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The War of 1812

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The War of 1812

Bron: America, Brief Fourt Edition, Tindall.SHI. ISBN 0393970639 Uitgeverij W.W. Norton




 The main cause of the war—the demand for neutral rights seems clear enough. Neutral rights dominated Madison's war message and provided the salient reason for mounting public hostility toward the British. Yet the geographical distribution of the congressional vote i war raised a troubling question. Most votes for war came from the farm regions that stretched from Pennsylvania southward and westward. The Maritime states of New York and New England, the region that bore the  brunt of British attacks on American trade, voted against the declaration of war. One explanation for this seeming anomaly is simple  enough. The farming regions suffered damage to their marker- i gram, cotton, and tobacco, while New England shippers made profits in  spite of British restrictions.

Other plausible explanations for the sectional vote, however, inc frontier Indian attacks that were blamed on the British, western hunger, and the desire for territory in British Canada and Sp yin. Florida. The constant pressure to open new lands repeatedly forced  or persuaded Indians to sign treaties they did not always understand causing stronger resentment among tribes that were losing more a more of their lands. It was an old story, dating from the Jamestown settlement, but one that took a new turn with the rise of a powerful  Shawnee leader, Tecumseh.


According to General William Henry Harrison, governor of the Indiana Territory; Tecumseh was "one of those uncommon geniuses, which spring up occasionally to produce revolutions and overturn the order of things." Tecumseh recognized the consequences of Indian disunity and set out to form a confederation of tribes to defend Indian hunting grounds, insisting that no land cession was valid without the consent of all tribes, since they held the land in common. By 1811 Tecumseh had matured his plans and headed south from the Indiana Territory to win the Creeks, Cherokees, Choctaws, and Chickasaws to his cause. His speeches were filled with emotion and anger. "The white race is a wicked race," he declared. "Thee- seize your land; they  corrupt your women." Only  by driving them out "upon a trail of blood" would the Indians survive.

Governor Harrison gathered a force near Tecumseh's capital on the Tippecanoe River while the leader was away. The Indians took the bait and attacked Harrison's encampment, although Tecumseh had warned against any fighting in his absence. The Shawnees lost a bloody engagement that left about a quarter of Harrison's men dead or wounded. Harrison then burned the Shawnee town and destroyed all its supplies.

Tecumseh's dreams of an Indian confederacy went up in smoke, and he fled to British protection in Canada.

The Battle of Tippecanoe reinforced suspicions that the British were inciting the Indians. To eliminate the Indian menace, frontier settlers reasoned, they needed to remove its foreign support. Conquest of Canada would thus accomplish a twofold purpose. It would end British influence among the Indians and open a new empire for land-hungry Americans. It was also the only place, in case of war, where the British were vulnerable to American attack. East Florida, still under the Spanish flag, posed a similar threat, since Spain was either too weak or unwilling to prevent sporadic Indian attacks across the frontier. The British were also suspected of smuggling through Florida and intriguing with the Indian§ on the southwest border.

Such concerns helped generate a war fever. In the Congress that assembled in 1811, a number of new, young members from southern and western districts began to clamor for war in defense of "national honor." Among them were Henry Clay of Kentucky, who became Speaker of the House, Richard M. Johnson, also of Kentucky, Felix Grundy of Tennessee, and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. John Randolph of Roanoke christened these "new boys" the "War Hawks." After they entered the House, Randolph said, "We have heard but one word—like the whip-poor-will, but one eternal monotonous tone—Canada! Canada! Canada!"


As it turned out, the War Hawks would get neither Canada nor Florida. For in 1812 James Madison had carried into war a country that was ill prepared both financially and militarily. The year before, despite earnest pleas from Treasury Secretary Gallatin, Congress had let the twenty-year charter of the Bank of the United States expire. A combination of strict-constructionist Republicans and Anglophobes, who feared the large British interest in the bank, caused its demise. Meanwhile, trade had collapsed and tariff revenues had declined. Loans were needed for about two-thirds of the war costs, but Northeast opponents of the war were reluctant to lend money.

The military situation was almost as bad. War had been likely for nearly a decade, but Republican budgetary constraints had prevented preparations. When the war began the army numbered only 6,700 men, ill-trained, poorly equipped, and led by aging officers. One young Virginia officer named Winfield Scott, destined for military distinction, commented that most of the veteran commanders "had very generally slunk into either sloth, ignorance, or habits of intemperate drinking." The navy, on the other hand, was in comparatively good shape, with able officers and trained men whose seamanship had been tested in the fighting against France and Tripoli. Its ships were well outfitted and seaworthy—all sixteen of them. In the first year of the war the navy produced the only American victories in isolated duels with British vessels, but their effect was mainly an occasional lift to morale. Within a year the British had blockaded the coast, except for New England, where they hoped to cultivate antiwar feeling, and most of the little American fleet was bottled up in port.


The only place where the United States could effectively strike at the British was Canada. Madison's best hope was a quick attack on Quebec or Montreal to cut Canada's lifeline, the St. Lawrence River. Instead of striking directly at the lifeline, however, the administration opted for a three-pronged drive against Canada: along the Lake Champlain route toward Montreal, with General Henry Dearborn in command; along the Niagara River, with forces under General Stephen Van Rensselaer; and into Upper Canada (north of Lake Erie) from Detroit, where General William Hull and some 2,000 men arrived in early July 1812. In Detroit, the sickly and senile Hull procrastinated, while his position worsened and the news arrived that an American fort isolated at the head of Lake Huron had surrendered in mid-July. The British commander cleverly played upon Hull's worst fears. Gathering what redcoats he could to parade in view of Detroit's defenders, he announced that thousands of Indian allies were at the rear and that once fighting began he would be unable to control them. Fearing massacre, Hull, without consulting his officers and without a shot being fired, surrendered his entire force in August.

Along the Niagara front, General Van Rensselaer was more aggressive than Hull. On October 13 an advance party of 600 Americans crossed the Niagara River and worked their way up the bluffs on the Canadian side to occupy Queenstown Heights. The stage was set for a major victory, but the New York militia refused to reinforce Van Rensselaer's men, claiming that their military service did not obligate them to leave the country. They complacently remained on the New York side and watched their outnumbered countrymen fall to a superior force across the river.

On the third front, the old invasion route via Lake Champlain, the trumpet once more gave an uncertain sound. On November 19, 1812 the  incompetent General Dearborn led his army north from Plattsburgh toward Montreal. He marched them up to the border, where the militia once again stood on its alleged constitutional rights and refused to cross, and then marched them down again.

Madison's navy secretary now pushed vigorously for American control of inland waters. At Presque Isle (Erie), Pennsylvania, twenty-eight-year-old Commodore Oliver H. Perry, already a fourteen-year veteran who had seen action against Tripoli, was busy building ships from green timbers. By the end of the summer Perry set out in search of the British, whom he found at Lake Erie's Put-in Bay on September 1 1813. After completing the preparations for battle, Perry told an aide: "This is the most important day of my life."

It was indeed. Two British warships used their superior weapons pummel the Lawrence, Perry's flagship, at long distance. Blood flowed on the deck so freely that the sailors slipped and fell as they wrestled with the cannon. After four hours of intense shelling, none of t Lawrence's guns was left working and 80 percent of the crew were dead or wounded. The British expected the Americans to turn tail, but Perry refused to quit. He transferred to another vessel, carried the battle to the enemy, and finally accepted surrender of the entire British squadron. Hatless, begrimed, and bloodied, Perry sent General William Henry Harrison the long-awaited message: "We have met the enemy  and they are ours."

More good news followed. At the Battle of the Thames (October 5), in Canadian territory East of Detroit, General Harrison eliminated British power in Upper Canada and released the Northwest from any further threat. In the course of the battle, Tecumseh fell, and his persistent dream of Indian unity died with him.


In the Southwest, too, the war flared up in 1813. On August 30 the Creeks attacked Fort Mims, on the Alabama River above Mobile, killing almost half the people in the fort. The news found Andrew Jackson home in bed in Nashville, recovering from a street brawl with Thomas Hart Benton, later a senator from Missouri. As major-general of the Tennessee militia, Jackson summoned about 2,000 volunteers and set out on a campaign that utterly crushed Creek resistance. The decisive battle occurred on March 27, 1814, at the Horseshoe Bend of the Tallapoosa River, in the heart of the upper Creek country. In the Treaty of Fort Jackson, signed that August, the Indians ceded two-thirds of their lands to the United States, including part of Georgia and most of Alabama.

Four days after the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, Napoleon's empire collapsed. Now free to deal with America, the British developed a threefold plan of operations for 1814. They would launch a two-pronged invasion of America via Niagara and Lake Champlain to increase the clamor for peace in the Northeast, extend the naval blockade to New England, subjecting coastal towns to raids, and seize New Orleans to cut the Mississippi River, lifeline of the West. Uncertainties about the peace settlement in Europe, however, prevented the release of British veterans for a full-scale assault upon the New World. And after a generation of conflict, war weariness countered the British thirst for revenge against the former colonials. British plans were stymied also by the more resolute young commanders Madison had placed in charge of strategie areas by the summer of 1814.

The main British effort focused on the invasion via Lake Champlain. A land assault might have taken Plattsburgh and forced American troops out of their protected positions nearby, but England's army bogged down while its flotilla engaged an American naval squadron in a deadly battle on Lake Champlain. The battle ended in September 1814 with the entire British flotilla either destroyed or captured.


Meanwhile, however, American forces suffered the most humiliating experience of the war, the capture and burning of Washington, D.C. With attention focused on the Canadian front, the Chesapeake Bay offered the British a number of inviting targets, including Baltimore, now the fourth-largest city in America. On the evening of August 24, 1814, the British marched unopposed into Washington, ,where British officers ate a meal in the White House intended for President and Mrs. Madison, who had hastily joined the other refugees in Virginia. The British then burned the White House, the Capitol, and all other government buildings except the Patent Office. A tornado the next day compounded the damage, but a violent thunderstorm dampened both the fires and the enthusiasm of the British forces, who left to prepare a new assault on Baltimore. One English newspaper editor expressed shameful regret at the army's actions: "The Cossacks spared Paris, but we spared not the Capital of America!"

The attack on Baltimore was a different story. With some 13,000 men, chiefly militia, American forces fortified the heights behind the city. About 1,000 men held Fort McHenry, on an island in the harbor. The British landed at North Point, where an advance group of Americanmilitia inflicted severe casualties. When the British finally came into sight of the city on September 13, they halted in the face of American defenses. All through the following night the British fl eet bombarded Fort McHenry to no avail, and the invaders abandoned the attack on the city as too costly to risk. Francis Scott Key, a Washington lawyer, watched the siege from a vessel in the harbor. The sight of the flag still in place at dawn inspired him to draft the verses of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Later revised and set to the tune of an English drinking song, it was immediately popular and eventually became the national anthem.


The British failure at Baltimore followed by three days their failure on Lake Champlain, and their offensive against New Orleans had yet to run its course. Along the Gulf coast General Andrew Jackson had been busy shoring up the defenses of Mobile and New Orleans. In late 1814, without authorization, he invaded Spanish Florida and took Pensacola, ending British intrigues there. Back in Louisiana by the end of November, he began to erect defenses on the approaches to New Orleans. But the British fleet, with some 7,500 European veterans under General Sir Edwin Pakenham, cautiously took up positions on a level plain near the Mississippi just south of New Orleans.

Pakenham's painfully careful approach—he waited until all his artillery was available—gave Jackson time to build earthworks bolstered by cotton bales. It was an almost invulnerable position, but Pakenham, contemptuous of Jackson's motley array of frontier militiamen, Creole aristocrats, free blacks, and pirates, ordered a frontal assault at dawn on January 8, 1815. His redcoats emerged out of the morning fog and ran into a murderous haiI of artillery shells and deadly rifle fire. Before the British withdrew about 2,000 had been killed or wounded, including Pakenham himself, whose body, pickled in a barrel of rum, was returned to the ship where his wife awaited news of the battle.

The Battle of New Orleans occurred after a peace treaty had already been signed. But this is not to say that it was an anticlimax or that it had no effect on the outcome of the war, for the treaty was yet to be ratified and the British might have exploited to advantage the possession of New Orleans had they won it. The battle assured ratification of the treaty as it stood, and both governments acted quickly.


Peace efforts had begun in 1812, even before hostilities commenced, but negotiations bogged down after the fighting started. The British were stalling, awaiting news of smashing victories to strengthen their hand. Word of the American victory on Lake Champlain weakened the British resolve. Their will to fight was further eroded by a continuing power struggle in Europe, by the eagerness of British merchants to re-new trade with America, and by the war weariness of a tax-burdened public. The British finally decided that the war was not worth the cost. Envoys from both sides eventually agreed to end the fighting, return prisoners, restore previous boundaries, and to settle nothing else. The Treaty of Ghent was signed on Christmas Eve, 1814.

While the diplomats converged on a peace settlement, an entirely different kind of meeting took place in Hartford, Connecticut. An ill-fated affair, the Hartford Convention represented the climax of New England's disaffection with "Mr. Madison's war." New England had managed to keep aloof from the war and extract a profit from illegal trading and privateering. After the fall of Napoleon, however, the British extended their blockade to New England, occupied part of Maine, and conducted several raids along the coast. Even Boston seemed threatened. Instead of rallying to the American flag, however, Federalists in the Massachusetts legislature voted on October 5, 1814, to convene a meeting of New England states to plan independent action.

On December 15 the Hartford Convention assembled with delegates chosen by the legislatures of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, two delegates from Vermont and one from New Hampshire: twenty-two in all. The convention included an extreme faction, Timothy Pickering's "Essex Junto," who were prepared to secede from the Union, but it was controlled by a more moderate group led by Harrison Gray Otis, who sought only a protest against the war in language reminiscent of Madison's Virginia Resolutions of 1798. As the ultimate remedy for their grievances they proposed seven constitutional amendments designed to limit Republican influence, including the requirement of a two-thirds vote to declare war or admit new states, a prohibition on embargoes lasting more than sixty days, a one-term limit for the presidency, and a ban on successive presidents from the same state.

Their call for a later convention in Boston carried the unmistakable threat of secession if the demands «ere ignored. Yet the threat quickly evaporated. When messengers from Hartford reached Washington, they found the battered capital celebrating the good news from Ghent and New Orleans. The consequence was a fatal blow to the Federalist party, which never recovered from the stigma of disloyalty and narrow provincialism stamped on it by the Hartford Convention.


For all the ineptitude with which the War of 1812 was fought, it generated an intense patriotic feeling. Despite the standoff with which it ended at Ghent, the American public felt victorious, thanks to Andrew Jackson and his men at New Orleans as well as the heroic exploits of American frigates in their duels with British ships. Remembered too were the vivid words of the dying Captain James Lawrence on the Chesapeake: "Don't give up the ship." Under Republican leadership the nation had survived a "Second War of Independence" against the greatest military power on earth and emerged with new symbols of nationhood and a new gallery of heroes.

The war revealed America's need for a more efficient system of internal transportation—roads, bridges, canals. Even more important, the conflict launched the United States toward economic independence, as the interruption of trade encouraged the birth of American manufactures. This was a profound development, for the emergence of an American factory system would generate far-reaching social effects as well as economic growth. After forty years of independence, it dawned on the world that the new republic might not only survive but flourish.

As if to underline the point, Congress authorized a quick and decisive blow at the Barbary pirates. During the War of 1812 the dey of Algiers had renewed his plundering of American ships, claiming that he was getting too little tribute. On March 3, 1815, little more than two weeks after the Senate ratified the Peace of Ghent, Congress authorized a naval expedition against the Mediterranean pirates. On May 10

Captain Stephen Decatur sailed from New York with ten vessels. He first seized two Algerian ships and then sailed boldly into the harbor of Algiers. On June 30, 1815, the dey agreed to cease molesting American ships and to return all American prisoners. Decatur then forced similar concessions from Tunis and Tripoli. Piracy against American vessels was over.

One of the strangest results of the War of 1812 was a reversal of roles by the Republicans and Federalists. Out of the wartime experience the Republicans had learned some lessons in nationalism. The necessities of war had "Federalized" Madison, or "re-Federalized" the father of the Constitution. Perhaps, he reasoned, a peacetime army and navy would not be so bad after all. He also had come to see the value of a national bank and of higher tariffs to protect infant American industries from foreign competition. But while Madison was embracing such nationalistic measures, the Federalists were borrowing the Jeffersonian theory of states' rights and strict construction. It was the first great reversal of roles in constitutional interpretation. It would not be the last.