Washington Burns, a Nation Is Reborn (1812-1814). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

Washington Burns, a Nation Is Reborn (1812-1814). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

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In this Chapter

Early disasters and the near-collapse of the West.

Naval triumphs and Western victories.

The burning of Washington and the defense of Baltimore.

The Battle of Lake Champlain and the Treaty of Ghent.

Jackson as the “Hero of New Orleans”.

 Late in the summer of 1811, Tecumseh left the Ohio country for the South to expand his alliances to the Chickasaws, Choctaws, and Creeks. Except for a militant Creek faction known as the Red Sticks, these groups wanted no part of Tecumseh’s enterprise. Worse, William Henry Harrison used Tecumseh’s absence to move against Tecumseh’s headquarters at Tippecanoe. Having assembled a ragtag army of 1,000 men—including 350 U.S. regulars, raw Kentucky and Indiana militiamen, and a handful of Delaware and Miami Indian scouts—Harrison attacked outside of Tippecanoe on November 7, 1811. Losses were equally heavy on both sides—about 50 whites and 50 Indians slain, but the battle cost Tecumseh’s followers their headquarters and prompted many of them to desert Tecumseh. Thus the settlers of the West had their first taste of a major fight and a significant victory. Of fighting, they were about to get more than their fill during the next three years. Victories, however, would be very few.

War Hawks Triumphant. The War of 1812 is one of those historical events nobody thinks much about nowadays. But earlier generations of American schoolchildren were taught that it was nothing less than the “second War of Independence,” righteous conflict fought because the British, at war with Napoleon and in need of sailors for the Royal Navy, insisted on boarding U.S. vessels to impress American sailors into His Majesty’s service. Actually, the U.S. declared war on Britain on June 1.9, 1812, three days after the British had agreed to stop impressing seamen. The real cause of the war was not to be found on the ocean, but in the trans-Appalachian West. In Congress, the region was represented by a group of land-hungry “War Hawks,” spearheaded by Representative Henry Clay of Kentucky.

The War Hawks saw war with Britain as an opportunity to gain relief from British-backed hostile Indians and as a chance to gain what was then called Spanish Florida—a “parcel” of land extending from Florida west to the Mississippi River. Spain, which held this land, was allied with Britain against Napoleon. War with Britain, therefore, would mean war with Spain, and victory would mean the acquisition of Spanish Florida, which would complete an unbroken territorial link from the Atlantic, through the recently purchased Louisiana Territory, clear to the Pacific.

The trouble was that President James Madison, elected to his first term in 1808, did not want war. He renewed the diplomatic and economic initiatives Jefferson had introduced, but, facing a tough reelection battle in 181.2, he at last yielded to Clay and the other leading War Hawks, John Calhoun of South Carolina and Kentucky’s Richard Mentor Johnson, President Madison asked a willing Congress for a declaration of war.

Three-Pronged Flop. Since colonial times, Americans shunned large standing armies. Now, having declared war, the country had to fight it—with an army of only 12,000 regular troops scattered over a vast territory. The troops were led by generals, most of whom had achieved their rank not through military prowess but through political connections. As to the nation’s navy, its officers were generally of a higher caliber, but it was a very puny force, especially in comparison with the magnificent fleets of the British. Despite these terrible handicaps, U.S. planners developed a three-pronged invasion of Canada: a penetration from Lake Champlain to Montreal; another across the Niagara frontier; and a third into Upper Canada from Detroit.

The sad fact was that the attacks, thoroughly uncoordinated, all failed.

The Fall of Detroit. The governor of Michigan Territory, William Hull (1753-1825) was nominated to command the American forces north of the Ohio River. A minor hero of the Revolution, Hull was almost 60 years old when he led his forces across the Detroit River into Canada on July 12, 1812. His objective was to take Fort Malden, which guarded the entrance to Lake Erie, but Hull believed himself outnumbered and delayed his assault, thereby providing enough time for the highly capable British commander, Major General Isaac Brock, to bring his regulars into position. While this maneuvering was going on, the American garrison at Fort Michilimackinac, guarding the Mackinac Straits between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, was overrun and surrendered without a fight on July 17. On August 2, Tecumseh chased Hull out of Canada and back to Fort Detroit. Now Brock united his men with Tecumseh’s warriors, and Hull surrendered Fort Detroit and some 1,500 men, without firing a shot, on August 16.

Farther south, just the day before Hull surrendered Detroit, Fort Dearborn (at the site of present-day Chicago) surrendered. As troops and settlers evacuated the fort, Potawatomi Indians attacked, killing 35 men, women, and children, mainly by torture.

Defeat on the Niagara Frontier. New York militia general Stephen Van Rensselaer led 2,270 militiamen and 900 regulars in. an assault on Queenston Heights, Canada, just across the Niagara River. Part of the force, mostly the regulars, got across the river before General Brock, having rushed to Queenston from Detroit, and pinned them down on October 13. The balance of the militia contingent refused to cross the international boundary and stood by as 600 British regulars and 400 Canadian militiamen overwhelmed their comrades.

A No-show in Canada. The principal U.S. force had yet to attack. Major General Henry Dearborn led 5,000 troops, mostly militia, down Lake Champlain and on November 19, was about to cross into Canada. At that point, the militia contingent, asserting its “constitutional rights,” refused. to fight in a foreign country. Dearborn had no choice but to withdraw without seriously engaging the enemy.

The West in Flames. The collapse of Detroit, Fort Dearborn, and the Canadian campaign laid the West open to Indian assault and British invasion. Suffering along the frontier was acute, yet neither the British nor their Indian allies were able to capitalize decisively on their advantages. Although most of the Old Northwest soon fell under Indian control, a coordinated British assault on the region, which might have brought the war to a quick and crashing end, never materialized. Tecumseh was eager to push the fight, but Colonel Henry Proctor, the British commander who had taken over from the slain Brock, was as dull and hesitant as Brock had been brilliant and aggressive. Proctor failed to support Tecumseh.

Proctor’s hesitation bought U.S. general William Henry Harrison time to mount counterattacks. As 1812 drew to a close, Harrison destroyed villages of the Miami Indians near Fort Wayne (despite the fact that Miamis were noncombatants), and he raided what amounted to Indian refugee camps near present-day Peru, Indiana. In January, Harrison moved against Fort Malden, advancing across a frozen Lake Erie. But he suffered a stunning defeat on January 21 at the hands of Procter and a contingent of Red Stick Creeks. Yet, Procter was unable to score a final, decisive victory.

British Blockade. In frankly miraculous contrast to the dismal American performance on land was the activity of the U.S. Navy. The British brought to bear 1,048 vessels to blockade U.S. naval and commercial shipping in an effort to choke off the nation’s war effort. Opposed to this vast armada were the 14 seaworthy vessels of the United States Navy and a ragtag fleet of privateers. The U.S. frigates emerged victorious in a series of single-ship engagements, the most famous of which were the battles between the U.S.S. Constitution (“Old Ironsides”) and the British frigates Guerriere, off the coast of Massachusetts on August 19, 1812, and the Java, off the Brazilian coast on December 29, 1812. Despite such American triumphs, the British were able to tighten their blockade into a veritable stranglehold that wiped out American trade, bringing the U.S. economy to the verge of collapse.

We Have Met the Enemy and They Are Ours. During 1813, renewed American attempts to invade Canada were again unsuccessful. In the West, however, the situation brightened. William Henry Harrison managed to rebuild—and even enlarge—his army, so that by late summer of 1813, he fielded 8,000 men. In the meantime, a dashing young naval officer named Oliver Hazard Perry (1785-1819) cobbled together an inland navy. Beginning in March 1813, he directed construction of an armed flotilla at Presque Isle (present-day Erie), Pennsylvania, while drilling his sailors in artillery technique. By August, he was ready to move his vessels onto Lake Erie. On September 10, Perry engaged the British fleet in a battle so fierce that he had to transfer his flag from the severely damaged brig Lawrence to the Niagara, from which he commanded nothing less than the destruction of the entire British squadron. He sent to General Harrison a message that instantly entered into American history: “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”

Perry’s triumph cut off British supply lines and forced the abandonment of Fort Maiden, as well as a general retreat eastward from the Detroit region. On October 5, 1813, Harrison overtook the retreating British and their Indian allies at the Battle of the Thames. The great Indian leader Tecumseh fell in this battle. Although no one knows who killed him, it is certain that, with the death of Tecumseh, the Indians’ last real hope of halting the northwestward rush of white settlement likewise died.

O Say Can You See. The American victories in the West, so long in coming, might have turned the tide of the war had it not been for the defeat of Napoleon in Europe and his first exile to St. Elbe. With Napoleon out of the way, the British could now turn their attention to what had become (from their point of view) a very nasty little war in North America. Soon, more ships and more troops—including experienced veterans of the campaigns against Napoleon—sailed across the Atlantic.

The British plan was to attack in three principal areas: in New York, along Lake Champlain and the Hudson River, which would sever New England from the rest of the union; in New Orleans, which would block the vital Mississippi artery; and in Chesapeake Bay, a diversionary maneuver tactic that would draw off U.S. manpower. The British objective was to bring America to its knees and thereby extort major territorial concessions in return for peace. By the fall of 1814, the situation looked very bleak for the United States. The nation was flat broke, and in New England, opponents of the war had begun talking about leaving the Union.

Late in the summer of 1814, American resistance to the attack in Chesapeake Bay folded. The British, under Major General Robert Ross, triumphed in Maryland at the Battle of Bladensburg (August 24), when inexperienced Maryland militiamen commanded by the thoroughly incompetent General William H. Winder broke and ran in panic. Ross invaded Washington, D.C., and burned most of the public buildings, including the Capitol and the White House, as President Madison and most of the government fled into the countryside.

Ross next set his sights on Baltimore, but at last met stiffer resistance. His forces bombarded Fort McHenry, in Baltimore Harbor, on September 13-14, 1814. The event was witnessed by a young Baltimore lawyer, Francis Scott Key (1779-1843), while he was detained on a British warship. Peering anxiously through the long night, Key saw at dawn that the “Star-Spangled Banner” yet waved; the fort had not fallen to the British, who ultimately withdrew. Key was moved to write a poem that eventually became our national anthem.

Salvation on Lake Champlain. Even while Washington burned and Baltimore fell under attack, a grim band of 10,000 British veterans of the Napoleonic wars was advancing into the United States from Montreal. On land, nothing more than an inferior American force stood between them and New York City. But on September 11, 1814, American naval captain Thomas MacDonough (1783-1825) defeated and destroyed the British fleet on Lake Champlain. This event was sufficient to send into retreat the British army, which feared losing its lines of communication and supply.

The failure of the British offensive along Lake Champlain added some high cards to the hand of American peace negotiators meeting with their British counterparts across the ocean in the Flemish city of Ghent. The war-weary British decided to forego territorial demands, and the United States, relieved to escape without major losses, let up on its demand that Britain recognize American neutral rights. The Treaty of Ghent, signed on December 24, 1814, restored the “status quo antebellum,” and the document was unanimously ratified by the U.S. Senate on February 17, 1815.

Hero of New Orleans. The official outcome of the Treaty of Ghent is misleading; for America was not the same after the war as it was before. To begin, the nation suffered a crippling economic depression—though it would, in time, recover. More important, withdrawal of British support for its wartime Indian allies greatly weakened the hostile tribes, making the West that much riper for white expansion. Finally, in the world of 1814, trans-Atlantic communication was anything but instantaneous. Word of the Treaty of Ghent did not reach General Andrew Jackson, who, fresh from victory against the “Red Stick” Creek Indians in the South, had moved on to New Orleans to engage 7,500 British veterans under Major General Edward Pakenham sailing from Jamaica to attack the city.

Jackson’s forces consisted of 3,100 Tennessee and Kentucky volunteers, in addition to New Orleans militiamen and a ragtag mob of locals, which Jackson wisely kept well to the rear. Jackson’s inferior forces withstood a fierce artillery bombardment and repulsed two British assaults on their defensive positions. On January 8, 1815, the British, having terrible losses (including the death of Pakenham and his two senior subordinates), withdrew. Although the War of 1812 had actually ended in December 1814, Jackson gave his countrymen their most glorious victory of the war.

To most Americans, it now mattered little that the War of 1812 had been mostly a misery and a disaster. The victory at New Orleans, which made Americans feel like they had won the war, greatly strengthened the bonds of nationhood and made the economic and physical hardships seem worthwhile. This last battle also gave to America a new hero, a “westerner” born and bred far from the traditional seaboard seats of power. As Jefferson had before him, Andrew Jackson would lend his name to an entire era.

The Least You Need to Know

The War of 1812 was provoked by Westerners, who were eager to expand the territory of the United States.

 Although the war brought great hardship to the United States, it ultimately reinforced the bonds of national unity.

Stats. The Battle of Queenston was a terrible American defeat: 2250 U.S. soldiers lost their lives and 700 became prisoners of war. The British lost 14 men, with 96 wounded. However, the brilliant General Isaac Brock was among the slain.

Main Event. The Hartford Convention met in Hartford, Connecticut, from December 15, 1814, to January 5, 181 S. Twenty-six delegates from five New England states gathered to protest the disastrous Democratic-Republican conduct of the war. The secret convention raised alarms that the delegates were plotting secession; however, the resolutions they actually formulated were quite tame—principally a call for amending the Constitution to weaken the influence of the South on the federal government. Indeed, some recent historians suggest that the Hartford Convention was actually a (successful) attempt by moderate Federalists to head off radical Federalist attempts to bring about a secession movement. Whatever its intention, the Hartford Convention turned out to be a bad public relations move for the Federalists. They were generally regarded with deepening suspicion and, outside of New England, the party rapidly collapsed.

Main Event. Key penned “The Star-Spangled Banner” on September 14, 1814, but the music for it had been written in 1777 by the Englishman John Stafford Smith. The music was a setting for another poem, “To Anacreon in Heaven,” which was a favorite of a London drinking club called the Anacreontic Society. Smith’s original is a celebration of the pleasures of music, love, and wine. The melody soon became popular in the United States—both before and after Key made up the new words for it. In fact, by 1820, at least 84 different poems were being sung to the “Anacreontic melody.”

“The Star-Spangled Banner” instantly became a popular patriotic air and was the informal anthem of the Union Army during the Civil War. The U.S. Army adopted the song officially during World War 1, but it did not become truly the national anthem until March 3, 1931, when President Herbert Hoover signed it into law.

Word for the Day. The Latin phrase status quo antebellum is common in treaties and underscores the utter futility of much combat. The phrase means literally “the way things were before the war.”


Stats. The British lost 2, 100 men at the Battle of New Orleans, including commanding general Edward Pakenham. Jackson’s badly outnumbered troops suffered fewer than 100 casualties.


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