War of 1812: An Introduction

James Madison became President in 1809, and after the election of 1810 a number of new men found their way into Congress, who were determined to fight for American liberties at home and on the high seas. They believed in taking a stronger attitude toward Great Britain or any other country that threatened American rights. Among them were such persons as Henry Clay of Kentucky and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. These men and their supporters came to be known as the War Hawks.

Americans who were pushing westward into the Ohio valley and on toward the Mississippi found what they imagined to be still another cause of resentment toward Britain. They came into conflict with Indian tribes who considered the westward surge of settlers an invasion of their lands. Because some of the Indians were equipped with firearms, the frontiersmen complained loudly that the British in Canada were arming the Indians and inciting the tribesmen to fight the Americans.

The War Hawks gained such power in the Congress of the United States that their words were listened to with growing attention. It became increasingly obvious that these aggressive men were bent on war with Great Britain. By Autumn of 1811, they were openly demanding an immediate invasion of British North America.

Despite opposition from other members of Congress and protests from various parts of the nation, Henry Clay and his supporters "beat the drums of war." Clay was confident of a victory in a strike across the border. He estimated it would take the American troops no more than four weeks to overrun and hold the important regions of British North America.

By February of 1812, Congress had ordered the creation of a volunteer army of 50,000 men. On June 18th 1812, came a declaration of war against Great Britain. Oddly enough on June 23rd 1812, Great Britain had revoked the restrictions on American commerce, thus eliminating one of the chief reasons for going to war.

The War Hawks had displayed much more energy in talking about war than in planning and preparing for war. At the beginning of hostilities there were about 7,000 men in the regular forces and these were commanded by senior officers who were old, incompetent or lacking in experience. Congress had voted for war, but seemed reluctant to spend the necessary funds upon equipment and supplies. A bill introduced into Congress with the purpose of increasing the size of the American Navy was turned down by the members. Volunteer soldiers were badly fed and disgracefully clothed

To make matters more embarrassing for the War hawks, people in the New England states disapproved of the war. In Massachusetts, the New Englanders placed their Stars and Stripes at half-mast when war was declared. As the conflict progressed they refused to volunteer for military service and withheld financial support for the war effort.

It soon became clear that great numbers of Americans were not at all united in approving the conflict with Great Britain. Many felt that it was a contest fought for purposes other than those which had been declared by the War Hawks.

If the American prospects of waging a successful war appeared disappointing, the British prospects of defense were even less promising. The British provinces lacked the population, the food supplies, the military equipment, the manufacturing resources and the troops available to the United States. Officials in all seriousness wondered if the French Canadians and former Americans might not prove a danger during these tense days of warfare. It was sobering to consider the possibility of thousands of Canadian inhabitants welcoming American invaders and taking up arms against the British government.

The British army in North America, a mere 4,450 men, was faced with the staggering problem of defending a border that stretched for a thousand miles to the south and west of Montreal. The undeveloped nature of the land and the lack of proper roads were to prove a severe handicap to the invading Americans.

Source: War of 1812: An Introduction
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