Preserving the New Republic’s Independence, 1783–1815

The post-Revolutionary era, which was one of serious peril for the infant republic, necessitated the development of a military policy that reconciled ideological concerns for liberty with military effectiveness. Complicating the task of devising an appropriate policy were three events during 1783 that reawakened traditional fears of a standing army and poisoned civil-military relations. The first episode leading to this crisis in civil-military relations was the Newburgh Conspiracy. Early in the war Continental Army officers began demanding half pay for life as a postwar pension, a tradition in European armies. Despite opposition to the creation of a favored class, in 1780 the Continental Congress promised the officers half pay for life. But by the winter of 1782–1783, when the army was at Newburgh, New York, nothing had been done to implement the promise. Officers feared their service was going to go uncompensated and that the new Confederation Congress, which assumed authority after the ratification of the Articles of Confederation in 1781, would repudiate that pledge as it disbanded the army.

The officers drew up a petition offering to have half pay for life commutated into a lump-sum payment, and a committee, headed by General Alexander McDougall, carried it to Congress. The army delegation played into the hands of those congressmen, known as nationalists, who desired a stronger central government. They especially wanted the government to have the power to tax, a function that public creditors also favored. The nationalists tried to combine the army’s discontent with the civilian creditors’ clamor to secure a permanent taxing power for Congress and thereby strengthen the government. McDougall and the nationalists implied that if the officers’ demands were not met, the army might defy congressional control over the military. Despite the threat of a mutiny, Congress refused to capitulate to the commutation proposal and the nationalists’ demands.

To intensify pressure on recalcitrant congressmen, the nationalists fomented further demonstrations among the officers at Newburgh. Whether or not some officers actually contemplated a coup d’état remains unclear, but two anonymous documents, known as the Newburgh Addresses, circulated in camp. One called for a meeting to discuss means for obtaining redress; since Washington had not been consulted, such a meeting was against regulations. The other denounced Congress and threatened its supremacy over the military.

These documents shocked Washington, though perhaps they did not surprise him. He shared the officers’ belief that their valorous service had been rewarded by ingratitude and injustice, and he received hints that nationalists were using the army as a lobby group. Washington adhered religiously to civilian rule, believing that “the Army was a dangerous Engine to Work with.” He acted quickly to stop the growing protest by calling his own meeting, at which he warned the men against impassioned actions and argued that an attempted coup would tarnish the army’s reputation and “open the flood Gates of Civil discord.” With a touch of theatrics, he recalled his own sacrifices, noting he had grown gray and nearly blind in the service. Pledging to do everything he could in their behalf, he implored the officers to continue their “unexampled patriotism and patient virtue.” Washington’s virtuoso performance undermined whatever scheme was afoot. When he departed, the officers adopted a memorial affirming their “unshaken confidence” in Congress and deploring the Newburgh Addresses. Meanwhile, under the pressure of the threats and unaware of the dramatic reversal at Newburgh, Congress enacted a plan commutating half pay for life into full pay for five years. The crisis was over, but many people considered the episode a frightening example of a standing army’s potentially subversive nature.

As winter yielded to spring, another cloud drifted out of Newburgh to cast a shadow on the army. In mid-May, Henry Knox formed the Society of the Cincinnati to unite army officers in a fraternal and charitable organization. But outsiders saw sinister designs in the Cincinnati’s constitution. Membership was hereditary: Was this a step toward an American nobility? The society also permitted honorary memberships: Would it become a powerful pressure group by adding important politicians to its ranks? Each officer contributed to a charitable fund: Could this be a war chest to finance diabolical plots? Auxiliary state societies were to correspond through circular letters discussing, among other things, “the general union of the states”: Did this imply a political purpose, perhaps to overthrow the Confederation? Washington’s acceptance of the Cincinnati’s presidency indicated that the organization had none of these corrupt motives, but the public furor against the society was nonetheless intense.

As critics pilloried the Cincinnati, another thunderbolt was brewing. On April 11, 1783, Congress proclaimed an end to hostilities, even though no definitive peace treaty had been signed. Men wanted to be discharged and paid immediately, but Congress was reluctant to do the former until final peace was achieved, and it lacked the money to do the latter. Troops became riotous, and in mid-June some of the Pennsylvania troops in the Continental Army mutinied. The men marched on the Pennsylvania State House, where both Congress and the state government were meeting, and sent in a message threatening “to let loose an enraged soldiery on them” if their demands were not met. The legislators refused to comply and courageously left the building to a flurry of insults; but Congress moved to Princeton as a precaution.

These ominous events overshadowed the Confederation’s efforts to devise an effective postwar military policy. In April 1783, Congress appointed a committee to study future policy. Alexander Hamilton, one of Washington’s former aides and an ardent nationalist, chaired the committee and sought advice from the commander in chief, who responded with his “Sentiments on a Peace Establishment.” The general mentioned the need for a navy and seacoast fortification but emphasized four necessities. First, the country should have a regular army to garrison the west, “awe the Indians,” and guard against attacks from Spanish Florida or British Canada. Considering the nation’s poverty, its distance from Europe, and the widespread prejudice against professional military forces, Washington proposed a small regular army—specifically, 2,631 officers and men. Second, with the army so tiny, the nation required a “respectable and well established Militia.” Contrary to the colonial system, Washington insisted the militia should be nationalized, with the central government imposing uniformity in arms, organization, and training. In particular, within each state he wanted “a kind of Continental Militia,” modeled after the war’s minutemen, under stringent national control. Thus Washington proposed a three-tiered land force: A regular army, a ready reserve similar to the volunteer militia, and an improved common militia. Third, he suggested arsenals and manufactories to support these armies. Fourth, he wanted military academies to foster the study of military science.

Washington later wrote that his “Sentiments” conveyed what he thought would be politically acceptable, not what he “conceived ought to be a proper peace Establishment.” Considering his distaste for the militia, he undoubtedly preferred to minimize its role and depend on regulars. But he was aware of the resurgence of the pre-Revolutionary fear of a permanent army and knew a large army would be unacceptable. Paradoxically, although militia and regulars complemented one another in the Revolution, proponents of each now viewed them as rival defense systems. Regular army advocates stressed militia debacles, while militia enthusiasts eulogized Concord and Bunker Hill and emphasized the compatibility of radical Whig ideology and the militia system.

Hamilton’s committee report followed most of Washington’s recommendations, although it put less emphasis on the militia and stressed a greater reliance on a standing army. But antinationalists rejected as unnecessary the arguments in favor of peacetime preparedness at the national level. After all, the colonies had had virtually no organized military strength in 1775, yet they had prevailed against the British. So why was more strength necessary now? Moreover, the antinationalists believed that a strong central government and a regular army went hand in glove, and they wanted neither, preferring a decentralized system of sovereign states each exercising complete control over its own militia. Because antinationalists were in the ascendancy in Congress, the legislature rejected Hamilton’s report and on June 2, 1784, disbanded all but eighty men and a few officers of the Continental Army.

Having discarded Hamilton’s plan, Congress had to do something to meet the urgent military problems in the west. The British refused to evacuate their western posts, from which they controlled the fur trade, subverted the Indians, and threatened to contain American expansion. In the southwest, Spain exerted similar influences, though not as strongly. The nation had to preserve peace with the Indians, if for no other reason than Congress lacked the funds to fight a war. Somebody had to protect envoys to the Indians, evict squatters on Indian lands, and defend surveyors and settlers. Since the states had ceded their land claims in the Northwest Territory to the Confederation, these problems were beyond the scope of any individual state militia. They were also beyond the capacity of eighty soldiers.

Congress recognized its military challenges, and the day after disbanding the Continental Army it created the 1st American Regiment—the first national peacetime force in American history—by calling on four states to raise 700 militiamen for one year. The regiment was a hybrid, neither strictly militia nor regular. Its formation depended on the states’ goodwill to provide men, but Congress organized, paid, and disciplined the regiment, and the commander, Josiah Harmar of Pennsylvania, reported to both Congress and the Pennsylvania state government. When enlistments expired in 1785, Congress continued the regiment but made it a regular force by calling for three-year recruits and omitting all reference to the militia. When the end of this enlistment period approached, Congress again authorized the same number of men for three years. Thus the Confederation created a very small standing force. Like the prewar British garrison, the regiment failed to police the west effectively. Harmar never received enough men to “awe” the Indians, with whom relations continued to deteriorate, or the white squatters, who encroached on Indian territory with impunity. And least of all did Harmar’s troops awe the British. To nationalists, the regiment’s ineffectiveness symbolized the Confederation’s weakness.

Events in Massachusetts in 1786 dismayed nationalists even more than the precarious frontier situation. Burdened by debts and taxes, farmers led by Daniel Shays rebelled against the government. Publicly hiding behind the subterfuge of preparing for frontier defense, Congress voted to expand the army to 2,040 men but could raise only two artillery companies and was powerless to intervene. Eventually Massachusetts volunteers quelled the rebellion, but this did not lessen the nationalists’ sense of humiliation and fear. In their minds Shays’ Rebellion proved the impotence of the Confederation Congress and seemed to be the first stumble toward anarchy.

The Confederation’s military weakness on the frontier and in Massachusetts was one of the primary reasons for the Constitutional Convention. Nationalists believed that unless the government was strengthened, the United States would remain weak at home and contemptible abroad. Since they had a vision of a great nation that would protect life, liberty, and property and be respected in foreign councils, the situation was intolerable.

The Constitution, the “Dual Army,” and the Navy

The delegates to the Constitutional Convention generally agreed that the government needed enhanced coercive powers. “But the kind of coercion you may ask?” Washington wrote to James Madison. “This indeed will require thought.” And indeed it did, since military force is the essential concomitant of governmental authority. The extent of the government’s military power had profound ramifications, affecting not only the distribution of power between the states and the central government but also perceptions of the relationship between security and liberty. Was it possible to invest sufficient power in the government to defend against foreign and domestic enemies without transforming it into an oppressive instrument? The Constitution tried to create a delicate balance in which the central government received enough power to “provide for the common defense” and “insure domestic tranquility,” without extinguishing state sovereignty and individual liberty. The document divided military power between the federal government and the states, giving paramount power to the former while guarding against excessive centralized authority by sharing national power between Congress and the president.

Congress could “provide and maintain a navy” and “raise and support armies”; to ensure money for these purposes, it could levy and collect taxes and borrow funds. However, since the Constitution limited Army appropriations to two years, a permanent standing army was possible only with Congress’s continuing consent. Congress was to provide for calling forth the militia “to execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrections, and repel invasions,” as well as establish regulations “for organizing, arming, and disciplining the militia” and for governing the militia when in national service. Congress also had the power to declare war. Congressional tyranny was unlikely, since the president was not only the commander in chief of the Army and Navy, but the militia “when called into the actual service of the United States.” He also appointed military officers, with the advice and consent of the Senate. The Constitution thus gave national military forces two masters, neither of which could attain a despotic preeminence.

As for the states, the Constitution guaranteed them a republican form of government and promised them protection from invasion or domestic violence. The states could not form alliances, authorize privateers, keep nonmilitia troops or warships in peacetime without Congress’s consent, or engage in war “unless actually invaded, or in such imminent danger as will not admit of delay.” But they retained their own militias. The right to do so was not explicitly stated in the Constitution proper, but it was implicit in the states’ authority to appoint militia officers and train the militia “according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.” The Second Amendment made the states’ militia authority explicit.

The Constitution institutionalized the dual-army tradition. The historic militias remained, and the new government had ample authority to establish a regular Army. Since one of the nationalists’ primary goals had been to permit the central government to maintain a peacetime army, they had achieved an impressive victory. Nationalists also wanted a nationalized militia, but in this they were only potentially successful and were dependent on the laws that Congress would pass implementing its authority over the militia. Despite the careful restraints on military power, many antinationalists inveighed against the proposed government’s despotic potential. Unlike nationalists, they were less concerned with military effectiveness than they were with maintaining a proper constitutional balance between the states and the federal government. They disliked the new government’s concurrent power over the militia, a dramatic departure from past practice that might diminish state autonomy and undermine the militia’s local nature. Fearing “the natural propensity of rulers to oppress the people,” they were also alarmed by the prospect of a standing army. But with painstaking thoroughness the nationalists parried every antinationalistic thrust, and the Constitution took effect on June 21, 1788, after the ninth state had ratified it.

When the new government assembled in 1789, it had to translate the Constitution’s military provisions into actual policy. Action was necessary in three areas: The government needed an agency to administer military affairs, implement its militia responsibilities, and decide whether to create an army and, if so, how large it should be. The legislature acted upon the first issue expeditiously. Under the Confederation, a War Department headed by a “secretary at war” (Henry Knox since 1785) administered military matters. In August 1789 Congress maintained continuity by creating a Department of War, and in September it confirmed Washington’s nomination of Knox as the first secretary of war.

In regard to the militia, Congress foiled nationalist aspirations. Washington and Knox urged Congress to reorganize the militia into an effective force under national control, but militia legislation was a touchy political question. It struck at the root of state versus federal power and had a direct impact on every citizen. Congress delayed acting until the spring of 1792, when it passed the Calling Forth Act and the Uniform Militia Act. The former implemented the constitutional provision allowing Congress to call forth the militia by delegating that authority to the president. In case of invasion, Congress gave the executive a relatively free hand, since both nationalists and antinationalists feared foreign invasion. However, antinationalist fears of a despotic central government hedged the president’s authority to summon the militia to execute the laws or suppress insurrections. Before he could do so, a federal judge had to certify that civil authority was powerless to meet the crisis, and then the president formally had to order the insurgents to disperse and give them an opportunity to disband. In no case could a militiaman be mobilized for more than three months in any one year.

The Uniform Militia Act, which remained the basic militia law until the twentieth century, enshrined the concept of universal military service, requiring the enrollment of all able-bodied white men between the ages of eighteen and forty-five. It contained an exemption list (to which the states could add), required men to arm and equip themselves, and outlined a tactical organization that states were to adopt only if “convenient.” From a nationalist perspective, the law had severe shortcomings. It did not provide for a select corps in each state or for federal control over officership and training, and it imposed no penalties on either the states or individuals for noncompliance, thus representing little more than a recommendation to the states. The government virtually abdicated responsibility over the militia; the states were free to respond to the law according to their diverse impulses—which they did. The Uniform Militia Act killed the nationalized militia concept by failing to establish uniform, interchangeable units, a prerequisite for a national reserve force. What little vitality the militia retained reposed in volunteer units forming a de facto elite corps; this was far from what Washington visualized, because the units were neither standardized nor nationalized.


The failure to forge reliable state militias made a standing army imperative, and Congress slowly moved toward that goal. In September 1789 it adopted the 1st American Regiment and the artillery battalion raised during Shays’ Rebellion. Six months later Congress added four companies to the regiment, bringing the total authorized force to 1,216 men, but this minuscule Army proved inadequate to the challenge of an Indian war. In Indian relations the administration preferred diplomacy over war. The government secured a precarious formal peace south of the Ohio River through the Treaty of New York (1790), and Secretary of War Knox worked diligently to restrain Tennessee frontiersmen who opposed the peace policy. Although Tennesseans occasionally ignored his pleas and conducted unauthorized campaigns, the intermittent fighting between settlers and Indians fortunately never escalated into genuine war. Neither militarily nor monetarily could the nation afford confrontations on two fronts, and north of the Ohio the situation had reached a crisis.

In the Northwest the Indians, determined to make the Ohio the boundary between the races, tried to form a confederacy to stop white migration across the river. In these efforts they received British support. By 1790 the violence between settlers and Native Americans assumed near-war proportions, and westerners cried for federal assistance. In June 1790 Knox ordered Harmar and Arthur St. Clair, the governor of the Northwest Territory, to organize an expedition into hostile territory along the Wabash and Maumee Rivers. The two-pronged campaign was a disaster. One wing departed Fort Knox and headed for the upper Wabash but turned back far short of its objective. The other, led by Harmar and consisting of 320 regulars and 1,133 militiamen, managed to reach its objective. Harmar’s force destroyed a few villages along the Maumee, but the Indians ambushed two substantial detachments, and the column retreated in disorder. The regulars fought well, but the militiamen acted disgracefully. Most of them were substitutes who were at best disobedient, at worst mutinous, and in battle they followed the principle of fleeing before fighting.

Having failed to chastise the Indians with one understrength expedition, the government organized another—with even worse results. Congress added another regiment to the Army, authorized the president to call out militiamen, and allowed him to enlist 2,000 “levies” for six months. The levies were an innovation, a method of manpower mobilization halfway between regulars and militia. They were federal volunteers raised and officered by the national government, but like militia, they served only a short term. In the nineteenth century federal volunteers became the normal method of utilizing citizen-soldiers.

Washington appointed St. Clair to command the mixed force of militia and levies that assembled near Fort Washington (now Cincinnati, Ohio) during the summer. The militia again consisted mostly of substitutes, and the levies were little better. Neither type of citizen-soldier got along with the regulars. The composite “army” was little more than a rabble, and St. Clair had no time to train it properly because Washington had urged him by “every principle that is sacred” to march as soon as possible. When the horde moved northward, one veteran prayed that “the Enemy may not be disposed to give us battle,” but his prayers were not answered. On November 3 the army camped along the Wabash. As the 1,400 men began their morning routine on the 4th, 1,000 Indians attacked and inflicted over 900 casualties—the worst defeat ever suffered by an American Army against Native Americans.

In response to this new calamity, the administration followed a dual policy. It reopened Indian negotiations to appease easterners, who believed aggressive frontiersmen caused the violence, and to save the country from bankruptcy. But the government also began building a capable Army. Congress authorized three more regiments, and Knox reorganized the expanded Army into the Legion of the United States, composed of 5,280 officers and men divided into four equal sublegions. The president pondered over a commander, finally selecting Anthony Wayne, who had a reputation for being courageous and offensive-minded. For two years, while negotiations continued, Wayne drilled the Legion, molding it into a disciplined force. In September 1793, after the diplomatic effort failed to dissuade the Indians from their insistence on the Ohio River boundary, Knox ordered Wayne to use the Legion “to make those audacious savages feel our superiority in Arms.”

Wayne’s campaign was an enormous success. He built Fort Greenville, where most of his Army overwintered, and Fort Recovery, which was on the site of St. Clair’s defeat. In response to Wayne’s presence the British established Fort Miami at the Maumee rapids, and by June 1794 some 2,000 Indians gathered nearby, confidently expecting British aid. On June 30 and July 1 the Indians, reinforced by some Canadians, attacked Fort Recovery, but the defenders (outnumbered ten to one) repulsed them. Meanwhile, deploring the government’s inability to recruit the Legion to full strength, Wayne called on Kentucky for mounted volunteers. When 1,500 of them arrived in late July, the reinforced Legion moved out. Wayne expected to meet “a Heterogeneous Army composed of British troops the Militia of Detroit & all the Hostile Indians N W of the Ohio,” but at the Battle of Fallen Timbers he fought a mere 500 Indians. The Legion routed the Indians, who fled toward Fort Miami, where, to their chagrin, the British refused to help them. Indian losses in the battle were small, but the psychological shock of England’s broken promises was great. Defeated and dismayed, the Indians had no hope of maintaining the Ohio boundary, and in the Treaty of Greenville they ceded most of Ohio and a sliver of Indiana. The victory also lessened British influence in the Northwest and convinced the English to relinquish the posts they had garrisoned since 1783. Finally, the Legion had demonstrated the government’s ability to maintain an Army that could “provide for the common defense,” at least to the extent of waging a successful Indian campaign.

Simultaneously with the Indians’ defeat, the government also proved it could “insure domestic tranquility.” The Whiskey Rebellion erupted in western Pennsylvania as a protest against an excise tax on distilled spirits. Discontent also flared in western Maryland, Kentucky, Georgia, and the Carolinas. Washington initially acted cautiously. He feared the use of force without an effort at conciliation might precipitate rebellion throughout the west, and with the Legion committed against the Indians, he would have to rely on the militia, which might not mobilize to suppress the tumults. But when negotiations with the whiskey rebels broke down and they defied a presidential proclamation to disperse, the administration believed that “the crisis was arrived when it must be determined whether the Government can maintain itself.” Washington sent orders to the governors of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia for 12,500 militiamen, and to his gratification the states’ forces assembled. Never before had the militia functioned as a national, rather than a local, institution. Rebel leaders swore they would resist, but as the massive posse comitatus crossed the mountains, the rebellion evaporated.

By applying two kinds of force—regulars and militia—in two different situations—against Indians and domestic insurrection—Federalists (formerly “nationalists) believed the government had demonstrated it deserved respect. However, the Federalist utilization of force showed how thoroughly military policy had been politicized. The coercive power that comforted Federalists frightened Republicans, the newly emerged opposition political party. While Federalists applauded the Whiskey Rebellion’s demise, Republicans viewed the episode as an example of a strong government’s armed tyranny. Republicans also cast an anxious eye toward the Legion, believing it should be drastically reduced. The Treaty of Greenville and England’s promise to evacuate the western forts, they argued, made such a substantial Army unnecessary. An armed populace could provide frontier defense more cheaply than regulars and with less danger to liberty. Republicans especially feared that Federalists might use the Legion for despotic domestic purposes. Administration spokesmen asserted that any reduction was inadvisable. The nation needed the regular Army to garrison western posts, deter aggression, and preserve “a model and school for an army, and experienced officers to form it, in case of war.” Furthermore, the militia’s deplorable condition made the Legion doubly necessary.

In 1796 Republicans apparently won the argument when Congress abolished the Legion and reorganized the Army into a reduced force of two light dragoon companies and four infantry regiments. Yet, in a sense, Federalists had also won. A peacetime standing Army did survive, and ever since Washington presented his “Sentiments” to Hamilton’s committee, this had been a major objective of Federalist military policy. The 1796 legislation irrevocably committed the nation to the maintenance of a frontier constabulary that spearheaded western expansion for the next century.

Federalists not only established an American Army, but a Navy as well. The Confederation sold the Continental Navy’s last ship in 1785, and the nation had no Navy when trouble at sea loomed on two fronts in 1793. The French Revolution exploded into a world war when France declared war on England, Spain, and Holland. The belligerents, especially England, began interfering with American neutral commerce, which also suffered from Algerine corsairs. The Barbary States—Algiers, Morocco, Tunis, and Tripoli—traditionally engaged in piracy, but the European powers bottled up their activities within the Mediterranean Sea. After 1793, with the Europeans preoccupied, corsairs from Algiers, the most powerful of the petty North African nations, entered the Atlantic and preyed upon American shipping.

Washington’s administration thus confronted a major crisis with a formidable enemy and a minor crisis with a weak adversary. It responded to England’s challenge by passive defensive measures and negotiations. In 1794 Congress voted to create four arsenals, to build coastal fortifications protecting important seaports, and to form a Corps of Artillerists and Engineers to garrison the seaboard forts. Americans assumed the forts would prevent an enemy coup de main, giving land forces time to assemble to repel an invasion at a nonvital location. The president also dispatched John Jay to London to resolve Anglo-American differences, resulting in Jay’s Treaty, which temporarily restored amicable relations. To combat the Algerians, Congress passed the Naval Act of 1794, authorizing the construction of six frigates but providing that the act would be suspended if Algiers agreed to peace. In 1796, before completion of any of the frigates, the United States negotiated a treaty with Algiers. Rather than stop construction, Washington asked Congress for further guidance, and it agreed to continue building three of the ships.

Like the Army, the Navy became entangled in partisan politics. Support for a navy came from the commerce-oriented North Atlantic seaboard and parts of the tidewater south, the strongholds of Federalism, while opposition came from agrarian areas and the interior states, the bastions of Republicanism. Believing that preparedness deterred war, Federalists wanted a standing Navy to match the standing Army. A Navy was necessary to protect maritime commerce, the whaling and fishing fleets, and the territorial waters. It would also be a unifying force benefiting the whole country, drawing timber and naval stores from the south, iron from the middle Atlantic states, and shipbuilders and seamen from the north. Even a small fleet, said Hamilton, would allow the United States to “become the arbiter of Europe in America, and be able to incline the balance of European competitions in this part of the world as our interests may dictate.” A squadron capable of decisive intervention in the West Indies would guarantee American neutrality during a European war; no nation would risk its New World interests by alienating the United States. Finally, Federalists envisioned the country as a future world power and were concerned about prestige and diplomatic leverage. A Navy, they asserted, symbolized national strength, ensuring European respect.

Republicans argued that instead of deterring war, a navy might provoke it. The prospect of a growing navy might so alarm a European power that, said one Republican, it “would crush us in our infancy.” A navy might be an invitation to imperialism and adventurism abroad. No European nation would attack the United States, unless provoked by a naval challenge, because of the predatory European balance of power and the difficulty of bridging the Atlantic moat. Far from benefiting all sections of the country, the Navy would primarily aid New England merchants and shippers. Yet a fleet would be expensive, imposing an oppressive tax burden on the entire country and increasing the national debt. Republicans did not relish a role in European affairs, preferring to direct national energies toward developing the west. Thus while Federalists hoped to parlay the small Army and the tiny kernel of a Navy into military greatness, Republicans wanted to limit future armed forces expansion. The debate over military policy soon reached a furious crescendo.

Federalists and Republicans in Peace and at War

When France and England went to war in 1793, the American political elite fractured along party lines. Federalists were pro-British, emphasizing a common heritage and the commercial connections between England and America. Republicans sided with France, stressing the 1778 treaty that bound the two nations in “perpetual friendship and alliance” and the French Revolution’s antimonarchical aspect. Washington decreed, and Congress sanctioned, a neutrality policy, but perfect neutrality in an imperfect warring world was impossible. Jay’s Treaty, which prevented war with England, outraged the French, who viewed it as establishing an Anglo-American alliance. In retaliation, France increased its depredations against American shipping and refused to receive a new American minister. In 1797 President John Adams sent a special commission to avert war, but France rebuffed it in the notorious “XYZ affair,” in which the French foreign minister demanded a huge bribe before he would even open negotiations with the commission. The result was the Quasi-War with France.

In the spring of 1798 war hysteria engulfed the nation, especially Federalists, who believed the nation faced both a foreign threat and a domestic menace. They feared French agents were subverting the country from within and that Republicans were eager to foment civil war if the United States and France went to war. Viewing themselves as defenders of constitutional liberty, Federalists considered Republicans disloyal, domestic Jacobins conspiring to convert the country into a French province. To deal with the dual danger of French invasion and French-inspired insurrection, Federalists enacted a preparedness program that Republicans opposed, providing, said Federalists, further proof of their treason.

Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts to suppress internal opposition; to enforce the laws and meet the anticipated invasion, it enacted a welter of Army legislation. It created a 10,000-man Provisional Army to be raised in the event of war and empowered the president to accept volunteer companies into national service. Four months later it authorized the president to raise immediately a New Army of twelve infantry regiments and six troops of dragoons. Congress also provided for a massive Eventual Army that, like the Provisional Army, the president could mobilize only in an actual emergency. Legally the United States had five distinct armies: the “old” Army on the frontier, the Provisional Army, the volunteer corps, the New Army, and the Eventual Army.

The government organized only the New Army for the crisis. The old Army remained in the west, and the War Department practically ignored the Provisional, volunteer, and Eventual Armies. Washington agreed to command the combined old and New armies, but he would not take the field until war commenced. Hamilton, who was his ranking subordinate, really commanded the New Army. President Adams disliked and distrusted the New Yorker, but he appointed him second in command upon Washington’s insistence. Hamilton craved military glory and devoted his considerable skill to mobilizing the New Army, believing he could use it to quell Republican rebellion, repel French invasion, and—so he dreamed—conquer the Floridas, Louisiana, and perhaps all South America. Naturally, Hamilton excluded Republicans from the officer corps, making this the only wholly political army in American history.

The New Army never matched Hamilton’s grandiose expectations. War fever ebbed before serious recruiting began, supplies were inadequate, and, most important, Adams undermined Hamilton’s efforts, believing he was a truly dangerous man. The only opportunity to utilize the Army came in 1799, when farmers in eastern Pennsylvania, led by John Fries, resisted the taxes levied to pay for the new military establishment. Adams proclaimed the area in rebellion and ordered 500 New Army regulars and several volunteer militia companies to restore peace. Hamilton applauded the action, but when the Army arrived on the scene, all was quiet. Federalists thought they had nipped a budding revolution, while Republicans asserted that the massive response to Fries’ Rebellion was another example of Federalist military despotism.

The Federalists also pursued a naval expansion program. Congress appropriated money to send the three nearly completed frigates to sea, to build the other three authorized in 1794, and to acquire another twenty-four warships. The Marine Corps, which functioned during the Revolution but expired in the postwar demobilization, was revived to provide ships’ guards, who could also be ordered to serve on shore. As a maritime reinforcement, Congress permitted merchant vessels to arm themselves and attack armed French ships. The burgeoning land and naval forces imposed an onerous burden on Secretary of War James McHenry, and in April 1798 Congress cleaved his workload in half by creating the Department of the Navy. As the first secretary of the navy, Adams selected Benjamin Stoddert, who requested a building program of twelve 74-gun ships of the line, an equal number of frigates, and twenty or thirty smaller warships, all supported by a system of shipyards and dry docks. Not even the Federalist-dominated legislature could swallow that many masts without choking, but in 1799 it authorized construction of six 74-gun ships and two dry docks, and the purchase of timber lands for naval use.

The first clash in the Quasi-War occurred in July 1798, when the converted merchantman Delaware captured Croyable; the last encounter took place in October 1800 when the frigate Boston defeated LeBerceau. In between these two engagements the Navy escorted merchant convoys in the West Indies, hunted enemy privateers infesting the area, and occasionally fought the few warships France sent to the Caribbean. More than a thousand armed merchantmen augmented the fifty-four warships Stoddert assembled, and they had hundreds of encounters with French privateers. Throughout the conflict the Americans enjoyed considerable success, due in large part to British assistance. The Royal Navy aided in convoy duty, freeing American ships for other tasks, and controlled the Atlantic, preventing substantial French forces from sailing to the New World. American ships used British guns, supplies, and Caribbean bases.

The Quasi-War remained limited and undeclared. When Adams received French assurances that a new peace mission would be properly received, he dispatched another commission, which negotiated the Convention of 1800 ending the Quasi-War. Congress soon dismantled the wartime military establishment, disbanding the New Army and authorizing the president to sell all the ships except for thirteen frigates, only six of which would remain in active service. The convention also aided Jefferson’s election in 1800. The Hamiltonian wing of the Federalist Party refused to support Adams’s reelection bid, having never forgiven him for choosing peace over war and robbing it of an opportunity to crush the Republicans, defeat the French, and conquer a vast American empire. The sudden end to the crisis also gave Republicans an armory of political ammunition by making Federalist preparedness measures appear despotic.

As the Federalist era ended, the party of Washington and Hamilton had not infused as much military strength into the republic as they desired. Yet military policy as it evolved during the 1790s basically remained intact for a century. The nation would keep a small professional Army, augmented by militia and federal volunteers during wartime. The embryonic system of arsenals, shipyards, dry docks, and coastal fortifications would be expanded. The nation would rely on a small navy to show the flag in peacetime and to protect American shipping while plundering enemy commerce during wartime. In essence, a passive defense policy emerged that theoretically would preserve the country during a crisis until its latent strength could be mobilized.

The survival of the Federalist-established military institutions initially depended on their acceptance by the new president. Jefferson had a defensive conception of United States military power and advocated noninvolvement in foreign affairs, governmental economy, and reduction of the national debt. In his mind none of these goals accorded with a substantial peacetime establishment. But he also believed the international arena was predatory and that military weakness invited aggression, and he had no intention of completely dismantling the Federalist military apparatus. Although Jefferson viewed the militia as the first line of defense, its purpose was to buy “time for raising regular forces after the necessity of them shall become certain.” He urged Congress to reform the militia, making it an effective immediate defense force so that the regulars could be safely reduced, but not abolished.

The Republican-controlled Congress refused to tamper with the Uniform Militia Act, but on March 16, 1802, it passed the Military Peace Establishment Act, which demonstrated Jefferson’s commitment to a regular Army, but one that was “Republicanized.” The administration inherited a Federalist-dominated Army, and Jefferson believed he needed to ensure that it would respond to Republican direction. The 1802 act provided the mechanisms for breaking Federalist control and creating a source of Republican officers. Under the guise of an economy measure, the act “reduced” and reorganized the Army. The reduction was cosmetic. The Army had never attained its authorized strength under the Federalists, and the Republicans simply cut the Army’s authorized size to approximately its actual strength. The reorganization eliminated eighty-eight officers’ positions, allowing Jefferson to remove officers who had been Federalist partisans, but also added about twenty ensigns. The president appointed Republicans to these new positions.

The 1802 act also established the Military Academy at West Point, creating a Corps of Engineers distinct from the artillery and stating that “the said corps . . . shall constitute a military academy.” The president received exceptional powers over the Corps of Engineers and the Military Academy, permitting him to select the officers who would establish the academy and teach there, and the cadets who would attend it. Ironically, since the early 1780s Federalists had supported such an institution, while Jefferson had always opposed this idea. He reversed his position for two reasons. First, the president had wanted a national school that would emphasize the sciences and produce graduates useful to society. Officers trained as scientists and engineers would, for example, benefit the nation as explorers and roadbuilders. Equally important, West Point would be a Republican avenue into the officer corps. In selecting faculty and cadets, Jefferson searched for eligible Republicans and avoided Federalists, furthering the process of “Republicanizing” the Army that would continue throughout his years in office.

Naval retrenchment under Jefferson initially bordered on liquidation, but when war with Tripoli appeared likely, the administration lifted its budgetary ax from the Navy’s neck. At first Republicans discontinued work on the 74s, the dry docks, and the navy yards, discharged officers and men, and sold ships as rapidly as possible. However, the pasha of Tripoli threatened to unleash his pirates if he did not receive increased tribute, which the United States had been paying since the 1780s. The president detested Barbary corsairs more than an expensive Navy, and in June 1801 he dispatched a small squadron under Commodore Richard Dale with orders to “protect our commerce and chastise their insolence” if Tripoli declared war. Dale learned that the pasha had done so, but neither he nor Commodore Richard Morris, who arrived with a replacement squadron in 1802, was very aggressive, and they accomplished little. In 1803 Jefferson sent a third squadron under Commodore Edward Preble, who clamped a tight blockade on the city of Tripoli and subjected it to naval assaults that damaged the town, its fortifications, and enemy ships in the harbor. A fourth squadron under Commodore Samuel Barron followed up Preble’s work with a combined land-naval expedition that forced the pasha to sign a peace treaty in June 1805.

The Tripolitan War spurred Jefferson’s fascination with gunboats, which had been useful in the shallow North African waters. Congress authorized construction of fifteen gunboats in 1803, and eight of them crossed the Atlantic to serve in the Mediterranean. In the postwar period the president embraced them as the heart of his naval policy, and by 1807 Congress had authorized another 263 of them. The gunboats were cheap to build, were so simple to operate that maritime militiamen could man them—which coincided with Jefferson’s preference for citizen-soldiers over professionals—and were incontrovertibly defensive. Combined with stationary batteries at strategic coastal locations, mobile land batteries, and floating batteries, he believed gunboats would protect the country from invasion by even the strongest maritime power.

What the gunboats could not do was protect seaborne commerce, which badly needed protection. In 1803, after the brief Peace of Amiens, Napoleon declared war on England, reigniting the contest for European supremacy. Both combatants struck at American neutral trade, trying to strangle each other economically. Having gained command of the sea at the Battle of Trafalgar, Britain was the worst offender. The Royal Navy seized more than 500 American vessels between 1803 and 1807, hovered off the coast imposing a virtual blockade, and impressed American seamen. The ultimate indignity came in June 1807, when the British frigate Leopard fired on the Chesapeake, killing and wounding twenty-one men and impressing four alleged deserters.

Jefferson’s administration responded to these provocations in several ways. It launched an intensive diplomatic effort and supported it with several defensive measures: Increasing the Army’s authorized strength to 10,000 men; appropriating money to complete, repair, and build coastal fortifications; and authorizing $200,000 annually for arming the militia. Diplomacy failed to budge England on the crucial questions of neutral rights and impressment, but rather than go to war, Jefferson undertook an experiment in economic coercion. In December 1807 Congress passed an Embargo Act that prohibited all exports. Jefferson hoped that by depriving the belligerents of American products, he could wring concessions from them regarding neutral rights, but he was wrong. The embargo had little effect on the European antagonists, and British impressment and neutral rights infringements continued unabated.

Although the embargo did not deter the Europeans, it brought the United States to the verge of civil war. Federalist New England mercantile interests saw their local economy ruined, as ships rotted at their wharves and seaborne commerce languished. The Francophobe Federalists also believed the embargo hurt England far more than France. They so strenuously opposed the law that Jefferson had to use both regulars and militia to enforce it, employing military force domestically at least as readily as Federalists had done during the Whiskey and Fries Rebellions. Now it was Jeffersonians who spoke glowingly about the necessity of preserving orderly government and Federalists who screamed about tyranny. Thus the embargo sapped internal unity without alleviating the war-provoking problems with England.

Western concerns as well as maritime grievances pushed the United States toward war. Farmers believed British commercial restrictions depressed grain prices, and some westerners squinted at Canada and Florida with expansionist greed. Most important, although the English had withdrawn across the Canadian border, they continued to aid the Indians, especially Tecumseh, a Shawnee chief who tried to revitalize the Indian confederacy quashed at Fallen Timbers. In 1811 the governor of the Indiana Territory, William Henry Harrison, defeated the Indians at the Battle of Tippecanoe; when British-supplied equipment was found nearby, frontiersmen seethed with anger at British treachery.

By 1812 many Americans believed the country’s options were either to fight or surrender national honor and sovereignty. A group of young congressmen, known as the War Hawks, voiced the public’s frustration over relations with England. Led by Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, the War Hawks, tired of wordy diplomacy and spineless economic sanctions, waxed belligerent in their advocacy of strong war measures. Even Jefferson admitted that “every hope from time, patience, and love of peace are exhausted and war or abject submission are the only alternatives left to us.” His successor as president, James Madison, submitted a war message to Congress on June 1 and, after favorable votes of only 79–49 in the House and 19–13 in the Senate, signed it on June 18.

The War of 1812

Rarely have nations gone to war so reluctantly. At war with Napoleonic France, the British did not want a North American conflict. Despite the War Hawks’ verbal bellicosity and a decade of acute tension, the United States had made few warlike preparations, so the declaration of war and preparations for war came almost simultaneously. Legislation enacted early in 1812 increased the Army to 35,000 and provided for 50,000 volunteers and 100,000 militia. While these numbers were awesome on paper, when war began the regulars numbered only 12,000 and the volunteers and militia remained unorganized. The Navy consisted of only sixteen ships, seven of them frigates inherited from the Federalists, including three superb heavy frigates.5 By contrast, the Royal Navy had about 1,000 warships.

Aside from its tardy preparations, the country had four other handicaps. Madison was a weak commander in chief. A poor judge of men, he filled many positions with incompetents. For example, his general officers were Revolutionary veterans, now averaging sixty years of age. Although they had been good soldiers in their youth, time had sapped their vigor and ability. Also, Madison claimed to govern by Republican principles, including minimal government cheaply run, a distaste for standing forces, and opposition to a national debt. The war made all three principles impossible to follow, but the Madison administration never quite adjusted to this reality and, for instance, failed to formulate an adequate taxation system. Therefore the nation went to war on a financial shoestring, resulting in inadequate logistical support for the armed forces.

A third difficulty was the factionalism that pervaded all aspects of waging the war. In the field, generals rarely cooperated with one another, and Navy and Army officers paid little attention to each other’s concerns. No government agency existed to plan, much less impose, intra- and interservice coordination. Personal and political rivalries rent Madison’s cabinet, reflecting the deep divisions even among Republicans as to the war’s wisdom and the most effective measures for waging it; meanwhile the Federalists opposed the war almost unanimously.

Finally, conflict between national and regional strategic concerns also hampered the war effort. From the administration’s perspective, the crucial strategic task was to conquer Canada in the hope that Britain would make concessions on the maritime issues to regain it. Though a Canadian offensive was Madison’s primary goal, American coastal localities were more concerned about naval raids, the southwest considered the Creek Indians a primary threat, and the northwest believed Tecumseh’s confederacy to be the foremost security problem. The government’s weakness and the slow, primitive means of transportation and communication resulted in the war becoming so regionally oriented that national strategy was often irrelevant. Imposing the administration’s will on the war effort was impossible; local leaders simply ignored its injunctions. But regionalism could be a strength as well as a weakness. Local strategists understood regional realities and could adopt appropriate measures; and because they were so autonomous, defeats in other theaters did not shatter their morale.

Factionalism and regionalism united in Federalist-dominated New England, where the war’s unpopularity not only hamstrung the war effort but threatened national unity. Every Federalist in Congress voted against the declaration of war. Traditionally pro-British, the Federalists believed that the United States should help, not hinder, Britain against France. In the fall of 1814 the Federalist governor of Massachusetts sent an agent to Halifax to probe for prospects of a separate peace; the Federalists’ collective disaffection culminated in December at the Hartford Convention, a conclave that seemed so ominous the Madison administration prepared to use force to crush any secessionist movement that might burst from behind the meeting’s closed doors. Although the convention only proposed certain defensive measures and a series of constitutional amendments that would strengthen New England’s position in national affairs, it implied that if the demands were not met New England might secede from the Union.

Deleterious consequences flowed from Federalist opposition. New England Federalists (and even some Republicans) carried on illicit trade with England, providing supplies to enemy armies in Canada, and withheld financial assistance for “Mr. Madison’s war.” Since Republicans failed to impose sufficient taxes, they resorted to loans and borrowed $40 million, of which less than $3 million came from New England, the nation’s richest section. Federalist governors also refused to mobilize their militias when Madison called for them. Under the Constitution the militia could be called into national service only for specific purposes. The governors insisted that they, not the president, had the right to determine when these exigencies existed, and they denied their existence.6 They also argued that militia could not be used outside the country for a Canadian invasion. Since New England’s militia system was the country’s best, the obvious invasion route via Lake Champlain bordered New England, and the small Army needed militia reinforcements to conduct an invasion, the governors’ refusal to cooperate was near crippling.

In broad terms, fighting occurred in four theaters. The northeast encompassed the Canadian border from the Niagara River and Lake Ontario to the Richelieu River and Lake Champlain, while the northwest stretched from Lake Erie to the northern reaches of Lake Huron. A southern theater included the Gulf coast from New Orleans to Pensacola and jutted inland along the Alabama River and its tributaries. The fourth theater was the eastern seaboard and the Atlantic Ocean.

Neither England nor America had thought about the strategy they would employ, but the initiative belonged to the United States. England could devote few resources to the New World and assumed the defensive in Canada, where 7,000 regulars garrisoned the border. The commander in chief for Canada, Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost, could also call on the militia, but this was scant comfort. He described it as “a mere posse, ill arm’d and without discipline,” and he worried about its loyalty because of the numerous former French citizens and American immigrants in the population. Aid might come from the Indians—if American control in the Northwest could be neutralized.

Correctly assuming that Canada was vulnerable, the administration prepared to attack it. The obvious strategy was to capture Montreal. Madison preferred a powerful thrust along the traditional invasion route, but New England’s lethargy made such a movement difficult. On the other hand, war fervor in the west beckoned for offensives in the Great Lakes region. From these considerations emerged a three-pronged offensive, one prong moving from Detroit, another attacking along the Niagara River, and a third marching toward Montreal. Attacks on three fronts should have stretched British resources to the snapping point, but failure to coordinate the advances allowed the English to meet each one in turn.


Begun with confident expectations, the campaign yielded dismal results. General William Hull entered Canada from Detroit in mid-July intent on capturing Fort Malden, but he encountered logistical difficulties. The enemy controlled Lakes Erie and Ontario, preventing easy supply by water, and Indian ambushes cut his overland supply line. Then came word that the British had captured Fort Michilimackinac. Fearing that thousands of Indians would descend on him from the north, Hull timidly pulled back to Detroit, where he surrendered in mid-August to a British force of regulars, militia, and Tecumseh’s Indians. The previous day the Fort Dearborn garrison evacuated its post on Hull’s orders, only to be slaughtered by Indians. Hull’s successor, William Henry Harrison, tried to redeem the situation with a winter campaign to recapture Detroit, but the British surprised an advance detachment at Frenchtown and annihilated it. The debacle in the northwestern theater was complete.

On the Niagara front General Stephen Van Rensselaer, a political appointee with no military experience, commanded an army of regulars and militia. In mid-October he attacked Queenston, achieving initial success. But when militia reinforcements refused to cross the Niagara River into a foreign country, the British counterattacked and won the Battle of Queenston Heights. Van Rensselaer was replaced by General Alexander Smyth, who excelled at issuing bombastic proclamations to “plant the American standard in Canada.” Unfortunately his words spoke louder than his actions, and the American standard remained in America. Despite the Detroit and Niagara failures, if General Henry Dearborn’s offensive could capture Montreal the United States would still gain a decisive advantage. He moved slowly northward to the Canadian border where, as on the Niagara front, the militiamen would go no further. So Dearborn returned to winter quarters and all Canada was safe—at least until spring.

While the effort on land was a demoralizing tale of poor strategy and weak leadership, the opening sea campaign was as refreshing as a cool ocean breeze. Americans had several advantages. The Federalist heavy frigates were the finest ships of their class in the world. Unlike the Army commanders, who had earned their reputations in the Revolution, ranking naval officers were generally young and had developed professional skills and attitudes during the Quasi- and Tripolitan Wars. Moreover, the British navy could commit only a fraction of its strength to American waters.

The administration contemplated deploying the Navy in a single fleet, but this proved impractical. However, a squadron commanded by John Rodgers did get to sea, while other ships cruised alone to prey on British commerce or fight enemy warships. The result was a series of spectacular single-ship victories, with Constitution destroying the frigate Guerriere and then later defeating the frigate Java, and United States capturing the frigate Macedonian. In all these actions the American ship was larger and more heavily gunned, but knowledge of this did not detract from the celebrations following the news of each victory.

These encounters persuaded Congress to authorize new ships: four 74s and six 44-gun frigates in January 1813, and six sloops in March. But the Navy’s glory days were over. Stung by the defeats, the British Admiralty ordered its frigates to avoid single-ship engagements and sent more ships to blockade the coast, trapping the American frigates in port. The few American warships that got to sea after 1812 could not repeat earlier successes because the British no longer underestimated them. When, for example, the frigate Shannon disobeyed orders and fought USS Chesapeake, the British vessel prevailed. However, the Chesapeake’s captain, James Lawrence, exemplified the Navy’s fighting tradition. When he was mortally wounded he told his subordinates, “Don’t give up the ship. Fight her till she sinks.” Although the ship did not sink, the English captured it only after boarding it and engaging in savage hand-to-hand combat.

Meanwhile, the blockade became a noose, choking American commerce. By 1814 merchant trade was about 17 percent of what it had been in 1811. Beginning in 1813 the Royal Navy also made punitive coastal raids, and Jefferson’s gunboats, designed to prevent such excursions, proved ineffectual. Although the blockade penned up the frigates and crushed seaborne and coastal trade, it could not prevent privateers and small warships from slipping out of port. What success Americans enjoyed on the ocean after 1812 came from privateers and the sloops authorized in 1813. Five hundred privateers received commissions and took 1,300 prizes, and the sloops captured numerous merchantmen and a few small warships. But neither the 1812 frigate victories nor the depredations by privateers and sloops significantly altered the war’s course.

Despite the setbacks on land in 1812 the United States remained on the offensive in 1813. Since the failures had been more the consequence of American ineptitude than British skill, optimism still prevailed. But the United States again dissipated its strength in several disjointed assaults on Canada. The Americans had limited success on the Detroit front when Oliver H. Perry’s ships destroyed a British squadron on Lake Erie on September 10. Perry scribbled a hasty report to Harrison on the back of an old letter: “Dear Gen’l:—We have met the enemy and they are ours; two ships, two brigs, one schooner, and one sloop. Yours with great respect and esteem. O. H. Perry.” His communique was a model—perhaps unique—battle report, being both accurate and brief!

The Battle of Lake Erie forced both British General Henry Proctor and Harrison into action. With his supply line across the lake cut, Proctor retreated eastward along the Thames River and Harrison pursued. Proctor confronted his pursuers two miles west of Moraviantown with about 1,000 regulars and Native-American allies. Harrison had thrice that many men, including 1,000 mounted riflemen from Kentucky, whom Colonel Richard M. Johnson had trained more rigorously than was usual for citizen-soldiers. In the Battle of the Thames the Americans won a smashing victory, killing Tecumseh and capturing most of Proctor’s army. With Tecumseh’s death the Indian confederacy collapsed, fulfilling a vital northwestern war objective. But, although satisfying a regional war aim, the campaign did little to advance the national war effort, since Harrison’s front was subsidiary to the more important front further east.

Secretary of War John Armstrong, who believed that the Lake Champlain force was too weak to attack Montreal directly, instead proposed thrusts against Kingston, York, and Forts George and Erie. Triple success would make all British positions west of Kingston untenable. The campaign began well. In late April General Zebulon Pike—of Pikes Peak fame—raided York against minimal resistance. A month later General Henry Dearborn attacked Fort George and the British commander, General John Vincent, retreated, taking the Chippewa and Fort Erie garrisons with him. So far so good, but the tide of war soon flowed against the Americans when Vincent routed a pursuing force at Stoney Creek and compelled the Americans to abandon Chippewa and Fort Erie. The American commander at Fort George tried to strike one of Vincent’s advanced posts, but the enemy captured the entire column at the Battle of the Beaver Dams, a defeat that left the Americans precariously isolated in Fort George.

At this point Secretary Armstrong replaced Dearborn with General James Wilkinson, who had become the Army’s ranking officer when Wayne died in 1796. Wilkinson proposed that Kingston be bypassed and that he and General Wade Hampton, commanding at Plattsburgh, attack Montreal, with each army approaching the city from a different direction. Command disputes foiled the plan. Unfortunately, despite Wilkinson’s call for a coordinated dual advance, he and Hampton so detested one another that bickering rather than cooperation was the hallmark of the campaign. Armstrong came to the front to placate his feuding generals, but his presence only muddled an already tangled problem when he tried to exercise direct field command. British forces turned back Hampton at the Battle of Chateauguay and Wilkinson at the Battle of Chrysler’s Farm. In mid-December the Americans evacuated Fort George, unleashing a British offensive that captured or burned Fort Niagara, Lewiston, Black Rock, and Buffalo. These enemy successes canceled out the earlier American victories, leaving the Niagara front in British hands.

After two campaigning seasons the United States was no closer to victory than it had been when the war began. It had frittered away precious opportunities to invade Canada while England fought for survival against Napoleon. Now news from Europe indicated that it would be an entirely new war in 1814, with the United States on the defensive. France collapsed in the winter of 1813–1814, Napoleon abdicated in April, and a victorious England could send reinforcements to America, transforming its war there from a desperate defensive to a punishing offensive. The British planned offensives from Canada, in Chesapeake Bay, and at New Orleans, and they were as confident as the Americans had been two years earlier. Yet the same obstacles that England had encountered in fighting the Revolution remained, especially America’s sponge-like nature. As the Duke of Wellington said, he could perceive no operation that would so badly injure America that it would be forced to sue for peace. Furthermore, by 1814 aggressive younger men had replaced the Army’s original commanders. Coming to the fore were Jacob Brown, Edmund R Gaines, Alexander Macomb, Winfield Scott, and Andrew Jackson. These men would direct the nation’s military fortunes for decades to come.

Before British reinforcements could cross the Atlantic the United States launched two offensives. Wilkinson moved northward from Lake Champlain to La Colle Creek, where a stone mill occupied by fewer than 200 British soldiers blocked the advance. An artillery bombardment consumed all the American ammunition without damaging the mill, and Wilkinson retreated. On the Niagara front, Jacob Brown commanded an army of two regular brigades and one militia brigade. After capturing Fort Erie he moved northward, while General Phineas Riall, the enemy commander at Fort George, marched south. The armies collided at Chippewa, where they engaged in a classic eighteenth-century battle featuring close-range volleys and bayonet charges. The British broke the militia but then ran into a regular brigade under Winfield Scott, which fought back fiercely. At one point, as Scott’s brigade deployed into a battle line, Riall exclaimed, “Those are regulars, by God!” Technically he was correct, but Scott’s “regulars” were mostly recent recruits whom he had converted into disciplined troops in just a few months. An avid student of the history and theory of war, Scott had established a training camp where he drilled recruits intensely, proving that under competent officers citizen-soldiers could become quality troops without years of rigorous instruction.

After Chippewa, General Gordon Drummond assumed command of the British force shortly before the armies clashed at the Battle of Lundy’s Lane, which was more fierce than Chippewa, with opposing lines firing volleys almost muzzle to muzzle. The battle was a tactical standoff, but with both Brown and Scott wounded the Americans withdrew to Fort Erie, which they soon blew up just before returning to American soil. As usual, the Montreal and Niagara fronts were indecisive.

As the rival armies battered each other along the Niagara, the British offensives began elsewhere. General Prevost advanced down the Richelieu, arriving at Plattsburgh in early September with 10,000 men and a flotilla under George Downie to guard his left flank and maintain his supply line along the lake. Opposing him were Alexander Macomb with 3,400 men and Thomas Macdonough’s squadron anchored in Plattsburgh Bay. Prevost decided to attack simultaneously on land and water. On September 11 Downie’s ships sailed into the bay, and a furious naval battle resulted. When the lake breezes wafted away the acrid smoke, the British flotilla was in ruins. Meanwhile Prevost’s land assault had developed slowly, and when he realized Downie was beaten he ordered a halt. His magnificent army was still intact, but he believed that loss of control on the lake made his logistical situation hopeless. The next day he retreated.

The British Chesapeake Bay offensive began in August with Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane commanding the naval element and General Robert Ross the land forces. The ministry had authorized them to undertake punitive raids against seaboard cities to divert American attention from Prevost’s offensive. As Cochrane sailed up the bay Joshua Barney’s gunboat flotilla fled up the Patuxent River. The British anchored at Benedict, disembarked 4,500 men to march along the river banks, and sent some small craft upstream. Trapped, Barney destroyed his gunboats.

Ross now marched toward Washington, which Armstrong had never fortified, considering it strategically insignificant. The administration hastily organized a predominantly militia force under General William H. Winder, but he neglected even obvious delaying tactics such as destroying bridges and sniping at the redcoats as they traversed dense forests. Winder established a three-line defensive position at Bladensburg, but the first two lines quickly collapsed, the soldiers departing at sprint speed. Barney’s 500 sailors, footsore from the unaccustomed marching, stood in the third line. Here hard fighting occurred, as Barney’s men fended off attacks and, crying “Board ’em, board ’em!” counterattacked. When the British outflanked their position the seamen finally retreated, ending the Battle of Bladensburg and opening the way to the capital. There the British burned the public buildings, including the White House and the Capitol.

The next target, Baltimore, disappointed British hopes of another easy victory. The American commander, Samuel Smith, was a determined fighter, and militiamen rallied to his standard. In a testimonial to aching muscles and blistered hands, the city’s citizens fortified defensive positions. Guarding the harbor was Fort McHenry, one of the fortifications authorized in 1794. As Ross’s army marched from North Point, militia blocked the route about halfway to Baltimore. Although the British punched through the force, a sniper killed Ross. His replacement, Colonel Arthur Brooke, pushed on but halted before the city’s entrenchments. At dawn on September 13, Cochrane began a twenty-four-hour bombardment of Fort McHenry. A Washington lawyer, Francis Scott Key, watched the rockets’ red glare and the bombs bursting in air, saw the flag flying proudly over the fort in the dawn’s early light, and was mightily inspired. He jotted down some verses, later revised, that became “The Star-Spangled Banner.” But what was inspirational to Key was disheartening to Cochrane and Brooke, who withdrew on September 14. The second of Britain’s three offensives had now been blunted.

The United States not only repulsed but shattered the New Orleans offensive, primarily because of Andrew Jackson’s cyclonic energy and iron-willed determination. Jackson became a hero after he won the Creek War of 1813–1814, a conflict in which he was virtually an independent warlord, often acting on his own authority and sometimes contrary to the secretary of war’s orders. In 1813 a large portion of the Creek nation, seizing the opportunity presented by the Americans’ war with England, went on the warpath and killed more than 200 whites at Fort Mims, Alabama. With concentrated loathing the entire southwest struck back. When word of Fort Mims reached Tennessee, Jackson, a state militia general even though he had never led troops in battle, was recuperating from a wound suffered in a frontier brawl. With a bullet lodged close to his heart and his arm in a sling, he struggled from bed, summoned volunteers, and won the Battles of Tallushatchee and Talladega. Other columns from east Tennessee, Georgia, and Mississippi Territory also defeated the Creeks in isolated engagements. Lacking centralized direction, the campaign failed to end the Creek War, but the Creeks had lost at least 20 percent of their warriors.

As the year ended Jackson’s army disintegrated when the volunteers’ enlistments expired and the men returned home. But reinforcements arrived in early 1814, and Jackson invaded Creek territory a second time. With incredible tenacity considering their reduced manpower, the Indians attacked three times, forcing Jackson to retreat. However, when he learned that more than 1,000 Creeks had fortified a bend in the Tallapoosa River, the Tennessean invaded a third time. At the peninsula’s neck the Creeks had a log breastwork, and at the far end they had canoes to flee in if hard pressed. Jackson sent his Cherokee allies and mounted volunteers to seal the escape hatch and stormed the barricade, pushing the Indians back in savage combat. Even Jackson admitted “the carnage was dreadfull” as the Creek nation’s fighting strength expired in a hundred acres of gullied terrain. The Battle of Horseshoe Bend ended the Creek War.

In May, Jackson became a regular Army major general commanding the 7th Military District, which included Louisiana. His responsibility was to stop Britain’s New Orleans venture, a responsibility he shouldered alone, since time and distance prevented the national government from affording him timely assistance.

Admiral Cochrane, who had gone to Jamaica after his exploits on Chesapeake Bay, planned to capture New Orleans by taking Mobile, marching an army from there to the Mississippi, and then moving downriver to the Crescent City. While a roundabout approach, it was the easiest route, since New Orleans was a hundred miles up the Mississippi, situated amid a maze of bayous, swamps, and flesh-rending reeds. It could be attacked directly, said a British officer, only if troops were “assisted by the aerial flight of the bird of prey, or astride the alligator’s scaly back.” The ministry appointed Sir Edward Pakenham to command the army, but he did not reach Jamaica before the armada departed and General John Keane became acting commander.

Jackson suspected that the British might use an overland route, and when they attacked Fort Bowyer, Mobile’s main defensive work, his alert men repelled them. Three weeks later he counterattacked, capturing Pensacola. His vigilance foreclosed Cochrane’s preferred route and doomed British hopes of recruiting legions of Indians and Spaniards to assist them. Having blocked the land route to the city, Jackson hastened to New Orleans. He was not well, but those who glimpsed his fierce, hawklike eyes sensed that the emaciated exterior belied his inner strength. Jackson ordered the likely approaches to the city guarded, and to defend it he assembled a large amount of artillery and a cosmopolitan force that included sailors, a few marines, several regular regiments, Tennessee and Kentucky militia and volunteers, the Louisiana militia, two brigades of New Orleans free black men, some Choctaw Indians, and Jean Lafitte’s 800 pirates.

“By the Eternal, they shall not sleep on our soil!” thundered Jackson on December 23 when he learned that British troops were only nine miles from the city. They had arrived undetected by coming across Lake Borgne and using an unaccountably unguarded bayou leading inland. The Americans made a night attack on Keane’s position; it became a melee pitting British bayonets against American hatchets and knives. After this First Battle of New Orleans, Jackson withdrew two miles, assuming a defensive position behind the wide but dry Rodriguez Canal. On the right was the Mississippi and on the left a cypress swamp, making enemy flank attacks difficult. In front was a plain dominated by Jackson’s parapet.

Pakenham, who arrived on Christmas Day, probed the American defenses on December 28 and on New Year’s Day—the Second and Third Battles of New Orleans. The Fourth (and main) Battle came on January 8. Although Pakenham probed Jackson’s flanks, sending a West Indian black regiment through the swamp and dispatching another force across the Mississippi to assail the American forces there, his major assault was on the broad plain toward Jackson’s main position. The British general planned to attack at night, but the advance was delayed until morning. It appeared that fortune might shine on the British as fog shrouded the plain, but the fog suddenly lifted and the slaughter began. By eight-thirty the battle was over, with 500 prisoners in American hands and another 1,500 British dead and wounded littering the plain, most of them victims of Jackson’s artillery. American casualties numbered about 70.

Ironically the victory had no influence on the Treaty of Ghent, which had been signed on Christmas Eve, 1814. Efforts at negotiations had begun almost as soon as the war commenced. Allied with England in the war against Napoleon, Russia offered to mediate the dispute. Having bungled the 1812 campaign, the United States accepted Russia’s offer, but England did not. The British, however, suggested direct negotiations and Madison agreed. By the time the negotiators met, England was in no hurry to conclude a peace, believing its 1814 offensives would improve its bargaining position. Still, Britain was not prepared to fight a prolonged war for New World territory or for the benefit of its Indian allies. Not only was England’s population war-weary after two decades of continuous strife but, with the French population seething with discontent and Britain squabbling with its allies, England feared a renewed European war.

After Prevost’s retreat and Cochrane’s repulse at Baltimore, Wellington in essence advised the British government to settle the war. These defeats indicated that England could not project power into North America any more effectively in 1814 than during the Revolution—a fact confirmed by New Orleans. As in that earlier war, both combatants were militarily weak in America, with the United States being just barely strong enough to stave off defeat.

Britain agreed to terms based on the status quo ante bellum. The treaty was a cessation of hostilities that mentioned none of the war’s causes. Of course, with the European war over, British violations of neutral rights ceased and they were no longer an urgent issue. Although the United States did not acquire Canada and annexed only part of Florida, it escaped territorial losses. For the west and south the defeat of Tecumseh’s confederation and the Creeks signified clear-cut gains. Perhaps New England “lost” the war, since its influence in national affairs waned rapidly after 1815. And from a national perspective even a stalemate against Napoleon’s conquerors was no embarrassment. By fighting England a second time and surviving intact, the United States had preserved its independence and gained new respect in the international arena.

In early February 1815, three messages converged on Washington from separate locations. News of Jackson’s victory came from New Orleans, quickly followed by the treaty from Ghent. The two announcements set off national rejoicing, erasing grim memories of earlier defeats. Amidst this euphoria the third communication arrived, borne by a committee from the Hartford Convention. The Federalists’ veiled threat of New England secession tainted the party with treason, and they never recovered from the stigma—a sad end for the party that a quarter-century earlier had laid the foundations for the republic’s future growth.

The nearly simultaneous arrival of the glad tidings from Louisiana and Ghent made it appear as if the United States had defeated Britain again, a myth Americans willingly embraced. New Orleans had a further importance: It enshrined the western hunter-soldiers who had supposedly mowed down England’s veterans (artillery inflicted most of the casualties) and glorified the militia at a time when the militia system was virtually dead. The Treaty of Ghent was also significant in that it marked the end of an epoch in American history. For more than a century, the large wars wracking the Old World had become the New World’s wars as well. But for a century afterward no general conflict afflicted Europe, and the United States avoided the Continent’s numerous smaller wars. Hence the nation turned inward, devoting its energies to domestic development and territorial expansion. America’s armed forces played vital roles in both activities.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!