War of 1812


War of 1812

, conflict between the United States and Great Britain from 1812 to 1815. Fought over the maritime rights of neutrals, it ended inconclusively.


Over the course of the French revolutionary and the Napoleonic wars between France and Great Britain (1793-1815), both belligerents violated the maritime rights of neutral powers. The United States, endeavoring to market its own produce, was especially affected. To preserve Britain's naval strength, Royal Navy officers impressed thousands of seamen from U.S. vessels, including naturalized Americans of British origin, claiming that they were either deserters or British subjects. The United States defended its right to naturalize foreigners and challenged the British practice of impressment on the high seas. Relations between the two nations reached a breaking point in 1807 when the British frigate Leopard fired on the USS Chesapeake in American territorial waters and removed, and later executed, four crewmen.

In addition, Britain issued executive orders in council to blockade the coastlines of the Napoleonic empire and then seized vessels bound for Europe that did not first call at a British port. Napoleon retaliated with a similar system of blockades under the Berlin and Milan decrees, confiscating vessels and cargoes in European ports if they had first stopped in Britain. Collectively, the belligerents seized nearly 1500 American vessels between 1803 and 1812, thus posing the problem of whether the United States should go to war to defend its neutral rights.

Americans at first prepared to respond with economic coercion rather than war. At the urging of President Thomas Jefferson, Congress passed the Embargo Act of 1807, prohibiting virtually all U.S. ships from putting to sea. Subsequent enforcement measures in 1808-1809 also banned overland trade with British and Spanish possessions in Canada and Florida. Because the legislation seriously harmed the U.S. economy and failed to alter belligerent policies, it was replaced in 1809 by the Non-Intercourse Act, which forbade trade with France and Britain. In 1810 Macon's Bill No. 2 reopened American trade with all nations, but stipulated that if one belligerent repealed its antineutral measures, the United States would then impose an embargo against the other.

In August Napoleon announced the repeal of the Berlin and Milan decrees on the understanding that the United States would also force Britain to respect its neutral rights. Although Napoleon continued to seize American vessels in French ports, President James Madison accepted his statements as proof that French antineutral decrees had been lifted. He reimposed the ban on trade with Britain in November 1810 and demanded that the British ministry repeal the orders in council as a condition for resumption of Anglo-American trade. Britain refused to comply, and Madison summoned Congress into session in November 1811 to prepare for war. After months of debate, Congress declared war on Great Britain on June 18, 1812.

Armed Conflict

U.S. forces were ordered to invade Canada at points between Detroit and Montr?al, but poor planning, organization, and leadership undermined this strategy. British general Isaac Brock, together with the northwestern Native Americans led by the Shawnee chief Tecumseh, captured Detroit, while on the Niagara peninsula two American armies were defeated. In 1813 American forces reoccupied Detroit after Oliver Hazard Perry captured the British fleet on Lake Erie, thus enabling William Henry Harrison to defeat the combined British and Native American forces at the battle of the Thames in October. In the east, an American army had taken York (now Toronto) in May, but the failure of subsequent campaigns against Kingston and Montr?al prevented the United States from further extending its power into Canada. In the fall of 1813 the war spread to the southwestern frontier in a conflict with the Creek people, who were eventually defeated by forces under Andrew Jackson at the battle of Horseshoe Bend (March 1814). Furthermore, despite victories of single American warships in the Atlantic, such as that of the Constitution over the Guerri?re in 1812, the Royal Navy by 1813 had blockaded much of the eastern coast and thus ruined U.S. trade with foreign nations.

By 1814 American forces had improved in quality and leadership. In July armies under Jacob Brown and Winfield Scott fought British troops on even terms at Chippewa and Lundy's Lane, near Niagara. Napoleon's defeat in Europe, however, freed Britain to send more troops to North America. By late summer the United States had to face invasions from combined army and naval forces at Lake Champlain and in Chesapeake Bay.