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The War of 1812-14

Against Napoleon the British saw themselves as fighting for their survival and their homeland. They had been fighting also to maintain their position in India and expanding there, capturing the Indian cities of Gwalior and Delhi in 1803 and negotiating an end to the fighting there in 1806. Their navy was their primary force, and in 1806 they took Cape Colony (South Africa) from the Dutch – who were being ruled by Napoleon. From the Dutch they took Surinam and Essequibo (Guyana) on the northern coast of South America. From Napoleon's ally, Denmark, they took the Caribbean islands of St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix (the Virgin Islands). Also in the Caribbean they took France's islands in the Lesser Antilles. They took the French islands of Bourbon (Reunion and Mauritius) east of Madagascar. With the British presence on the Indian Ocean in mind, in 1808 the French fortified what had been Dutch-held post at Batavia in Java, and in 1811 sixty British ships blockaded Batavia and took control of the area, annoying local people.

In Europe, the British were fighting France with a counter blockade, cutting French trade where they could, and this created a problem with the United States, whose merchants were pursuing trade with whomever they could. And the British had a problem of their sailors deserting to U.S. merchant ships, where they could get higher pay. British authorities believed that they had to discourage these desertions.

The administration of President Jefferson demanded respect for US merchants and an end to illegal searches and seizures of ships owned and operated by US citizens. The French were also harassing American merchants, French privateers and cruisers seizing goods they thought were heading for Britain. But it was against the British that Jefferson's Republican party (not to be confused with the Republican Party of later times) directed its ire. Republicans called for war against Britain, but Jefferson did not want war and removed American tradesmen from the high seas.

Among many Americans the desire for war continued. The United States had its Anglophobes dating back to the revolutionary war. These tended to be Republicans, while their rivals the Federalists were anti-French and calling Napoleon a tyrant. These Federalists were more supportive of the British, more conservative and more inclined toward the support of merchants and peace.

The passion for war was hottest among those who identified with the frontier and expansion westward. Indians under the leadership of the half-integrated Tecumseh, who had chosen to side with "his people" were resisting the advances of whites across Indiana. The Indians had good relations with the British of Canada, and pro-war newspapers in the United States were talking about the "Anglo-savage" war and of "British savages," and there were complaints that the British were trying to return Americans to colonial subservience. There were calls for an alliance with Napoleon and calls for the country to take Canada as completion of the revolutionary war against Britain.

These were issues in election campaigning in 1810-11, and the Republicans did well against the Federalists. The 12th Congress, which convened in November 1811, was overwhelmingly Republicans in both the House and the Senate, and speeches were made about the need to go to war to defend the nation's honor.

In May 1812, Britain's Prime Minister Spencer Perceval was assassinated. His successor, Lord Liverpool, was more moderate than Perceval had been, and the British were treating American ships and seamen with new tact. The British Navy was instructed to avoid clashes with Americans. This did not deter Republicans from wanting war. Congress declared war against Britain on June 18, 1812. Many found the news of war exhilarating. In Washington, handshakes abounded and there was rejoicing. In Kentucky, muskets and cannon were fired and there was much cheering.

On July 12, a US force led by general William Hull entered Canada. Tecumseh gathered 800 warriors in support of the British. The British were now to make a common cause with the Indians rebelling against expansion. Hull was driven back to Fort Detroit and surrounded by British regulars, by militia and Indians under Tecumseh. Hull surrendered the fort without firing a shot.

In 1813, Britain was too busy for anything more than hit and run raids by its navy against the United States. In March, U.S. troops burned the town of York (today Toronto) on the shore of Lake Ontario. On August 30, 750 Creek Amerindian warriors attacked a US fort in Alabama, killed more than 500 and suffered 50 to 100 deaths. Indians Captain Oliver Perry commanded a small fleet on Lake Erie that repelled an attack by British ships in September. The British defeated General Wayne Hampton's advance into Canada in November. And at the end of November, General John Floyd raided the Creek village of Autosse in central Alabama, killing 200 and destroying 400 dwellings.

After Napoleon's abdication in April 1814, the British were able to intensify its naval blockade of the Atlantic coast and to increase its troop strength in Canada. The British attacked at Niagara in July, where US troops stopped their advance. A British force arrived by sea at Chesapeake Bay, and in August they burned public buildings in the US capital, Washington, in retaliation for the burning of York and Newark in Canada and also to impress upon the Madison administration the futility of continuing the war.

In early September that same year the British sent a force from Canada to Plattsburg Bay on Lake Champlain. A US naval and land engagement sent the British into retreat. One more assault had been planned by the British, in the south near the mouth of the Mississippi River, and in mid-December the British landed a force on the left bank of the Mississippi.

Negotiations between the Americans and the British had been taking place in Europe, at Ghent, since early August, and a peace treaty was signed on December 24, restoring "upon principles of perfect reciprocity," in the words of the treaty, "peace, friendship, and good understanding" between "His Britannic Majesty and the United States."

Word that the war was over was slow in reaching the British and US forces by the Mississippi River near New Orleans. In early January, Andrew Jackson, commander of the US forces, behind a canal and a breast-high dirt barrier reinforced by sugar barrels, drove back three reckless frontal attacks by the British, who suffered more than 2,000 casualties, including the death of their commander. The British retreated. Some in the United States were overjoyed by the victory, and Andrew Jackson became a military hero.

Canadians were happy too. The war had given Canadians a national identity beyond scattered outposts within the British Empire. Canadians were happy to be at peace again, unthreatened and with their own legends of heroism. One hero was Isaac Brock, the victor at Detroit in 1812 and leader of Canada's defense. Another hero was Laura Secord, a former loyalist from Massachusetts. She had been forced to billet three officers of an invading US force just inside Canada and had overheard the officers discuss plans for a surprise attack at Beaver Dam. She had walked 20 miles including a six-hour climb over the Niagara Escarpment to warn of the attack.

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