War of 1812
War of 1812 North America had been colonized by Europeans. 13 of these colonies declared their independence from Britain in 1776 becoming the United States of America. The colonies north of the USA were known as Canada and remained under British control. Some Canadians were loyal exiles from the states, still loyal to Britain, and some others were french-speaking from a previous French colony lost to Britain.
The Canadas prospered because of the very profitable fur trade. After the USA defeated Britain, the USA was granted extra land west of their colonies, already inhabited by many Native American nations. Many of these Native Americans believed in an independent nation, an Indian Confederacy, and many tribes united under the leadership of Tecumseh.
American expansionism was well underway as they bought French Louisiana from Napoleonic France. Following the French Revolution, France ended up with an emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, and the rest of the monarchies of Europe went to war against him which became the Napoleonic Wars. Britain was one of these nations and prided itself on naval superiority. Since their independence, the USA had built itself an impressive navy of its own and amidst the Napoleonic Wars, the USA remained neutral. Britain struggled to keep its crew numbers for its ships. Some British sailors even fled to America to escape being press-ganged into the British Navy.
The British did not like this and British Navy vessels began stopping and searching American ships for British deserters, even refusing to recognize British subjects becoming citizens of the United States. In 1807 the British warship HMS Leopard attacked and boarded the USS Chesapeake off the coast of Virginia. American merchant ships were also captured and cargo was seized as contraband by the British, despite American neutrality. All of this angered many Americans.
Tensions were rising though against the British as they armed the natives and supported raids and indeed Tecumseh’s war on the States, trying to stop the USA from expanding into the Canadas. Some Americans looked to the Canadas as their means of war. The added prospect of annexing the Canadas to the United States was a bonus! US forces outnumbered British forces in North America, but the British forces were better trained. While Britain was distracted by the Napoleonic Wars, now was the time!
The new British prime minister tried to talk things out with the United States, but the message was so long crossing the Atlantic, the United States Congress voted in favor of a declaration of war against Britain; the first of its kind, overseen by President James Madison the declaration formally came into action on June 18th, 1812, beginning the war.
The initial war concentrated on pressure points around the Great Lakes. The anti-British sentiment was the strongest in the frontier territories as they were the most affected by the British- supported native tribal raids.
William Hull led an American army into Upper Canada from Detroit on the 12th of July, declaring to British subjects who don’t surrender “the horrors and calamities of war will stock before you ” Former President Thomas Jefferson thought the war would be simple to win, that it would only be a matter of marching! In truth, many Canadians were loyal to the British Empire.
French-speaking Canadians worried the United States would bring too many changes in politics, religion, and language. The US had a huge shipyard in Sacketts Harbor, upstate New York, to control Lake Ontario. The British attacked it but were repelled. Major General Sir Isaac Brock had been readying troops and militia in Upper Canada in the event of a war with the United States. When the declaration of war arrived, the Canadians were ready. British forces advanced into northern Michigan and easily overpowered US forces who were still unaware of their own government’s declaration.
Allied with Native American tribes, the British moved on to Fort Mackinac. British forces mounted a gun against the fort, fired one shot and the Americans surrendered. Hearing this news, William Hull quickly withdrew his inexperienced forces back to Detroit. Isaac Brock took the opportunity to move British forces on Fort Malden in Amherstburg, south of Detroit. More natives rallied in support of the British as they captured Fort Malden along the Detroit River, giving them control of the area and indeed also the fur trade;
The fur must flow! Isaac Brock linked up with Tecumseh as they prepared to capture Detroit. In the Illinois territory, American soldiers and civilians evacuated Fort Dearborn, where the city of Chicago stands today. The Potawatomi natives were under the impression they were getting the leftover supplies, but the Americans burned all supplies, so while en route to Fort Wayne, the Americans were attacked by young Potawatomi men. Most of the Americans were killed, the rest were captured.
This brief battle would have long-lasting consequences for Native Americans. Meanwhile, Isaac Brock and Tecumseh’s forces marched on Detroit in a show of strength. They successfully psyched out the superiorly-numbered American forces who feared a massacre, so they surrendered Fort Detroit. Most of the British Navy was busy keeping Napoleonic France at bay.
The ships they could spare blockaded the American coasts, putting pressure on trade. Days after the capture of Detroit, the USS Constitution dueled the HMS Guerriere out on the Atlantic. Constitution’s strong hull repelled some cannonballs, earning it the nickname “Old Ironsides”.
Brock traveled to the east of Lake Erie as American forces massed for a second invasion. Lieutenant General George Prévost had organized an armistice in the hope that peace could be discussed, but it didn’t last. In October, the Americans tried to invade across the Niagara River but were defeated at the Battle of Queenston Heights. Isaac Brock was killed during the battle and Canadian leadership suffered a great loss.
Major General Roger Hale Sheaffe assumed command. In early 1813, in the harsh winter, American General William Henry Harrison planned to retake Detroit, but James Winchester prematurely marched to Frenchtown for supplies and suffered a massive defeat. Some of the poorly guarded prisoners were massacred by natives.
The Saint Lawrence River marked the northeast frontier between the USA and upper Canada. Sneaky trade was done across the border in the early days of the war, but the Americans tried to clamp down on this with raids during the winter, which ultimately led to Canadians attacking and capturing Ogdensburg to secure the supply lines. On April 27th US forces led a massive attack across Lake Ontario on York, the capital of Upper Canada, today known as Toronto.
The Battle of Fort George
The Americans overwhelmed the British, but at a great cost. The U.S. burnt down the Parliament building, the library and looted the city. Luckily for the British, Kingston was the more strategically important place for them. Towards the end of May, American forces captured Fort George on the Niagara River.
British forces abandoned Fort Erie, retreating to Burlington Heights, leaving Upper Canada in a very precarious position. The British attacked Sacketts Harbor again but failed to capture and destroy it… again. In Boston Harbor, a vicious 15-minute duel occurred in which the HMS Shannon captured the USS Chesapeake by killing many of the enemy crew.
It was a particularly bloody engagement. Meanwhile back on the Niagara peninsula, the British mounted a surprise night attack at the Battle of Stony Creek, halting the American advance. Mistakingly fearing they were outnumbered, the Americans pulled back to Fort George. In June, the Battle of Beaver Dams saw natives and British forces halting the final advance of the US into Upper Canada.
The Canadians hadn’t the forces to retake Fort George, so they decided to starve out the Americans. Meanwhile, by Lake Erie, Proctor and Tecumseh’s forces moved against the newly built Fort Meigs but failed to capture it. Tecumseh did stop native warriors as they were massacring American prisoners in Fort Miami while Proctor did nothing. They tried to take Fort Stephenson but failed. Tecumseh grew weary of Proctor. Their supply lines got cut off as American ships took up positions on Lake Erie, so Proctor and Tecumseh fell back to the Detroit River.
In the southern states, warring factions of Muskogee natives escalated into the Creek War with the U.S. fighting the Red Stick Muskogee. The Fort Mims Massacre, in which Red Stick Muskogees captured Fort Mims along the Alabama River and killed hundreds of its inhabitants including civilians, got the US government involved in the war. This war not only had British involvement but Spanish involvement too.
In September, nine US ships on Lake Erie defeated and captured six British Royal Navy vessels, ensuring American control on one of the Great Lakes, so the British evacuated Fort Detroit and Fort Malden. As Harrison’s forces pushed their advantage, they were victorious at the Battle of the Thames in which Tecumseh was killed.
The Indian Confederacy crumbled without his leadership. Capturing Montréal would have been very effective for the Americans, but an invasion attempt in October was repelled by well-placed Canadian and native defenders. As the Canadian winter set in, the Americans abandoned Fort George in December and on the way home, set fire to Newark, leaving the villagers to freeze in the snow. The British captured Fort Niagara and burnt down Lewiston in retaliation.
The British, along with Mohawk allies, pursued the survivors through the snow. Tuscaroras stepped in in defense of the fleeing civilians. It was not a peaceful Christmas. Just before the new year, the British burned Buffalo in New York. In April 1814 Napoleon was defeated in Europe, so Britain was now able to concentrate a little more on that pesky war with the Americans, and indeed send reinforcements across the Atlantic.
General George Prévost, backed by 15,000 British reinforcements, was ordered to take control of the Great Lakes. This resulted in a fairly lackluster race of shipbuilding on Lake Ontario between the British and Americans which amounted to very little. During British blockades and raids of the southern states, many slaves escaped and were freed. Many resettled in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Some even joined the British forces, taking up arms against their former slave owners.
The Americans had gotten their act together and were on the attack! In July, they captured Fort Erie under General Winfield Scott. Canadian forces under General Phineas Rial arrived too late and were brutally defeated at the Battle of Chippewa. Americans pushed on but were stopped at Lundy’s Lane, near Niagara Falls. The battle was inconclusive, but the Americans were outnumbered so they fell back to Fort Erie.
They withstood a British siege, even repelling several massive direct assaults. In the southern states, General Andrew Jackson led the USA to victory against the upper Creek Red Sticks. The resulting treaty led to more Muscogee territory being ceded to the USA. The war with Britain had been putting massive pressure on everyone’s economies, so peace negotiations between Britain and the USA began in Ghent in Flanders, but that didn’t stop them from planning new invasions!
In August 1814, British forces under General Robert Ross and Admiral Sir George Cockburn pushed right up through the Chesapeake Bay towards the US Capitol Washington they defeated American forces at Bladensburg and pressed their advantage against the capital. President Madison and many others evacuated the city as the British approached.
The British captured the city and set fire to the White House the Capitol building and many other public buildings. Shortly after, a powerful storm hit the city and the British ultimately fell back to their ships. It was the only time the United States Capitol City has ever been held by a foreign power. Soon after, the British moved to to the city of Baltimore but were unable to capture it.
The bombardment of Fort McHenry, which guarded Baltimore Harbor, inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem that would become The Star-Spangled Banner, the American national anthem. From Lower Canada, General Prévost led a force towards Plattsburgh, but held back on a attack, insisting on waiting for Navy forces to take control of Lake Champlain. He forced the HMS Compliance into a premature attack, resulting in British defeat on the water.