the Napoleonic Wars brought the British to negotiate. Now that they were not at war with France, there was no reason to stop American trade with France or to impress American sailors. 

In the end, both sides signed the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war and returned everything to the status quo before the war started in 1812. Literally, nothing on the ground changed. 

The agreement was signed on Christmas Eve 1814. 

However, this was not the end. 

The problem was information traveled very slowly back then. It would take weeks for news of the peace treaty and the end of the war to get back across the Atlantic. 

On January 8, 1815, the Americans had their biggest victory of the entire war….even though the war was technically over: The Battle of New Orleans. 

Major General Andrew Jackson led American forces comprised of regular soldiers, militia, free African Americans, Native Americans, and pirates and successfully defended the city of New Orleans against a larger British force commanded by General Edward Pakenham. 

The Americans’ strategic use of fortifications and their advantageous position resulted in a devastating defeat for the British, who suffered heavy casualties, including the death of General Pakenham. 

This victory boosted American morale and nationalism, making Andrew Jackson a national hero. A wave of popularity that would eventually take him to the Presidency. A more in-depth discussion of the Battle of New Orleans will be left for a future episode. 

Opinions about the War of 1812 are still highly contentious. At the time, Americans called it the Second War of American Independence.

Many Americans considered the war a victory because all of their grievances with the British were addressed and resolved in favor of the Americans, and the young country proved it could stand toe to toe with the mighty British Empire. 

Many Canadians consider the war to be a victory because it ensured that Canada would not be swallowed up and annexed by the United States. 

Without trying to be wishy-washy, both sides have a point, and both sides are wrong. 

The claims by both Americans and Canadians who say that they won are both technically correct.

However,  the American grievances against the British were resolved because of events in Europe, not because of events in North America. 

Likewise, the only reason Americans invaded Canada in the first place was events taking place on the seas. If the British hadn’t kidnapped American sailors, there never would have been any military incursions into Canada. 

The peace treaty that was signed reverted everything on the ground to what it was before the war, rendering all of the fightings for territory moot. 

If the War of 1812 were a hockey or soccer match, it would probably be called a draw, and each side would be awarded a point. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel. 

The associate producers are Ben Long and Cameron Kieffer. 

I have a couple of reviews for you today as I’ve gotten behind in reading them. The first comes from listener Sippydog over on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:

Great show!

Great show about all different topics! So good to expand my mind with so many great topics!

Thanks. Love the war strategy stories!

The next review comes from listener Mphanley who writes

Loving this!

I enjoy learning. I also enjoy forming my own opinions based upon facts and data. Gary does an amazing job of presenting the facts and information about a myriad of topics without adding his own personal opinions on the topic.

I’m looking forward to the journey of listening and learning!

Thank you, Mphanely and Sippydog! As I always like to say, if you keep listening, then I’ll keep making them. 

Remember that if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.