1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/American War of 1812

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AMERICAN WAR OF 1812. The war between the United States and Great Britain, commonly known as “of 1812,” began by the American declaration of war on the 18th of June of that year, and lasted till the beginning of 1815. The treaty of peace signed at Ghent on the 24th of December 1814 was ratified by the president of the United States on the 17th of February 1815. These two years and a half of conflict were filled with isolated encounters which can hardly be reduced to coherent and ordered operations. Although the outbreak of war had been preceded by years of angry diplomatic dispute, the United States were absolutely unready, while Great Britain was still hard pressed by the hostility of Napoleon, and was compelled to retain the greater part of her forces and her best crews in European waters, till the ruin of the Grande Armée in Russia and the rising of Germany left her free to send an overwhelming force of ships to American waters.

The forces actually available on the American side when the war began consisted of a small squadron of very fine frigates and sloops in an efficient state. Twenty-two was the extreme limit of the naval force the States were able to commission. The paper strength of the army was 35,000, but the service was voluntary and unpopular, while there was an almost total want of trained and experienced officers. The available strength was a bare third of the nominal. The militia, called in to aid the regulars, proved untrustworthy. They objected to serve beyond the limits of their states, were not amenable to discipline, and behaved as a rule very ill in the presence of the enemy. On the British side, the naval force in American waters under Sir John Borlase Warren, who took up the general command on the 26th of September 1812, consisted of ninety-seven vessels in all, of which eleven were of the line and thirty-four were frigates, a power much greater than the national navy of America, but inadequate to the blockade of the long coast from New Brunswick to Florida. The total number of British troops present in Canada in July 1812 was officially stated to be 5004, consisting in part of Canadians.

The scene of operations naturally divided into three sections:—(1) the ocean; (2) the Canadian frontier, from Lake Huron, by Lakes Erie and Ontario, the course of the St Lawrence and Lake Champlain; (3) the coast of the United States. As the operations on these three fields had little interaction on one another, it will be more convenient to take them separately than to follow the confusing chronological order.

Operations on the Ocean.—These cover all cruises of sea-going ships, even when they did not go far from the coast. They again subdivide into the actions of national vessels, and the raids of the privateers. The first gave to the United States the most brilliant successes of the war. When it began two small squadrons were getting ready for sea at New York; the frigate “President” (44) and sloop “Hornet” (18), under Commodore John Rodgers, who had also the general command; and the frigates “United States” (44) and “Congress” (38), with the brig “Argus” (16) to which two guns were afterwards added, under Captain Stephen Decatur. Rodgers would have preferred to keep his command together, and to strike with it at the main course of British commerce, but he was overruled. He sailed on the 21st of June, and after chasing the British frigate “Belvidera” (36), which escaped into Halifax by throwing boats, &c., overboard, stood across the North Atlantic in search of a West Indian convoy, which he failed to sight, returning by the 31st of August to Boston. While he was absent, Captain Isaac Hull, commanding the “Constitution” (44), sailed from the Chesapeake, and after a narrow escape from a British squadron, which pursued him from the 18th to the 20th of July, reached Boston. Going to sea again on the 2nd of August he captured and burned the British frigate “Guerrière,” (38). On the 8th of October Rodgers and Decatur sailed—the first on a cruise to the east, the second to the south. Commodore Rodgers met with no marked success, but on the 25th of October Captain Decatur in the “United States” captured the British frigate “Macedonian” (38), which he carried back to port. At the close of the month Captain Bainbridge sailed with the “Constitution,” “Essex” (32) and “Hornet” (18) on a southerly cruise. On the 20th of December, when off Bahia, he fell in with the British frigate “Java” (38), which was carrying General Hislop, the governor of Bombay, to India, and took her after a sharp action. The “Essex” and “Hornet” were not in company. The first, under the command of Captain David Porter, went on to the Pacific, where she did great injury to British trade, till she was captured off Valparaiso by the British frigate “Phoebe” (38) and the sloop “Cherub” (24) on the 28th of March 1814. In these actions, except the last, the Americans had the advantage of greater size and a heavier broadside, but they showed excellent seamanship and gunnery. The capture of three British frigates one after another caused a painful impression in Great Britain and stimulated her to greater exertions. Vessels were accumulated on the American sea-board, and the watch became more strict. On the 1st of June 1813 the capture of the U.S. frigate “Chesapeake” (38), by the British frigate “Shannon” (38), a vessel of equal force, counterbalanced the moral effect of previous disasters. The blockade of American ports was already so close that the United States ships found it continually more difficult to get to sea, or to keep the sea without meeting forces of irresistibly superior strength.

The operations of American privateers were too numerous and far-ranging to be told in detail. They continued active till the close of the war, and were only partially baffled by the strict enforcement of convoy by the British authorities. A signal instance of the audacity of the American cruisers was the capture of the U.S. sloop “Argus” (20) by the British sloop “Pelican” (18) so far from home as St David’s Head in Wales on the 14th of August 1813. The “Pelican’s” guns were heavier than those of the “Argus.”

Operations on the Lakes.—The American people, who had expected little from their diminutive navy, had calculated with confidence on being able to overrun Canada. As, however, they had taken no effectual measures to provide a mobile force they were disappointed. The British general, Sir George Prevost, was neither able nor energetic, but his subordinate, Major-General Isaac Brock, was both. In July, before the Americans were ready, Brock seized Mackinac at the head of Lake Huron; and on the 16th of August Detroit in the channel between Huron and Erie was surrendered. Kingston was held at the east end of Ontario. Montreal on the St Lawrence was a strong position on the British side to which, however, the Americans had an easy road of approach by Lake Champlain. Sound reasoning would have led the Americans to direct their chief attacks on Kingston and Montreal, since success at those points would have isolated the British posts on Lakes Ontario, Erie and Huron. But they were much influenced by fear of the Indians, who had been won over to the British side by the energy of Brock. They therefore looked more carefully to the lakes than to the course of the St Lawrence, and it may be added that their leaders showed an utter want of capacity for the intelligent conduct of war.

The impracticable character of the communications by land made it absolutely necessary for both parties to obtain control of the water. Neither had made any preparations, and the war largely resolved itself into a race of shipbuilding. The Americans, who had far greater facilities for building than the British, allowed themselves to be forestalled. In the second half of 1812 the British general, Sir Isaac Brock, lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, adopted measures for opposing the Americans on the frontier line, between Huron and Erie. The American brigadier-general William Hull invaded Canada on the 12th of July from Detroit, just below the small Lake of St Clair between Huron and Erie. His army was mainly composed of militiamen, who behaved very badly, and his papers having been captured in a boat, his plans were revealed. General Brock drove him back and forced him to surrender at Detroit on the 16th of August. Brock now promptly transferred himself to the western end of Erie, where the American general Henry Dearborn was attempting another invasion. Brock fell in action on the 13th of October, while repulsing Dearborn’s subordinate Van Rensselaer, a politician named to command by favour, and ignorant of a soldier’s business. The Americans were driven back. In this field also their militia behaved detestably. The Canadians on the other hand, both the French who were traditionally amenable to authority and those of English descent, who being largely sons of loyalists of the War of Independence had a bitter hatred of the Americans, did excellent service. The discontent of New England with the war both hampered the American generals and also aided the British, who drew their supplies to a great extent from United States territory. On the 22nd of January 1813, at Frenchtown, the American troops under Winchester surrendered to a British and Indian force under Procter.

During the winter both sides were busy in building ships. On Ontario the Americans pushed on their preparations at Sackett’s Harbour under Isaac Chauncey; the English were similarly engaged at Kingston. Sir James Lucas Yeo took command on the 15th of May 1813. On Erie the American headquarters were at Presqu’ Isle, now the city of Erie; the English at Fort Malden. The American commander was Captain Oliver Perry, the British commander, Captain Robert Barclay. On Lake Ontario Yeo formed a more mobile though less powerful force than Chauncey’s, and therefore manoeuvred to avoid being brought to close action. Three engagements, on the 10th of August, 11th of September and 28th of September, led to no decisive result. By the close of the war Yeo had constructed a ship of 102 guns which gave him the superiority, and the British became masters of Lake Ontario. On Lake Erie the energy of Captain Perry, aided by what appears to have been the misjudgment of Barclay, enabled him to get a superior force by the 4th of August, and on the 10th of September he fought a successful action which left the Americans masters of Lake Erie. The military operations were subordinate to the naval. In April 1813 the Americans took York (now Toronto), and in May moved on Fort George; but a counter-attack by Yeo and Prevost on Sackett’s Harbour, on the 29th of May, having made the Americans anxious about the safety of their base, naval support failed the American generals, and they were paralysed. A success was gained by them (October 5) at the Thames, where the Indian chief Tecumseh fell, but they made no serious progress. The Americans turned to the east of Ontario, intending to assail Montreal by the St Lawrence in combination with their forces at Lake Champlain. But the combination failed; they were severely harassed on the St Lawrence, and the invasion was given up.

The operations of 1814 bear a close resemblance to those of 1813, with, however, one important difference. The American generals, having by this time brought their troops to order, were able to fight with much better effect. Their attack on the Niagara peninsula led to hot fighting at Chippewa (July 5) and Lundy’s Lane (July 25), the first a success for the Americans, the second a drawn battle. The fall of Napoleon having now freed the British government from the obligation to retain its army in Europe, troops from Spain began to pour in. But on the Canadian frontier they made little difference. In August 1814 Sir George Prevost attacked the American forces at Champlain. But his naval support, ill prepared, was hurried into action by him at Plattsburg on the 11th of September, and defeated. Prevost then retired. His management of the war, more especially on Lake Champlain, was severely criticized, and he was threatened with a court-martial, but died before the trial came on. A British occupation of part of the coast of Maine proved to be mere demonstration.

Operations on the American Coast.—When the war began the British naval forces were unequal to the work of blockading the whole coast. They were also much engaged in seeking for the American cruisers under Rodgers, Decatur and Bainbridge. The British government, having need of American foodstuffs for its army in Spain, was willing to benefit by the discontent of the New Englanders. No blockade of New England was at first attempted. The Delaware and Chesapeake were declared in a state of blockade on the 26th of December 1812. This was extended to the whole coast south of Narragansett by November 1813, and to the whole American coast on the 31st of May 1814. In the meantime much illicit trade was carried on by collusive captures arranged between American traders and British officers. American ships were fraudulently transferred to neutral flags. Eventually the United States government was driven to issue orders for the purpose of stopping illicit trading, and the commerce of the country was ruined. The now overpowering strength of the British fleet enabled it to occupy the Chesapeake and to execute innumerable attacks of a destructive character on docks and harbours. The burning by the American general McClure, on the 10th of December 1813, of Newark (Niagara on the Lake), for which severe retaliation was taken at Buffalo, was made the excuse for much destruction. The most famous of these destructive raids was the burning of the public buildings at Washington by Sir Alexander Cochrane, who succeeded Warren in April in the naval command, and General Robert Ross. The expedition was carried out between the 19th and 29th of August 1814, and was well organized and vigorously executed.[1] On the 24th the American militia, collected at Bladensburg to protect the capital, fled almost before they were attacked. A subsequent attack on Baltimore, in which General Ross was killed (September 12, 1814), was a failure. The expedition to New Orleans (q.v.) is separately dealt with.

Authorities.—In his Sea Power in its Relations to the War of 1812 Captain Mahan has given a careful account of the war by land and sea with reference to services. The Naval War of 1812, by Theodore Roosevelt (New York, 1882), is lively but somewhat passionate, and not free from prejudice. A vehement statement of the Canadian side will be found in How Canada was held for the Empire, by James Hannay (London, Edinburgh, Toronto, 1905). See also The Canadian War of 1812, by Charles P. Lucas (Oxford, 1906).  (D. H.) 

  1. The burning of Washington was an act of vandalism by no means approved of by many of the British officers who were compelled to take part in it. (See Smith, Sir Henry George Wakelyn.)