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 6 warships. Britain had nearly 400 warships.

The American strategy called for a three-pronged invasion of Canada and heavy harassment of British shipping. The attack on Canada was a disastrous failure. 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; It 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, ending the fighting strength of the northwestern Indians.

In the spring of 1814, Britain defeated Napoleon in Europe, freeing 18,000 veteran British troops to participate in an invasion of the United States. The British planned to invade the United States at three points: upstate New York across the Niagara River and Lake Champlain, the Chesapeake Bay, and New Orleans.

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. On August 24, 1814, the British humiliated the nation by capturing and burning Washington, D.C. President Madison and his wife Dolley were forced to flee the capital.

Britain's next objective was 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 Fort McHenry. All through the night British cannons bombarded Fort McHenry. In the light of the "rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,'' Francis Scott Key, a young lawyer detained on a British ship, saw the American flag waving over the fort. At dawn, he saw the flag still waving. The Americans had repulsed the British attack, with only 4 soldiers killed and 24 wounded.

The country still faced threats in the South. On January 8, 1815, the British fleet and army attacked New Orleans. To defend the city, Jackson assembled a ragtag army. British forces outnumbered Americans by more than 2 to 1; American artillery and sharpshooters stopped the invasion. American losses totaled only 8 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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