Mr. Madison's War (1812–1815)


Lydia Bacon waited nervously at Fort Detroit – a square, 2-acre earth-and-wood structure equipped with 40 guns. Her husband, Lieutenant Josiah Bacon, served as the quartermaster for an American regiment operating along the border with Canada. On the morning of August 16, 1812, she arose from her bed after hearing the sounds of cannon fire. She discovered that British troops and ships were massing on the Detroit River.

Like other women on the post, Bacon joined in the defense of Fort Detroit. She watched in horror, as a solid shot knock down a chimney at the troop quarters. While she made powder bags and treated wounded soldiers, a 24-pound shot entered the room in which she toiled. She saw the cannonball hit two officers standing next to her. It then passed through the wall to enter another room. In the blink of an eye, it took off legs and left bodies writhing on the floor. Moments later, she saw another cannonball soar into the makeshift hospital. It hit a patient, instantly severing his head from his torso. The same blow killed an attendant, since the shrapnel ripped open his flesh. Though beset with “grief and mortification,” she expressed relief upon discovering that her husband survived the deadly siege.

With the walls crumbling, Bacon and her compatriots decided to seek shelter in a root-house. “Never shall I forget my sensations as I crossed the parade ground to gain this place of safety,” she recalled. She was filled with anxiety but refused to panic. Peering from the doorway, she caught a glimpse of more cannonballs in air.

Running low on ammunition and fearing the worst, Americans raised a white flag over the parapet. Immediately, the cannons on both sides of the river ceased to roar. The blue-clad soldiers marched onto the parade ground. They stacked their arms and lowered their colors from the flagstaff. After the redcoats secured the compound, they hoisted the banner of the British Empire. Their band played “God Save the King.”

Figure 4.1 Plan of Fort Detroit, January 26, 1812. Miscellaneous Collection, F 775, Box MU 2102, Archives of Ontario


Bacon experienced the puzzling war with “a thousand emotions,” while she marched with her husband to a British vessel on the river. Although women and men often occupied separate spheres, both became prisoners of war in Canada. Along the northern border of the United States, America's first declared war impacted families as well as soldiers. On the high seas, American merchantmen found themselves trapped by the powerful navies fighting the Napoleonic Wars. Furthermore, Anglo-American discord paralleled the rise of Indian militancy west of the Appalachian Mountains. With the republic developing across space and through time, the American people became entangled with the countervailing forces shaping the Atlantic world.

Unfortunately, conflicting visions of power and liberty produced a trans-Atlantic struggle that nearly destroyed U.S. sovereignty. Expansionists desired to seize and to secure additional territory while putting an end to British influence upon Native American communities. In addition, a number of voices wanted policymakers in Washington D.C. to defend the principles of free trade and sailors' rights from threats abroad. Many stressed the ideological issues that had long defined the struggle for nationhood, which included upholding the prestige of republican institutions as well as preserving the vitality of maritime commerce. Refusing to become “colonists and vassals” again, American leaders dared to challenge the British lion.

The generation that confronted the British lion in 1812 considered their struggle nothing less than a second war for independence. Although the U.S. contained less than 8 million people, the citizen soldiers and sailors tried in vain to match the strength of His Majesty's military. Americans turned their eyes toward Canada, where their armed forces battled against a distracted enemy. They also invaded Indian homelands near the Gulf of Mexico. With the blessings of Congress, the Madison administration directed the Army and the Navy to fight a limited war. The rewards seemed to outweigh the risks, as long as the bulk of British ships and troops stayed in the European theater.

War Hawks

During the first decade of the nineteenth century, the friction between the U.S. and Great Britain pushed them to the brink of war. British impressments of American sailors, encouragement of Indian unrest, and attacks on commercial shipping outraged members of Congress. Frustrated by the Orders in Council, the Madison administration reapplied the principle of non-intercourse and embargoed all trade with the British Empire. As relations with London deteriorated rapidly in 1812, Washington D.C. began to focus on the politics of national defense.

Speaker of the House Henry Clay of Kentucky rose in prominence due in large meas­ure to his advocacy of national defense. Clay and his allies earned the scorn of fellow Republican John Randolph of Virginia, who called them the “War Hawks.” They included Richard Mentor Johnson of Kentucky, Felix Grundy of Tennessee, and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. Anxious to promote continental ambitions, they spoke with passion about defending the American republic against the aggression of the European powers.

During Madison's bid for re-election in 1812, prominent “War Hawks” lobbied the administration to abandon negotiations with the British Empire. They wanted to crush Indian resistance in the northwest while liberating Canada and the Great Lakes from Royal control. Along the Mississippi River, stories circulated about British arms and supplies found at Indian campsites. After the Battle of Tippecanoe, Tecumseh headed to Canada and donned a British uniform. Moreover, a handful of southern politicians wanted to strike Florida, which Britain's ally, Spain, loosely governed. For years, fugitive slaves sought freedom by crossing the border from Georgia and the Mississippi Territory into the Spanish colony. Westerners and southerners in Congress demanded military action against British and Spanish forces in the borderlands, whereas politicians from New England tended to oppose a belligerent policy.

Madison delivered a political bombshell to Congress on March 9, 1812, when he claimed the existence of a British plot to encourage the New England states to secede from the U.S. John Henry, an immigrant fur trader, received a commission from Sir James Craig, the Governor General of Canada, to gather information about Federalist sentiments and machinations. Thanks to the intrigue of French operatives, his intelligence reports ended up in American hands. Madison arranged for Secretary of State James Monroe to purchase them for $50,000. They rehashed arguments that appeared in Federalist newspapers, although the president insisted that Henry amounted to a British agent attempting to foment secession. He considered Henry's reports the “formal proof of the cooperation between the Eastern Junto and the British cabinet.”

After heated debate in Washington D.C., Congress expanded the Army's force structure. New legislation authorized the enlistment of up 35,603 men for five-year terms. Another 15,000 soldiers were permitted to volunteer for an 18-month enlistment. Furthermore, the federal government directed state governors to ready as many as 80,000 militiamen for emergency use by the commander-in-chief. While approximately 5,000 had joined the federal volunteer regiments by June, only 6,744 officers and enlisted personnel served in the regular units. Reliant upon large numbers of amateurs in arms, Secretary of War William Eustis failed to recognize the inherent weaknesses of the militia system.

At the same time, the Navy Department under Secretary Paul Hamilton lacked the fleet strength to counter the Royal Navy. The American fleet consisted of five frigates, seven brigs, three sloops, and 62 coastal gunboats. Approximately 4,000 men served on naval crews, even though many lacked experience at sea. The Marine Corps numbered close to 1,800 men, including seasoned veterans of the Barbary Wars. Instead of undertaking a shipbuilding program, Congress merely authorized the repair of frigates not in use. All serviceable warships concentrated in the port of New York, but most stood little chance against British broadsides. Madison eventually asked William Jones to replace Hamilton, who was seldom sober.

Madison sent a fiery speech to Congress on June 1, 1812, which reviewed “the conduct of Great Britain toward the United States.” Given the custom of the House and the Senate, a clerk read it to the assembled body. He drew particular attention “to the warfare just renewed by the savages on one of our extensive frontiers – a warfare which is known to spare neither age nor sex and to be distinguished by features peculiarly shocking to humanity.” Greeted by cheers from the “War Hawks,” he blamed the Indian insurgency on “constant intercourse with British traders and garrisons” along the northern border. British officials pressured their “red brothers” to rise up and to attack the American people, or so the president believed.

Most of all, Madison refused to tolerate the imposition of the Orders in Council any longer. His call for war denounced the “series of hostile acts” committed by the Royal Navy, adding that “our seafaring citizens” suffered molestations almost daily. Moreover, British ships plundered U.S. vessels freighted with trade goods or coerced them to return to the Atlantic seaboard. “We behold,” concluded the commander-in-chief, “a state of war against the United States.” Accordingly, he asked Congress to “oppose force to force” in defense of American rights, interests, and honor.

Over the next two weeks, Congress debated a declaration of war. Dividing along partisan lines, the House under Clay's leadership voted for war on June 4. With a great deal of political posturing, the Senate approved the declaration on June 18 by a margin of six votes. “Mr. Madison's War,” as critics referred to the conflict, began the following day with a presidential proclamation that “war exists” between Great Britain and the United States.

Whereas the U.S. officially declared war with the historic vote of Congress, the news reached London soon after the government repealed the controversial Orders in Council. A poor grain harvest in England coincided with a need for provisions to resupply British troops, who battled French armies in Spain. Two days before Congress acted, the British Foreign Secretary decided to relax the naval blockade on American shipping but refused to cease the impressment of naval crews. Unfortunately, the Atlantic crossings delayed communications between officials. Later, Madison admitted that the declaration “would have been stayed” if the news of the revisions to British policy had arrived in Washington D.C. before the congressional vote.

With the “dogs of war” unleashed, the British dashed any hopes for negotiating peace during 1812. In a meeting at the State Department, Secretary Monroe laid out American terms to the British ambassador, Augustus A. Foster. He even invited him to stay for tea. Instead, London calculated that the declaration of war represented nothing if not a bluff and soon reauthorized “general reprisals” against the ships, goods, and citizens of the U.S.

On to Canada

With the British embroiled in the Napoleonic Wars, Americans expected to find a vulnerable foe in Canada. Given the light defenses along the northern border, officials in Washington D.C. believed that a quick victory in the War of 1812 was likely. “Canada was not the end but the means,” Clay predicted, by which the U.S. would force “the redress of injuries.” The Madison administration approved forward thrusts beyond Lake Erie into Upper Canada, across the Niagara River toward York, and along Lake Champlain toward Montreal.

Madison gave command of U.S. forces in the northwest to General William Hull, the governor of the Michigan Territory. Commanding three regiments of militia, he bought powder, acquired clothing and blankets, and hired armories for repairing weapons. The 4th U.S. Infantry Regiment joined with several militia units on an overland march. They massed close to 1,800 men at the outset of the war, but the sick list grew rapidly. By July 5, 1812, Hull's command had crossed the Black Swamp of northwest Ohio and arrived at Fort Detroit. A week later, he led them across the Detroit River to commence the invasion of Canada.

Though once a dashing young officer during the American Revolution, the aging Hull appeared slow and timid that summer. Instead of moving directly against the enemy garrison at Fort Malden, he lingered near the river while issuing a proclamation that announced the liberation of Canadians from “tyranny and oppression.” Furthermore, he warned them that anyone “fighting by the side of an Indian” could expect no quarter from American troops. He dispatched small raiding patrols, one of which returned with 200 barrels of flour. While he attempted to strengthen his lines, few Canadians flocked to the American banner.

Meanwhile, the British government issued warnings to interior posts in Canada about the coming of the Americans. At Fort George, General Isaac Brock sent a small party of British regulars, Canadian militia, and Indian auxiliaries to cut Hull's communications with Ohio. The British commander at Fort Malden, General Henry Procter, ordered his men to conduct ambushes across the Detroit River to counter the offensive. Furthermore, Captain Charles Roberts led another red-clad party from Fort St. Joseph to Fort Mackinac, which fell into British hands without the firing of a shot.

By August 7, Hull had decided to withdraw from Canada and to return to Fort Detroit. A week later, Brock set up guns and mortars on the east bank and demanded that Hull surrender his garrison on the west side. He reminded the U.S. commander that the Indians would be “beyond my control the moment the contest commences.” The batteries opened fire, while two provincial warships joined in delivering the bombardment. As Brock and Tecumseh slipped across the Detroit River to risk direct action, Hull suddenly surrendered his entire command to the redcoats. Afterward, Hull was court-martialed for neglect of duty and cowardice, but he received a pardon from Madison. The British victory at Fort Detroit resulted in captivity for hundreds of American prisoners, although most militiamen received a parole to return home.

With the American collapse in the northwest, Indian war parties threatened to capture Fort Dearborn on the Chicago River. Upon orders from Hull, Captain Nathan Heald, the commander, evacuated the outpost on August 15 but marched into an ambush by 500 Potawatomi near Lake Michigan. The next day, Fort Dearborn burned to the ground. Other Indian raids struck Fort Wayne, Fort Harrison, and Fort Madison.

Among the Indians along the Mississippi River, no one expressed more anger toward the Americans than Black Hawk, a Sauk war leader. He declared to his kinsmen that he had not “discovered one good trait in the character of the Americans that had come to the country!” He met with Robert Dickson, a British trader, who actively recruited Indian war parties to the British side. British Colonel William McKay, moreover, sent the Sauk 10 kegs of gunpowder. Black Hawk received an officer's commission and began to wage war as far south on the Mississippi as St. Louis.

The British columns and their Indian allies advanced southward to the Maumee River, where they faced Hull's successor, General William Henry Harrison. He responded with a winter campaign to recapture Fort Detroit, but a U.S. detachment fell into enemy hands in the Battle of the River Raisin on January 23, 1813. At Frenchtown, a contingent of Indian warriors massacred more than 50 captured Kentucky militiamen. With the British in control of the Great Lakes, Harrison decided to halt the campaign on the western front and to erect Fort Meigs as a base of operations. Procter's artillery and gunboats fired upon the dirt and log palisades, while Indian auxiliaries moved along the banks of the Maumee. Although eventually driving their foes away, Americans lost more than 200 lives and close to 500 prisoners. Several were beaten to death, as they ran a gauntlet of Indian war clubs and tomahawks. Consequently, Harrison left Fort Meigs under the command of General Green Clay and moved his base to the Sandusky River.

Figure 4.2 The War of 1812


Meanwhile, General Stephen Van Rensselaer commanded an invading force of nearly 5,000 regulars and militiamen along the Niagara River. On October 10, 1812, he sent an advance party across the waterway under heavy rain. Three days later, Lieutenant Colonel Winfield Scott of Virginia conducted an assault on enemy dispositions with 300 men and 13 boats. Although they worked their way up the bluffs and attacked Queenston, reinforcements from the New York militia refused to fight on foreign soil. They watched from the east bank of the river, while their outnumbered compatriots began to fall. An observer noted “a considerable number of dead and mangled bodies” ferried back to the American side. In all likelihood, the sights and the sounds of battle unnerved the ill-prepared units. Moreover, General Alexander Smyth, who commanded U.S. regulars at Buffalo, failed to provide support for Van Rensselaer's operation. Facing more than a 1,000 redcoats along the heights, Scott and his men soon surrendered. In the Battle of Queenston Heights, the British killed 90, wounded 150, and captured 958. Van Rensselaer resigned after the battle, as his troops began deserting in droves. Following several aborted attempts to restart the campaign, Smyth, his successor in overall command, decided to release the militia and to abandon the Niagara.

Regardless of his previous experience as Thomas Jefferson's Secretary of War, General Henry Dearborn made little progress in conducting military operations against Montreal. When organizing another campaign that November, his command in Albany endured hardships stemming from poor recruitment, low morale, rampant disease, and dithering officers. Once again, the militia in camp refused to leave New York while settling into winter quarters at Plattsburgh. Aside from minor raids along the St. Lawrence River, the troops under Dearborn remained unengaged during the first year of the war.

In early 1813, John Armstrong became the Secretary of War and persuaded Dearborn to move against Canada. Instead of moving toward Kingston, Dearborn resolved to assail the more vulnerable York. Escorted by Commodore Isaac Chauncey across Lake Ontario, General Zebulon Pike and a force of 1,700 men captured the provincial capital on April 27. However, Pike died in an explosion of a powder magazine. U.S. forces sustained 320 casualties in the operation, but the British counted far fewer losses among their ranks. After looting several private homes, American troops torched the public buildings. A week later, Dearborn ordered them to return to New York.

Following his parole from British captivity, Scott joined Dearborn in New York that spring. A full colonel now, he assumed command of the 2nd Artillery Regiment and served as adjutant general to Dearborn. On May 27, he personally led an amphibious assault against Fort George on the western side of the Niagara River. The Americans suffered 59 casualties in the ensuing fight, but the British lost 52 dead and 300 wounded. With Fort George in American hands, more clashes followed at Stony Creek and Beaver Dams. Their momentum slowed, however, as Scott recovered from a broken collarbone. Dearborn failed to pursue British forces on the peninsula because of his ailing health, which prompted Armstrong finally to relieve him of his command and to send him into retirement.

The British struck U.S. forces at Sackets Harbor on May 28, when General Jacob J. Brown of the New York militia took command of the American garrison. Once the enemy landed on Horse Island, the Albany Volunteers began to falter. They engaged in a fighting retreat to Fort Tompkins the next day. From the palisades and the barracks, they delivered several volleys upon the advancing British troops of Sir George Prévost, the Governor General of Canada. Brown successfully rallied his men, holding the position for nearly two hours. With heavy losses, Prévost ordered a hasty withdrawal. Claiming victory, Brown reported 21 dead and 85 wounded in the Battle of Sackets Harbor. For his stalwart leadership in combat, he received a regular commission as a brigadier general in the Army.

Even though the cries of “On to Canada” continued to resound in the U.S., the Army achieved almost nothing with the first campaigns on foreign soil. The operations moved slowly and the militia performed poorly, while the inertia of commanders made the modest strategic and tactical gains on the ground meaningless. To be sure, inexperienced officers began to learn lessons from the battlefield that they intended to apply to military actions going forward. Nevertheless, the incompetence of the American offensives reinforced the view across the Atlantic Ocean that they lacked the prowess of a worthy opponent in war.

Naval Duels

Though outgunned and outclassed by the Royal Navy overall, the U.S. Navy heralded the achievements of durable warships. While a few provided harbor defense along the Atlantic seaboard, others dispersed and sailed alone in search of battle with more than 1,000 vessels flying the British flag. The Navy Department concentrated maritime efforts upon building a squadron to operate on the Great Lakes, because control of the interior waters supported offensives against Canada. To the astonishment of the world, American victories in several engagements defied the dominance of the Royal Navy.

Eager to confront the Royal Navy, Commodore John Rodgers departed New York with a small squadron led by the U.S.S. President. On June 23, 1812, he encountered H.M.S. Belvidera en route to Halifax. He directed his flagship to pursue the British frigate, while exchanging a number of rounds in the first naval duel of the war. However, the Belvidera lightened its load and escaped capture. The crew on board the President sustained 22 casualties, including a wounded Rodgers. He endeavored to pursue a British convoy for weeks but eventually decided to turn south toward the Canary Islands. Departing from Halifax, British warships sailed to New York in a futile attempt to intercept Rodgers upon his return.

The British captured a U.S. brig off the shores of New Jersey, but they soon faced the U.S.S. Constitution – a wooden-hulled, three-masted heavy frigate carrying more than 44 guns. Adorned with 72 different sails, the masterful design blended speed, firepower, and durability into a warship that proved nearly unbeatable. She famously escaped from a British squadron after a 57-hour chase and defeated British warships in spectacular clashes, including two on one day. With an oak hull measuring 2 feet in thickness, theConstitution carried a large complement of heavy 24-pounder guns as well as a seasoned crew of 400 men.

On August 19, 1812, the Constitution's commanding officer, Captain Isaac Hull, spied H.M.S. Guerriere off the coast of Nova Scotia. He pressed sail to get his vessel alongside the smaller British frigate. Holding his guns in check, he closed to 25 yards before ordering a full broadside that included cannonballs and grapeshot canisters. During repeated collisions, the Guerriere's bowsprit became entangled with the Constitution's rigging. When they pulled apart, the force of extraction damaged the Guerriere's rigging. Her foremast collapsed, taking the mainmast down in a crash. In less than a half-hour, the British Commander James Dacres surrendered his wreck. The Americans sustained seven deaths in the battle, while the number of British dead reached 15. Hull freed 10 impressed Americans on board the remains of His Majesty's ship. Moses Smith, an American seaman on board the Constitution, claimed that the British shots in the duel hit the hard plank of the wooden hull but “fell out and sank in the waters.” As a result, he shouted with his seafaring compatriots: “Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!” The victory earned the Constitution the nickname, “Old Ironsides.”

Afterward, U.S. warships formed three squadrons to harass British convoys. Rodgers operated in the North Atlantic, while Commodore William Bainbridge and Captain Stephen Decatur commanded the other squadrons in the South Atlantic and the Azores, respectively. The operational capabilities of American-built frigates such as the Constitution and the United States surprised the experienced officers of the Royal Navy, which held a nearly flawless record in naval warfare against the French over the previous 20 years. On October 25, 1812, Decatur captured the light British frigate named H.M.S. Macedonian. Two months later, Bainbridge hammered H.M.S. Java before returning to Boston. Though encountering only a handful of ships, Americans on the high seas dared their British rivals to fight them.

After a string of stunning defeats, Great Britain finally won a duel with an American frigate on June 1, 1813. While commanding the U.S.S. Chesapeake, Captain James Lawrence met H.M.S. Shannon commanded by Captain Sir Philip Broke in full daylight. As the two vessels sailed broadside to broadside only 40 yards apart, the British gunners swept the American quarterdeck with a deadly shelling. With Lawrence mortally wounded, the Chesapeake drifted without direction into the Shannon. In the chaos of battle, the fluke of the latter's anchor caught the former. Broke quickly boarded to claim his prize, but Lieutenant George Budd rallied the Americans below deck for a counterattack. Though fighting desperately under the banner “Free Trade and Sailors' Rights,” their spirited resistance collapsed in only 15 minutes. The Americans reported 62 dead, while the British lost 43. In sum, the casualties on board the two ships totaled 228 men. As the victors added the Chesapeake to the Royal Navy, the forlorn Lawrence uttered his last command before expiring: “Don't give up the ship.”

With the establishment of the North American Naval Station, the Royal Navy pressed the blockade and effectively controlled the Atlantic Coast. Nevertheless, Captain David Porter sailed the U.S.S. Essex around Cape Horn during 1813 and seized British whalers in the Pacific Ocean. Outbursts by American privateers occasionally struck British vessels, but the “militia of the sea” preferred to avoid battle while engaging in what amounted to legalized piracy. Accordingly, the commissioned sloops claimed 1,300 prizes by priva­teering during the war. Large numbers of volunteer seamen flocked to privateer service, which confounded naval officers attempting to man the U.S. warships.

Across the Great Lakes of North America, naval officers waged a battle in the shipyards as well as on the waves. During 1813, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry supervised the construction of an American squadron at Presque Isle on Lake Erie. He honored his fallen friend by naming one of the brigs the U.S.S. Lawrence, which flew a blue ensign with his last command in bold white letters: “Don't give up the ship.” The brig weighed about 500 tons and carried two masts, while the 20 guns proved effective at close range. In addition to completing construction on another brig, the U.S.S. Niagara, he hastily built three schooner-rigged gunboats. By summer, he had welcomed the timely arrival of a captured brig, three schooners, and a sloop to Presque Isle Bay. Moreover, he assembled a makeshift crew from the castoffs and misfits that trickled inland from the eastern seaports. Employing an innovative system of lifts devised by Noah Brown, a shipwright, Perry and his recruits pushed the untested vessels over the sandy bar and into the lake waters that August.

On September 10, Perry's squadron of nine sailed near Put-in-Bay to challenge a British squadron of six under Commander Robert H. Barclay. The duel on Lake Erie involved ship-to-ship broadsides, but the shifting winds gave credence to a sailor's legend about “Perry's luck.” Two British ships, H.M.S. Detroit and H.M.S. Queen Charlotte, raked Perry's flagship for an hour. Under the command of Lieutenant Jesse Duncan Elliott, the Niagara remained strangely aloof. When the last gun on the Lawrence became unusable, Perry draped the blue ensign over his arm and steered a rowboat a half-mile through intense gunfire to the Niagara. Once aboard, he renewed his attack with courage and decisiveness. After Barclay's lead vessels became entangled during a clumsy maneuver, America's “Wilderness Commodore” poured grape, round, canister, and chain shot upon them. Hence, the entire squadron of the Royal Navy surrendered that day. The British counted 40 killed in action, while the Americans suffered 27 deaths – almost all of them aboard the Lawrence. Perry noted the outcome in a brief dispatch to U.S. forces gathered at the Sandusky, which read: “We have met the enemy, and they are ours.”

The Battle of Lake Erie marked a turning point in the war, because it gave U.S. forces control over the waterway. The heartening news about the naval duels cheered the nation, although the prize of Canada remained in British hands. Even if the Royal Navy still ruled the high seas, Perry's ensign with Lawrence's motto inspired generations of American midshipmen.

Tough as Hickory

At the age of 45, General Andrew Jackson of the Tennessee militia wanted to command an army in 1812. Previously, he had served terms in the House of Representatives and in the Senate. He had acquired land, practiced law, and fought duels, but knew little about military campaigning. Outraged by British tyranny, he issued a public call for the young men of Tennessee to accompany him on “a march across the continent.”

After Congress declared war on Great Britain, the War Department asked Tennessee Governor Willie Blount to defend the southern coastline. He raised a force of 2,000 volunteers and placed them under Jackson's command. Promising to reach “the ramparts of Mobile, Pensacola, and Fort St. Augustine,” the commander set out with the infantry on January 7, 1813. Leading the cavalry, General John R. Coffee joined him at Natchez on the Mississippi River. If British forces took military action along the Gulf of Mexico, then Jackson's army stood ready to block any operations from Florida to Louisiana. With congressional approval, General James Wilkinson at New Orleans moved his troops into West Florida that spring. Given Wilkinson's prompt maneuvering to occupy Mobile, Jackson received orders to disband his force and to return to Nashville.

Despite the aborted campaign, the arduous march through the wilderness established Jackson's reputation as a military leader. He drew from his personal funds to acquire provisions for the volunteers during their journey home. Soldiers under his command said that he was “tough as hickory,” which inspired Jackson's nickname for the rest of his life.

While contemplating his next move in Nashville, Jackson received a challenge to a duel from Jessie Benton and Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Hart Benton. The latter Benton served as Jackson's aide-de-camp but chose to risk insubordination by seconding his brother's challenge. Seconded by Coffee, Jackson eventually exchanged shots with the Bentons at the City Hotel. After receiving a terrible wound, the general refused to allow the surgeons to remove his shattered arm. Jackson kept the arm and the bullet, but the Bentons left Tennessee for the Missouri Territory afterward.

As Jackson convalesced, he received word that a faction of the Muskogee Creek threatened American settlements along the Tombigbee River north of Mobile. Influenced by Tecumseh's plans for a pan-Indian confederacy, the Red Sticks among the Upper Creek derived their names from carrying crimson-colored war clubs. They aggressively promoted traditional views while fighting a civil war against the Lower Creek. William Weatherford, also known as Red Eagle, was one of their ablest leaders. Peter McQueen, another Red Stick leader, received arms and ammunition from Spanish officials in Pensacola. American settlers skirmished with them in the Battle of Burnt Corn on July 27, 1813. A month later, the Red Sticks attacked Fort Mims on the Alabama River and massacred 553 men, women, and children.

After the Fort Mims massacre, Jackson marched an army of 2,000 volunteers southward into the Mississippi Territory. They attempted to construct Fort Strother along the Coosa River while awaiting the arrival of regulars under General John Floyd. As they tarried, Jackson ordered Coffee to organize a concerted strike on the nearby Creek village of Tallushatchee.

On November 3, Coffee led about 1,000 men to Tallushatchee. Pleased that the village people refused to flee, he divided his force into two columns. They quickly encircled the main compound. Two companies advanced into the center of the circle to draw out the poorly armed warriors, who tried to protect their families. The trap worked, because the Red Sticks broke cover in a desperate charge. Coffee closed the circle on them like an anaconda strangling its prey. Davy Crockett, who served in the Tennessee militia at the time, recalled: “We shot them like dogs.” Before the fighting ended that day, they killed at least 186 Creek and seized another 84 as prisoners. By comparison, Coffee lost only five dead and 41 wounded in the Battle of Tallushatchee.

Less than a week later, Jackson rode to the rescue of a pro-American Creek village at Talladega, 30 miles farther south. American troops encircled the Red Sticks, but Weatherford and 700 warriors escaped. In the Battle of Talladega, the better-armed soldiers left hundreds of Red Sticks dead while absorbing 15 killed in action and 85 wounded. During the frightful campaign of 1813, Jackson's army slaughtered more than 1,000 Creek.

Throughout the winter months, Jackson's army remained near Fort Strother. Reinforced by fresh recruits as well as by Cherokee, Choctaw, and Creek allies, the audacious commander advanced southward that spring with close to 4,000 effectives. The Red Sticks fortified a loop on the Tallapoosa River that they called Tohopeka, where 1,000 warriors protected about 300 women and children. On the morning of March 27, 1814, Jackson ordered his artillery to open fire on the breastworks. During the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, they charged amid a hail of bullets and arrows. Lieutenant Sam Houston of the 39th Infantry Regiment led the way over one barricade of logs but received multiple wounds in the ferocious fighting. The next morning, Jackson counted 557 Creek corpses on the ground and estimated that another 300 floated down the river. Among all of his forces, the casualties amounted to 70 dead and 206 wounded. At the junction of the Tallapoosa and Coosa Rivers, he erected Fort Jackson and threatened further action unless the Creek capitulated. Consequently, the Treaty of Fort Jackson stripped the Creek of half their homeland.

Trumpeting the victories over the Creek, the War Department rewarded Jackson with a commission as a major general in the U.S. Army. He assumed command of the 7th Military District, which included Tennessee, Louisiana, and the Mississippi Territory. At Pensacola and Apalachicola, a British force began to reorganize, to resupply, and to regroup the anti-American Indians in the Gulf. Alarmed by the gathering threats west of the Appalachians, the Missouri Gazette announced: “The general cry is let the north as well as the south be JACKSONIZED!!!”

Border Battles

While Great Britain regarded the war in North America as a sideshow, joint operations by U.S. forces on the Great Lakes opened a broad front during 1813. However, the lack of military action east of Lake Erie left American outposts along the northern border on the defensive. British forces raided along Lake Champlain, where they hit Plattsburgh and unsettled New Yorkers. Congress approved 20 additional regiments for one year of service in the Army, but the War Department found few recruits ready to march into battle.

With Lake Erie in American hands, Commodore Perry paved the way for U.S. commanders to restart the offensive into Canada. Over the summer of 1813, Harrison organized 5,500 regulars and militia into the Army of the Northwest. Major George Croghan successfully defended Fort Stephenson from an assault by Procter's troops, although Tecumseh and his warriors continued raiding in the woodlands. Procter decided to withdraw to the Thames River, which allowed Harrison to take Fort Malden unopposed. Consequently, a regiment of mounted Kentucky riflemen under Colonel Richard Mentor Johnson secured Fort Detroit. With the British abandoning their “red brothers” around Lake Erie, Harrison led the Army northward.

On the morning of October 5, Harrison made contact with Procter on the banks of the Thames River, just over a mile west of Moraviantown. British forces numbered about 2,900, though only a third were regulars. Tecumseh positioned his warriors on the right, forming a line slanting forward. Instead of advancing with infantry in the traditional line against line fashion, Harrison ordered a mounted attack. “The American backwoodsmen,” he opined, “ride better in the woods than any other people.” In fact, Johnson's Kentuckians rushed the Indians while shouting “Remember the River Raisin!” Unable to withstand the fast and furious assaults, the British surrendered in droves. Procter fled from another field of battle, while the Americans routed his remaining forces in less than an hour. In the Battle of the Thames, American losses amounted to 15 killed and 30 wounded. They mauled their enemies in the swamp, where Tecumseh fell among the dead.

The decisive victory not only shattered Tecumseh's confederacy but also elevated Harrison's reputation. His bridgehead extended some 50 miles into Canada, but he made no effort to pursue Procter any further. The autumn weather made the Canadian roads difficult for the transportation of supplies overland, while many of the Kentuckians went home to prepare for the coming winter. With the Indians chastened and the British humiliated, Harrison returned to Fort Detroit.

Leaving Harrison in command of the northwestern outposts, Secretary Armstrong sent most of his troops to Sackets Harbor. To command operations along the St. Lawrence from Lake Ontario, he tapped Wilkinson because of his seniority. He also appointed General Wade Hampton, a wealthy South Carolina planter and Revolutionary War veteran, to command along Lake Champlain. The former decided to bypass Kingston and to join with the latter in a two-pronged attack on Montreal. Unfortunately, the two commanders despised each other and refused to coordinate their campaigns.

Hampton's campaign turned into a farce, because of the incongruence between the objective of capturing Montreal and the capabilities of his troops. Once again, the New York militia refused to cross the border into Canada. Given a multitude of logistical problems, Hampton left Plattsburgh with no more than 4,000 soldiers. On October 26, a smaller British force repulsed them during the Battle of the Châteauguay. American casualties numbered around 50, while the Canadians lost no more than 25. Afterward, Hampton ordered a retreat to his base of operations and resigned from military service.

While Hampton floundered near the St. Lawrence, Wilkinson's 6,000 troops moved downriver in no condition to fight. Suffering from several ailments, the commander consumed large quantities of laudanum – essentially opium – that left him with “a giddy head.” On November 11, Wilkinson sent General John P. Boyd on an attack against smaller British and Canadian units to his rear. After absorbing several volleys, Boyd's larger force faltered in the Battle of Chrysler's Farm. The Americans suffered 102 killed in action and another 237 wounded. Nevertheless, they pressed onward to the mouth of the Salmon River before establishing a winter camp at French Mills. With supplies nearly exhausted, they suffered for months from disease, hunger, and cold. The only attacks Wilkinson launched thereafter appeared in correspondence, which heaped blame on Hampton for their border fiascos.

By the end of the year, American troops had abandoned the outposts along the border. Upon evacuating Fort George, they burned the Canadian village of Newark and parts of Queenston. Seeking revenge, British forces captured Fort Niagara on the U.S. side of the river. After dispersing the local militia, red-clad soldiers and Indian auxiliaries burned Lewiston, Black Rock, and Buffalo to the ground. The viciousness of the fighting prompted the London Times to denounce the Americans as “savages” in early 1814, “for such they are, in a much truer sense, than the followers of Tecumseh or the Prophet.”

Jefferson continued urging the Madison administration to “stop Indian barbarities” from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River, but political opposition to the war spread. With the nation essentially bankrupt, Congress authorized the Treasury Department to finance military campaigns through increased borrowing and internal taxes. At the State Department, Monroe insisted that all future strategic initiatives required approval by the entire cabinet. However, the War Department lacked a staff capable of planning, organizing, and coordinating an offensive operation on a large scale. Armstrong began to purge the senior leadership of the Army while elevating junior officers to command.

Among the brigade commanders of Brown's Left Division, Scott – now a brigadier general – organized a “camp of instruction” near Buffalo. He trained the regiments more than 10 hours a day for three months, drilling them on tactics and formations. Frequent parades nurtured their sense of pride and proficiency. With an emphasis on what he called “police,” he intended to keep the Army strong through strict sanitation and proper rations. “The men are healthy, sober, cheerful, and docile,” he boasted. The regulars exhibited better morale, while the surgeons noted that discipline seemed to exorcise “the demon diarrhea.” Because the standard blue uniform was unavailable, the commissary issued short gray jackets to them. According to tradition, the cadets at West Point later adopted the uniform color to honor Scott's “Grays.”

In the summer of 1814, Scott led his brigade across the Niagara River to begin another campaign. Joining other brigades on the Canadian shore, U.S. forces swiftly captured Fort Erie. General Phineas Riall, the British commander at Fort George, organized a defensive line along the Chippawa River. As Scott hurried his troops across a bridge on Street Creek, British artillery pounded them. The Americans continued to advance with precision, which prompted Riall to utter: “Those are regulars, by God!” With over 1,000 soldiers massing on each side, the lines came together on July 5. During the Battle of Chippawa, the British retreated while taking heavy losses. The Americans suffered 44 killed in action in addition to 224 wounded. At Chippawa, U.S. regiments demonstrated newfound capabilities to maneuver under fire without breaking ranks.

Brown sent regiments from Chippawa to Queenston Heights, but Riall formed a new defensive line on Lundy's Lane running west from Portage Road. Because Commodore Chauncey refused to assist with the transportation of troops, Scott's brigade marched directly into another battle. While the British amassed over 3,000 in the field, the Americans reinforced their advance with a total of 2,000 men. On July 25, the Battle of Lundy's Lane raged into the night. Lieutenant Colonel James Miller of the 21st Infantry Regiment received an order from Brown to storm a British artillery battery in a churchyard, to which he replied courageously: “I'll try, sir!” Though successful, he called it “one of the most desperately fought actions” of the war. Both Scott and Brown received wounds, as did Riall. American losses reached 173 dead, 571 wounded, 38 missing, and 79 captured. With the British still commanding the field, U.S forces grudgingly withdrew to Fort Erie.

At Fort Erie, a long siege by the British eventually ended with an American evacuation. During a driving rainstorm that August, the opposing sides fought hand-to-hand and toe-to-toe. Sparks from a cannon muzzle ignited a stockpile of gunpowder, which sent bodies flying from the outpost. Whatever the moral victories, Brown's thrust to the falls of Niagara accomplished little more than the previous operations across the northern front.

With only minor engagements by the standards of the Napoleonic Wars, the Niagara campaign constituted America's most complex operation of the period. Unfortunately, U.S. ships did not prevent the British from using Lake Ontario for supply and reinforcements on the shores. U.S. forces found few good roads for wagons and packhorses, which compounded the logistical problems of the border battles. Though unable to achieve any strategic objectives, a new generation of American soldiers began to evolve into an effective combat force.

The British Invasion

With the defeat of Napoleon in 1814, Great Britain began to plan major offensives against the U.S. The new Royal Navy commander in North America, Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, predicted “a complete drubbing” of their foes. With impunity, naval squadrons conducted hit-and-run raids along the Atlantic seaboard. Hearing the roar of the British lion, the Madison administration scrambled to defend the nation from attack.

That summer, Madison sent negotiators to meet with British diplomats in the Flemish city of Ghent. John Quincy Adams, the son of the former president, chaired the American delegation, which included Speaker of the House Clay and former Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin. From the outset, the British demanded that the Americans cede parts of the northern borderlands, abandon fishing rights near Labrador and Newfoundland, remove U.S. ships from the Great Lakes, accept an Indian buffer state west of the Appalachian Mountains, and give up command of the Mississippi River. The negotiations in Ghent stalled, while the British deployed battle-tested regiments to North America.

To gain chips for the bargaining table, the British dispatched 4,000 troops under General Robert Ross to the Chesapeake Bay. In mid-August, the redcoats landed along the Patuxent River and marched toward Washington D.C. Relying mostly upon 5,000 militiamen to defend the capital on August 24, U.S. forces under General William H. Winder met the enemy on a road in Bladensburg, Maryland. Madison watched from a safe distance, because he preferred “leaving the military movement to military men.” Nevertheless, he ordered Commodore Joshua Barney and hundreds of sailors to trundle their heavy guns from the naval yard. Secretary of State Monroe volunteered as a cavalry scout, although he changed the disposition of the defenses without proper authority. Outflanked by the attackers, American losses amounted to 26 killed in action and 51 wounded. Because Ross easily dispersed their lines, observers dubbed the Battle of Bladensburg with a more descriptive name – the “Bladensburg Races.”

With the road from Bladensburg cleared, British troops marched into Washington D.C. that evening. Seeking revenge for the sacking of York, Rear Admiral George Cockburn urged Ross to torch everything. They looted and burned the executive mansion, which some called the White House. Dolly Madison snatched George Washington's portrait as she fled, thereby saving a national treasure from pilferage by the redcoats. As pandemonium spread, officials evacuated the Treasury, State, and War Department as well as Capitol Hill. Public buildings and the naval yard erupted in flames. British officers searched for someone to discuss terms of surrender, but no cabinet member remained in the city. A severe thunderstorm extinguished most of the fires and produced a tornado that forced the British to return to their ships.

Troops on board British frigates plundered supplies from towns along the Potomac River, while Madison remained on the move in the Virginia countryside for nearly four days and nights. He and his wife returned to Washington D.C., although they never again resided in the fire-damaged White House. After the resignation of Armstrong for his failure to defend the capital, Monroe agreed to serve as both the Secretary of State and the Secretary of War.

Meanwhile, Prévost steered 15,000 British veterans and Canadian militiamen southward into New York. General George Izard, the U.S. commander along the Niagara, recognized the nation's exposed defenses and forewarned the War Department to no avail. Moving slowly along the Richelieu River, the redcoats arrived at Plattsburgh in early September. However, they tarried in the field while searching for a ford across the Saranac River. Though overmatched, General Alexander Macomb held the high ground opposite Plattsburgh with a force of about 3,400 Americans. Led by Captain George Downie, a British flotilla on Lake Champlain guarded Prévost's flank and supplied the lines.

The British commanders underestimated Commodore Thomas Macdonough, who constructed a small American fleet on the lake. His 14 vessels included a corvette named the U.S.S. Saratoga in addition to a brig called the U.S.S. Eagle. He anchored them in the deep waters of Plattsburgh Bay, where they waited beyond the range of British guns but in position to protect the American line. The 15 ships of the Royal Navy surpassed the weight of the U.S. vessels, although the latter held an advantage at close range with carronades. The opposing lines battled broadside by broadside on September 11, when the Americans won a decisive victory. Macdonough masterfully exposed his foes to heavy raking and executed anchored maneuvers with his ships to swing and to fire. Downie perished in the Battle of Plattsburgh, while the entire British flotilla was destroyed or captured in a matter of hours. In respect to personnel, the Americans lost 52 killed in action and 58 wounded. Worried about logistics, Prévost ordered a hasty retreat to Canada the next day.

Still expecting Prévost to score a knockout blow in the north, British forces in the Chesapeake sailed toward the port of Baltimore. Landing at North Point, the redcoats faced serious resistance a few miles from the city. Forming an American line largely with militia, General Samuel Smith awaited their advance with 10,000 troops behind earthworks. While fighting the Battle of North Point, Ross suffered a mortal wound on September 12. The British won control of the battlefield outside Baltimore, but both sides suffered hundreds of casualties.

British warships soon bombarded Fort McHenry, which guarded the Baltimore harbor. Major George Armistead, the post commander, lacked the arsenal to match the firepower of the bomb ketches and H.M.S. Erebus. They sailed close enough to fire Congreve rockets and mortar shells at the fortifications, but Armistead refused to capitulate. Four Americans died in the massive bombardment, while another 24 suffered wounds. On the morning of September 14, the British ceased firing and began withdrawing.

Francis Scott Key, a Georgetown lawyer seeking to negotiate the release of a civilian prisoner of war, watched that morning through a telescope from a nearby truce ship. When Key saw the U.S. flag waving, he began to compose a poem of commemoration. Called the “Defence of Fort McHenry,” his words seemed to salvage the pride of a nation on the verge of doom. The final verse proclaimed “conquer we must” in a rhyme with the motto: “In God is our trust.” Long after the British invasion, the lyric became known as “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The British invasion of the Chesapeake ended that fall, even though the war remained far from over. British forces continued to occupy parts of a Massachusetts exclave known as Maine while strangling the commercial interests of the Atlantic seaboard. The sacking of Washington D.C. left the U.S. demoralized, although American leaders quickly recovered and rebuilt the capital. The War Department submitted a plan for military conscription to Congress, but both Republicans and Federalists chafed at the unpopular request. As winter came, the federal government lacked the means to fund the construction of additional warships. Without measures to shore up the defenses, the nation remained vulnerable to more attacks.

New Orleans

London remained optimistic about the next operation of the war, which targeted the Gulf Coast of North America. The Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, Henry Bathurst, urged British commanders to arm the Creek and Seminole Indians in Spanish Florida. Furthermore, they offered freedom to runaway slaves in exchange for enlisting in His Majesty's service. According to Cochrane's southern strategy in 1814, Great Britain intended to wrest territory between the Georgia frontier and the Mississippi River from the U.S.

That summer, Major Edward Nicholls, commander of a British force at Pensacola, launched an unsuccessful expedition against Mobile. American troops under the command of Major William Lawrence defended Fort Bowyer, although British adventurers continued to distribute weapons and supplies in the area. If the insurgency dislodged the Americans from the Alabama River, then the British intended to land a massive army from the West Indies in an extended campaign.

As soon as Jackson learned of British actions in the Gulf, he dispatched reinforcements to Mobile. He assembled 4,100 regulars, militia, and Indians at Fort Montgomery and marched across the Perdido River to Pensacola. On November 7, British ships in the harbor fired their guns at columns led by Coffee. Owing to the element of surprise, the Americans stormed the Spanish town and scattered their opponents in every direction. The Spanish governor waved a white flag, while the British garrison blew up Fort Barrancas and Fort Santa Rosa before leaving. After blocking Cochrane's preferred route for an offensive, Jackson marched most of his men from Pensacola to Mobile.

Jackson received a message from Monroe that confirmed what his spies along the border told him, that is, the British forces in Jamaica were preparing to assault the port of New Orleans. As the British fleet sailed across the Gulf, he hurried his troops overland to the mouth of the Mississippi. He arrived on December 1 and hastily prepared the city's defenses. Despite British offers of land, gold, and rank, the colorful Jean Lafitte encouraged the pirates from the island of Barataria to assist the U.S. commander. Jackson positioned the available artillery to repulse the impending assault and deployed sailors, marines, militia, regulars, volunteers, free blacks, and Choctaw Indians around New Orleans.

A week later, the British approached New Orleans from the east. They captured several American gunboats, though Lieutenant Thomas ap Catesby Jones resisted with his craft on Lake Borgne. Cochrane commenced a difficult ferrying operation, which placed his advance guard ashore at Bayou Bienvenu. On December 23, as many as 1,800 red-clad soldiers seized Villeré plantation in a sweep.

“By the eternal,” Jackson vowed that day, “they shall not sleep on our soil!” He sent a U.S. detachment to attack them after dusk. The U.S.S. Carolina, a 14-gun schooner, opened fire, while Coffee led a brigade on the night move. Each side suffered over 200 casualties in the 3-hour fight, but the British line held. A few days later, the British artillery knocked out the Carolina. Even though the Americans withdrew to a defensive position along the Rodriguez Canal, they kept the British over 7 miles away from New Orleans.

While the forces converged outside New Orleans, Federalists from New England states organized a convention in Hartford, Connecticut. That winter, they proposed several constitutional amendments for reducing the power of the federal government to make war. Instead of rallying to the Stars and Stripes, they threatened possible secession from the Union.

At the same time, the negotiations in Ghent continued. British demands for U.S. territorial concessions and an Indian buffer state softened, while Americans dropped their efforts to remedy impressments. Finally, they agreed to end the war by restoring the status quo antebellum. With neither side winning, any lingering disputes would be referred to joint commissions for further discussion. Both delegations signed the Treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814, although the news traveled slowly across the Atlantic.

Arriving at the Mississippi on Christmas Day, General Sir Edward Pakenham, the brother-in-law of the Duke of Wellington, took command of the redcoats. He found them disposed between the east bank and a cypress swamp. As the year ended, they numbered close to 10,000. They pressed forward in a series of battles, pausing while the British artillery targeted Jackson's defenses.

Figure 4.3 General Andrew Jackson, after Thomas Sully (1783–1872). Private collection/Peter Newark American Pictures/The Bridgeman Art Library


Jackson placed New Orleans under martial law, while he focused upon improving his dispositions at the Rodriguez Canal. Stretching for a half-mile on the east bank, Line Jackson featured earthworks raised high enough to require scaling ladders for an enemy assault. On the other side of the river, he ordered the placement of cannons and troops for delivering raking fire in front of his mud ramparts. Accordingly, Commodore Daniel T. Patterson and General David Morgan established defensive positions on the west bank. More than 4,000 Americans lined the embankments, though Pakenham disregarded the “dirty shirts” as nothing more than “snipe and rabbit hunters beating the bushes for game.”

In the waking hours of January 8, 1815, Pakenham directed a two-pronged advance along each side of the Mississippi. While part of his command hit U.S. forces across the river, he directly led the primary assault against Jackson's main corps. Through the morning fog, nearly 3,000 redcoats encountered a barrage of artillery shells, grapeshot canisters, and volley fire on the Chalmette plain. Coffee fired from the left flank, while an assortment of pirates, militia, and volunteers fired from the right flank. Troops hailing from Tennessee and Kentucky blasted the opposite lines from the center. Although the west bank fell to the British, the Americans on the east bank never faltered. By 8:30 a.m. Pakenham had perished, along with many veterans of the Napoleonic Wars. “It was like a sea of red,” observed a Kentucky rifleman, who saw bodies covering the ground for almost 300 yards. In the final tally, the British lost more than 2,000 killed and wounded. In contrast, the Americans suffered only 13 deaths. The lopsided victory in the Battle of New Orleans made Jackson a national hero.

Within weeks of Jackson's victory, the British withdrew their troops from the Mississippi River. Cochrane headed east along the Gulf Coast and entered Mobile Bay in early February. The Royal Navy assailed the American garrison at Fort Bowyer, where almost 1,000 of His Majesty's soldiers came ashore. However, the news from Ghent halted the pointless action. U.S. warships still confronted British vessels on the high seas, while regular and militia units near St. Louis fought the last land battle against Black Hawk's warriors in a sinkhole. Both sides found it difficult to get word to all of their forces to end hostilities immediately, because they operated from the Sunda Strait to the Mississippi River.

The War of 1812 officially ended on February 16, 1815, when the Senate ratified the Treaty of Ghent without a dissenting vote. As Republican orators in Congress recounted the Battle of New Orleans, Federalist critics of the commander-in-chief fell silent. Immediately, Madison declared his war “a success” and celebrated the “valor of the military and naval forces of the country.”


Narrowly escaping disunion and dismemberment, the U.S. survived dark days during the War of 1812. Americans in uniform failed to conquer Canada, which remained loyal to the British Empire. The initial offensives along the northern border amounted to exercises in futility, while the naval actions on the Atlantic Ocean merely harassed British warships. An American victory on Lake Erie, however, opened the door for additional thrusts northward. Clashes from the Thames River to Horseshoe Bend foreclosed pan-Indian efforts to form a confederacy in the continental interior. The defeat of the Royal Army and Navy on Lake Champlain undermined London's plans to occupy parts of the East Coast. A military stalemate at Fort McHenry forced both sides to negotiate a treaty in Ghent, even as Jackson's triumph in New Orleans came at the close of hostilities. Throughout the armed conflict with Great Britain, the American military waged a limited war without clear objectives or widespread support.

Unprepared for the strategic challenges of Napoleonic warfare, the American military attained none of Madison's original aims. The state militia performed their duties well at times, but all too often the rank and file demonstrated the worst aspects of amateurs in arms. American troops boasted of their reputation as marksmen in the field, although rifle fire did not play a major role in most battles. Nevertheless, a cadre of Army regulars gained special prowess in command, gunnery, and engineering. Though ineptitude abounded, a handful of citizen soldiers and sailors improved their martial skills with training and experience. The Navy reclaimed national honor and achieved extraordinary results while battling adversaries on the waters. Confronting the greatest naval power in the world brought fame to American warships, but maritime operations never broke the British blockade. By 1815, the United States and Great Britain made peace without settling the disputes that initially induced the declaration of war.

While exacting a high price in American blood and treasure, the war amounted to a draw. The total number of personnel serving in the Army exceeded 528,000, although they represented less than 7 percent of the U.S. population. Only 57,000 of them served as regulars, whereas the bulk wore uniforms as volunteers, militia, and rangers. Another 20,000 saw action in the Navy and the Marine Corps. Other seamen fought the British as privateers, even if scores cowed at the sight of His Majesty's flag. Overall, the official figures for casualties indicated that U.S. forces lost 2,260 killed and 4,505 wounded. As many as 17,000 more perished from diseases such as dysentery, typhoid, pneumonia, malaria, measles, typhus, and smallpox. To replace the losses, Congress even debated a law for national conscription. Wartime expenses totaled $158 million, which the federal government financed through borrowing. Ironically, the interruption of trans-Atlantic shipping during the war encouraged the growth of domestic manufacturing.

With peace at hand, the affirmation of national identity influenced the way the American people remembered the war. Euphoria enhanced the sense of an imagined community, even if the battles on land and at sea brought great sorrow. Parades of returning veterans in cities and towns overshadowed the ghastly scenes of Washington D.C. in blackened ruins. Local newspapers celebrated the bloody campaigns against the Indians, who lost ground from the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes. Mindful of the persistent dangers to the American republic, politicians across the country committed themselves to an enlarged task of improving security thereafter. Many found their inspiration in a wool and cotton emblem that measured 30 by 42 feet. The U.S. commander at Fort McHenry waved the large garrison flag on a September morn, because “the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance.” As a sign of national resolve, the Star-Spangled Banner later became a treasured artifact of “Mr. Madison's War.”

Essential Questions

1 What were Madison's aims in the War of 1812?

2 Why did military operations in Canada fail so miserably?

3 To what extent did U.S. commanders on land and at sea learn lessons from their wartime experiences?

Suggested Readings

Barbuto, Richard V. Niagara 1814: America Invades Canada. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000.

Borneman, Walter. 1812: The War that Forged a Nation. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.

Daughan, George C. 1812: The Navy's War. New York: Basic Books, 2011.

Elting, John R. Amateurs to Arms! A Military History of the War of 1812. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 1991.

Hickey, Donald R. Don't Give Up the Ship! Myths of the War of 1812. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006.

Hickey, Donald R. The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.

Horseman, Reginald. The War of 1812. New York: Knopf, 1969.

Latimer, Jon. 1812: War with America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Nichols, Roger L. Black Hawk and the Warrior's Path. Arlington Heights, IL: Harlan Davidson, 1992.

Owsley, Frank L. Struggle for the Gulf Borderlands: The Creek War and the Battle of New Orleans, 1812–1815. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1981.

Quimby, Robert S. The U.S. Army in the War of 1812: An Operational and Command Study. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1997.

Remini, Robert V. The Battle of New Orleans: Andrew Jackson and America's First Military Victory. New York: Viking Press, 1999.

Skeen, C. Edward. Citizen Soldiers in the War of 1812. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999.

Stagg, J. C. A. Mr. Madison's War: Politics, Diplomacy, and Warfare in the Early American Republic, 1783–1830. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Sugden, John. Tecumseh: A Life. New York: Henry Holt, 1997.

Taylor, Alan. The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, and Indian Allies. New York: Knopf, 2010.

Watts, Stephen. The Republic Reborn: War and the Making of Liberal America, 1790–1820. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

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