Most Americans learn that the Declaration of Independence in 1776 contributed to starting the American Revolutionary War with Great Britain. However, few are aware that the fledgling nation took on the British again in 1812.
The War of 1812 primarily began over American shipping rights. American trade ships were subject to search and seizure and their crews to impressment in the years before the war. British alliances with Native Americans also escalated frustration.
This war and its causes were complex, so let’s get into it.
Causes of the War of 1812 Timeline
With Napoleon’s Europe and Great Britain at war again in 1803, American trade ships were caught in between. The British and French governments each took steps to hobble American trade ships to their opponent by search and seizure, impressment, and blockades.
|1800||Thomas Jefferson wins election as President of the United States|
Renewal of war in Europe between Britain and France
|1804||The Essex Decision — enemy goods moving through U.S. ports are still enemy goods|
|1806||British paper blockade of the European continent|
Napoleon’s Continental System
Berlin Decree — paper blockade of British Isles
|1807||Napoleon’s Continental System Milan Decree — ships obeying British regulations seized|
British Leopold accosts American Chesapeake — seized four “Englishmen”
Jefferson’s Embargo Act — stopped all American exports and ships to foreign ports
|1809||Jefferson repeals the Embargo Act|
James Madison becomes President of the United States
Madison’s Nonintercourse Act — reopened trade with all except France and Britain
|1810||Macon Bill — restores trade with France and Britain until one drops restrictions|
|1811||Tecumseh traveled to unite Native American tribes|
France lifts Berlin and Milan Decrees — on condition that Britain revokes ordersBattle of Tippecanoe waged to stop the union of Native American tribes
“War Hawks” in 1811 Congress yearn for war to secure borders
|1812||Britain refused to revoke orders in council|
Madison asked Congress for a declaration of war on Great Britain (June 1)
The British foreign minister repealed orders in council on June 16
The Non-Intercourse Act of 1809 reopened trade with all countries except France and Britain. If either Britain or France would repeal restrictions on American trade, then the U.S. would reinstate trade with them. Like Jefferson’s Embargo Act, Madison’s policy of peaceful coercion proved to be ineffective.
Stuck between the British Orders of Council (1807) and the French Empire’s Berlin and Milan Decrees (1806, 1807), America struggled to trade. The warring powers were determined to keep American ships from delivering goods to the other, so each side punished them.
The British Court of Admiralty reached the Essex Decision in 1804, which claimed that French goods moving through U.S. ports were still French. The Orders of Council forbade Great Britain, its allies, and neutrals from trading with the French and issued a naval blockade of French ports (source).
This allowed Britain to search and seize American ships. The British also condoned impressment (seizing British subjects from American vessels): “Once an Englishman, always an Englishman.”
Such government acts and seizures infuriated the American public because Great Britain was essentially acting as if it ruled over America again.
Jefferson attempted to counter with a peaceful solution: the Embargo Act of 1807. This essentially halted all American exports, but this only served to frustrate Americans unwilling to sacrifice imports and fuel smuggling.
In 1809, Congress passed the Non-Intercourse Act. It was an attempt to revive trade with countries other than Britain and France in hopes of pressuring one of them to repeal their pressure to reinstate trade with America (source). It proved to be ineffective.
In 1810, Congress moved to alter the act with Macon’s Bill. Nathaniel Macon suggested reopening trade with both powers, but if one decides to lift its restrictions, then non-intercourse would be restored with the other (source).
Call for War
In 1811, Napoleon offered to lift pressure on American trade and ships if Great Britain revoked their Orders of Council from 1807. The Orders prevented Britain, its allies, or its neutrals from trading with France and included a naval blockade of French ports.
By offering to lift France’s Berlin and Milan Decrees — a similar blockade of the European continent and permission to seize anyone obeying the British Orders — Napoleon sought to increase friction between America and Britain.
If the British would lift their Orders of Council, American ships would have the freedom to trade without fear of search and seizure. So, when Great Britain refused to lift their Orders throughout 1811 and early 1812, Madison asked Congress for war.
War of 1812 Major Events
The War of 1812 began on June 1, 1812. The only place Americans could strike the British directly was Canada. These attempts did not succeed until 1813. War in the South began in 1813 against British and Creek forces. Jackson led Americans to victory in early 1814. Though the British burned Washington, they lost the Battle of New Orleans.
Thanks to the Republican emphasis on a small federal budget and small military, Madison began a war with a financially and militarily ill-prepared nation. America’s army numbered an untrained and poorly equipped 6,700 men led by aged officers.
The American navy was well-prepared but only consisted of 16 ships. As such, victories throughout the first year of the war were exclusively naval victories.
Since Canada was the only place where America could effectively attack the British, they started there. The Madison administration planned a three-pronged assault:
- Along Lake Champlain toward Montreal — General Henry Dearborn
- Along the Niagara River — General Stephen Van Rensselaer
- Into Upper Canada from Detroit — General William Hull
Hull procrastinated until he received word that a nearby American fort had surrendered in August 1812. The British commander in the region played on Hull’s fear by parading red coats in sight of Detroit and announcing that thousands of Indian allies were at the rear.
Fearing a massacre, Hull surrendered his entire force of 2,000 men without consulting his officers or firing a shot.
Rensselaer was more aggressive but not supported. He had 600 men cross the Niagara River in October 1812 and climb the bluffs on the Canadian side. When ready to strike, the New York militia refused to reinforce Rensselaer’s men on Canadian soil.
The militia claimed that their military service did not require them to leave the country, so they watched from the New York side of the river as Rensselaer’s outnumbered men fell to British forces.
On the third front, Dearborn marched his army north toward Montreal in November 1812. Once at the border, the New York state militia again refused to cross borders, so Dearborn returned to Plattsburgh without a battle.
It wasn’t until September 1813 that America pushed for control of inland waters. 28-year-old Commodore Perry had spent the summer building ships from green timber in preparation for inland naval battles.
On September 10, two superior British warships destroyed Perry’s flagship. Instead of running, however, Perry rowed to another vessel and attacked the British until they surrendered the entire squadron.
On October 5, General Harrison secured the American Northwest by defeating the British at the Battle of the Thames.
War did not begin until 1813 in the South. The Creeks allied with the British to attack Americans in Alabama. At Fort Mims, they killed almost half of the people living there.
Andrew Jackson served as major general of the Tennessee militia. After the massacre at Fort Mims, he recruited 2,000 volunteers and vengefully crushed Creek forces.
The most decisive battle was that of Horseshoe Bend in August 1814, where Jackson’s Cherokee allies were critical to the overwhelming victory.
The British Strategy
Just days after the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, Napoleon’s French Empire collapsed. This freed Britain up to focus on America. Their threefold plan for 1814 was:
- A two-pronged invasion via Fort Niagara and Lake Champlain
- An extension of the naval blockade to New England
- A seizure of New Orleans to control the Mississippi River
By invading the American North and blockading New England ports, Britain hoped to unsettle the Northeast and increase internal calls for peace.
Seizing New Orleans would effectively block anything going in or out of ports along the Mississippi River, America’s inland artery.
Unfortunately, years of constant conflict had taken a toll on the British public. War-weariness seemed greater than anger and revenge toward the former colonials.
By 1814, Madison had finally replaced commanders well beyond their prime with younger, more resolute officers. Though Britain’s main invasion effort focused on Lake Champlain, it failed.
The naval battle on Lake Champlain was the last significant naval battle of the War of 1812. It was the primary focus of Britain’s 1814 war strategy, but British naval support got bogged down by a U.S. naval squadron. America won the naval battle.
Invading the U.S. through Lake Champlain’s valley was key to the British war strategy of 1814. General George Prevost’s army could have taken Plattsburgh and flushed American troops out of the area, but his naval flotilla engaged a U.S. naval squadron led by Commodore Thomas Macdonough.
Macdonough planned to stay in place during the battle so that his men could focus solely on gunnery. This proved to be helpful as the shoals and unpredictable winds would interrupt British ships (source). Macdonough’s plan worked as his squadron defeated the British ships.
Capture of Washington D.C.
Meanwhile, British land forces under Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cockburn and Major General Robert Ross marched into Washington D.C. on August 24, 1814, and burned it. Officers ate the meal prepared for Madison and his wife, Dolley, before they burned the White House and government buildings to the ground.
The next day, severe thunderstorms and a tornado added to the damage but put out the fires. Despite the victory, the enthusiasm of British forces seemed to cool with the rain. Their assault on Baltimore failed.
After burning Washington, British forces moved on Baltimore. About 13,000 American militia set up defenses in the heights behind the city. On an island in the harbor, 1,000 men stood ready in Fort McHenry.
A British naval fleet bombarded the fort for hours but stopped when it didn’t seem to go anywhere. Francis Scott Key, a lawyer from Washington, watched the bombardment from a British ship where he was pleading for the release of a prisoner.
The sight of a battered American flag at dawn inspired Key to write the verses that later became the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Later revised and set to the tune of an old drinking song, it was not accepted as the national anthem until 1931 (source).
Treaty of Ghent
Negotiations to end the war began as early as 1812 before any blood was shed, but battles bogged the process down. The British were hoping a few smashing victories would strengthen their hand.
Every U.S. victory took its toll on the war and tax-weary British, particularly that of Lake Champlain. Further, British merchants were pushing for open trade with America again. The British finally decided the cost of waiting was no longer worthwhile.
On Christmas Eve in 1814, the belligerents signed the Treaty of Ghent. Word moved slowly back then, so the Battle of New Orleans commenced on January 8, 1815, completely unaware of the treaty.
The foolish British assault on Andrew Jackson’s well-reinforced position ended in an American victory that ensured the quick ratification of the treaty by both governments.
Battle of New Orleans
The Battle of New Orleans actually took place two weeks after the signing of the Treaty of Ghent. Andrew Jackson’s motley group of 4,700 had well-prepared defenses to face the well-trained and well-equipped 8,000 British soldiers. The battle ended in a surprising American victory.
By the end of November 1814, Andrew Jackson began to erect defensive positions around New Orleans. Just south of the city, the British fleet dropped 8,000 soldiers under General Sir Edward Pakenham.
Pakenham was painfully cautious in preparation; he waited until he had all of his artillery available. Never one to waste time, Jackson built defensive earthworks reinforced with cotton bales. This made Jackson’s position almost impossible to attack.
Nonetheless, Pakenham felt that Jackson’s motley group of mixed races, militia, pirates, and frontiersmen couldn’t hold against his fine British troops.
Pakenham launched a foolish assault on the foggy morning of January 8, 1815. When the British troops closed in on Jackson’s fortified force, Jackson’s men fired everything they had — muskets, rifles, and artillery fire.
2,000 British troops were killed or wounded before they withdrew, while the Americans took a few dozen casualties. Pakenham himself was killed and returned to the ship in a barrel of rum.
The American victory at the Battle of New Orleans ensured the quick ratification of the Treaty of Ghent and sparked patriotic nationalism across the country.
Though the Battle of New Orleans made General Jackson famous (and later carried him to the presidency), he was rather unconventional as a military leader.
Jackson was predisposed to hatred of Great Britain by a series of tragedies during his childhood. In 1780-81, Britain invaded the Carolinas (where Jackson was born and raised). He was imprisoned, struck in the face by a saber, and lost his mother and two brothers in the war (source).
His study and law practice eventually took Jackson to Tennessee, where he had a thriving practice. After a couple of uneventful years in Congress, Jackson returned to Tennessee to serve as a judge and as the militia’s major general.
As war with Britain became imminent in 1812, Jackson called for 50,000 volunteers and offered to lead them to Canada. The federal government didn’t accept Jackson’s offer; instead, they sent him south.
When the Creeks killed about half of the people in 1813 at Fort Mims in Alabama, Jackson recruited 2,000 volunteers for the Tennessee militia to punish the Creeks and put an end to their alliance with Britain.
From there, Jackson strengthened defenses in Mobile. Without permission, he invaded Spanish Florida in late 1814 and took Pensacola. Jackson reasoned that the Spanish and British alliance in the European war was likely at play and quickly reacted to a report that British forces had recently landed in Pensacola.
Learning that the British fleet had moved to Louisiana, Jackson marched his troops overland to New Orleans. He dug in and prepared defenses for the imminent battle. This preparation paid off as the Battle of New Orleans was a decisive victory Jackson was long remembered for.
The Early Republic: Era of Good Feelings
The Era of Good Feelings (1815-1825) was a period of high nationalism, prosperity, and harmony. The nation almost unanimously supported the Democratic-Republican Party for leading the previous war effort. European demand for American cotton was high, and Americans had drive and purpose as a whole.
Nationalism ran high after the War of 1812 because the fledgling country had taken on Great Britain twice and doubled its territory with the Louisiana Purchase in a short time. Having been in office during this time, the Democratic-Republican Party received wholehearted support (source).
Moreover, renewed trade brought lots of demand from Europe for American cotton and other agricultural products. After over a decade of trade struggles, this demand was amazing to behold.
This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
However, issues like reduced demand from Europe and whether to accept the Missouri territory as a state brought the harmonious feelings to an end by 1825.
For more on the early history of America, make sure you check out “13 American Colonies Timeline: Dawn of the Colonial Era.”
The War of 1812 could have been avoided if Madison’s administration had been more patient for Britain’s war-weariness to set in. However, Americans could not have known how exhausted the British people were nor how strained the British economy was due to years of war.
The wave of patriotism, harmony, and prosperity that flooded America after the War of 1812 solidified the young country’s resolve and place in the world.