What Was the War of 1812 All About?

After many years of British interference with American trade in the Atlantic Ocean, the War of 1812 finally erupted.

Jul 29, 2022By Owen Rust, MA Economics in progress w/ MPA
burning white house 1814
A painting of the White House being burned by invading British troops in 1814, via The White House Historical Association


Although the United States of America formally gained its independence from Britain in 1783 with the Treaty of Paris, Britain did not leave the fledgling republic alone. Issues quickly arose between the two nations over borders and trade. The British routinely impressed sailors on American vessels into naval service in the Atlantic Ocean. The US was also caught in a bitter dispute between France and Britain during the ongoing Napoleonic Wars in Europe. On America’s western frontier, expansion worried the British, who still controlled Canada to the north. These three separate tensions quickly led to the War of 1812, with the young and untested United States having to fight a second conflict to ensure its freedom.


The United States & France: 1790s-1803

A map of the United States circa 1810, via the State Historical Society of North Dakota


The United States had formally won its independence from Britain in 1783 with the Treaty of Paris. However, this did not mean friendly relations. Britain still controlled Canada to the north and was the dominant power in the Atlantic Ocean. By the 1790s, relations with Revolutionary War ally France had begun to cool over trade disputes. Caught between France and Britain when it came to overseas trade, the US was subject to its ships being seized by both nations. American diplomats tried to make agreements with both France and Britain, but the Jay Treaty of 1794 between the US and Britain only increased the hostility from France.


In 1802, the Louisiana Territory, which had been given to Spain by France at the end of the French and Indian War, was suddenly returned to France. Suddenly, the US no longer had access to the port of New Orleans, the city at the mouth of the Mississippi River on the Gulf of Mexico. Future US president James Monroe was dispatched to Paris to try and work out a deal. The new French leader, Napoleon Bonaparte, had been unsuccessful in retaking the Caribbean island of Haiti after a slave revolution and knew war with Britain was looming. Knowing that restoring French territory in North America was unlikely, Napoleon offered to sell the entire Louisiana Territory to the United States for $15 million. US President Thomas Jefferson agreed, and the purchase roughly doubled the size of the United States.


The United States & Britain: 1804-1812

An image protesting the impressment of American sailors by the British, via the US Naval Institute


Improved relations with France put the US in greater tension with Britain, especially as France and Britain were soon at war. These Napoleonic Wars, during which Napoleon tried to conquer all of Europe, made Britain desperate for military manpower. As a result, impressment in the Atlantic Ocean increased. British ships would stop American vessels and seize sailors, who were then forced to serve on British ships. The practice of impressment, also called press-ganging, was directly contradictory to American political values and led to intense criticism of Britain in the United States. In response, Britain claimed it was targeting deserters who had fled the Royal Navy and not kidnapping innocent sailors.

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Although the British impressment of American sailors is often seen as the primary instigator of the War of 1812, there were also territorial disputes between the US and Britain in the years preceding the war. Canada was still a British territory directly to the north of the United States.  The territory of Maine was directly in dispute, with both nations claiming it. British territory and American territory now bordered each other in the new Louisiana Territory, which extended from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada. US settlers in the north near Canada were subject to attacks by Native Americans, which were allegedly instigated by the British. The British had been developing strong relations with Native Americans in and near Canada for years in anticipation of a potential American invasion of Canada.


The War of 1812 is Declared

Reproduction of news of the outbreak of war between the US and Britain in 1812, via the USS Constitution Museum, Boston


Tensions between the US and Britain had been simmering for at least five years when war broke out, and both Congress and US President James Madison had secretly debated the effects of a potential war for months. Those in the West (who faced Native American attacks allegedly stirred up by the British) and the South (who did less trade with the British) outnumbered those in the Northeast who were opposed to war. Many Americans were also eager at the possibility of seizing Canada from Britain, which was busy fighting France in Europe.


Congress declared war on June 18, 1812, with the most immediate justification being the November 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe, where US Army soldiers led by future US President William Henry Harrison fought Shawnee warriors led by Tecumseh. Although the battle in present-day Indiana actually resulted in more casualties for the Army than the Shawnee, the Madison administration heralded it as a great US victory over the instigations of the British, who were pitting Native Americans against the United States.


The War of 1812: US Invades Canada

A map of the Northern Frontier (Canada) of the War of 1812, via the US Army


When war broke out in 1812, neither the US nor Britain had much preparation or manpower in place for combat in North America. The United States was still a new nation with political divisions and infrastructural struggles, and Britain was heavily occupied fighting Napoleon in Europe. Thus, the war did not begin with a powerful “bang,” metaphorically speaking. With the British focusing primarily on Napoleon, the United States embarked on the first offensive in the War of 1812 by invading British Canada, which was seen as an easy target.


In July 1812, with Britain unable to send reinforcements, the US began skirmishing against British outposts in Canada near Detroit. These skirmishes went poorly for the Americans, with British soldiers and their Native American allies driving the US forces back and capturing Detroit in August. In the New York campaign, the Americans had better luck, overwhelming the British initially, but were quickly pushed back. The heavy use of militia by the US proved to be a weakness, as many militiamen did not want to advance into Canada. This kept the fighting in 1812 limited, with neither forces in the US nor Canada wanting to make major incursions into the other’s territory.


During the War of 1812: The US Navy Surprises Britain

A painting of the new USS Constitution defeating the HMS Guerriere in August 1812, via the Naval History and Heritage Command


Although the US Army was poorly trained and equipped compared to the British forces in Canada, the US Navy proved to be a painful surprise to the mighty Royal Navy. The USS Constitution, nicknamed “Old Ironsides,” won its nickname in battles against the Royal Navy, where cannonballs appeared to simply bounce off its sides. On August 19, 1812, the Constitution won a decisive battle against the HMS Guerriere. The Constitution defeated a second British warship, the HMS Java, in December. By the end of the War, she had defeated several British warships and captured several merchant vessels.


A second American warship, the USS United States, surprised the British in October 1812 by capturing the HMS Macedonian. In February 1813, the USS Hornet scored a major capture of a British sloop, and in September, a US fleet defeated a British fleet in Lake Eerie. These unexpected American victories helped boost morale, which was crucial when fighting a superpower adversary. On land, the British often had the advantage in numbers, equipment, and training.


1813-14: The Native American Campaign

An image of the Fort Mims Massacre during the Creek War (1813-14), via the Tennessee State Library and Archives


Unable to send reinforcements to Canada during the ongoing war against Napoleon, Britain encouraged its Native American allies to act against the United States, which was prone to expanding into Native American lands. During the War of 1812, many tribes allied with either the US or Britain, with many who chose to ally with the British viewing them as less of a threat than the growing United States. The largest individual Native American campaign, the Creek War (1813-14), was fought in the South and featured a division among the various Creek tribes.


The Red Stick division of Creeks fought against the United States, with the most known engagement being the Fort Mims Massacre (in modern-day Alabama) on August 30, 1813. The surprising victory of the Red Sticks intensified American anger at the British, whom they presumed to be arming the Red Sticks. Another prominent tribe in the area, the Choctaw, quickly allied with the United States against the Red Sticks and fought against the British in the later Battle of New Orleans. Generally, the US defeated Native American opponents during the intra-war period, making it indecisive on the War of 1812’s outcome.


August 1814: Britain Invades the United States

A painting on the ceiling of the US Capitol depicting the British burning of the building in 1814, via the Architect of the Capitol


In the spring of 1814, France lay defeated at the hands of Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia. Napoleon abdicated the throne as part of the Treaty of Fontainebleau and was exiled to the island of Elba in the Mediterranean. Now, Britain could turn its focus to fighting the United States. The war was now of far greater concern in the United States, as the British could potentially conquer the young nation. In August, a major force of thousands of Redcoats, battle-hardened from fighting in Europe, landed in Maryland. They swiftly defeated US forces in Maryland and marched on the capital city of Washington DC.


British forces burned the US Capitol and the White House in Washington. However, the British decided to withdraw from the city after an accidental gunpowder explosion killed several soldiers. American forces quickly returned to the city and planned to rebuild. The swift American evacuation from Washington DC led to James Madison becoming the first, and so far only, US President to actively command troops while in office.


Late 1814: US Victories Lead to Peace Talks

An image of the Battle of Fort McHenry (1814), which inspired the famous Star-Spangled Banner, via the Naval History and Heritage Command


After the successful march on Washington DC, the British seemed poised to win the war. In Canada, a major British force prepared to invade New York near Plattsburgh. In Lake Champlain, naval forces from the two opposing countries engaged in a heated battle on September 11. Surprisingly, the USS Saratoga scored a significant victory during the Battle of Lake Champlain, defeating the HMS Confiance and stymieing the British invasion. The land portion of the conflict, the Battle of Plattsburgh, was an American victory due to the defeat of British forces trying to cross Lake Champlain.


Further south, along the Atlantic Coast, the British were simultaneously seeking to take the major city of Baltimore, Maryland. Over the night of September 13-14, the British bombarded Fort McHenry, which protected the city. Despite intense shelling over 27 hours, the United States flag remained flying. This iconic event, witnessed by poet Francis Scott Key, inspired the famous Star-Spangled Banner. Unable to take Baltimore, the British departed. The American victory in the Battle of Baltimore, coming on the heels of its twin victories in New York, helped bring the British to the negotiating table to end the War.


Final Challenge in the War of 1812: Protect the South

A map of positions before and during the Battle of Pensacola, via the American Battlefield Trust


America had protected its northern border with the Battle of Plattsburgh and prevented the British from retaking its capital with the Battle of Baltimore, but its southern borders were still open for British incursions. New Orleans, which the US had bought with the Louisiana Purchase, was vulnerable to being seized. Spain, which had remained neutral in the war, in 1814, allowed British troops to make use of Florida, prompting an American response. The fear was that this British base in the South could be used to arm Native Americans and escaped slaves to further aid the British in the War.


In November, Colonel Andrew Jackson decided to attack Pensacola. The relatively few British and Spanish troops were overrun by some 3,600 American soldiers, resulting in the British abandoning Florida. Jackson proceeded to New Orleans, knowing that the British would move there next.


The Treaty of Ghent, December 1814

A painting of the signing of the Treaty of Ghent in December 1814, via the Six Nations Public Library


With the British attempts to invade the United States stymied in New York, Maryland, and Spanish Florida, diplomats wanted to end the war. Since the Napoleonic Wars had ended, Britain no longer needed to continue the practice of impressment, and tensions regarding American ties with France also became a non-issue. Essentially, neither government wished to continue the war. Merchants in both countries also wanted to resume trading, which had been severely limited since 1807.


The Treaty of Ghent, mediated by the Czar of Russia, was signed by Britain and the United States on December 24, 1814. Neither nation won any new territory, and essentially things returned to the way they had been before the war. Both the United States and Canada viewed the return to status quo antebellum as a significant victory: The US had successfully maintained its independence against a historic and mighty foe, and Canada had successfully repelled American invasions. Public morale in the United States soared, and the Era of Good Feelings began.


1815: The Battle Of New Orleans – A Curious Mistake!

An image of the famous Battle of New Orleans on January 8, 1815, via The Historic New Orleans Collection


Despite the Treaty of Ghent having been signed, the most famous battle of the war had yet to occur! Having arrived in New Orleans after defeating the British and Spanish in Pensacola, Florida, Andrew Jackson assembled his troops. In early December, while negotiations were still ongoing in Ghent, Belgium, British troops landed near New Orleans. In late December, days after the treaty was signed, both sides continued to skirmish, unaware of the treaty. The British decided to attack in force on January 8, planning to seize the city. Due to the lack of modern technology, the news took weeks to cross the Atlantic, and both armies were unaware that the war had ended.


A frontal assault by the British on January 8 was decimated by the Americans, who had become battle-hardened by this stage in the conflict. Unable to break through the American lines, the British retreated. Major General Andrew Jackson became a national hero, which eventually propelled him into the White House. Although the war had technically ended on December 24, the US Senate did not ratify the Treaty of Ghent until February 15, meaning the American victory in the Battle of New Orleans helped ratify the treaty on a high note.

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By Owen RustMA Economics in progress w/ MPAOwen is a high school teacher and college adjunct in West Texas. He has an MPA degree from the University of Wyoming and is close to completing a Master’s in Finance and Economics from West Texas A&M. He has taught World History, U.S. History, and freshman and sophomore English at the high school level, and Economics, Government, and Sociology at the college level as a dual-credit instructor and adjunct. His interests include Government and Politics, Economics, and Sociology.