War of 1812 Overview

The War of 1812 was fought between the United States and Great Britain from the summer of 1812 to the spring of 1815. The main land fighting of the war occurred along the Canadian border, the Gulf of Mexico and Chesapeake Bay. There was also extensive action on America's Atlantic seaboard. This breakdown of the War of 1812 is divided into three major sections: Causes, Major Events and Conclusion. The Major Events section is broken up by regions, "Canada and the Great Lakes," the "Atlantic Seaboard and USS Constitution," and the Gulf of Mexico and the Battle of New Orleans." This overview attempts to give a brief synopsis of the conflict, however, it is not a complete guide to the War of 1812. Please visit our suggested Timeline and Additional Resources for more information.

Major Events
Additional Resources


Young America
At the beginning of the 19th century, the United States was a developing nation of 15 states. Although twenty years had passed since the end of the American Revolution, the country had not yet achieved economic independence. At the time, the French Empire, ruled by Napoleon Bonaparte, controlled most of mainland Europe. French armies had conquered everything in their path. Great Britain was among the last European nations free from French domination. With trade suspended between the warring countries, neutral America had a commercial advantage: her merchants could supply both sides.

Impressment of American Sailors
Closely entwined with questions about the rights of neutrals to trade with Europe, the British practice of impressing seamen stands as one of the central grievances leading up to the War of 1812. Americans considered it an infringement on their national sovereignty. Since 1664, the British Royal Navy had been allowed to forcibly take seamen between the ages of 18 and 45 from seaports and ships at sea to serve in the fleet. Although frequently challenged in British courts as unconstitutional, the right was upheld as vital to the strength of the navy and by extension, the realm itself. As the Royal Navy mobilized to meet the French threat in 1793, its manpower needs quickly multiplied. By 1800, the Royal Navy faced critical shortages of trained seaman. One way for captains to augment their crews was to "press" seamen from merchant vessels. British ships were most vulnerable to this, and often vessels returning home from foreign voyages would be stopped in the English Channel and the crews pressed into service. Had the Royal Navy contented itself with only taking men from British ships, it would not have come into conflict with the United States. In theory, British officers could only take British citizens from foreign ships. The problem was, not everyone agreed on what it meant to be "British." The Orders in Council of October 16, 1807 asserted the right of the British crown to claim British born men as subjects, regardless of where they resided. The United States, on the other hand, recognized that many men born in Great Britain were now naturalized citizens, and were therefore under the protection of the American flag. At the same time, there was little to distinguish a native-born American from a person born in Britain. Language, accent, and dress were similar enough to make it difficult to distinguish one from the other. By 1811, the Royal Navy had impressed at least 6,000 mariners who claimed to be citizens of the United States. This figure may be too low, since many seamen would never have the opportunity to contact the authorities (usually American consuls in foreign ports, who kept track of such complaints).

Chesapeake-Leopard Affair
The Chesapeake-Leopard Affair is often remembered as the most important impressment case and directly led to war. In 1807, the British warship HMS Leopard stopped the American warship USS Chesapeake inside American territorial waters. When the American captain refused the British request to board, the British fired into the Chesapeake, boarded it, and removed four seamen whom the British captain claimed were deserters. Although the British apologized, they did not end their stop and search practices. In retaliation President Thomas Jefferson and Congress passed the Embargo Act, banning all American ships from trading with foreign nations. The embargo failed to change British and French policies, however; and instead devastated New England shipping. Other economic measures also unsuccessfully tried to calm the turbulent political waters between Great Britain, France and the United States before the declaration of war.

United States Expansionism and the "War Hawks"
According to the Treaty of Paris of 1783, Great Britain was supposed to surrender its outposts on the northern frontiers of the new United States. By the 1790s, Britain had not yet given up these posts. Nevertheless, American settlers streamed into the western territories. In 1810, a number of young, ambitious politicians from the southern and western United States were elected to Congress. Called the "War Hawks," these men were focused on expanding the nation's western borders. Many Americans believed that British representatives in Canada were encouraging the native tribes in these regions to attack American settlers. The British had a longstanding goal of establishing a "neutral Indian state" that would comprise much of what is now Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana. Americans saw the formation of such a state as a particular threat not only to existing settlements in the northwest, but also as an impediment to westward expansion. These fears were heightened by conflict in 1808-1811 with the tribal confederacy organized by the Shawnee leader Tecumseh.

Declaration of War
On June 1, 1812, President James Madison sent a message to Congress that outlined all the British offenses against America and its citizens. On June 18, 1812 Congress declared war on Great Britain. The "War Hawks" thought this was the only way to convince the British to address America's maritime grievances and restore national honor. Congress adjourned without addressing the need for additional support for the Navy, however; and American troops went to war unprepared and underfunded. The war was not popular, especially in New England. Federalists criticized the war, and some merchants along the coast and the Canadian border put profits ahead of patriotism. Those who supported the war expected it to be short, and it was believed a rapid advance into Canada would bring a swift victory for American arms. The British were far superior in naval power, however; and American crews lacked experience. At the beginning of hostilities, the United States Navy had only fourteen ships in fighting condition, while the Royal Navy could boast nearly 900. British seamen had been fighting the French for 20 years. British officers felt confident that they could defeat anything the small American navy could send against them. British Captain James Richard Dacres, commander of HMS Guerriere, even sent a letter saying he would "be very happy to meet ... any ... American frigate ... for the purpose of having a few minutes tête-à-tête"- an open invitation to fight!


The War of 1812's major events took place along the United States and Canadian border (including the Great Lakes), the Atlantic seaboard of the United States, the Gulf of Mexico and Chesapeake Bay. The war was fought on both the sea and land.

Canada and Great Lakes

British North America/United States Border
The United States' plan to conquer Canada called for a three-pronged offensive: from Lake Champlain to Montreal; across the Niagara frontier; and into Upper Canada from Detroit. The attacks were uncoordinated, however; and all failed. General William Hull surrendered Fort Detroit to the British in August 1812; on the Niagara frontier, American troops lost the Battle of Queenstown Heights in October. Along Lake Champlain, American forces withdrew in late November without seriously engaging the enemy.

Battle of Lake Erie and Oliver Hazard Perry
The Americans won control of the Detroit frontier region when American Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry's ships destroyed the British Lake Erie fleet on September 10, 1813. This victory forced the British to retreat eastward from the Detroit region, and on October 5, they were overtaken and defeated at the battle of the Thames (Moraviantown) by an American army under the command of General William Henry Harrison. Nearly all the British troops were captured and Tecumseh, the great Native American leader, was killed.

Plattsburgh, New York
In August 1814, a British army of 10,000 veterans under the command of General George Prevost advanced into the United States from Montreal by way of the Lake Champlain corridor. If they could sweep aside American defenses there, it would be easy to sail down the Hudson River and attack New York City. Prevost's troops quickly dispatched American land forces sent to block his path, but on September 11, 1814, American Captain Thomas Macdonough won the naval battle of Lake Champlain (Plattsburg Bay), destroying the British fleet supporting the invasion. Afraid that his communication and supply lines would be cut, the British general and his army retreated to Canada.

The Atlantic Seaboard and USS Constitution
America's Atlantic seaboard was particularly vulnerable to British attack. Few harbors were strongly fortified, and though many major ports had small gunboats to defend them, these proved largely ineffectual in battle. The British dockyards at Halifax, Nova Scotia and Bermuda served as bases for the Royal Navy's blockade of the American coast and for privateering voyages against American merchant shipping.

USS Constitution vs. HMS Guerriere
Two months after the declaration of war, Constitution (commanded by Captain Isaac Hull) sailed from Boston to harass British shipping near Halifax. On August 19, 1812, Hull had a "tête-à-tête" with Capt. Richard Dacres and the frigate Guerriere. Constitution approached Guerriere, holding her fire until she was alongside, then fired a devastating broadside. After a few short minutes, Guerriere's masts were shot away and plunged into the sea. With his ship reduced to an unmanageable wreck, Capt. Dacres surrendered. At the height of battle, a sailor saw British shot bounce off Constitution's hull and cried, "Huzza! Her sides are made of iron!" Thus her famous nickname, "Old Ironsides," was born. Constitution sailed home and the people of Boston and the nation, wild with joy and enthusiasm for the victory, treated her officers and crew to parades, theatrical presentations, banquets and special medals.

USS Constitution vs. HMS Java
Captain William Bainbridge assumed command of Constitution in September 1812 and on October 27, the ship sailed for the South Atlantic. Bainbridge's orders were "to annoy the enemy and to afford protection to our commerce." And annoy the enemy he did. On December 29, while the ship cruised off the coast of Brazil, the masthead lookout sighted HMS Java, a 44-gun frigate under the command of Captain Henry Lambert, and she maneuvered to close with Constitution. After a hard fought battle, Constitution emerged victorious and once again the defeated enemy was set on fire and blown up. Constitution returned to Boston on February 15, 1813. News of the victory had arrived six days before, and the city was ready to welcome its conquering heroes. For Bainbridge and his crew there were the same rounds of parties and parades that had greeted Hull. The public was jubilant. In four and a half months, the US Navy had taken three frigates from the Royal Navy (the Constitution two, the USS United States one). When the news reached England, the Admiralty took a series of steps to ensure that no more of their frigates would fall victim to American ships. They issued orders forbidding captains from engaging American frigates one on one.

USS Constitution vs. HMS Cyane and HMS Levant
Constitution underwent a large-scale refit during the first half of 1813. By the time she was ready to sail, several new and powerful ships had augmented the British blockading squadron. Constitution's new captain, Charles Stewart, had no choice but to wait until the onset of winter gales blew the blockaders off station. His opportunity came on the morning of December 18, 1814. Without a British ship in sight, Constitution slipped out to sea. Her course took her to the shipping lanes off Bermuda and then across the Atlantic to the Madeira Islands. It was here on February 20, 1815, that Constitution fought her last engagement of the war. About mid afternoon the ship came up with two British vessels that proved to be HMS Cyane, a 32 gun frigate commanded by Capt. Gordon Falcon, and HMS Levant, an 18 gun sloop-of-war under Capt. the Honorable George Douglass. Both ships were smaller than Constitution, but their combined firepower and maneuverability could have overcome her. What ensued was a deadly ballet, with Constitution swinging back and forth from one opponent to another. Stewart exhibited superb ship handling skills, and despite their two to one superiority, the British ships did not cause much damage. Ironically, by the day of the battle, the war had been over officially for three days. Thanks to a provision in the treaty, however; captures in that latitude at that date were still considered valid, and it would be some weeks still before the victors learned from official channels that hostilities had ceased. Constitution sailed for home, but only after an unfortunate stop at Porta Praia where a British squadron surprised the ship and her prizes. They recaptured Levant, but Constitution and Cyane escaped. After several more diverting adventures, Constitution arrived off New York Harbor on May 15. The war was over, but the people still thronged the waterfront as Constitution dropped anchor and Stewart came ashore.

Coast of Maine
During the summer and fall of 1814, British forces landed in Maine and seized nearly 100 miles of coastline from Penobscot to the St. Croix River. Castine and other towns were occupied by the British for eight months until the end of the war.

Chesapeake Bay
In April 1814, a European coalition defeated Napoleon Bonaparte and the ex-emperor went into exile in Elba. The British, no longer occupied fighting the French, now had large numbers of ships and experienced troops to transfer to America. One of the regions slated for attack was Chesapeake Bay. By sweeping up the bay, British forces could threaten several major American cities, including Baltimore and Washington, D.C. American resistance to the attack was weak and disorganized. The British easily swept aside American resistance at the Battle of Bladensburg and moved on to Washington, D.C.

The Burning of Washington
During the summer of 1814, even as peace talks continued in Europe, a British expedition raided and burned Washington, D.C. They burned the Capitol (destroying the Congressional Library), the White House, and many other public buildings, including the patent office and Supreme Court. Retreating Americans set fire to the Washington Navy Yard in order to prevent the British from capturing it. The invasion forced President James Madison and Congress to leave town. First Lady Dolley Madison, stayed behind long enough to rescue a large portrait of George Washington and other artifacts from the White House.

Fort McHenry and the Star Spangled Banner
After destroying Washington, the British next moved on Baltimore. Standing in their way was Fort McHenry at the entrance to Baltimore Harbor. Faced with this formidable defense, the British fleet began a night bombardment, lobbing hundreds of bombshells and rockets at the fort. The fort's thick ramparts withstood the cannonade, and in the morning, the Americans raised their flag to show that the fort was still theirs. A young American lawyer named Francis Scott Key, who was detained on one of the British ships, wrote a poem about the attack that began "O, say can you see by the dawn's early light?" Key thought his poem should be sung to an English melody called "To Anacreon in Heaven." After the war, the poem and music were united and published first in Philadelphia as the "Star Spangled Banner," which was then played on patriotic occasions. In 1889, the Secretary of the Navy ordered the song played every time the flag was raised. Congress passed a law making the "Star Spangled Banner" the national anthem in 1931.

The Gulf of Mexico and the Battle of New Orleans
Another aim of British military strategy was to capture New Orleans. Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane fitted out a naval flotilla of more than 50 ships to transport 10,000 veteran troops from Jamaica. For protection, the citizens of southern Louisiana looked to Major General Andrew Jackson. Jackson assembled a motley army of US Army regulars, New Orleans militia, freed slaves, Kentucky and Tennessee volunteers, and even members of pirate Jean Lafitte's crew. On January 8, 1815, these 4,000 soldiers, entrenched behind makeshift fortifications four miles down the Mississippi River from New Orleans, faced 7,500 British soldiers. The British launched a fierce frontal assault on the American lines but were repulsed with heavy casualties. Jackson and his ragtag army had won the last major battle of the war and saved New Orleans.


The Treaty of Ghent
Peace negotiations began in Ghent, Belgium in August of 1814. After four months of talks, the treaty was signed on December 24, 1814. Sent to the United States by a swift-sailing vessel, it arrived in New York on February 11. The Senate unanimously ratified it on February 16, 1815. The War of 1812 ended in a stalemate. The treaty returned all territorial conquests made by both sides. It did not address the issue of impressment, one of the major causes of the war. With the downfall of Napoleon and peace in Europe, the Royal Navy no longer needed so many sailors. Indigenous populations in the northwest and southeast were dealt a staggering blow, from which they never recovered. The Federalists, who had adamantly opposed the war, never regained the prominence they once enjoyed, and faded from the American political scene. Despite the inconclusive ending, later-day Americans often regarded the post war period with affection. With the advent of peace came decades of stability, improved diplomatic relations and economic growth, the so-called "Era of Good Feelings." A sense of self-confidence pervaded the nation, and it inspired the western expansionism that characterized the rest of the nineteenth century. The War of 1812 allowed the new nation to break free of its colonial past, and told the nations of Europe that a new player had emerged on the world stage. As British diplomat Augustus J. Foster acknowledged at war's end, "The Americans . . . have brought us to speak of them with respect."

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