“It produced some of America’s most enduring symbols and heroes, yet it remains one of the United States’ ‘forgotten wars.’”
THE WAR OF 1812 stands as one of the most ironic conflicts in U.S. history.
The two-and-a-half-year Anglo-American feud should never have happened. It sprung from a diplomatic impasse between Washington and London that had already been settled by the time the first shots were being fired.
There was no winner in the War of 1812 and no loser; both sides simply agreed to terminate hostilities.The fighting, which was heaviest along the Canada-U.S. border, ultimately changed nothing. Captured territory and property was returned after the war and the frontiers between America and Britain’s Canadian colonies remained largely unaltered.
The conflict produced some of America’s most iconic symbols and heroes (the USS Constitution, Andrew Jackson, The Star Spangled Banner), yet it’s still considered one of the United States’ ‘forgotten wars.’
And the many oddities of the War of 1812 don’t end there. Here are a dozen surprising facts about America’s most outlandish armed conflict.
1. The war was a by-product of the Revolution
The Revolution had not yet been over for 30 years when Great Britain and America were once again at war. In fact, the fighting that erupted in 1812 was very much the result of the bad blood that persisted between the two nations following independence. For years, London grudgingly accepted the legitimacy of the United States yet still refused to withdraw troops from its forts and outposts deep in the American interior. Worse, the native raiders that frequently attacked the settlements along the frontier carried British muskets and were incited by the Crown’s own agents. Each raid left Americans howling for revenge. While the landmark Jay Treaty, signed in 1794, eased a number of lingering trade issues between the two estranged nations, the agreement expired after 10 years. Negotiations for a follow-up accord failed. Tensions began to mount.
2. It was a land war fought for freedom of the seas
America’s anger finally boiled amid a series of high-handed maritime policies from London known as the 1807 Orders in Council. The new decree called on Royal Navy warships to bar U.S. vessels from trading in Napoleon’s European ports, something that cost Yankee commercial interests dearly. Worse, England saw fit to intercept all American ships at sea and randomly conscript by force members of their crews to serve in the perpetually undermanned King’s navy, a practice known as “impressment.” Interfering with trade was one thing, but seizing U.S. citizens was intolerable injury to America’s national honour. President James Madison condemned the aggression, but his protestations were repeatedly ignored. America’s commander-in-chief finally yielded to pressure from Congressional War Hawks to restore the nation’s honour and on June 18, 1812, the U.S. declared hostilities against Great Britain. Without the naval might to defeat Britain at sea, Washington opted instead for a ground war against England’s lightly defended North American colonies: Upper and Lower Canada. Many in the U.S. capital believed that such a conquest was inevitable. After all, the doctrine of Manifest Destiny held that American domination of the whole of the continent was virtually preordained.
3. To Britain, the war was a sideshow
Britain, consumed by its ongoing conflict with Napoleonic France, was slow to appreciate the seriousness of America’s growing outrage, let alone the tremendous distraction a conflict with United States would present. By the time the British prime minister, Lord Liverpool, signalled Washington that His Majesty’s government would end its incendiary maritime policies, Washington was just days away from opening hostilities. In fact, America’s armies were already on the march when the news of British concessions finally reached the U.S. capital.
4. The U.S. expected a speedy victory
American planned for a rapid campaign. Its strategy in the summer of 1812 involved a three-pronged offensive into Upper Canada, a colony of fewer than 80,000 inhabitants. One army would invade British territory opposite Detroit. Another would cross the Niagara River and march on the colonial capital of York (now Toronto). A third column would traverse the St. Lawrence, take Montreal and drive on to Quebec City and perhaps even Halifax. Facing just a few regiments of Redcoats spread across a chain of forts spanning a territory roughly equal to the size of Texas, the invaders were supposed to be home by Christmas; few feared resistance from the local inhabitants. After all, the population of Upper Canada was a curious mix of Tory exiles who had fled America after the Revolution and recently arrived Yankee settlers drawn north by the promise of cheap land — the former would likely be too old to fight; the latter would be unwilling to raise their muskets to their former countrymen. Meanwhile, the French-speaking habitants of Lower Canada largely indifferent to the British. Former president Thomas Jefferson captured the mood in America at the outset of the war. “The acquisition of Canada this year… will be a mere matter of marching,” he famously proclaimed. The prediction was quickly proven wrong. America would eventually launch no fewer than six major invasions of Canadian soil between 1812 and 1814 – all failed miserably.
5. It was fought by miniature armies…
By European standards, the war in North America was downright miniscule. The conflict’s many battles were brief contests between a few hundred troops on each side – certainly a far cry from the epic clashes being fought in Europe, which often drew in armies of 100,000 men or more. The British could muster only about 1,700 professional regulars in the whole of Upper Canada. These troops would be supported by militia units of mixed reliability. Although the U.S., a burgeoning nation of more than 7 million, could field many thousands of infantrymen and even more state militiamen, it divided its forces between several fronts along the Great Lakes. As such, most of the battles of the War of 1812 were little more than skirmishes; combat casualties were astonishingly low. Even some of the conflict’s largest and most important encounters saw fewer than 100 killed. In fact, the the total combined battlefield deaths for the entire war numbered not more than 3,500 – a butcher’s bill far lower than even a minor Napoleonic skirmish.
6. … but the brutality was epic
Yet for such a small war, things got surprisingly brutal quickly. On more than one occasion, Britain’s native allies slaughtered prisoners of war — like at the River Raisin and in the aftermath of the Battle of Beaver Dams. Civilians were also targets. Warriors directed by royal agents also brought the war to settlements as far west as Fort Dearborn (modern-day Chicago) and beyond, where innocents were murdered wholesale. For their part, Americans served up their own atrocities. Settlements in Upper Canada including Port Dover, Niagara and even the capital of York (now Toronto) were plundered and put to the torch. As such forays continued, the colony’s once docile inhabitants gradually came to resent the Yankee aggressors and flocked to the defence of the territory. The British and their native allies responded to the American attacks by burning U.S. towns like Black Rock (now Buffalo, New York). And in the final summer of the war, Royal Navy shore parties began razing villages up and down the Eastern Seaboard.
7. It was a war of landlocked navies
While the War of 1812 featured a number of single-ship actions actions at sea, the most important naval battle of the conflict was fought 1,000 miles from an ocean. In September of 1813, a nine-ship American fleet under the command of Oliver Hazard Perry hammered a squadron of British ships on Lake Erie. Exactly a year later, 14 British and Canadian vessels would lose to a roughly equal-sized flotilla on Lake Champlain near Plattsburg, New York. While most of the freshwater vessels to see action in the conflict were tiny sloops, schooners and brigs, both sides rushed to fill the lakes with enormous ships-of-the-line. The 112-gun HMS St. Lawrence was launched on Lake Ontario during the last year of the war, although it never saw action. Almost equal in size to HMS Victory, the hulking vessel was the only commissioned Royal Navy ship in history never to touch salt water. The United States rushed to match the St. Lawrence with two 130-gun fighting vessels. The war ended before either could be completed.
8. Each side had its share of inept generals…
Some of worst military leaders in American history led armies in the War of 1812. There was Stephen van Rensselaer, a Congressman from New York who was appointed to command a massive army on the Niagara frontier solely because of his political connections. His invasion of Upper Canada in October of 1812 was nothing short of farcical. And consider James Wilkinson, the general in charge of American forces on the St. Lawrence River. A Revolutionary War hold-over who was well past his prime, the 56-year-old Maryland native botched two separate campaigns before being drummed out of the service. It was later discovered he was also a paid agent of the Spanish crown. And let’s not forget William Hull. The 59-year-old Michigan governor surrendered Fort Detroit to an enemy force half the size of his own without firing a shot. He was later tried for cowardice and condemned to death. President Madison commuted the sentence. The United States hardly had a monopoly on incompetence. With most of Britain’s brightest and best officers fighting with Wellington in Spain; the defence of Canada fell to some rather mediocre commanders. Consider Henry Patrick Procter. His bungling of the British defence at the Battle of Moraviantown led to his court martial for “deficiency in energy and judgment.”
9. … but there was no shortage of heroes
On the other hand, the conflict also produced many brilliant leaders. Winfield Scott, the longest serving general in U.S. history, first saw combat during the War of 1812. In fact, he fought in no fewer than five major battles and was even wounded and captured at Queenston Heights. Five future presidents were also combatants in the conflict. These included: James Buchanan, Zachery Taylor, John Tyler, William Henry Harrison and Andrew Jackson, whose defence of New Orleans became the stuff of American legend.
There were a number of celebrated figures on the British and Canadian side as well. During the war’s second summer, the heroine Laura Secord famously trekked 20 miles on foot across the front lines to carry word of an impending American attack. And consider the French Canadian Charles-Michel d’Irumberry de Salaberry. He joined the British Army as a teenager and served for years in Europe with the 60th Regiment of Foot only to return home to commanded a regiment of elite Francophone light infantry known as the Canadian Voltigeurs.
The charismatic war chief Tecumseh organized a confederation of natives to help shore up the defence of Canada. These warriors would prove vital in a number of battles. In exchange for his loyalty to the crown, the Shawnee commander was promised an Indian homeland in what’s now Michigan once the war was over. Sadly, Tecumseh died in action in 1813 and the British abandoned their commitments to the natives during the peace negotiations.
And then there was Isaac Brock, remembered as the “Savior of Upper Canada.” The 43-year-old British major general who mistrusted Canadians and longed for the glory on European battlefields, none-the-less worked tirelessly to prepare the colony for war. Using his skeleton force of regulars, Brock managed to deal the Americans a series of crippling blows in the early months of the war. His bloodless capture of Fort Detroit was an inspired piece of daring-do that would later win him a knighthood. He died in action before learning of the honour.
10. America paid dearly for the war
As the fighting dragged on, many Americans grew weary of the war and clamoured for an end to it. Despite being fought ostensibly to protect the country’s maritime commercial interests, the conflict was the most unpopular in the New England states; the inhabitants there regarded it as a massive disruption of trade. In fact, many New Englanders openly traded with British ports in Atlantic Canada. Others opposed to the conflict because they saw it as an excuse for the president to expand the power of the federal government. In 1814, delegates from the north eastern states assembled in Hartford to condemn what they called Mr. Madison’s War and even discussed their possible secession from the Union.
But the United States would face even greater threats than this in the war’s final year. With Napoleon finally subdued in 1814, Britain was suddenly free to bring its full military might to America’s doorstep to force a speedy end to the contest. That summer, a large invasion force landed in Chesapeake Bay and marched on Washington D.C. After easily brushing aside the local militia at Bladensburg on Aug. 24, 4,500 Redcoats and Royal Marines briefly occupied the U.S. capital and set fire to the city’s public buildings, including the president’s own sandstone mansion. To cover up the damage from the smoke and flames, the residence was later whitewashed, hence the name White House. The British fleet also threatened Baltimore.
11. The war’s largest battle was fought after the peace
At the very moment Redcoats were ravaging D.C., British and U.S. envoys were meeting on neutral ground in the Netherlands to negotiate an end to hostilities. The talks continued into the winter and an agreement was finally reached on Christmas Eve. Unfortunately, it would take weeks for news of the Treaty of Ghent to travel to North America. As word of the peace was making its way across the Atlantic, the British undertook an expedition to seize New Orleans and plug up the Mississippi, a vital waterway for trade and commerce. On Jan. 8, 1815, lead elements of a 10,000-man expedition moved against earthworks at the Chalmette Plantation on the outskirts of the Big Easy, but were decimated by a withering cannonade. As many as 2,600 Redcoats were killed wounded or captured during the assault; the Americans lost just seven men. It was the largest battle of the entire conflict; it took place 15 days after the inking of a ceasefire. The British soon withdrew their troops but their fleet lingered in the Gulf of Mexico for weeks until word finally arrived that the war was over.
12. No one is sure who won
The agreement hammered out at Ghent ensured status quo ante bellum or “the state that existed before the war.” All territory property and prisoners captured by each side were to be returned. The popular Canadian historian Pierre Berton summed it up best: “It was as if no war had been fought… save for the graves of those who… fought for a trifle.”