The War of 1812: A curious war

The War of 1812 was an intriguing war, declared under strange circumstance, given odd names, fought in a weird manner, and ended in a curious way.

The circumstances leading to the war began almost immediately at the conclusion of the American Revolution in 1783. In that war France had come to the aid of the colonies, albeit belatedly, and had participated with General Washington for the surrender of the British at Yorktown.

But France's help to the U.S. had triggered heightened animosity with Britain and soon a naval war emerged between the two countries although France was busy with the French Revolution (1789- 1799), followed by the Napoleonic War (1799-1815).

In fact, it was the threats from France and other European nations that forced King George III to agree to independence for America. The French believed that America would support their war with Britain but George Washington had no intentions of risking the future of the country by becoming involved in a European conflict. He therefore issued the Neutrality Proclamation on April 22, 1793, which barred any involvement by the United States.

Notwithstanding the proclamation, the naval skirmishes between Britain and France led to a British embargo in all British ports against ships trading with France. France retaliated with a similar embargo and American ships were caught in the middle. Enterprising Americans tried to circumvent the embargoes and the Neutrality Proclamation by using ships registered in other countries but this did not fool either of the belligerents.

The escalating conflict placed a heavy demand on both countries for qualified seamen and soon they were attacking foreign ships at sea to capture crews for staffing their own commercial vessels. During the period of 1803-1812 the British seized on the high seas more than 10,000 American citizen sailors to man British ships.

Additionally, American shipping was harassed by constant threats from pirate ships, principally from the Barbary Coast of northern Africa. The U.S. tried mightily to avoid any entanglement with other countries and submitted to several blackmail demands with a series of Barbary Treaties beginning in 1786, including the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, signed at Tripoli November 4, 1796. However, these compacts did little to stop the pirating and the U.S. became engaged in the Tripolitan War in 1801 which ended in 1805 with the U.S. Marine Corps on the shores of Tripoli.

Adding to the problems at sea, the British had never fully withdrawn from the western frontier of the United States. British and French from Canada roamed freely throughout the area which is today the Midwestern U.S. The British cultivated relationships with Indians and often sent them on raids into the United States.

Through it all, the emerging country experienced the internal growth pains of the administrations of George Washington (1789-1797), John Adams (1797-1801), Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809), and James Madison (1809-1817). The national capital had been moved to Washington, D.C., the White House was occupied by the President, and the country had 17 states: the original 13 plus Vermont, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio.

In 1807, at the urging of Jefferson, Congress passed the Embargo Act prohibiting U.S. vessels from trading with England or France during the Napoleonic War (1799-1815). The intent was to put pressure on England and France to lift their embargoes but the measure backfired. It virtually dried up trade with the two countries and American industry and agriculture suffered badly. The Embargo Act was nullified on March 1, 1809 with the Non-Intercourse Act which restored trade but re-instated a neutrality doctrine. However, the damage had been done and American foreign trade continued to suffer.

In 1810 a group of war hawks were elected to congress including Calhoun, Clay, and others who were deeply bothered by past insults to the U.S. by Britain as well as the continuing Indian presence in the West. Hostility toward England continued to rise. The national population according to the decennial census of 1810 was 7,239,881 persons.

The American Navy came of age in 1812 when the warship U.S. Constitution (Old Ironsides) engaged a French vessel (Guerrière) in the Atlantic. Old Ironsides scored a victory and other privateers captured or burned British ships.

Madison did not share the neutrality doctrine of his predecessors and began to urge Congress to declare war on Britain. Congress acted on June 18, 1812, declaring war just days after England had repealed its embargo against U.S. shipping, thereby removing the cause for war. However, the resentment towards Britain had grown to such a fever that the American government did not reconsider and launched the war anyway.

Regardless of the Congressional declaration, the country was ill prepared and not well motivated for war. The army quickly attempted three invasions of Canada during 1812 but they all failed. In April 1813 the Navy took control of the Great Lakes and U.S. troops captured and burned York (Toronto), Canada. In September the Navy fought the Battle of Lake Erie at Put-In-Bay as Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry repulsed a British naval attack.

In October 1813 the Indian Chief Tecumseh was killed in an American victory at the Battle of Thames at Ontario, Canada. Tecumseh had become famous for battles against William H. Harrison along the Tippecanoe River in Indiana. The American victory at Ontario left the Northwest Indian tribes greatly weakened.

In March 1814 General Andrew Jackson defeated Creek Indians in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, Mississippi Territory. The British then planned a 3-part invasion of the U.S.: Chesapeake Bay, Lake Champlain, & the mouth of the Mississippi River.

The invasion at Chesapeake Bay was the most successful as British troops burned Norfolk then entered Washington, D.C. and burned many buildings including the capitol and the White House. President Madison and Congress fled to be with the military but First Lady Dolley Madison, a North Carolina native, stayed behind and saved priceless artifacts before the White House was torched. In a letter from the First Lady to her sister, Anna, written the day before, she describes the abandonment of the White House and her own famous action of saving Gilbert Stuart's priceless portrait of George Washington. As Mrs. Madison fled, she rendezvoused with her husband and together from a safe distance they watched the city burn.

"My husband left me yesterday morning to join General Winder. He inquired anxiously whether I had courage or firmness to remain in the President's house until his return on the morrow, or succeeding day, and on my assurance that I had no fear but for him, and the success of our army, he left, beseeching me to take care of myself, and of the Cabinet papers, public and private. I have since received two dispatches from him, written with a pencil. The last is alarming, because he desires I should be ready at a moment's warning to enter my carriage, and leave the city; that the enemy seemed stronger than had at first been reported, and it might happen that they would reach the city with the intention of destroying it. I am accordingly ready; I have pressed as many Cabinet papers into trunks as to fill one carriage; our private property must be sacrificed, as it is impossible to procure wagons for its transportation. I am determined not to go myself until I see Mr. Madison safe, so that he can accompany me, as I hear of much hostility towards him. Disaffection stalks around us. My friends and acquaintances are all gone, even Colonel C. with his hundred, who were stationed as a guard in this inclosure. French John (a faithful servant), with his usual activity and resolution, offers to spike the cannon at the gate, and lay a train of powder, which would blow up the British, should they enter the house. To the last proposition I positively object, without being able to make him understand why all advantages in war may not be taken.

"Wednesday Morning, twelve o'clock. -- Since sunrise I have been turning my spy-glass in every direction, and watching with unwearied anxiety, hoping to discover the approach of my dear husband and his friends; but, alas! I can descry only groups of military, wandering in all directions, as if there was a lack of arms, or of spirit to fight for their own fireside.

"Three o'clock. -- Will you believe it, my sister? we have had a battle, or skirmish, near Bladensburg, and here I am still, within sound of the cannon! Mr. Madison comes not. May God protect us! Two messengers, covered with dust, come to bid me fly; but here I mean to wait for him... At this late hour a wagon has been procured, and I have had it filled with plate and the most valuable portable articles, belonging to the house. Whether it will reach its destination, the "Bank of Maryland," or fall into the hands of British soldiery, events must determine. Our kind friend, Mr. Carroll, has come to hasten my departure, and in a very bad humor with me, because I insist on waiting until the large picture of General Washington is secured, and it requires to be unscrewed from the wall. This process was found too tedious for these perilous moments; I have ordered the frame to be broken, and the canvas taken out. It is done! and the precious portrait placed in the hands of two gentlemen of New York, for safe keeping. And now, dear sister, I must leave this house, or the retreating army will make me a prisoner in it by filling up the road I am directed to take. When I shall again write to you, or where I shall be to-morrow, I cannot tell!"

The "plate and the most valuable portable articles, belonging to the house" plus the portrait of Washington were all saved thanks entirely to the perseverance and bravery of Dolley Madison.

A few days later the British were turned back at Baltimore harbor.

On December 15, 1814, a group of Northeast Federalist met at the Hartford Convention in Connecticut to discuss secession -- and -- to propose 7 Constitutional amendments to protect the influence of Northeast states. This is commonly known as "confusion."

On December 24, 1814, at a British and American diplomats meeting in Belgium, the two sides signed the Treaty of Ghent to end the fighting. They agreed on a status quo ante bellum... Just stop fighting and each go their own way. But no one thought to mention the treaty to Andrew Jackson. The general had taken his army down to New Orleans to thwart the British invasion at the mouth of the Mississippi. Arriving in early January, 1815, he considered the situation and agreed to accept an offer from the French pirate Jean Lafitte to join forces against the British. Lafitte supplied the naval power as Jackson met the Redcoats by land. On Jan. 8, the Battle of New Orleans was short but decisive as the British officially suffered 700 killed and 1400 wounded. Jackson's forces had casualties of 8 killed and 13 wounded.

On January 19, 1815, still unaware that the war was over, Jackson sent a letter to the Secretary of War in which he said,

"His loss on this ground, since the debarkation of his troops, as stated by the last prisoners and deserters, and as confirmed by many additional circumstances, must have exceeded four thousand..."

By return dispatch Jackson was notified of the treaty and finally the war ended.

[NOTE: (February, 2001). Gilbert Stuart's "priceless" painting of Washington, privately owned and on loan to the Smithsonian for many years, has been offered for sale for $20 million.]

Philosophos Historia

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