Skip to Content

War of 1812

The War of 1812 (1812 – 1815) was a war against Great Britain and the United States of America. The result was no decisive victory, but resolution to many issues that had been problematic for both countries since the American Revolutionary War. War was declared by the United States during the presidency of James Madison. Madison cited four reasons for war:

  1. Impressment of American seamen
  2. Violation of American neutral rights and territorial waters
  3. Blockade of United States ports
  4. British refusal to revoke the Orders of Council of 1807, which barred all neutral trade with France and her colonies

Madison delivered his speech to a Congress that was overwhelmingly part of the War Hawk sect of the Democratic-Republican party. This couple with American Expansionism helped him secure his declaration. On June 18, despite reluctance from New England, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware, the United States declared war on Great Britain.

The war was not popular in Great Britain and was viewed more as a nuisance than a war. The Napoleonic Wars were at its peak and Napoleon was having much success on the European mainland and had always viewed a conquest of Great Britain as an ultimate goal. Britain possessed the greatest Navy in the world, but was spread thing defending its colonies in the Caribbean, Asia, and Africa from the French and their allies. They had a meager naval force stationed in Canada, but to their advantage the United States had an inferior Navy.

The United States Navy

George Washington and John Adams believed in a strong central government and a strong military. Both had begun work on creating a powerful Navy to counter Britain and France. They believed that with a strong navy they would be able to avoid “entangling alliances” and press forward with their expansion. This belief crumbled when Thomas Jefferson won election in 1802 and began to dismantle the Navy. He instead preferred small gunboats. The Jefferson gunboats were meant to be a defensive force, but would not offer a threat to the European powers. Jefferson also believed that the United States should live within its means. During this time he abolished a federal tax and focused on driving the economy and not building up a military. It is easy to criticize Jefferson’s actions because the United States Navy could have been more powerful when the War of 1812 began, but he stayed true to his ideas and they were economically effective, but left the United States vulnerable.

The United States Navy was saved by four men: Joshua Humphreys, Josiah Fox, William Doughty, and Commodore William Bainbridge. Joshua and Josiah were ingenious architects that can quickly lay out plans to make the U.S. Navy a formidable foe. William Doughty was another talented Naval draftsman that aided the work of Humphreys and Fox. William Bainbridge influenced President Madison to order a fleet to sea to protect American commerce. The United Stated would never be able to match the strength of the Royal Navy during the War of 1812, but these advancements were important for the future of the military.

The United States Military

Army

During the American Revolutionary War the Continental Army was made up of regulars, volunteers, and militia and the same would be true before the War of 1812. At the beginning of the war the United States had a standing army that was poorly funded, trained, supplied, and led. When President James Madison and the U.S. Congress declared war in July of 1812, the standing army numbered 6,686 officers and men. Many of these men were veterans of the American Revolutionary War that had been fought over thirty years before 1812.

The Democratic-Republicans had been in power since 1802 and were proponents of local militia being trained to defend their territory. They feared that a standing army would lead to a military dictatorship i.e. Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte. While defense may have been possible, conquest of Canada and the West would not happen without a trained regular army. The militia units did not know their roles and often had disputes with the regulars. This left the United States Army at a disadvantage to the well-equipped in well-organized British Army.

Logistics were also a problem for the United States. The supply system before the war was inefficient and costly. To try to fix this problem Congress established a Quartermaster Department on the military staff, created the Office of the Commissary General of Purchases in the War Department, and for the first time in since the Revolution the Army’s supply system was placed under the exclusive control of the Secretary of War. Congress also created an Ordnance Department that would be responsible for inspecting and testing of all cannon balls, shells, shot, construction of gun carriages and ammunition wagons, and the preparation and inspection of the “public powder.” Congress also enlarged the Corps of Engineers by adding a company of bombardiers, sappers, and miners. However, the most significant reform they made was the expansion and reorganization of the Military Academy at West Point. ((Unknown Author, “War of 1812″http://www.history.army.mil/books/AMH/AMH-06.htm))

Navy

During the American Revolutionary War, America depended on the French Navy and privateers to defend their waters from the British. A major naval victory for the French Navy under Comte de Grasse at the Battle of the Chesapeake made the Siege of Yorktown and the eventual surrender of the British possible. After the Revolutionary War the debate was split on just how large of a Navy the United States would need and the type of ships that were necessary. This caused a clash between Alexander Hamilton’s Federalists and Thomas Jefferson’s Republicans.

George Washington and John Adams believed in a strong central government and a strong military. Both had begun work on creating a powerful Navy to counter Britain and France. They believed that with a strong navy they would be able to avoid “entangling alliances” and press forward with their expansion. This belief crumbled when Thomas Jefferson won election in 1802 and began to dismantle the Navy. He instead preferred small gunboats. The Jefferson gunboats were meant to be a defensive force, but would not offer a threat to the European powers. Jefferson also believed that the United States should live within its means. During this time he abolished a federal tax and focused on driving the economy and not building up a military. It is easy to criticize Jefferson’s actions because the United States Navy could have been more powerful when the War of 1812 began, but he stayed true to his ideas and they were economically effective, but left the United States vulnerable.

The United States Navy was saved by four men: Joshua Humphreys, Josiah Fox, William Doughty, and Commodore William Bainbridge. Joshua and Josiah were ingenious architects that can quickly lay out plans to make the U.S. Navy a formidable foe. William Doughty was another talented Naval draftsman that aided the work of Humphreys and Fox. William Bainbridge influenced President Madison to order a fleet to sea to protect American commerce. The United Stated would never be able to match the strength of the Royal Navy during the War of 1812, but these advancements were important for the future of the military.

Beginnings of the War of 1812

On June 21, 1812, Commodore John Rodgers, senior officers of the U.S. Navy and veteran of the Quasi-War with France, First Barbary War, and Second Barbary War, received an official declaration of War from President James Madison. In fear of reluctance from Congress, Rodgers quickly departed New York harbor with his flagship the USS President and a fleet consisting of: The USS United States, Congress, Hornet, and Argus. He had learned of a British convoy heading towards Jamaica and wanted to intercept it.

Two days out, Rodgers and his crew spotted the HMS Belvidera under Captain Richard Byron. Byron and his crew crowded the sail while the USS President closed within gunshot range. Commodore John Rodgers than loaded a cannon and took aim at the Belvidera. Rodgers himself fired the first shot of the War of 1812 and scored a hit. Two more rounds were loaded and two more hits were landed. A third round was loaded and a setback occurred when a gun blew up, wounding Rodgers and fifteen others and knocking out the other forward gun. Nevertheless, three shots were fired and all of them scored hits.

Captain Byron began throwing away supplies to lighten his ship and make a getaway. He took aim with four of his guns and fired. One of his rounds scored a direct hit while the other three skipped into the ocean. The hit left three men dead, one midshipman and two seamen. He then lifted anchor while continuing to lighten his load. Rodgers was unable to catch him and reluctantly discontinued the chase. Shots were fired and the war was on.

Theatres of War

The War of 1812 was fought in three theatres:

  1. At Sea in the Atlantic Ocean and the east Coast of North America.
  2. Great Lakes and Canadian Frontier
  3. The Southern States

———

I am in the process of researching the prelude to the War of 1812. I posted what I have with the hope that some of it will be helpful. The War of 1812 is an interesting study that shaped the American Military. 

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.