Useful Notes: War of 1812

The War of 1812 (1812-1815) is one of the most popular wars to ever grace North America. The Americans think they won it, the Canadians think they won it, and the British have no idea they fought in it. It's also one of the Americas' more unusual wars: It's called the War of 1812—but it lasted nearly three years. America's casus belli for declaring war on Britain was the latter's forced conscription of American sailors to fight in The Napoleonic Wars—which, in a fit of tragic irony, had all but ended even as the declaration of war was in transit across the Atlantic. The war's most famous battle was fought weeks after the ink on the peace treaty was dry. In the United States, it has been called the Second Revolutionary War. In Canada it is remembered as the war in which Canadians stopped the U.S. from trying to annex them, and as said, the British don't even remember it happened (except when they're gloating about burning down the White House).

Why is that the case? Well, the Brits had a certain Frenchman to deal with at the time. Compared to the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the War of 1812 was a sideshow for the British Empire. There were more troops on the field when Emperor Napoleon I won at Austerlitz in 1805, for instance, than there were English-speaking soldiers in all of the Americas in 1815 (that's 150k versus 87k for those keeping track). Napoleon's 1813 defeat by the Sixth Anti-Napoleonic Coalition at the three-day battle of Leipzig, the greatest gunpowder-battle ever (at the time), involved more than 600,000 soldiers with over 2,000 artillery pieces; the one-day Battle of New Orleans, the largest battle of the War of 1812, involved just 15,000 men and 16 cannons. Outside of the United States, the year 1812 itself is most strongly associated with Napoleon's catastrophically unsuccessful invasion of Russia, the destruction of his Grande Armée there (i.e. the decisive turning point in the war against him), and Tchaikovsky's famous overture (with the cannon fire at the end) commemorating Russia's part in these events.

    open/close all folders 

     The British Civil War Part 3: The Re-Liberationating 

The war was essentially an attempt by the USA (and more specifically, the 'War Hawks' of her inland states) to conquer British and Spanish North America (modern-day Canada and the present-day US state of Florida) and prevent the Amerindian tribes from forming a country (that could oppose westward expansion by the USA) while Great Britain was busy helping the very-nearly-conquered Kingdoms of Portugal and Spain fight 'The (Iberian) Peninsular War' against The Empire of France. However, they needed a casus belli for doing all this - if they started a war (of conquest) without one they could be accused of being an aggressive/expansionist country (not that that kind of thing really matters, e.g. Napoleon's annexation of The Low Countries and The Rhineland). Thankfully, the wider war played right into their hands in this respect as well. Traders in the US had become rich from war profiteering; basically, selling food and guns to both sides in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Both sides had declared an embargo upon each other, and commissioned privateers and used their navies to raid each others' shipping. However, after their sound victory at Trafalgar in 1805, the British were suddenly in a much better position to confiscate American trade bound for France — and they did just that. Moreover, the expansion of the Royal Navy left them short of sailors.

Scraping the bottom of the manpower-barrel after two decades of near-constant warfare, the Royal Navy stepped up the conscription of sailors into the navy in domestic ports and began to search US vessels they encountered for deserters — easily identifiable by their RN tattoos. Some ten thousand men were thus taken from American merchant vessels and pressed into RN service. note  The facts were, the Royal Navy had completely ignored the usual diplomatic channels and was basically ignoring the government of the United States, which they hadn't even asked for permission to do this. This is partly because The Admiralty could well be told to sod off if they did ask ('it's easier to say sorry than to ask, be denied, and do it anyway', etc., etc.), but also because as far as they were concerned all the people involved were all British nationals anyway and it didn't matter if they technically didn't answer to the same government note  - sort of like East and West Germany, or Germany and Austria. The USA's overall/central government also had real troubles being taken seriously abroad and particularly at home. Although the USA was by now officially a union of statesnote  most of its own citizens still thought of it as a union of states (i.e. not a country, but an association of independent countries akin to the present-day EU).

The traders and coastal states of the USA which actually owned and operated the ships in question had mixed feelings on the prospect of a war — on one hand, they were raking it in by selling to both France and the rest of Europe, and thus an end to war-trade was the last thing they wanted, although on the other hand the "theft" of their employees and the irksome nature of dealing with Britain's multiple "paper blockades" in the West Indies played havoc with their profit margins — and it was on those reasons and their platform of 'resisting British oppression' and 'ending the tyrannical impressment of foreign neutrals to fight their wars' that got the 'War-Hawks' into the elected positions. They were backed up by a new generation of young Americans who had not experienced the hardships of The American Revolution and the economic crisis that accompanied and followed it, and were eager to prove their (patriotic) worth and wage a Second American Revolution/War of Independence to drive the British from the continent. That thing with USS Chesapeake and HMS Leopard also didn't help paint a positive picture of the British.

Far to the south, in the Federal territory of Mississippi, the Indian tribes were uniting under a charismatic new leader; Tecumseh. Seeing this, the 'War-Hawk' generation suspected a British Conspiracy To Prevent American Westward Expansion, and clamoured for war with Great Britain. The British Cabinet viewed with favour the establishment of a neutral state of American Indian peoples in the Mississippi territory, but didn't actually have enough confidence in their fighting ability to back them (though they did sell them some weapons). The western states of the Union (in what we would now call the Midwest) would have nothing of Britain's "Conspiracy To Encircle Them With Colonies And Prevent America's Peaceful And Democratic Westward Settlement." The same states of the southern and western United States also considered capturing British North America easy pickings and the next logical step after the Revolutionary War. Many people in said states — not the ones actually affected by the disruptions to the thriving war-time trade — considered Canada an easy prospect, famously put by no less an authority than Thomas Jefferson as "a simple matter of marching."

     The War on Land 

The war was fought on multiple fronts, most notably ground combat between infantry and ongoing naval confrontations within the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean. The British forces in North America were notably stressed, being undermanned and lacking much support from the main British Isles, which was still involved in the Napoleonic Wars. However, British General Isaac Brock and the Native leader, Tecumseh, proved capable leaders who arranged a powerful defence, even if they were lost all too soon. They also managed to bolster their ranks against the far more numerous Americans by recruiting former slaves, Loyalists from the Revolutionary War and befriending many Native peoples. The dangerously-overtaxed British Navy was forced to commit a full fifth of its shipsnote  to blockade the American coast and defend British shipping. The Royal Navy also conducted raids on American naval bases and port towns, one of the largest of which saw all the government buildings in Washington, DC burned down (including The White House).

The confrontation continued until late 1814 when spiralling military costs, fatigue, and general lack of enthusiasm for the stalemate-war caused the forces to enter peace talks. The Treaty of Ghent was the result, the agreement relegating all captured land back to whoever had originally owned it. The treaty was signed December 24, 1814 and took effect February 18, 1815, though the biggest battles of the war occurred during the peace talks and in the time it took for news about the treaty to filter down. Most notable of these was the Battle of New Orleans, a US victory which effectively secured the (gateway to the) Mississippi river system for them.

     The Naval War 

One notable exception to the general indifference towards the war in America is in the United States Navy, which sees the war as a defining moment in its history.

At the outset of war, the United States Navy had few warships to speak of, with most of what it did have laid up in ordinary, and no ships-of-the-line—this was partially due to the relative youth of the service, but mostly because of the government's anti-military stance during Thomas Jefferson's administration. Without purpose-built ships for fleet engagements, the U.S. Navy couldn't hope to fight the Royal Navy on equal terms. Indeed, the heaviest ships in the American arsenal were the Navy's first six frigates, specifically designed by Joshua Humphreys to be "super frigates." Because of this, when the War of 1812 broke out, commerce raiding was prioritized over any clashes with the Royal Navy.

The Royal Navy's own strategy was to try and blockade as much of the American coast as possible in order to prevent American warships and privateers from getting to sea, as well as to deprive America of its economic livelihood by preventing merchant ships from leaving port (and capturing those caught at sea). However, the concurrent Napoleonic Wars and demands of a global empire meant that the full might of the Royal Navy could not be brought to bear on the United States, especially considering the amount of coastline available to the Americans. Priority was placed on major ports, especially any where American warships were berthed. The Royal Navy was successful in bottling up some of the United States Navy for periods of time, but never all of it—in fact, there were multiple times in which American warships and privateers managed to slip out of port in spite of the British squadrons posted to stop them.

While the blockades were crippling to the United States economy (practically recreating the problems caused by the Embargo Act of 1807) and British commerce raiding was able to all but annihilate the merchant marine, the Royal Navy's inability to decisively defeat the U.S. Navy or to stop American privateers resulted in serious economic pain for the British Empire as well. Americans gave as good as they got when it came to commerce raiding, seizing roughly as many British merchant ships as the British had of American merchant ships. This caused insurance rates for the British to triple compared to the darkest days of the Napoleonic wars, even for as short a jaunt as between Liverpool and Ireland. During the war Lloyd's of London based their insurance rates for a merchant ship traveling between the British Isles and either Canada or the West Indies at about 1/4 the value of both the ship and the cargo because they did not expect more than 3/4 to actually make it across the Atlantic without being either sunk or captured.

Adding to that is the fact that U.S. Navy warships won multiple warship duels ("single-ship actions") against those of the Royal Navy. USS Constitution, in particular, demonstrated the worth of Humphrey's unorthodox frigate design by fighting and defeating four other British warships—two of which were fought at once, with their combined number of guns nearly equaling her own—and taking a fifth without much of a fight. While these victories did nothing to appreciably diminish British naval power (the Royal Navy had well over 700 warships, after all) they had a powerful psychological impact on the British (and did much for American morale and perceptions of both nations worldwide). It was enough that the Naval Chronicle, a British periodical dedicated to the Royal Navy, began loudly calling for peace.

Without appropriate context, it may be hard to understand why the U.S. Navy's victories had such an impact. Prior to the conflict with America, the Royal Navy had most of Europe quaking in fear. British gun crews were renowned for their speed, allowing British warships to attain up to three times the rate of fire as their opponents. This allowed the Royal Navy to easily emerge victorious from battles in which they were outnumbered and/or outgunned, from single-ship actions like the defeat and capture of the Foudroyant (a French 80-gun ship-of-the-line) at the hands of HMS Monmouth (a 66-gun ship of the line) to fleet engagements like the Battle of Trafalgar itself. From 1793 to 1815, in fact, the Royal Navy captured 229 frigates from the French, and only lost 17 to them in turn. Such was British strength that, in 1807, the Royal Navy successfully besieged neutral Denmark's city of Copenhagen in order to take almost all of the Royal Danish Navy into possession, just so that Napoleon couldn't do it first.

By the time of the War of 1812, the Royal Navy's reputation led to a demoralized, self-defeating attitude among most naval powers. It also became a source of hubris for the British, who had come to see their naval hegemony as the natural order of things. To wit, a periodical called the British Naval Register had proudly declared, "The winds and seas are Britain's wide domain—and not a sail, but by permission, spreads!" During the War of 1812, this was mockingly quoted in American periodicals alongside lists of captured British ships.

     Glorious Victory! 

With the acceptance of the treaty, everything more or less returned to how it had been previous to the confrontation. Neither side retained any land it captured, bar the USA's annexation of Spanish Mobile/'Florida', and despite the damage done to the US economy the only party that suffered in the long-term was the Natives - who lost their bid for their own neutral state during peace talks. With the death of Tecumseh, and the mutual agreement of the US and British governments, there would not and could never be an Amerindian state that could prevent the ethnic cleansing and conquest of their lands by the US. Although the Amerindian population would continue to increase, US propaganda would increasingly portray them as a 'dying race' that was going extinct as a way of justifying the ongoing seizure of their lands and attempts to integrate them into US society that would eventually end with them all being 'second-class' US citizens with lesser rights than ethnic-Europeans under the law (until the 1960s, when they were granted equal rights).

Losses are estimated at 5000 deaths on the British side and 15,000 on the American side; though most Canadian militia and Native losses went unrecorded, fairly important when some of the most important battles of the war were fought by the Natives. It also doesn't take into account the large number of British sailors who defected or deserted. No compensation was paid by either side for damages though the British did pay $1,204,960 in damages to Washington to reimburse the slave-owners whose slaves defected to the British side or escaped in the confusion of the war.

Today the war is largely forgotten due to its lacklustre outcome; other than being the source of the US national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner", the war is barely remembered there. In Canada, however, it was a defining event that fostered a quiet determination to remain British and distinct from the United States. After the creation of the Canadian nation, the outcome of the war became a point of national pride where the seeds of Canada's creation were planted. In Britain, of course, only historians remember it. That and people who watched Hornblower. As for the actual outcome of the war, the only clear losers were the Amerindians, whose last best attempt at uniting in the face of European Expansionism had failed. Their populations devastated and displaced by the US campaign, they were no longer able to form a serious check to the western expansion of the United States. The United States also secured New Orleans right at the last second — if the war had dragged on another few months and The Cabinet had deemed it worthwhile to take New Orleans back, the relatively small and over-stretched US Army would not have been able to defend the town. As it was, they were very fortunate to capture it when they did, as it meant that there would be no foreign checks to US expansion through central-northern America either.

Bernard Cornwell, author of the Sharpe series, summed up the war very well: "What was to be expected in each theatre was inverted, with the exception of the major battles: The British inflicted a string of defeats on the numerically superior American Army, but lost the Battles of New Orleans and Plattsburgh. The US Navy inflicted a series of defeats on the far more powerful Royal Navy, but failed to prevent them raiding the Chesapeake and burning Washington."

A more comprehensive article and links to other related articles can be found on The Other Wiki.

Not to be confused with the other war of 1812.

Tropes as portrayed in fiction:

  • National Anthem:
    • "The Star-Spangled Banner" was famously inspired by the defense of Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore.
    • On the Canadian side, the second verse of "The Maple Leaf Forever" references 1812 (particularly "Queenston Heights and Lundy's Lane") in much the same way.

Appears in the following works:

  • The Alternate History Decades of Darkness has this time period as its point of divergence. Thomas Jefferson dies early in 1809, leading to war tensions ramping up earlier, a "War of 1811", and New England seceding as a result, taking New York and New Jersey with it. The war ends with a British/Yankee curb-stomp victory that sees Chicago (sorry, Dearborn) becoming Canadian and Michigan becoming New England territory.
  • An episode of Due South has a Canadian general reference a Curb-Stomp Battle that the Canadians won during this war. A battle that the American police chief he was yelling at never heard of.
    • Another episode has Constable Fraser addressing an American elementary school class describing the war similarly, stating that the Americans invaded Canada, and "we sent you packing."
  • The first book of Eric Flint's Trail of Glory series, The Rivers of Warnote  is an Alternate History story set during the war.
  • College Humor spoofs the relative obscurity of this war in the mock trailer of a fictitious War Of 1812 movie, where the characters can't even figure out what the war is being fought over and against whom.
  • The Alternate History short story "Empire" by William Sanders has Napoleon moving to the United States and coming into American military service. He then promptly backstabbed it (with the help of the likes of Aaron Burr, Andrew Jackson, Davy Crockett, and Sam Houston) and carved out his own Empire of the Louisiana. Said empire is embroiled in wars against America and the Spanish colonies, which expand but later weaken it. The novel is set in an alternate War of 1812 fought between the British and Napoleon's Empire, leading to the defeat and dissolution of the Empire and the Duke of Wellington darkly commenting in the end that "perhaps we shall see about the damned Yankees and their so-called United States of America."
  • Three Dead Trolls in a Baggie made a song called "The War of 1812", which is often misattributed to The Arrogant Worms. It recounts an inaccurate and pro-Canadian version of the events.
  • Several novels of the Aubrey-Maturin saga have Aubrey and Maturin and the Royal Navy fighting against the U.S. Navy during the war. Aubrey is even on board HMS Java in one of the books, during her fateful battle with USS Constitution. The film adaptation of the series, Master and Commander, draws elements from several of the books (including some that have to do with the War of 1812), but instead opts to pit Aubrey against a French privateer instead.
  • Horatio Hornblower is noteworthy for not featuring this conflict, due to C.S. Forester being quite aware of the size of the American audience for his books. Presumably to avoid either pitting Hornblower against the Americans and to also avoid doing a retread of Hornblower and the Hotspur by instead having him work blockade duty in Europe, Forester gave Hornblower a small squadron of ships and dispatched him to help the Russians break the French Siege of Riga in Commodore Hornblower.
  • A singer named Johnny Horton had a big hit with "The Battle of New Orleans" in 1959.
    We fired once more and they begin to runnin'
    On down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico

Alternative Title(s):

War Of 1812