WAR OF 1812

The War of 1812 was a conflict that involved the United States and Britain (and to some degree Spain and France), and which at least formally began when the fledgling American republic dared to declare war on its previous, but still mighty, colonial overlord. The background to the war is complex and draws strings to both the French support for the American Revolution and the annihilation of the French fleet at the hands of Lord Nelson at The Battle of the Nile in 1798. But for America, it was all about satisfying national honor. In the years leading up to 1812, large parts of Europe burned in ubiquitous wars, and in many places, the political map was being redrawn. The cause of this extensive reconfiguration of Europe was Napoleon Bonaparte and his Grande Armée, the largest and best trained military land force the world had ever seen. While perhaps not the direct trigger of the American-British conflict, Britain’s prolonged war with France set the stage for America’s first declaration of war.

No doubt, Napoleon’s armies were a force to be reckoned with, but the French navy was nothing compared to Britain’s. Lord Nelson had destroyed 80% of the French Navy at Aboukir in 1798, and even though France would subsequently ally itself with Spain, Nelson repeated this feat at Trafalgar in 1805. It was also clear from Napoleon’s command style that the navy mattered little to him compared to his army. He repeatedly issued contradictory orders to his fleet and consistently expected impossible victories, despite his own neglect of the navy. When Admiral Villeneuve, the French commander at Trafalgar, returned to France after six months of imprisonment in England, Napoleon received him with utter indifference. And when he was found dead in his temporary pension in Rennes, with a large knife sticking out of his chest, police dismissed it as suicide and dumped his body in an unknown location. In contrast, both Lord Nelson and the Spanish Admiral Gravinas were given state funerals.

Napoleon’s disinterest in the navy – and to a degree in the Western Hemisphere – meant that Royal Navy ships still were the dominant naval force in the Atlantic and along America’s East Coast. The loss of maritime prowess eventually meant that French trade suffered, lacking the protection needed against pirates and the privateers of competing nations. Consequently, French merchants relied increasingly on their contacts within the United States to procure some of the New World’s many commodities. Increasingly, the U.S. also came to rely on this trade. To strangle French supply lines, England nevertheless decided to impose a trade blockade on American merchandise headed for France. And because fewer and fewer French ships were sailing on the Atlantic, primarily American merchantmen suffered the direct brunt of this embargo. And as if this was not enough, many sailors on confiscated American vessels were forcefully conscripted to serve on British ships against the French.

Even though France had undergone several dramatic upheavals in the political climate since America’s emancipation (e.g. moving from monarchy, over bloody revolution, to Napoleon’s First Empire), America still considered France a close friend due to her support of American independence. But in many ways, this friendship was beside the point: as a neutral party in the Napoleonic Wars, America was entitled to trade freely with whomever they wanted. Blocking American trade extended the financial impact to include the U.S. economy and was an affront to her honor. The American government, therefore, began viewing the blockade with increasing frustration. As this frustration was coming to a boil, news reached Washington that British forces supplied hostile indigenous tribes along their northern border with arms and munitions. This maneuver was the final straw for President James Madison, and on the 18th of June 1812, the United States declared war against the mighty British Empire.

At the beginning of the war, things did not fare well for America. Far from all Americans supported the war, and many young men refused the call to arms. The initiative was met with resistance, especially in the old colonies of New England, where appropriate financial support and the conscription of troops continuously fell short of what was expected. Initial American attacks on British positions around the Great Lakes were repeatedly repelled by a much smaller British force consisting primarily of local militia and various tribal confederations.

The lack of proper organization in the U.S. military soon became a prominent and blatantly apparent problem. What saved the Americans from utter military humiliation in these early years of the war was that the Brits were forced to maintain an explicitly defensive strategy. They would defend their holdings rigorously but would only very rarely launch counter-offensives due to a lack of resources and manpower. England would not let this insolent new republic walk all over them, but their priority was keeping Napoleon at bay in Europe. Sending numerous troops to the New World was simply not an option in 1812-13.

The situation changed in 1814 when Napoleon abdicated after a coalition led by the British defeated him at Leipzig the year before. The primary reason for this defeat was the destruction of Napoleon’s Grande Armée at the hands of the Russians in the preceding years. The victory over France freed up a massive amount of British military resources, which could now be redirected across the Atlantic. The tides of the war changed suddenly, putting the United States under serious threat of losing. But following the organizational chaos that had marked the first years of the war, the U.S. Army had been reorganized and streamlined, not to mention gained considerable combat experience. Despite growing in numbers, the Americans met British forces with fiercer and more coordinated resistance.

The British now instigated a maritime stronghold on America, blocking all ships and confiscating the cargo of any American vessel that tried to pass. Only New England remained open as they continued to trade with the British despite a federal order to desist. New England’s ports were the only ones open for international business, which meant that a considerable amount of American trade was redirected to Boston and other ports. The blockade had a devastating effect on the U.S. economy, which couldn’t handle a situation in which export goods abounded, and imported goods became unavailable. In particular, the agricultural sector suffered, but the blockade also meant that countless stubborn and innovative Americans began building the new facilities and infrastructure to produce the things America traditionally had imported. In this sense, the War of 1812 sparked the industrialization of America.

Until 1814, America had defended her ports and the ships sailing on them through numerous small gun barges anchored to protect entry points, estuaries, and other key locations. These barges would quickly prove ineffective to the might and maneuverability of the British Royal Navy. With the collapse of coastal defenses, the British initiated raids along the East Coast. Among the more devastating assaults was the attack on the Chesapeake Bay, culminating in the conflagration of Washington, D.C. Later that year, an American victory on Lake Champlain halted a large British invasion force in its tracks and forced them to turn back. This event stopped some of the Anglo-Native alliances and secured a degree of calm, or stalemate, along the northern border.

With Napoleon’s abdication in 1814 and the Napoleonic Wars seemingly coming to an end, restrictions on trade were lifted, and American sailors were no longer forcefully drafted into British service. In many ways, this eliminated the reasons for the conflict in the first place, and soon both parties found peace both more fruitful and convenient. On Christmas Eve of that year, a peace treaty was signed in Ghent. Unfortunately, the news did not always travel fast across the Atlantic, and so in January of the following year, an unaware British commander ordered an all-out attack on New Orleans. The Brits managed to take Fort Bowyer guarding the outer entry to the Bay of New Orleans, but they were met with ferocious resistance as they proceeded closer. In command of the American troops – and unaware of the treaty at this point – was Andrew Jackson. He would later be elected president, to a large degree, because of his popularity as the defender of New Orleans against the British.

When Congress finally ratified the treaty a few weeks later, almost all the borders were precisely as before.

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