The British Navy was permitted to press any British citizen anywhere in the world for service on a warship. This irritating procedure became a serious problem during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), and thousands of men were pressed from American ships. Both Britain and France were trying to prevent neutral America from trading with the other, but the Royal Navy’s dominant position meant that American ships were much more likely to be boarded by the British. Motivated by the need to satisfy the hawks in his party, who wanted to expand the United States and end British support for the Indian tribes that resisted American expansion, President James Madison won Congress’ permission to go to war with Britain, and the United States declared war on June 18, 1812.
Despite the United States’ much larger population, the war did not go according to plan. Aside from several naval victories, the first few American armies that entered Canada were either captured or forced to retreat back across the border. Control of border forts shifted back and forth until Napoleon’s abdication on March 31, 1814 freed thousands of British troops for a seaborne invasion of the east coast, which resulted in the burning of Washington. Since recently annexed Louisiana was considered ripe for the plucking, a fleet was dispatched to capture New Orleans, and thus improve the British hand at the negotiating table. However, a badly-executed campaign enabled General Andrew Jackson to win an overwhelming victory.
- 1 Background
- 2 The Invasion of Canada (July 1812-January 1813)
- 3 American Naval Victories (July-December 1812)
- 4 1813
- 5 1814
- 5.1 Niagara (July-November 1814)
- 5.2 Battle of Lake Champlain (September 1814)
- 5.3 The Chesapeake Campaign (August-September 1814)
- 5.4 Peace Negotiations (August-December 1814)
- 5.5 Battle of New Orleans (December 1814-January 1815)
- 6 So, who won the war?
- 7 Related Movies:
- 8 Further Reading:
- 9 Related Posts:
As part of the 1783 Treaty of Paris that formally ended the American Revolution (1776-1873), Britain had pledged to abandon its western forts on the American side of the border, but the inability of the American government to provide the agreed-upon compensation for the Loyalist refugees in Canada was used as an excuse to not surrender the posts, valuable meeting points for its Indian allies. However, the growing demands of the war with France drove the British to agree in 1794 to hand over the forts.
Since the British would be at war with France from 1792 until 1815, with only a single year of peace, and the new republic was preoccupied with the challenge of welding thirteen independent colonies into a single nation, there was peace through the early 1790s into the first decade of the 19th century. However, the original French revolutionaries were elbowed aside in 1799 by Napoleon, who transformed the war into a global struggle for dominance between Britain and France. Faced with a seemingly unstoppable enemy, the British had no time for polite niceties when dealing with their former colonies, while a generation of Americans was growing up without firsthand experience of the terror of war. A key factor in the decline in relations was the British belief that they had never suffered a decisive defeat during the Revolution, even though they had been forced to surrender at Saratoga and Yorktown. The intervening years had been spent making excuses, like they were tired from fighting on several fronts and they had not used their full power, to reassure themselves that they had not actually lost, so American independence was never really recognized.
Relations between the United States and Britain following the Revolution were bound to be uneasy, but the Royal Navy’s huge manpower needs during the Napoleonic Wars meant that its irritating habit of pressing any British citizen anywhere in the world for service on a warship aggravated an already problematic situation. Like any kidnap victim, many of the sailors ran away at the first opportunity, and they often found employment on American merchant ships, lured by the high pay and right to leave the ship at the end of the voyage. This situation was complicated by conflicting definitions of an American citizen. The American government simply required five years of residence to become a citizen but the British only recognized birth or residency in the United States since before 1783. Thousands of men were pressed from American ships between 1803 and 1812, and considerably more than two-thirds were United States citizens.
Aside from the impressment issue, Britain and France were each trying to forcibly prevent neutral America from trading with the other. Although the French were willing to board American ships, the Royal Navy’s dominant position meant that American ships were much more likely to be boarded by the British, which fuelled anger against Britain. Faced with the threat of seizure if American ships traded with either France or Britain, President Thomas Jefferson declared the Embargo Act of 1807, which forbade exports to any foreign port. His hope was that Britain and France would see the error of their ways but many American ships simply smuggled goods to foreign ports, while smuggling across the Canadian border exploded. Even though the American economy took a heavy hit, neither Britain nor France actually took notice of the embargo or made any effort to open negotiations. Acknowledging defeat, Jefferson introduced a weaker version in his last week of office that allowed trade with any country other than Britain or France.
Tensions soon calmed down except for the frontier areas, where land-hungry settlers poured into lands claimed by Indian tribes. Although there had been no conflict with the Indians since Pontiac’s Rebellion (1763-1766), there were frequent flare-ups of violence between Indian tribes and American settlers. Aware that the Indians depended on the British for supplies and weapons, the settlers blamed the British every time there was a problem with a tribe, even though the tribes were resisting what they saw as an invasion of their lands, and the British were trying to satisfy their allies without starting a war. An attempt by Shawnee chieftain Tecumseh to build an Indian Confederacy to oppose the influx of white settlers into Indiana Territory ended when a large force of regular soldiers and militia led by the governor of the territory, William Henry Harrison, defeated the followers of the Prophet, Tecumseh’s brother, on November 7, 1811. The failed attack damaged the Prophet’s aura of invincibility, but it did not end Indian raids. Since the Indians used British weapons, anger against Britain grew. Furthermore, people were hungrily eyeing Canada. Louisiana had already been purchased from France and made part of the expanding United States, and the state of Ohio had been carved from land originally set aside for the Indians by the British but settlers still thirsted for more land. Invading Canada would not only open more land for settlement but also end the Indian threat by eliminating their source of weapons.
The two main political parties in the United States at the time were the Republicans and the Federalists. The Republicans had won control of both Congress and the Senate in 1811, and a Republican was president, but James Madison, Thomas Jefferson’s former secretary of state and hand-picked successor, did not control the Republican party. Key positions in Congress were filled by young, hawkish Republican leaders who thirsted for expansion. In particular, they sought a decisive end to the Indian threat, which they believed was encouraged by the British. The desire for war was not unanimous. Despite the impressment issue and the cost of the trade restrictions, the New England states opposed war because they were already making a profit by avoiding the rules. Unenthusiastic about war, Madison finally sought Congress’s permission to go to war with Britain because he knew that the fall elections would go badly without the support of the war hawks, and he hoped that the threat of war would pressure Britain to change its policies. None of the Federalists in Congress voted for the war, and it would be called Mr. Madison’s War by his critics.
Aware of the pressure within the United States for war, and its dependence on the republic for supplies to keep its war machine functioning, the British had begun to offer concessions on trade, while naval officers were ordered to treat American crews with more tact. Unfortunately, the key concession, an end to the Orders-in-Council and the system of blockades, was made too late, only two days before Congress voted on June 5, 1812 to declare war. President Madison made a formal declaration of war on June 18. Communication delays undoubtedly hampered the negotiation process, but the British government had never indicated that it was even considering concessions. Instead, the concessions appeared one-by-one without any warning because Britain was too busy with Napoleon. As a result, American moderates were unable to present any evidence of changed British behavior to calm down the situation.
The Invasion of Canada (July 1812-January 1813)
At first glance, it seemed obvious that the United States with a population of 7.7 million would easily overrun Canada, which had 500,000 people, but the numbers were misleading. Despite a famous comment that the conquest of Canada would be a mere matter of marching, Jefferson’s desire to avoid a standing army meant that the United States lacked an army with which to invade Canada. In January 1812, the regular army consisted of 4,000 officers and men, although it had grown to almost 7,000 men by June. The lack of regular troops was expected to be solved by drawing on more than 700,000 militia.
While the British government may have been surprised by the United States’ declaration of war on June 18, the colonial government in Canada was not, and had already formulated a defensive strategy.
The Loyalists who had abandoned the new republic had settled in the Niagara region, and since their customs and language separated them from the descendants of the original French settlers in Quebec, Canada was divided into Lower and Upper Canada in 1791. By 1811, the population of Upper Canada was roughly 77,000 against 275,000 in Lower Canada.
Although the Ottawa River was the boundary between Upper and Lower Canada, the military plan divided Canada into three divisions. The Left Division included Quebec and reached as far west as Kingston (essentially all of the territory bordering the St. Lawrence River), the Centre Division was composed of York and Niagara, while the remaining area to the west made up the Right Division. With only 5,600 regulars (1,200 in Upper Canada) to guard a 1,200 mile-long communication line from Quebec to the most distant western outpost, Fort St. Joseph, Lieutenant-General Sir George Prevost, governor-general of Canada, felt that everything outside of the Left Division was too remote to be defended. His strategy was to hold on to Quebec until England could send reinforcements. Since England was engaged in a desperate struggle with Napoleon, reinforcements would not arrive promptly. Opposed to the idea of simply abandoning Upper Canada, the commander of Upper Canada, Major-General Isaac Brock, believed that close cooperation with Britain’s Indian allies would counterbalance the American numerical superiority. It is worth mentioning that the main transportation system was still the waterways, which involved numerous exhausting portages around rapids, so it is understandable that Prevost had little enthusiasm for defending the sparsely settled western frontier. Moreover, British ships dominated the Great Lakes, which were indispensable for an invasion of Canada.
Unfortunately, Prevost’s strategy was flawed. Aware that the fortress of Quebec would prove almost impossible to capture, American planners had decided to launch three separate campaigns: against Kingston and Montreal; westward across the Niagara River into Upper Canada; and eastward from Detroit at the western end of Lake Erie.
Detroit (July-August 1812)
William Hull, governor of Michigan Territory, was given responsibility for the capture of the naval dockyard at Amherstburg, opposite Detroit, which had been built to replace Detroit when it was given to the United States in 1796. It took thirty-five days for the two thousand Ohio militia and regulars to carve out a two-hundred-mile-long road from Dayton, Ohio to Detroit. To speed up the process, the heavy baggage, including Hull’s plans for the campaign, were sent on a schooner. News of the declaration of war reached the British at Amherstburg sooner than expected and the ship was captured three days before Hull reached Detroit on July 5, therefore the element of surprise was lost. Additional problems soon developed. A significant number of Ohio militia refused to leave American territory, while the majority of local inhabitants surprisingly resisted the urge to flock to the American flag, so Hull decided to wait until heavy artillery could be transported over the river. However, Tecumseh’s followers had already cut his supply line, which convinced Hull that he faced a strong enemy.
On August 7, the guns were finally in position but when Hull learned that British reinforcements were sailing from York across Lake Erie, he pulled back across the river that night. Other events had made Hull realize the danger of the situation. Fort Mackinac, which guarded the area between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, had been captured on July 17 because Hull had neglected to inform Lieutenant Porter Hanks, the fort’s commander, that war had been declared. Hanks only learned of the war when a combined force of British regulars, voyageurs from the North West Company and Indians appeared outside his fort with a cannon. Released under parole, Hanks told Hull in person about the fall of Mackinac on August 2, which led Hull to order Fort Dearborn on Lake Michigan to be abandoned. Given its tiny garrison, it probably would not have held out for long, but the majority of the troops and their families were massacred by Indians on August 15 once they were out in the open, which shows the consequences of Hull’s failure to consider the danger to the exposed outposts.
The delay in attacking Amherstburg combined with Dearborn’s inactivity had given Brock enough time to reinforce Amherstburg on the night of August 13. Already intimidated by Brock’s Indian allies, the accurate British bombardment drove Hull to raise the white flag on August 17. The surrender of a key fort to a weaker force won Hull a court-martial and he would have been executed but he was spared because of his age. The first of the three campaigns had been blocked and the whole Northwest frontier was now exposed to Indian raids. Although Prevost was unable to send Brock the reinforcements needed to secure Michigan Territory, Brock decided to hold the area to reassure his Indian allies that they would not be abandoned to the Americans.
Niagara (October-November 1812)
Militia Major General Stephen Van Rensselaer was given command of the army that advanced across the Niagara River in the hope that appointing a Federalist general would win Federalist support for the war. However, his complete lack of military experience meant that the senior regular officer in the region, Brigadier General Alexander Smyth, simply refused to cooperate with Rensselaer. Even without Smyth’s regulars, Rensselaer’s militia outnumbered Brock, since most of his troops were at Forts George and Erie, at the northern and southern ends of the Niagara River respectively. Worried that winter was approaching, Rensselaer decided to capture Queenston Heights on the Canadian side of the Niagara River and use it as a base for an attack on Fort George, located ten kilometers to the north. 600 militia and regulars crossed the river at 3am October 13. Hearing the sound of cannon from Fort George, Brock rode off alone to supervise the British troops there who already had the main American force pinned down. Suddenly, a force of American regulars found a steep, winding path up to the heights in the early morning light and captured the guns that dominated the river. Brock led the counterattack but his flashy uniform attracted a bullet that ended his life. The Americans were poised for victory but the New York militia chose to remain on American territory, so the American regulars were forced to surrender when the garrison of Fort George arrived.
Van Rensselaer resigned his command and was replaced by Smyth, who proved to encounter the same problem with militia when he attacked Fort Erie on November 28. His poor track record meant that his application to be relieved of command was not opposed by the War Department.
Montreal (November 1812)
Major-General Henry Dearborn, the senior officer in the army, was in charge of organizing the assault on Montreal but he was nearing retirement and did not bring any urgency to the planning of the invasion. The third prong of the invasion met with even less success since Dearborn’s militia were unwilling to cross the border. The regulars had advanced across the border on November 20, but many of the troops were struck by dysentery, and the invasion was called off after three days.
Detroit-Second Attempt (January 1813)
Since Hull had been defeated early in the war, it was believed that there was still time for a second attempt against the British garrisons at Detroit and Amherstburg under a more vigorous commander. While it would have been natural to replace Hull with a regular army officer, command was given to William Henry Harrison, famed Indian fighter and governor of Indiana Territory. He found himself in charge of almost 7,000 men, mostly militia from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and Kentucky, and a force of regulars under Brigadier General James Winchester. The troops were divided into three separate columns that were to converge at the Maumee Rapids (Toledo, Ohio) by early October but progress through the wilderness was painfully slow.
Reaching the Maumee Rapids on January 10, 1813, Winchester’s column waited for the other two columns. Seeking supplies, he decided to occupy the nearby settlement at Frenchtown, even though it was dangerously close to Fort Amherstburg. Colonel Henry Proctor, commander of the Right Division, led 1,100 British and Indians in a dawn attack on January 22. The regulars were able to find cover, but the militiamen were slaughtered or captured. Taken prisoner, Winchester was easily persuaded to order the regulars to surrender. The elimination of one-sixth of his army drove Harrison to call off the invasion, partially because the militia, the majority of his force, was about to return home since their enlistments were about to expire, although he did build Fort Meigs at Maumee Rapids.
Aware that his lack of troops limited his ability to defend such a large area, Proctor advocated the formation of a battalion of rangers that would operate with the more reliable Indian allies to keep the Americans too busy to launch an invasion but Prevost rejected the proposal as being too expensive. Proctor, like Brock before him, wanted to establish a Native buffer state but Prevost was more concerned with defending a few vital transportation links.
Warships in the early 19th century were classified into four basic types: sloop, brig, frigate and ship of the line. Within that classification, ships were rated by the number of guns, but captains had the discretion to add more guns to their ships to increase their firepower. In addition, the number of guns was often misleading, since ships usually had a mixture of long guns and carronades. The former were long, extremely heavy cannon that fired relatively light cannonballs in order to hit targets at a far range, while the latter were short, stubby cannon which could fire much heavier cannonballs but only for a short distance. The mixture of guns determined the amount of weight the ship could throw at the enemy. If a forty-four-gun frigate had thirty 24-pound long guns and fourteen 32-pound carronades, a broadside of one side of the ship would be 584 pounds. However, the broadside for a forty-four-gun frigate with fourteen 24-pound long guns and thirty 32-pound carronades would be 648 pounds. To a crew with only a thin wooden hull between them and a round iron ball traveling at lethal velocity, this distinction was literally a matter of life and death. Since the ships were powered by the wind, whichever ship was windward to the other had the advantage, and this was called having the weather gauge.
Although the Royal Navy had a thousand warships, most of them were busy blockading French ports, escorting convoys and hunting French ships, which left only twenty-five ships, including one ship of the line and eight frigates, for the North American station. The United States navy consisted of eight frigates and twelve sloops at the beginning of the war, and there was a fierce debate about how to best to use the limited number of ships. The Secretary of the Treasury wanted the ships to escort merchantmen, the senior naval captain advocated the formation of two squadrons to attack British commerce, and the more adventurous frigate captains wanted to raid independently. President James Madison chose a compromise, two squadrons would be formed to protect American merchantmen but a small fleet of four warships had already set sail to raid British commerce. As a result, the British decided to pursue the raiders rather than blockade ports.
This decision would prove costly in the near future since American merchantmen were able to safely return to their home ports and they would provide ships and crews for the swarm of privateers that would plague British shipping. Lured by visions of huge profits, several hundred ships would sail with letters of marque (the license for a captain to capture enemy ships) but privateering was not the easiest trade, so many captains soon found themselves British captives. Even so, the British were unable to catch all of the privateers, while the skilled captains made a sizeable dent in British trade in the region. In fact, there is little doubt that American privateers were far more effective than American warships, simply because of the huge discrepancy in numbers.
While hunting British British merchantmen in the Gulf of St. Lawrence near Nova Scotia, the forty-four-gun frigate USS Constitution came across the thirty-eight-gun frigate HMS Guerriere on August 19, 1812. Despite the Constitution’s official rating, it carried fifty-six guns, including twenty-four 42-pound carronades, so Captain Isaac Hull, nephew of the recently disgraced General William Hull, chose to ignore the enemy fire and wait until he was close. Hull proved to have made the right decision since several broadsides knocked down two of the Guerriere’s masts, so it was basically stuck in the water. Realizing that the Constitution could simply sail around him and send a never-ending stream of cannonballs into his ship, the captain of the Guerriere surrendered.
The defeat of a single frigate was a minor matter for the British navy, but it showed that the American navy had to be taken seriously. The victory was a much-needed morale boost since the news reached America just after the defeat of the American army at Detroit. Since the New England states depended on the sea for trade, it was a key factor in Madison’s re-election that November.
The victory was soon followed by several others. The USS United States found the frigate HMS Macedonian sailing on its own on October 12. Once again, the United States was a more powerful frigate with fifty-six guns against its opponent’s forty-nine but in the end, it was better sailed by Captain Stephen Decatur, who gradually picked apart the Macedonian from long range. On December 29, the Constitution, under the command of Captain William Bainbridge, encountered the frigate HMS Java under Captain Henry Lambert, who was more cautious than the Guerriere’s captain and did not immediately close with the more powerful Constitution. However, Bainbridge was also a skilled captain and used his cannon well, so Lambert decided to come close enough to board but the Java took so much damage in the process that Lambert had no choice but to surrender. Following this third defeat, the Admiralty issued orders that all frigate captains were to avoid single-ship combat with American frigates and observe the enemy until a ship-of-the-line arrived.
The American army had marched and Canada still remained British. In fact, the three land campaigns had been a complete disaster and instead of simply plucking Canada, there existed a real danger of invasion from Canada, while Forts Mackinac and Detroit were under British control. Furthermore, the destruction of Napoleon’s army outside Moscow that winter meant that a number of British units could be transferred to Canada. The war had taken a heavy toll on commanders on both sides. Brock was killed, Hull court-martialed, militia Major General Stephen Van Rensselaer and regular Brigadier General Alexander Symthe both resigned their commands. Winchester was captured.
President Madison had won re-election in November 1812, but Republican control slipped in both Congress and the Senate. The cost of the war was so heavy in its first year that the Republicans had to give in and raise taxes, despite previous fierce opposition.
Despite the defeats of the previous year, the American government refused to give up its plan to conquer Canada but all efforts would be focused on the Niagara region. It was clear that whoever dominated the Great Lakes had a vital advantage, so Captain Isaac Chauncey was assigned to gain control of Lake Ontario, while Lieutenant Oliver Perry was given responsibility for Lake Erie. The series of victories by American frigates over British frigates had produced such a torrent of public criticism that the British fleet in North American waters had received enough ships to both blockade the American ports and take a toll of American privateers. Since most American warships were idling in port, their crews were sent to man the growing fleets on Lakes Ontario and Erie.
Niagara (April-June 1813)
At the same time, Major-General Henry Dearborn was ordered to take Kingston and Forts George and Erie to ensure that the United States held both entrances to Lake Ontario. Rejecting Kingston as a target because it was too strongly defended, Dearborn decided to attack York (modern-day Toronto), the capital of Upper Canada. York’s value was entirely symbolic, while Kingston controlled one of the two entrances into Lake Ontario, which is why it was well-defended and York was not. The American invasion force easily captured the town on April 27, but poor discipline led to widespread looting, and the Parliament buildings were burned in the chaos.
A British raid on Chauncey’s shipyard at Fort Tompkins on May 28 convinced him to protect his shipyard, rather than cooperate with Dearborn, who had attacked Fort George, at the north end of the Niagara River, on May 27. Realizing that the fort could easily be shelled into submission once the Americans controlled the area, Brigadier-General John Vincent, the British commander, quickly ordered a retreat to Queenston, and pulled in all of the garrisons between Fort Erie and Fort George. While Dearborn and part of the army occupied Fort Erie, Brigadier-Generals John Chandler and William Winder led the rest of the army after the Fort George garrison, reaching Stoney Creek (now part of Hamilton, Ontario) on June 5. Launching a night attack, Vincent captured much of the army, including both generals, causing the remaining American troops to return to Fort George. Without the protection of Chauncey’s fleet, the appearance of several British ships drove Dearborn to retreat, and he burned the fort on June 9.
Once the armies had withdrawn, guerrillas took the stage. Raids on the area near Fort George by a small force of fifty men under Lieutenant James Fitzgibbon became so annoying that several hundred troops were sent to deal with him. Laura Secord, the wife of a Canadian militia commander, overheard the plan from American officers who were staying at her home and warned the British. Fitzgibbon arranged for the Americans to be ambushed at Beaver Dams on June 24 by Caughnawaga and Mohawk Indians, who filled them with such terror that the Americans eagerly surrendered to Fitzgibbon. Following this defeat, the garrison of Fort George refused to leave the immediate vicinity of the fort. Dearborn’s inability to control the Niagara frontier meant that he was replaced by Major-General James Wilkinson.
Northwest Frontier (April-August 1813)
While the Americans were taking the offensive on Lake Ontario, the British were hoping to do the same at the western end of Lake Erie. Major-General Henry Proctor had hoped to receive additional regulars for a campaign against Fort Meigs, but the assault on York meant that those troops were needed at Niagara. Shawnee chief Tecumseh made up for the lack of reinforcements by recruiting hundreds of Indians, and the combined force reached Fort Meigs on April 27. Although the bombardment failed to penetrate the fort’s solid earthworks, the garrison’s long-term prospects were grim, since food supplies were limited and a relief column of Kentucky militiamen was destroyed after being lured into an ambush. It had been a great victory for the British since they had taken minimal casualties but most of the Indians drifted off with their plunder, and the militia needed to return for the spring planting, so Proctor ended his siege on May 9.
By early June there were roughly 3,000 Indian allies at Proctor’s headquarters at Amherstburg, and they had to be used quickly or they would eat all of the supplies. Proctor preferred to attack the American supply base on the Upper Sandusky River but the Indians insisted on Fort Meigs even though it had already resisted Proctor’s artillery. Tecumseh believed that the garrison could be lured out into ambush but its commander proved to be too cautious. When they failed to capture a secondary target, the small Fort Stephenson, most of the Indians left for home in late August. The inability of British headquarters to provide sufficient supplies to feed Tecumseh’s supporters greatly weakened the Indians’ loyalty, but the British were struggling to supply their own troops, so the Indians were viewed as more of a burden than an asset.
Battle of Lake Erie (September 1813)
Both Perry and his opposite number, Lieutenant Robert Barclay, had thrown themselves into building ships in order to ensure naval superiority on Lake Erie. Confident that Perry’s best ships were bottled up by a sandbar at the shipyard at Presque Isle Bay, Barclay withdrew his fleet to re-supply on July 31. After an exhausting procedure of removing the guns to lighten the ships enough to float across the sandbar, Perry was able to blockade the British fleet. With supplies running out, Barclay tried to breakout on September 10 even though his biggest ships were undermanned. The battle initially favored the British, and Perry was forced to abandon his flagship, the Lawrence, for the relatively undamaged Niagara. Badly roughed-up during the course of their duel with the Lawrence, the two main British ships became entangled when they turned to present their undamaged sides to the new opponent, which gave Perry a heaven-sent opportunity. After twenty minutes of brutal punishment, the British squadron surrendered. Perry’s report included the soon-to-be famous phrase “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”
Proctor’s Retreat-Battle of the Thames (September-October 1813)
Now that Lake Erie was under American control, Ohio, Pennsylvania and western New York were safe from attack, and General William Henry Harrison was able to move against Detroit with an army of 5,500 men in late September. Recognizing the danger posed by Barclay’s defeat, especially since the guns from Amherstburg had been used to equip Barclay’s fleet, Proctor abandoned both Fort Detroit and the vital shipyard at Amherstburg. Tecumseh persuaded the other Indian leaders to agree to retreat on the condition that the British would make a stand on the Lower Thames. Harrison set off with 3,500 men to pursue Proctor, although he felt that the British had too much of a head start. However, the rains had made travel difficult and Proctor often had to urge his Indian allies forward, since they were understandably reluctant to leave their homes. The retreat was badly planned and the number of Indians that accompanied the British fell steadily.
The desire to preserve the Indian alliance drove Proctor to delay his retreat, so when it became clear that the enemy cavalry would soon catch up, he had to fight near the Thames River on October 5 instead of at Moravian Town, further north, where the high ground was much more favorable. Proctor’s original force of 800 regulars had been whittled down by casualties and illness, while most of the militia was ahead with their families. Although Proctor had been an effective commander throughout the war, he was overwhelmed during the retreat, and he decided to spread his 500 troops across a wide area between the river and a marsh, which was guarded by Tecumseh’s Indians, without making any effort to fortify the area. With three feet between each redcoat, the line was easily pierced by a surprise cavalry charge. Without the support of the British troops, the Indians were soon slaughtered. Tecumseh was believed to have been killed, but his body was never found because the Kentuckians mutilated the dead in revenge for the slaughter of their friends at Fort Meigs. Proctor escaped with less than 250 men and barely made it through the court martial with his rank.
St. Lawrence and Lower Canada (August-November 1813)
The defeat of the main British force in the area secured American control of the communications line from Detroit (the western end of Lake Erie) to Sackett’s Harbor (the eastern end of Lake Ontario), while Tecumseh’s death destroyed any hope of an Indian Confederacy. However, the enlistments of many of the militiamen were almost over, so a garrison of 1,000 regulars was left to hold Michigan Territory and Harrison led the remaining 1,300 troops to Buffalo to join the offensive against Niagara.
When Major-General James Wilkinson finally arrived at Sackett’s Harbor on August 30, 1813, he was displeased to learn that only 2,000 of the 3,500 men were fit to fight. Concluding that Kingston was too tough, Wilkinson decided to move up the St. Lawrence to link up with Brigadier-General Wade Hampton, commander of the Lake Champlain area, and attack Montreal. Hampton, like most senior officers, had little interest in cooperating closely with Wilkinson, who was believed to have been involved in former Vice President Aaron Burr’s failed conspiracy to separate Louisiana from the United States in 1806. Hampton was moving towards Montreal but the New York militiamen refused to cross the border and his supplies were extremely limited. After a short but sharp fight against British regulars and Canadian militia near the Chateauguay River, on October 26, he realized that winter was coming, so he called off the campaign.
Meanwhile, Wilkinson was leading an army of over seven thousand men towards Montreal. A British force operating in his rear threatened his supply line so two thousand men under Brigadier-General John Boyd were sent to clear them out. Since the Americans outnumbered the British by more than two to one this should have been a simple matter but when the two forces encountered each other at Crysler’s Farm on November 11, a series of professional volleys and a bayonet charge from the British regulars forced the Americans to flee. Learning the next day that Hampton would not be linking up with him, Wilkinson settled in for winter quarters at French Mills, two miles south of the Canadian-American border. While his men gradually froze to death, he preoccupied himself with sending letters critical of Hampton to Washington.
When 1,000 New York militiamen left because their period of enlistment had expired, the commander of Fort George, Brigadier-General George McClure, decided that his remaining 60 regulars were insufficient to hold the fort, so he retreated to Fort Niagara after burning the neighboring village. Revenge was not long coming. On December 18, a force of British troops and militia took the garrison of Fort Niagara by surprise, and the towns of Black Rock and Buffalo were torched on December 30, which showed that Harrison’s victory had done little to make the frontier more secure. In fact, as 1813 came to an end, the British still controlled almost all of their side of the frontier and had taken Fort Niagara as well. However, with only 15,000 men stretched out over a very long frontier, the British could not afford the risk of offensive operations.
Although the limited number of troops in Canada had forced the British to fight a defensive war during the first two years, Napoleon’s abdication on April 11, 1814 freed Britain to devote more resources to the war. By this time, the British government was determined to teach its former colonies a lesson, so Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn launched raids on the American coast, focusing on the Chesapeake, to burn privateers in their harbors during the spring of 1813. Occasionally the amphibious attacks were driven off by militia, but usually the towns were plundered and torched, making Cockburn the most hated man in the United States. 13,000 veteran British troops had arrived in Canada by September 1814, increasing British forces to 30,000 men, and the total number would reach 52,000 by the end of the year.
Having refused to raise taxes to pay for the war, the American government was sinking further into debt and had difficulty finding people to buy bonds for loans to the government. However, the decision to offer generous bounties had convinced many men to enlist and veterans to re-enlist, so the American army actually grew to over 40,000 men at the end of the year.
The conquest of Canada was no longer a priority, instead the goal was survival, so changes in the American military command were clearly needed. Major General Wade Hampton was put on sick list, and William Henry Harrison resigned when he realized that he would not receive a major command. Major General James Wilkinson survived a court martial, but was dropped from the military. Brigadier Generals Izard and Brown were promoted to major general and a number of aggressive colonels made the jump to brigadier general, including Colonel Winfield Scott.
Niagara (July-November 1814)
Command of the American army in the Niagara region was given to Brown. Acknowledging the need for a professional army, he ordered Scott to spend the spring training the troops. The commander of Fort George, at the northern end of the Niagara River, Major General Phineas Riall, was surprised when Fort Erie, at the southern end of the Niagara River, fell almost immediately on July 3. Even so, he gathered two thousand men and the two armies faced each other at the Chippawa River, near Niagara Falls, two days later. The training paid off since Scott’s troops were not only able to stand up to British regulars but actually forced them to retreat after a brutal twenty-five-minute-long exchange of fire. Riall retired to Fort George while the Americans took Queenston.
The momentum was suddenly with the Americans, therefore Brown was shocked when Commodore Isaac Chauncey refused to bring the artillery needed to lay siege to Fort George, fearing that Commodore Sir James Yeo, his opposite number, would exploit his absence. Worse, Chauncey did not prevent Yeo from transporting reinforcements under Lieutenant General Gordon Drummond to the fort on July 22. When the two forces encountered each other at Lundy’s Lane three days later, the fighting was so fierce that both Scott and Brown were put out of action. Everyone was exhausted, so it should not come as a surprise that Brown’s order to hold the ground was misinterpreted by his third-in-command, Brigadier General Eleazer Ripley, who ended up retreating. The battle had been especially bloody with the British suffering casualties of thirty percent and the Americans forty-five percent, so Drummond had little interest in pursuing the Americans back to Fort Erie.
When Drummond finally made his way to Fort Erie in early August, he found that the Americans had built solid earthworks around it. Lacking the artillery to batter it into submission, he decided to launch a frontal attack on the night of August 15. The overly complex plan called for attacks from four separate directions but only one column managed to capture part of the wall. Accidentally setting off a nearby magazine, the explosion destroyed a large part of Drummond’s army and convinced him to call off the attack. When shelling failed to have any effect, he abandoned the siege on September 17. Major General Izard arrived with reinforcements on October 12, but he had little interest in the siege of a well-defended fort. After failing to lure Drummond out of Fort George, Izard blew up Fort Erie on November 5 and retreated across the river, so the Americans were back where they had started.
Battle of Lake Champlain (September 1814)
American forces in the Lake Champlain area had been greatly weakened when Izard had been sent with 4,000 men to help Brown at Niagara, so roughly 3,400 men under Brigadier-General Alexander Macomb were left to face the ten thousand soldiers, largely made up of recently arrived Peninsular veterans, under General Sir George Prevost, governor-general of Canada and commander-in-chief of the British military in Canada. His objective was control of Lake Champlain and northern New York to strengthen Britain’s hand at the negotiating table, and the British reached Plattsburgh, where Macomb was dug in on the south side of the Saranac River, on September 6. Since the American fleet was sheltered at Plattsburgh Bay, Prevost ordered Captain George Downie, commander of the British fleet on Lake Champlain, to destroy the American fleet at the same time as he assaulted the enemy positions.
Already anchored, the American ships were essentially floating batteries while the British ships were dependent on the wind as they tried to enter the bay. Worse, the land operation was delayed because the British columns became lost. After two hours of heavy fighting the American fleet was the victor but the British troops had finally arrived and were driving back the Americans when the attack was cancelled. Shocked by the naval defeat, Prevost led his army back to Canada, to the great disgust of his senior officers. If he had captured the land position, the batteries could have been used to force the American ships to leave the bay. Prevost’s extremely cautious nature had been an asset in the early stages of the war, when troop numbers were too limited to bear heavy casualties but it was completely unsuitable for offensive operations with large armies of veterans. Ordered back to England for a court martial, he died before it could be convened.
The Chesapeake Campaign (August-September 1814)
While the land invasion had been unsuccessful, the British blockade was continuing to squeeze American commerce, having basically eliminated both American merchantmen and privateers from the sea. British command of the sea permitted a fleet to enter the Chesapeake Bay on August 19 to land four thousand soldiers and marines for an attack on Washington. Admiral Cockburn accompanied Major General Robert Ross as the troops marched towards Washington, and the town quickly emptied as the majority of residents fled to the countryside with as many possessions as they could carry.
The British Burn Washington (August 1814)
While the British regulars were impressive fighting men, the force lacked artillery and cavalry, so it would have had difficulty breaking through solid defences, especially since more than six thousand militia had been gathered. However, Brigadier General William Winder, commander of the military district that included Washington, was a political appointee, and proved unable to organize effective defences at Bladensburg, on the other side of the Potomac. Deprived of leadership, many militia units fled rather than face the British regulars, and the units that stood their ground were quickly overwhelmed. Under the orders of Admiral Cockburn, the White House, and the Treasury, State and War Department buildings were torched in revenge for the burning of the parliament at Kingston, and the British retreated the following evening.
The Battle of Baltimore (September 1814)
Despite its status as the capital of the United States, Washington was far from its greatest city. In fact, the burning of the city led to a vote in Congress to move the capital to Philadelphia that was narrowly lost. Nearby Baltimore was the third-largest city and a commercial hub, as well as a major base for privateers, so it was a juicy target. The British fleet reached Baltimore on September 11 but strong defensive lines had been prepared by nine thousand militiamen from Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland under the direction of Major General Samuel Smith, who understandably refused to allow Winder to play any role in the defence. The militia made the British pay for every foot, so the British were still outside Baltimore by nightfall.
The British ships began bombing the well-designed Fort McHenry, which defended Baltimore Harbor, but when several ships had been scuttled at the edge of the harbor to prevent British ships from entering the harbor, Vice-Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, commander of the fleet, chose to abandon the planned diversionary assault on the area behind the fort because he believed that the troops would be better used in an operation against New Orleans. Ross had been killed by a sniper, and his successor, Colonel Arthur Brooke, declined to throw away the lives of his men in a direct attack on the American positions, so the army retreated during the night. The failure of Prevost’s invasion at Plattsburgh and Cochrane at Baltimore encouraged the British government to adopt Cochrane’s plan to invade New Orleans.
Peace Negotiations (August-December 1814)
Britain had been at war since 1793, so the British public was fed up with the high taxes needed to pay for the war. A British proposal to start peace negotiations was accepted by the United States government in January 1814, but progress was slow at first.
Although Baltimore had been spared Washington’s fate, the mood in the American government was grim. Further attempts to invade Canada seemed doomed to failure and American commerce was in sad shape, while the government’s finances were anaemic, forcing the strongly anti-tax Republicans in Congress to finally permit the introduction of a direct tax and a whiskey tax. Believing that the war had been started by Republicans who wanted to annex Canada, the Federalists had displayed a surprising unity, voting against the war throughout the conflict. Given such a situation, the American delegation to the peace negotiations in Ghent, Belgium was motivated to end the war, and it was questionable whether or not they would win their primary objective, namely an end to impressment. Negotiations started on August 8, 1814. Fortunately, the Duke of Wellington, victor of the war against Napoleon, advised the British government that Britain should simply accept an end to the war at the original borders and postpone any complicated but trivial boundary negotiations for a later commission. Peace was agreed on December 24, 1814, but news of the treaty arrived too late to prevent a British assault on New Orleans.
Battle of New Orleans (December 1814-January 1815)
The sole port for exports produced by Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio, New Orleans was a vital commercial hub. British military planners believed that Louisiana was a particularly weak target since it had only been purchased from Napoleon by President Thomas Jefferson in 1803. This would prove to be a dangerous misconception. Admittedly, the wealthy French Creoles who owned the plantations around the city had only contempt for the Americans but they hated England even more since it was France’s enemy.
When Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, head of the North American naval station, had first proposed the invasion of Louisiana through Mobile, Alabama in June 1814, he had expected that the British would recruit thousands of Indian allies. Any hope of attracting large-scale Indian support ended on March 27, 1814 when Major General Andrew Jackson crushed the Red Sticks, Creek Indians who had been waging war against white settlers. Jackson also strengthened the defences around Mobile, therefore a British invasion attempt was easily repelled on September 12.
These setbacks caused the British to switch their invasion target to New Orleans, which involved daunting logistical problems, since the eastern approach to the city crossed an unmapped mix of bayous, creeks and swamps. The Mississippi River blocked any attack from the west of the city, while a powerful fort made an approach up the river extremely dangerous. The most likely attack route was to sail from the Gulf of Mexico to Lake Pontchartin, fifteen miles northeast of the city, where only a weak fort defended the river that connected the city and the lake.
Needing local allies, the British attempted to purchase the allegiance of the Laffite brothers, Jean and Pierre, the leading operators at Lake Barataria, forty miles south of the city, the centre of smuggling in the Caribbean. Despite an offer of the rank of captain in the British navy, $30,000 and land in Louisiana, Jean was unwilling to give up smuggling, and he arranged to have the offer delivered to William Claiborne, governor of Louisiana. Having devoted a great deal of energy to eradicating the smugglers, Clairborne was naturally suspicious, regardless of their popularity among the local population. A raid on the camp captured numerous smugglers on September 16 but the brothers vanished into the swamps.
Believing reports that indicated that New Orleans was the British target, Jackson arrived in the city on December 1 with fifteen hundred men. Realizing that it would be impossible to guard every single bayou and stream, he decided to block the waterways in order to reduce the number of routes, wait until it was clear which route would be used by the British and then place all of his forces there. Although Jackson refused to even consider the idea of cooperating with the Laffites, leading citizens of the city arranged for the state legislature to suspend the charges against the smugglers for four months but it took a personal appeal from Jean in early December to win Jackson’s respect. Three companies of badly needed artillerymen were easily raised and Jean’s familiarity with the local geography would prove invaluable.
However, time was running out, since the British fleet reached Lake Borgne, which bordered Lake Pontchartin, on December 12. Forty-five barges captured the five American gunboats left to guard the lake during a two day operation where the lack of wind greatly favored the British. Lieutenant General Sir Edward Pakenham, the brother-in-law of Wellington, was still on his way with part of the army, so Major General John Keane was in charge and he had a total of 5,500 men.
Although the defeat of the gunboats was not welcome news to Jackson, he finally knew that New Orleans was the target, so he immediately summoned reinforcements. Impatient with the local government’s inability to recruit soldiers, Jackson declared martial law on December 16, which meant that every able-bodied male was required to serve in the militia. General John Coffee reached New Orleans on December 20 with the 800 men of the Baton Rouge garrison, and General William Carroll’s appearance the next day with more than 3,000 Tennessee militiamen raised the citizens’ spirits.
Lacking the shallow draft ships needed to sail across Lake Pontchartain, the British decided to land at Bayou Bienvenue, which originated in the east of the city. It took five days to ferry all of the troops and supplies across Lake Borgne to the temporary base at Pea Island, and then they were rowed another thirty miles to the bayou. This was a very risky approach since there were only enough boats to transport half of the troops at a time. By late morning December 23, the advance troops had captured the plantation of General Jacques Villere, which bordered the Mississippi, but they were observed by two American officers. Keane’s subordinates suggested that he immediately march on the city, since it appeared that Jackson had been taken by surprise, but he decided to wait for the rest of the army, which was the problem with sending the army in a piecemeal fashion. In Keane’s defense, the men were on the verge of collapse, while his supply line was extremely fragile.
Jackson worried that the small force was a feint, but he seized the opportunity to destroy part of the army while it was divided. Carroll’s men were left in the city as a reserve, while he led Coffee’s troops and several local militia units to engage the enemy. Despite the shock of the night attack, the British were able to hold their ground and by 9:30pm Jackson had accepted that he would not be able to force the redcoats to retreat.
Although the entire British force had reached the plantation by the evening of December 24, the aggressive nature of the attack had convinced Keane that he faced a powerful army, so he left the Americans alone. Jackson used the opportunity to begin building a strong defensive line behind a small canal, which had less than a mile of land between the river and a huge swamp.
Unknown to either Jackson or Keane, that same day peace negotiators signed a treaty in Belgium that ended the war.
Pakenham had earned a reputation as a decisive, aggressive commander in the Peninsular War but when he arrived on December 25 he was so disgusted by the British position that he was tempted to start over. Several historians have suggested that he only agreed to move forward when Admiral Cochrane mocked him by saying that he would lead his sailors and marines to do the job if the soldiers retreated.
A probing attack on December 28 ended quickly because troops were being cut to pieces by fire from the line and the Louisiana, an armed schooner anchored next to the line. Actually, the part of the line further from the river lacked the covering fire from the schooner, so Pakenham has been criticized for not making a determined assault on that side and simply accepting the casualties rather than giving Jackson more time to dig in. Instead, the sailors spent three miserable days lugging cannon across the lake and up the creek to the British position. However, the emplacements were not strong enough for a lengthy artillery duel, so all that was accomplished was that a number of the British cannon were damaged and most of their ammunition was used up. Once again, Pakenham had chosen to not send troops against the weaker part of the American line while his cannon were providing cover fire. Instead, he waited for the third brigade under Major General Lambert, which arrived on January 4.
When the attack began, the British and American armies were roughly the same size, except the Americans were sheltered behind a high wall, but Pakenham remained confident, since his bold attitude had won victories in Spain against experienced French troops. However, the regiment responsible for bringing the ladders needed to scale the fortifications was delayed because its commander felt it was a suicide mission (he was later court-martialed), so the troops attacking on the far right end of the line were stuck in front of the fortifications and were shredded. Pakenham had to take command of the regiment but he received several wounds and died minutes later. In an attempt to avoid defeat, the reserve of 900 highlanders was marched into the battle and was almost immediately slaughtered. Pakenham’s second-in-command, Major General Samuel Gibbs, died while trying to rally an attack, and a badly wounded Keane had to be taken from the field. In fact, so many senior officers were cut down that there was no one to lead the men forward, so most either ran or stood their ground under the walls and died. Three thousand men had launched the attack but less than a thousand made it back to their camp unscathed after only twenty-five minutes of heavy fighting. British casualties were 2,037. American casualties were 71. The huge losses of the main assault meant that the surviving senior British general, Lambert, had no stomach for another fight.
There were many reasons for the failure of the attack. The individual parts of the attack were badly coordinated, there was no covering fire to occupy the defenders until the troops got close enough to climb the walls, the ladders did not arrive in time, and most important, a diversionary attack had not even started, so the murderous crossfire was still there. Furthermore, the American army contained a large number of veterans, and while they would probably have had difficulty facing British regulars on an open field, standing behind solid walls was a different matter entirely.
Now that the British army had failed, Admiral Cochrane sent two ships to shell Fort St. Philip, which dominated the Mississippi River, day after day, minus breaks for lunch and dinner, from January 9 to 18. When the navy gave up, Lambert realized that his position was pointless and started ferrying his troops to the fleet. Cochrane then persuaded Lambert that the fleet should attack Mobile. The fort that guarded the entrance to Mobile Bay surrendered on February 12 after a three-day-long siege and it seemed likely that Mobile would fall soon after but news of the treaty arrived the next day.
So, who won the war?
The war is often described as a draw because a victory requires a loser and no one lost.
The United States won. Aside from a series of naval victories early in the war, the American record had done little to disprove the view that the victory in the Revolution had been a fluke until the victory at New Orleans. The withdrawal of a shattered British army, fresh from victories in the Peninsular War, showed that the United States was more than capable of defending its independence. The British never impressed American sailors again, and British officials began to treat the United States better, partially to avoid the need to have to defend Canada again. At the same time, joy in a shared triumph helped unite the residents of the eighteen states as a nation and Andrew Jackson became a national icon. In fact, almost anyone who achieved prominence during the war was able to ride that prominence to a successful political career.
The British did not lose. The defeats were minor embarrassments compared to complete victory over Napoleon and the French Empire. The British were happy since they had preserved Canada while defeating Bonaparte in Europe, and the war with the United States had always been viewed as a sideshow, so it was quickly forgotten.
Canada won. Lower Canada (Quebec) and the Atlantic colonies would have never been taken but there had been a genuine danger that Upper Canada (Ontario) would be captured. American expansionism would not move north, enabling the eventual Confederation of the British colonies that would become Canada. The war helped weld the French-Canadians, the Loyalists and later American immigrants into a nation.
The various Indian tribes lost. Despite the contributions of Indian allies, especially Tecumseh’s confederation, the rights of Indians were not mentioned during the peace negotiations. The tribes allied to Britain never recovered, and Britain would never again support any tribes against the American government. For roughly 150 years, there had been a north-south struggle for the control of the North American continent, whites fighting whites with Indian allies on each side. First, the French against the British, then the British against the American colonists, and finally the British against the Americans. Each pairing of whites and Indians had used each other but from that point on, the Indians would fight the whites alone.
The Buccaneer (1938)
Directed by Cecil B. DeMille, starring Frederic March and Franciska Gaal
Powerful pirate Jean Lafitte debates whether to join the greatly outnumbered American army and defend New Orleans or play it safe by working with the invading British during the War of 1812. (full review)
The Buccaneer (1958)
Directed by Anthony Quinn, starring Yul Brynner and Claire Bloom
Powerful pirate Jean Lafitte debates whether to join the greatly outnumbered American army and defend New Orleans or play it safe by working with the invading British during the War of 1812. (full review)
Directed by Richard Wallace, starring Victor Mature and Louise Platt
When the captain of an American merchant ship is killed by the British at the start of the War of 1812, his daughter transforms the ship into a privateer in order to prey on British shipping.
Directed by Edward Dmytyrk, starring Mark Stevens and Angela Lansbury
An American captain tries to smuggle gold through a British blockade during the War of 1812 while preventing his crew from mutinying and taking the gold for themselves. (full review)
Directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet, starring Jon Hall and Jay Silverheels
In Indiana Territory in the early 1800’s, Tecumseh tries to live in peace with the white settlers but his brother allies with the British, who are trying to incite conflict between the Indians and the settlers, and challenges his leadership of the tribe.
1812: War with America-Jon Latimer, Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007.
While it is written from the British perspective, the book is a fair and surprisingly in-depth presentation of the war with very good maps. Latimer rightly points out that the desire to conquer Canada was a primary motivation for the Americans and the failure of the invasion guaranteed Canada’s independence. He provides a solid explanation of the nuts and bolts of the British military, including how much food and alcohol the sailors and soldiers were guaranteed. The effect of privateers and the blockade on both American and British trade, and the illegal but widespread trade between Canada and New England are examined, so it is a good choice for those more interested in the economic aspect of the war. The concluding chapter summarizes how the war affected Anglo-American relations for the next generation and how the war has been viewed by American and British historians over the years.
1812: The War That Forged a Nation-Walter R. Borneman, New York: Harper Collins, 2004.
Although it is told from the American viewpoint, it is a good single-volume account of the war that is both readable and well-researched. It begins with a perceptive background to the simmering tensions that led to the declaration of war. For those confused by terms such as the weather gauge, Borneman provides brief but effective explanations of the complexities of naval battles. My sole frustration is that the maps are fine for individual campaigns but there no decent maps of the overall strategy.
The Incredible War of 1812: A Military History-J. Mackay Hitsman (updated by Donald E. Graves), Toronto: Robin Brass Studio, 1999.
The introduction by Graves shows that previous writing on the War of 1812 had entrenched the myth that the militia of Upper Canada, with only token assistance from British regulars, had repeatedly thrown back the American invaders and preserved the independence of Canada, ignoring the political, diplomatic or economic aspects of the war. Therefore, the book was the first even-handed approach to the war that appeared in Canada, and his respectful treatment of Prevost was considered controversial at the time since he had previously been viewed as a dangerous incompetent. The original version did not include his references for all of the quotations, and since he passed away from cancer shortly after it was published, four historians collaborated to produce references for the new edition. Hitsman provides an in-depth explanation of the organization of the British military, the system for purchasing officer ranks and the type of people who were recruited into the army. As the title states, it is a military history, and people might be put off by the large amount of detail devoted to movements of troops and huge variety of units’ names, so it is best suited for the student of the era, rather than the general reader.
A Wampum Denied: Proctor’s War of 1812-Sandy Antal, Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1997.
The author examines the war on the Detroit frontier, focusing on the efforts of first Brock and then Proctor to work with Tecumseh to forge an Indian buffer state between Canada and the United States. Despite their initial military victories, Prevost, the governor general of Canada, refused to give the necessary support to accomplish this goal. Antal’s impressive research challenges the traditional view that Proctor was incompetent, suggesting instead that he was an effective general who was eventually brought down by a lack of supplies caused by American control of Lake Erie. While he admits that Proctor’s performance is open to debate, Antal has produced an excellent examination of the Detroit front of the war and explained the difficulty of fighting so far from the main settlement in Quebec, dependent on an extremely precarious supply line. In addition to extensive footnotes, brief sketches of what happened to the main participants after the War of 1812 are also provided.
The Burning of Washington: The British Invasion of 1814-Anthony S. Pitch, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1998.
Pitch devotes a great deal of time to bringing the period to life, explaining how the national capitol was gradually brought into existence and showing how it was basically a small town at the time of the war. His fascination with national archives leads him to devote more pages to the efforts made to preserve the young republic’s records and archives by transporting them away from Washington than some readers might think necessary. Furthermore, less time is spent explaining the battle of Bladensburg than detailing all of the destruction to the Senate, House of Representatives, and the Library of Congress buildings, and the White House.
The Battle of New Orleans: Andrew Jackson and America’s First Military Victory-Robert V. Remini, New York: Penguin Books, 2001.
Remini has written numerous books on the Jacksonian era, therefore he has an excellent grasp of the material, which enables him to produce an extremely clear and concise explanation of the events leading up to Jackson’s surprising victory during the battle for New Orleans. The author actually retraced the British army’s route through the swamps to reach New Orleans in order to better understand the ordeal, which is probably why the book has very good maps. Unlike many writers who simply present the order of a battle and tally up the casualties on both sides, Remini shows how the participants were affected by the resulting carnage.
The British at the Gates: The New Orleans Campaign in the War of 1812-Robin Reilly, Toronto: Robin Brass Studio, 2002.
This is an updated version of the original 1974 book. The author is one of the few British historians to look at the War of 1812, instead of the Napoleonic Wars. As a graduate of Sandhurst, the British officers school, he is well-qualified to discuss the military aspect of the campaign. Half of the book explains the origins of the war and its progress until the New Orleans campaign in order to provide the reader with background. Unlike almost everyone else who writes on the War of 1812, he devotes a fair amount of space to the war against Napoleon, in particular the struggle for the Iberian Peninsula, instead of merely using a couple of sentences to mention that Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow freed up British troops for the Canadian front. Reilly’s explanation of the rise of New Orleans reflects his genuine fascination with the city.