The War of 1812

The United States was unprepared for war. The army consisted of fewer than 7,000 soldiers, few trained officers, and a navy with just six warships. Britain had nearly 400 warships.

The American strategy called for invasion of Canada and heavy harassment of British shipping. The attack on Canada was a disaster. At Detroit, American troops surrendered to a smaller British and Indian force. An attack across the Niagara River, near Buffalo, resulted in 900 American prisoners of war. Along Lake Champlain, a third army retreated into American territory after failing to cut undefended British supply lines.

In 1813, America had a series of unexpected victories at the end of the year, raising American spirits. In September 1813, America won a major naval victory at the Battle of Lake Erie. America's first major victory of the war forced the British to abandon Detroit and retreat toward Niagara. In October 1813, U.S. troops overtook the retreating British army and their Indian allies at the Thames River, winning a decisive victory in which the Indian leader Tecumseh was killed. The Indians were no longer a major factor in the war.

In the spring of 1814, Britain defeated Napoleon in Europe, freeing 18,000 veteran British troops to participate in a planned invasion of the United States.

At Niagara, American forces, outnumbered more than three to one, halted Britain's invasion from the north. Britain then landed 4,000 soldiers on the Chesapeake Bay coast and marched on Washington, D.C., where untrained soldiers were protecting the capital. The result was chaos. President Madison narrowly escaped capture by British forces. The British humiliated the nation by capturing and burning Washington, D.C. President Madison and his wife Dolley were forced to flee the capital.

At Baltimore, British warships had to pass the guns of Fort McHenry, manned by 1,000 American soldiers. On September 13, 1814, British warships began a 25-hour bombardment of the fort. The Americans withstood the British attack.

On January 8, 1815, the British fleet and army attacked New Orleans. British forces outnumbered Americans by more than two to one, yet American artillery and sharpshooters stopped the invasion. American losses totaled only eight dead while British casualties were 2,036.

Ironically, American and British negotiators in Ghent, Belgium, had signed the peace treaty ending the War of 1812 two weeks earlier. Britain, convinced that the American war was so difficult and costly that nothing would be gained from further fighting, agreed to return to the conditions that existed before the war.

Source: The War of 1812
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