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The War of 1812 Previous Next
Digital History ID 2988


The United States was woefully unprepared for war. The army consisted of fewer than 7,000 soldiers, few trained officers, and a navy with just 6 warships. In contrast, Britain had nearly 400 warships.

The American strategy called for a three-pronged invasion of Canada and heavy harassment of British shipping. The attack on Canada, however, was a disastrous failure. At Detroit, 2,000 American troops surrendered to a much smaller British and Indian force. An attack across the Niagara River, near Buffalo, resulted in 900 American prisoners of war. Along Lake Champlain, a third army retreated into American territory after failing to cut undefended British supply lines.

In 1813 America suffered new failures, including the defeat and capture of the American army in the swamps west of Lake Erie. Only a series of unexpected victories at the end of the year raised American spirits. On September 10, 1813, America won a major naval victory at the Battle of Lake Erie near Put-in-Bay at the western end of Lake Erie. There, Master-Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry, who had built a fleet at Presque Isle (Erie, Pennsylvania) successfully engaged six British ships. Though Perry's flagship, the Lawrence, was disabled in the fighting, he went on to capture the British fleet. He reported his victory with the stirring words, "We have met the enemy and they are ours.''

The Battle of Lake Erie was America's first major victory of the war. It forced the British to abandon Detroit and retreat toward Niagara. On October 5, 1813, Major General William Henry Harrison overtook the retreating British army and their Indian allies at the Thames River. He won a decisive victory in which the Indian leader Tecumseh was killed, thereby ending the fighting strength of the northwestern Indians.

In the spring of 1814, Britain defeated Napoleon in Europe, freeing 18,000 veteran British troops to participate in an invasion of the United States. The British planned to invade the United States at three points: upstate New York across the Niagara River and Lake Champlain, the Chesapeake Bay, and New Orleans. The London Times expressed the confident English mood: Oh, may no false liberality, no mistaken lenity, no weak and cowardly policy interpose to save the United States from the blow! Strike! Chastise the savages, for such they are.... Our demands may be couched in a single word--Submission!'

At Niagara, however, American forces, outnumbered more than three to one, halted Britain's invasion from the north. Britain then landed 4,000 soldiers on the Chesapeake Bay coast and marched on Washington, D.C., where untrained soldiers lacking uniforms and standard equipment were protecting the capital. The result was chaos. President Madison narrowly escaped capture by British forces. On August 24, 1814, the British humiliated the nation by capturing and burning Washington, D.C. President Madison and his wife Dolley were forced to flee the capital--carrying with them many of the nation's treasures, including the Declaration of Independence and Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington. The British arrived so soon after the president fled that the officers dined on a White House meal that had been prepared for the Madisons and 40 invited guests.

Britain's next objective was Baltimore. To reach the city, British warships had to pass the guns of Fort McHenry, manned by 1,000 American soldiers. Waving atop the fort was the largest garrison flag ever designed--30 feet by 42 feet. On September 13, 1814, British warships began a 25-hour bombardment of Fort McHenry. British vessels anchored two miles off shore--close enough so that their guns could hit the fort, but too far for American shells to reach them. All through the night British cannons bombarded Fort McHenry, firing between 1,500 and 1,800 cannon balls at the fort. In the light of the "rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,'' Francis Scott Key, a young lawyer detained on a British ship, saw the American flag waving over the fort. At dawn on September 14, he saw the flag still waving. The Americans had repulsed the British attack, with only 4 soldiers killed and 24 wounded.

Key was so moved by the American victory that he wrote a poem entitled "The Star-Spangled Banner" on the back of an old envelope. The song was destined to become the young nation's national anthem.

The country still faced grave threats in the South. On January 8, 1815, the British fleet and a battle-tested 10,000-man army finally attacked New Orleans. To defend the city, Jackson assembled a ragtag army, including French pirates, Choctaw Indians, western militia, and freed slaves. Although British forces outnumbered Americans by more than 2 to 1, American artillery and sharpshooters stopped the invasion. American losses totaled only 8 dead and 13 wounded, while British casualties were 2,036.

Ironically, American and British negotiators in Ghent, Belgium, had signed the peace treaty ending the War of 1812 two weeks earlier. Britain, convinced that the American war was so difficult and costly that nothing would be gained from further fighting, agreed to return to the conditions that existed before the war. Left unmentioned in the peace treaty were the issues over which Americans had fought the war--impressment and British interference with American trade.

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