The war did not start off well for the Americans. With a small army and virtually no navy, their greatest fortune was found in Britain's distraction with the Napoleonic Wars. Despite Thomas Jefferson's assertion that the invasion of Canada would amount to "a mere matter of marching," early victories were not found on land, but surprisingly at sea where Britain was assumed to have superiority. As the conflict wore on, more experience for soldiers, sailors, and militias improved leadership and structure among the American armed forces. Public support rallied, despite unfavorable beginnings, as British soldiers and civilians tired of endless war.
By 1814, the war was in full force. Just as Britain's strength redoubled following the defeat of Napoleon, fortune turned in American favor. Several high-profile British losses came in 1814, as peace was being negotiated. One of the most astounding American victories of the war, the Battle of New Orleans, came just weeks before the peace treaty arrived in Washington to be ratified. Fatigued and stalemated, both British subjects and American citizens were happy to see the war end.
Although the United States achieved few initial goals of the War of 1812 -- most notably the disastrous failed multiple attempts to invade Canada -- Americans still proclaimed with gusto the war to have been a successful profession of American military strength and sovereignty. But more tangibly, it shaped American perceptions of the vital role of a standing Army and Navy, unthinkable prospects just a generation prior.
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Thomas Jefferson was never more wrong. In late June 1812 he wrote to his friend Thaddeus Kosciuszko that no war had been ,entered into under more favorable auspicesŠ and that ,[o]ur present enemy will have the seas to herself, while we shall be equally predominant at land, and shall strip her of all her possessions on this continent.Š Read more
The American regular army was too small for its task, a victim of the country‰s fear of large standing forces. Last-minute efforts to increase the army yielded fewer than 12,000 men by the time Congress declared war in June 1812, and these paltry numbers were about as incompetently trained as they were incompetently led. They were also widely deployed, compelling the government to rely on state militias. Read more
The British effectively employed Indian allies in the northern theater of war. In late 1811, Americans had unwittingly helped to forge the Anglo-Indian connection by attacking an extensive intertribal confederation on Tippecanoe Creek where the charismatic Shawnee Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa had established a headquarters at Prophet‰s Town. There William Henry Harrison claimed victory, but he had actually driven Tecumseh into the arms of the British. Read more
On the scale of war as waged in Europe during the age of Napoleon, the War of 1812 was a minor affair. In 1812, as Napoleon was invading Russia with a half million men, the United States on the other side of the world was trying to conquer Canada with forces numbering about one-tenth of a percent of the Grande Armée‰s size. While individual European battles counted casualties in the tens of thousands, about 6,000 Americans were killed or wounded during the entire War of 1812. Read more
Before and during the War of 1812, newspapers and printers played a central role in politics. Openly partisan, they minced few words in supporting candidates and policies. Read more