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. 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. The British don't even remember it happened—and when they do, it's usually to gloat about burning the White House down, something for which Canadians tend to take credit more often than not.
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 - but amusingly enough, British involvement in the War of 1812 forced The Duke of Wellington to use second-rate troops in Waterloo, as most of the British Army's veteran units were still coming home from North America. 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.
The exact causes of the war, as you might expect, are disputed by historians. One view, more popular in past decades, is that the casus belli of "Free Trade and Sailor's Rights" was merely a cover for American desires to conquer British and Spanish North America—that is, modern-day Canada and the state of Florida. Certainly some of the "War Hawks" desired this, but there were other factors—Britain had a long-term goal of establishing a Native American buffer state in modern-day Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. However meager it might have been, British support for Native American raids made Anglo-American relations worse, and encouraged the view that the only way to get the the raids to stop would be to kick the British out of North America.
Meanwhile, Great Britain was busy helping the very-nearly-conquered Kingdoms of Portugal and Spain fight the Peninsular War against the Empire of France. Traders in the United States 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 in domestic ports and began to search American vessels they encountered for deserters. While deserters were supposedly easily identifiable by the letters "RN" tattooed onto them, there are numerous accounts of Americans getting caught up in impressment as the Royal Navy grew more desperate to replace manpower. Considering that at this point British and American citizens were still largely indistinguishable in culture and language, Royal Navy officers increasingly cared not to make a distinction. One American merchantman had almost been completely relieved of her crew. Granted, the 19th century wasn't a good time for exact or even approximate numbers for anything, so nobody at the time had a good idea of just how many deserters had actually been reclaimed, or how many impressed sailors were unfortunate American civilians.
Regardless, the Royal Navy completely ignored the usual diplomatic channels. They ignored the sovereignty of the government of the United States, of whom the Royal Navy hadn't even asked for permission—it's better to ask for forgiveness than permission, as the saying goes. The American government had real troubles being taken seriously abroad and particularly at home. In spite of the recently-ratified Constitution formally joining the former colonies into a "more perfect union," most Americans still thought of it as a tight-knit alliance of sovereign states, a little like the European Union today.
The traders and coastal states which owned and operated the ships 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. On the other hand, the impressment 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 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—and the British, too, weren't exactly happy about the response visited upon HMS Little Belt by USS President.
Meanwhile, around the Great Lakes in what is now Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois, the Indian tribes were uniting under a charismatic new leader, Tecumseh. Seeing this, the War Hawk generation suspected British involvement, and clamored for war with Great Britain. The Western states of the Union (in what we would now call the Midwest and Upland South) would not stand for such a plot. 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 British had a vocal, hawkish minority of their own as well: contemporary sources describe the hatred British citizenry felt for Americans, viewing them as upstart yokels. Just as in America, there were calls for a declaration of war—even calls for an invasion and reconquest of the former colonies.
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 Royal Navy was forced to commit a full fifth of its ships (eleven of which were ships of the line) 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, D.C. 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.
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 of note, with most of what it did have laid up in ordinary. Furthermore, there were no ships-of-the-line, a necessity in fighting fleet battles. This dearth of ships was partially due to the relative youth of the service, but mostly because of the isolationist and defensive stance of Thomas Jefferson's administration. He preferred the idea of using large numbers of gunboats in combination with coastal defenses. Without purpose-built ships for fleet engagements, the U.S. Navy couldn't hope to fight the Royal Navy on equal terms. In fact, 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 capturing merchant ships or preventing them from leaving port. 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. Even when Napoleon was finally defeated and the British sent 15,000 soldiers (and 135 ships, just over a fifth of the whole Royal Navy) from the European theater to deal with the Americans, the U.S. Navy resisted annihilation.
While the blockades crippled the American economy—practically recreating the problems caused by the Embargo Act of 1807—and British commerce raiding wiped out 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, taking roughly as many British merchantmen as the Royal Navy took from the American merchant marine. (Exact numbers vary from source to source.) All told, British insurance rates tripled compared to the darkest days of the Napoleonic wars, even for a jaunt as short as between Liverpool and Ireland—American privateers especially liked prowling British home waters. 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.
Meanwhile, U.S. Navy warships won multiple warship duels ("single-ship actions") against 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 publishing articles agape at American naval prowess alongside loud calls 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 their 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 and took nearly 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 of Europe's naval powers. It also became a source of hubris for the British, who had come to see their 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. In battle, American gun crews were almost as fast as those of the British. Despite being being a hundredth of the Royal Navy's size, the U.S. Navy—and America's privateers—gave the British one hell of a fight.
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).
In terms of casualties, Historian Michael Clodfelter estimates that 2,200 to 3,700 Americans were killed in action, while 1,160 to 1,900 British suffered the same fate. In total, 15,000 Americans and 10,000 British are thought to have died from all causes. 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. 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 American 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 Native American tibes, whose last best attempt at uniting in the face of expansionism had failed. Their populations devastated and displaced by the war, 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 American expansion through the Midwest, 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.
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 first book of Eric Flint's Trail of Glory series, The Rivers of Warnote is an Alternate History story set during the war.
- 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."
- 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 Ship of the Line 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. Forester does nod to it in one novel, when Hornblower sees an American ship and wonders if they'll break neutrality by opposing Napoleon, or if they'll have another go at the Brits for old time's sake. A short story in which Hornblower has to evade an American ship while taking George III on a yachting trip, but the short stories are of dubious canonicity.
- The Shadow Over Innsmouth mentions the war in the backstory for the titular town. During the war, the British raided the town. This contributes to the town's decline.
- Due South:
- An episode 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 third Horatio Hornblower makes an allusion to the conflict when Hornblower conscripts a shipwrecked American sailor into his crew (as mentioned, one of the main grievances) although it takes place about ten years before the war.
- Taboo takes place in 1814 when the war between the United Kingdom and the United States is nearing its end. The main character uses the land rights over Nootka Sound on the Pacific Ocean that he inherited from his late father to manipulate the British Crown, East India Company, and the Americans against each other.
- 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.
- 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
- The Alternate History story 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 (er, Dearborn) and Seattle becoming Canadian cities, Michigan becoming New England territory, and the defeated US heading in some very dark directions afterwards.
- CollegeHumor 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.American soldier: [cradling wounded British soldier] Why are you fighting us?British soldier: I defend... England's right to... [dies]American soldier: To what? TO WHAT!?