History of the War of 1812
by Andrew Wright
The War of 1812 is a much glorified, yet often misunderstood, conflict.
Americans see it as a continuation of the American Revolutionary War, wherein
they had to safe guard their newfound independence against British aggression.
Canadians, in contrast, look back to the war with nostalgia, bragging Canada
beat the Americans and burnt down the White House. Neither view has much merit.
Britain never had the resources to conquer the United States; Canada could
never have survived without British and native support; and it was British
regulars, not Canadian militiamen, who burnt down the White House. While both
sides claimed to be fighting a just war, this was not the case. America's main
objective was to annex British North America and British policy regarding trade
and the natives of North America did much to provoke the war. Nevertheless,
despite these myths, the military events of the war are often depicted
accurately. Sir Isaac Brock's courageous leadership helped win the Battle of
Queenstown Heights, and Andrew Jackson completely routed the British regulars
at the Battle of New Orleans. While the Americans had reason to fear the
British, Canada had more reason to fear the Americans. America's population
vastly outnumbered Canada's, and for much of the war Britain was distracted by
the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. America failed to conquer Canada because it did
not utilize its superior resources and manpower to their full potential, it
used defective military strategy, there was rivalry between high ranking
officers, and it did not adequately improve the quality of its soldiers before
Napoleon's defeat in Europe allowed the British to adequately reinforce
America both wanted and started the war of 1812. Britain was busy fighting
Napoleon in Europe and desperately wanted to avoid war, but did little to stop
it. The Americans had some legitimate grievances against England. These
• The British blockade of Napoleonic Europe. This hurt American trade and the
British had captured close to 400 American ships.
• The British policy of boarding American ships to press British (and sometimes
American) seamen into the service of the Royal Navy. Americans saw this as an
insult to their sovereignty but the British continued regardless.
• The British practice of giving weapons and supplies to native enemies of the
Americans. The Americans felt that if the British were ousted from North
America they could easily defeat the natives.
These British affronts to America hurt American trade, threatened its sailors
and propped up its native enemies.
America also had selfish reasons to go to war. If free trade and sailors'
rights were the means used to justify the war, the complete annexation of
Canada was the end in sight. Many Americans supported such expansion.
Congressman John Harper declared that "the Author of Nature marked our limits
in the south, by the south of Mexico; and on the north, by the regions of
eternal frost…." Others felt taking Canada would punish Britain for its
aggressive policies towards America. It has also been suggested that the
political troubles of the American President, James Madison, influenced the
decision to go to war. Madison was becoming unpopular for his failure to stand
up to Britain and gain concessions. Faced with an election in late 1812, he
decided to negotiate a settlement with the British and if that failed, go to
war. Once the negotiations broke down it was only a matter of time before
Madison asked Congress to vote on war. With 79 to 49 votes in the House of
Representatives and 19 to 13 votes in the Senate, the United States declared
war on Great Britain on June 18, 1812.
America's strategy for the war was offensive. Since the Royal Navy was the most
powerful in the world, America focused on land campaigns to conquer Upper and
Lower Canada, and on building ships to fight on the Great Lakes. Their ultimate
objective was to conquer British North America and to break the power of their
native enemies. However, despite their grandiose plans, the Americans were
ill-prepared for war. Despite their massive manpower advantage, they stared the
war with only 13,000 soldiers – less than double the 7000 British and Canadian
troops in Canada. Additionally, most of the American troops were militiamen
(who are generally inferior to professional soldiers) and were under-trained.
This remained the case during the war; as the Americans usually had the
numerical advantage, while the British usually enjoyed superior training and
The American navy was in better shape, with experienced and competent sailors,
but it was no match for the Royal Navy in the Atlantic. Therefore, American
naval power was directed towards disrupting British merchant trade and
attempting to control the Great Lakes. However, despite impressive raids
against British trade and notable naval victories against British ships, the
American navy never seriously impeded British commerce and ultimately failed to
dominate the Great Lakes.
The British strategy for the war was defensive. Despite having the world's
greatest navy and fielding thousands of professional troops, Britain had few
resources to spare for British North America in 1812. England was locked in a
life-or-death struggle against Napoleon, and concluded that the European
theatre of operations should have priority over North America. Britain's
strategy for North America involved safeguarding sea communications between
England and Canada (to guarantee reinforcements and supplies) - and blockading
American ports to disrupt trade, and British and Canadian land forces were to
stay on the defensive and guard Upper and Lower Canada, while waiting for
The British forces in Canada were professional and well trained, but they were
outnumbered by the American army sent to destroy them. However, Britain's
native allies did much to compensate for its army's inferior numbers during the
war. The British army was also handicapped by geography. While the Americans
could concentrate their forces anywhere, Canadian forces had to be divided
between remote outposts in Upper Canada, Montreal, and Quebec City. Montreal
and Quebec City were especially vital. Montreal needed to be held in order to
furnish Upper Canada with resources and supplies, and Quebec City needed to be
held in order to get provisions from England up the St. Lawrence River to the
areas of the west. The Royal Navy, unchallengeable in the Atlantic, had
committed most of its trained and experienced sailors to blockading Napoleon.
As a result, even though the Americans never had a chance to dominate the
Atlantic, they came close to dominating the Great Lakes with their professional
sailors stationed there.
The initial American invasion of Canada was disastrous. The U.S. forces were
poorly organized, many militia units refused to cross the border, and rather
than concentrate their forces towards a single objective, the Americans
scattered their forces in multi-pronged attacks. General Hull invaded Canada
from Detroit on July 12, 1812. He had not advanced far when he got word that
the American post at Mackinac Island had surrendered without a shot. This,
coupled with his fear of the native warriors, made him retreat behind the walls
of Detroit.8 General Isaac Brock, the British commander of forces in Canada,
and Tecumseh, a leader of the Shawnee tribe, used Hull's fear of the natives to
their advantage. Even though Hull's forces in Detroit outnumbered the British
and native forces surrounding them by 1000 soldiers, Tecumseh had his warriors
marched just in view of the Detroit garrison, slipped into the woods, and
appeared at the other end, making it seem as though there were far more native
soldiers than there actually were. Hull was so afraid of the natives that all
it took was a few cannon shots and a threatening ultimatum from Brock for him
to surrender Detroit on August 16, 1812.
The American assault across the Niagara River in 1812 was also a failure. Its
objective was to split Upper Canada in half, seize winter quarters, demoralize
the Canadian population, and avenge Hull's surrender. However, the American
force was handicapped by inadequate training, logistical difficulties, poor
equipment, and tension between its superior officers, General Alexander Smyth
and General Van Rensselaer. In fact, when Van Rensselaer's troops crossed the
Niagara River on the 12th of October, most of Smyth's troops sat out the
engagement. The American troops that reached the Canadian side secured a
landing zone and fought their way to the top of Queenston Heights. General
Isaac Brock, a man of considerable courage, led his outnumbered troops in a
counterattack against the Americans, who enjoyed the high ground. This was
repulsed, and Brock, who was arguably the most effective British commander of
the war, was mortally wounded. His successor, General Sheaffe, ordered more
troops to the front to prepare for another counterattack. The native warriors
bought time for Sheaffe as they pinned the American forces down with their
skirmish tactics until reinforcements arrived. Once Sheaffe had mustered 900
regulars, militia, and volunteers, he led them against the Americans, who were
demoralized by the native attacks as well as the refusal of their comrades on
the other side of the river to reinforce or supply them. The assault took 15
minutes and ended with a humiliating American defeat. American casualties were
500 killed and wounded and 960 captured against 104 killed and wounded on the
1812 was a bad year for the Americans. General Hull's force was entirely
captured at Detroit, the American crossing of the Niagara River ended in a
rout, and a cautious advance towards Montreal late in the year by General
Dearborn was quickly halted after encountering resistance by native warriors.
The only bright spot for America involved the naval war. Britain could not yet
commit enough resources to effectively blockade the American east coast and was
suffering from American privateers seizing their merchant shipping. Also, in
August 1812, the American frigate Constitution defeated the British Guerriere
in the first major naval battle of the war. While this represented a tactical
victory at best, it did much to boost the morale of the American Navy and
proved that American sailors were a match for their British counterparts. While
the British, Canadian, and native forces were the victors of 1812, 1813 would
mark the lowest point of their fortunes during the war.
In January 1813 American General William Henry Harrison set out to recapture
Detroit from the British. Part of his force was defeated by British General
Henry Proctor at Frenchtown on January 22nd. After this defeat, Harrison built
Fort Meig as a strong point from which he could liberate Michigan and invade
Upper Canada. During May, Proctor and Tecumseh laid siege to the fort and
American forces sent to relieve Harrison were defeated by native warriors.
However, the fort held, the natives began to disperse, and Proctor and Tecumseh
were forced to fall back. In July, a second attempt to subdue the fort also
failed. To improve native morale, an additional attempt was made in August to
storm Fort Stephenson, a small American post on the Sandusky River, but it was
repulsed by the Americans with significant loss to the British and natives.
This ended the Michigan campaign for the British and the natives.
The American naval victory during the Battle of Lake Erie on September 10,
where nine American ships captured six British ones, gave the Americans control
of Lake Erie and cut General Proctor off from his supplies. This forced
Proctor to fall back, allowing General Harrison to invade Upper Canada. This
invasion cultimated in the Battle of the Thames on October 5, where the
Americans quickly defeated British forces. During this battle Tecumseh was
killed. This effectively ended the native alliance with the British in the
Detroit area, and the Americans held Detroit and a significant amount of Upper
Canada territory for the rest of the war. However, despite these successes,
Harrison's campaign had little strategic impact on the British or on the course
of the war.
In late April 1813 the Americans landed at York, the capital of Upper Canada.
This was done against the judgement of the American Secretary of War, John
Armstrong, who had proposed attacking Kingston, whose capture would have cut
off supplies to Upper Canada. The attack on York was launched for political and
propaganda reasons. The Governor of New York, Daniel Tompkins, was seeking
re-election and felt he may lose because of voter dissatisfaction with the lack
of progress in the war. York was also a tempting because of its relative
vulnerability and its status as the colonial capital. The Americans who landed
at York significantly outnumbered British forces and drove them off. However,
General Sheaffe made sure to destroy York's munitions building before retiring,
to prevent it falling into American hands. The subsequent explosion killed
several American soldiers and provoked the Americans into burning York,
including its Parliament Buildings. While the sacking of York embarrassed
the British and did much to re-elect Daniel Tompkins, in the end, like the
Detroit campaign of 1813, it did little to win the war.
Another American offensive was undertaken in the Niagara Peninsula. The initial
results were encouraging when, with help from the U.S. fleet on Lake Ontario,
the Americans under General Dearborn captured Fort George at the end of May.
The severely outnumbered British force under General John Vincent retreated to
Burlington Heights, abandoning all the forts on the Canadian side of the
Niagara River. Now the Americans controlled the entire Niagara frontier;
however, they still had to deal with Vincent's army. The U.S. force pursued the
British force with the objective of destroying it. On June 5, the Americans
camped at Stoney Creek. Thanks to a local informant, the British knew both the
American position and the password in use at night. Despite the risks (the
British were heavily outnumbered), Vincent was persuaded by Lieutenant Colonel
John Harvey to launch a surprise night attack against Dearborn's army. After
bayoneting the American sentries, the British soldiers ran into the enemy camp
and screamed. The battle that ensued was chaotic even by the normal standards
of war, as troops fired on their own comrades, and commanders ran into enemy
soldiers and were captured. The British took 100 prisoners and the Americans
retreated to Forty Mile Creek.
The Americans were now on the defensive, since British reinforcements were
arriving. General Dearborn retreated to Fort George and abandoned all his
previously held positions along the Niagara River. The British decided to
invest Fort George. To relieve some of the pressure, Dearborn sent out a secret
expedition to destroy a significant British position near Beaver Dams. Six
hundred American soldiers, backed by cavalry and artillery, moved south towards
Queenston before swinging towards Beaver Dams, in order to mask the American
destination to the British. However, a Canadian local named Laura Secord
overheard American officers discuss the plan, and hurried to tell the British.
The British alerted the natives, and native scouts found the American force and
despatched 450 warriors to meet it. The Americans were ambushed on June 24th,
and without light troops they were unable to defeat the skirmish tactics of the
natives. They surrendered, suffering 100 casualties compared to 50 for the
This ended any American offensive action on this front for the rest of 1813.
Eventually the new American Commander, General John McClure, evacuated Fort
George, burned down the houses in Niagara, and shelled Queenston with cannon
fire. The new British Commander in Upper Canada, General Gordon Drummond
(Sheaffe had been sacked in the aftermath of the burning of York), made a
surprise night attack on Fort Niagara on December 19th. This was executed so
effectively that the fort fell, with the Americans suffering over 400
casualties while the British suffered only 11. Next, Drummond avenged the
burning of Niagara and the shelling of Queenston by torching the American
settlements on the east side of the Niagara River, including Buffalo. He
finally retired to Fort Niagara and the British held it until the end of the
war. The Niagara campaign of 1813 was over.
Near the end of 1813, the Americans also launched an offensive to take
Montreal. This was the gravest threat to Canada during the entire war. Two
American armies were committed. One, led by General James Wilkinson and
composed of 8000 men, advanced down the St. Lawrence, the other, led by General
Wade Hampton and made up of 4000 troops, advanced north from New York and made
a two-pronged advance towards Montreal. The American command had still not
learned to concentrate its forces. General Hampton, who disliked Wilkinson,
reluctantly advanced north and reached the Chateauguay River. Here, on October
25, he was defeated by a small force of 500 French Canadians and native
warriors. The French and natives set up log barricades on a ravine overlooking
the river, and cut down the Americans as they tried to pass. They also had men
in the forests blowing horns and creating loud noises to convince the Americans
there were far more troops than there actually were. Hampton bought this ruse
and eventually retreated.
Wilkinson's force set out on October 17 and soon learned of Hampton's defeat.
He also found out that he was being pursued by British Lieutenant Colonel
Wanton Morrison. On November 10 Wilkinson landed his force near Morrisburg and
prepared to fight Morrison. The next day, 2500 American troops and 800 British
soldiers fought a classic battle in linear formation. The Americans charged and
were repulsed with heavy losses. It was a classic example of professional
soldiers with better training and experience triumphing over militiamen with
poor training and little experience. After this defeat, and learning that
Hampton could not continue his advance, Wilkinson decided to retreat. Montreal,
and with it Canada, had been saved.
1813 was a mixed year for the Americans. They had triumphed over the British
and the natives in the Detroit and Michigan areas, defeated elements of the
British navy on Lake Erie, and burnt York, the British capital of Upper Canada,
to the ground. Unfortunately, none of these victories had pushed Britain any
closer to losing the war. Elsewhere, after initial success on the Niagara
front, the Americans had been routed, pushed back, lost Fort Niagara, and
witnessed the burning of Buffalo. And the one campaign that offered the best
chance of defeating the British in Canada, the advance against Montreal, was a
fiasco. While their fortunes during 1813 were much more encouraging than the
lopsided defeats of 1812, the Americans had much reason to fear the new year.
When the Americans had declared war in June 1812, Napoleon was at the height of
his power in Europe. By now he was moving from disaster to disaster and it
looked as though he was finally about to be defeated. This was bad from the
American perspective, as Napoleon's defeat would free significant British
forces in Europe to fight in North America. In addition, by now the Royal
Navy's blockade was severely disrupting American trade. As 1814 opened,
President Madison realized his armed forces had only one more chance to win the
war before England unleashed the full power of the British Empire.
The American offensive of 1814 involved two separate campaigns. As usual,
instead of concentrating their forces against one decisive objective, either
Kingston or Montreal, the Americans split their advances between two separate
and strategically dubious targets. The first was Mackinac Island which had
fallen to British forces at the beginning of the war. While the successful
American campaign in the Michigan area during 1813 had temporarily cut off the
natives from British support, the English had managed to turn Mackinac into an
advanced base to supply the remnants of the native warriors in the region. The
US hoped that the recapture of Mackinac would finally end Britain's material
support to the natives. The second US campaign would be launched on the Niagara
front. American forces hoped to capture the Niagara Peninsula and then York and
Lieutenant Colonel George Croghan landed his 700 US troops on Mackinac Island
on August 4th, 1814. However, British Lieutenant Colonel Robert McDouall had
arrived in May with reinforcements and supplies. The American assault was
quickly defeated by the British, who had prepared a powerful defensive position
with field guns. When the Americans attempted to flank the guns, they were
ambushed by native warriors, once again proving their limitless worth to the
British cause. Croghan retreated to his ships and left the island. Instead, the
Americans now tried to blockade the island with their gunboats. However, after
a series of engagements between U.S. and British ships on Lake Huron, the
British won naval supremacy and the American campaign was brought to a
On July 3, General Jacob Brown led 5000 American troops across the Niagara
River towards Fort Erie. This force was the best trained and best led army the
Americans had deployed so far in this war. Incompetent officers were replaced
by better men, and the soldiers had been rigorously trained during the lull in
fighting during the winter season. In fact, when the British commander of the
Niagara front, General Riall, saw how professional these soldiers were, he is
supposed to have said "Those are regulars, by God!" The Americans quickly
overwhelmed Fort Erie which surrendered after giving token resistance. Riall
heard about the U.S. invasion, but not about the fall of Fort Erie, and marched
towards Brown's army. Brown advanced north to capture the bridge over Chippawa,
but Riall's skirmish troops harassed the Americans and destroyed the bridge.
Brown pulled back to Street's Creek and Riall pursued him. When Riall caught up
to Brown he assumed he faced a numerically similar army because he also assumed
that Fort Erie had not fallen and that many of Brown's troops were busy
subjugating it. However, when Riall attacked Brown on July 5th, his 2000 troops
were outnumbered by Brown's 3,500. Brown had wisely sent some of his troops
into the woods to search for skirmishers; this prevented Riall's light troops
from harassing the Americans during the battle. The Americans and British
fought in linear formation and Brown carried the day, inflicting 600 casualties
on the British for the loss of 350 for the Americans.
Riall fell back to the mouth of the Niagara River where the British enjoyed
powerful defensive works. Brown advanced to Queenston, probed the British works
to the north, and awaited support from the U.S. fleet on Lake Ontario. However,
in another example of the petty rivalries between high-ranking officers, the
commander of the American fleet on Lake Ontario, Commodore Isaac Chauncey,
offered many excuses as to why he could not help Brown defeat the British on
the Niagara peninsula, even suggesting that the navy had a higher calling than
supporting the army. Without the navy's support, with an increasing number of
sick men, and with a growing number of British reinforcements arriving from
Europe, Brown retreated south to Chippawa. The British forces on the Niagara
front, now significantly reinforced, pursued him. The two armies met at Lundy's
Lane. For one of the few times in the war the Americans did not have the
numerical advantage, being outnumbered by the British 3500 to 2800. The battle
was fought to a standstill, with both sides suffering around 900
casualties. Brown retired to Fort Erie; the British were too damaged to
follow. The U.S. fleet finally arrived and prevented supplies from reaching
Riall from Kingston.
In August, British General Gordon Drummond, who took over command of the
Niagara front, advanced towards Fort Erie and blockaded it. However, he decided
to assault the fort rather than just keeping its garrison bottled up. This
proved to be a poor decision, both because Brown still had significant forces
at his disposal and because the Americans were able to ferry reinforcements and
supplies from Buffalo. Drummond attempted to launch a surprise attack on Fort
Erie on the night of August 14, but the Americans were ready and inflicted
around 900 casualties on the British at a cost of only 80 for themselves. The
British decided to call off the blockade, but just before they left on
September 17th, the Americans attacked from the Fort, spiked three of the
British field guns and destroyed a significant amount of their ammunition for
the cost of nearly 500 American casualties compared to 600 for the British.
Drummond finally left near the end of September.
In October, Brown made an advance north from Fort Erie in what would be a last
attempt to secure some territorial gains before the end of the war. However,
after his advanced detachments were defeated at Cork's Mill, he learned that
the British had finally gained naval supremacy on Lake Ontario. This was
accomplished not by a climactic battle at sea, but by the launching of the
104-gun warship HMS St. Lawrence. The American Fleet on the lake had
no response to this juggernaught, and was blockaded in Sackett's Harbour for
the duration of the war. With this development, Brown retreated to Fort Erie,
blew it up, and returned to Buffalo. The Niagara campaign of 1814, and
America's last chance to gain any significant victory over Britain in North
America, was over.
The British launched three offensives in 1814 and one in early 1815 to put
pressure on America and to secure good terms for any potential peace treaty.
Napoleon was finally defeated in March 1814, and Britain immediately sent
significant naval and land forces from Europe to British North America. British
General Provost invaded New York State in late summer with 10,000 troops,
hoping to capture Plattsburgh on Lake Champlain and to secure Lower Canada's
soft underbelly. However, Provost felt the U.S. Naval forces on Lake Champlain
had to be defeated before he could take Plattsburgh because of the potential
threat to his supplies. Therefore Provost ordered the Royal Naval squadron on
the lake to destroy the American naval force. The British Commander of the
naval squadron felt he could only triumph over his counterpart if Provost
eliminated the American shore batteries. Provost failed to do so. When the
British and American fleet met, the British were soundly defeated and the
Americans won naval supremacy on Lake Champlain. Provost retreated to Canada
A British thrust towards the Maine district of Massachusetts from Nova Scotia
was more successful. General John Sherbrooke was ordered to conquer as much of
Maine as possible, and launched his offensive in July. First, he sent an
expedition to capture Moose Island. Then British forces took the towns of
Castine, Bangor, and Machias, completely unopposed by the Americans.
Finally, an attack was launched against Hampden on September 3 to disperse an
American militia and naval force that threatened Britain's newly-won gains. In
general, the British occupying forces treated the inhabitants with respect, and
trade was restored between Maine and the British colonies to the north.
Perhaps the most damaging offensive the British launched was its amphibious
assaults in Chesapeake Bay in August and September 1814. By now the British
blockade included the entire U.S. east coast. Reinforcements from Europe
allowed Britain to land British regulars at Benedict on the Patuxtent River on
August 19 and head north towards, Washington. This force of regulars, led by
General Robert Ross, was met by a force of mostly militiamen commanded by
American General William Winder near Bladensburg on August 24, whose task was
to halt the British from marching on Washington. In the battle that ensued, the
British crossed a narrow bridge, taking significant casualties from American
artillery, and quickly dispersed the poorly trained militia opposing them. Once
again, a British regular force that was better trained and better led defeated
a numerically superior militia force that was poorly trained and poorly led.
There to see this fiasco was President Madison, who later remarked "I could
never have believed that so great a difference existed between regular troops
and a militia force, if I had not witnessed the scenes of this day." Later
that night, the British reached Washington and burned its public buildings,
including the White House, in retaliation for the burning of York the year
before. On September 12, the British made a further landing near Baltimore,
but, finding a well-organized defence, decided to withdraw, satisfied with what
they had already accomplished.
The final British offensive, and last battle of the war, was waged from
December 1814 to January 1815 near New Orleans. The British and Americans had
already signed the Treaty of Ghent to end the war, but word of the treaty did
not reach the combatants before the battle was over. Britain hoped to conquer
the southern part of the Mississippi River as a bargaining chip for the peace
talks, or even to reaffirm the independence of Florida from the U.S. The
British under General Edward Pakenham landed near New Orleans in mid-December
1814. A few skirmishes developed between his troops and the Americans under
General Andrew Jackson, but nothing decisive occurred until January. The
Americans built powerful defences with earthworks and heavy artillery on the
east side of the Mississippi River and waited for the British to attack. When
the attack came on January 8 it was a slaughter. The British had advanced in
the fog to get close to the canal, but the fog dissipated prematurely and they
became exposed to Jackson's brilliantly constructed defensive line, that
butchered three separate assaults. Despite outnumbering the Americans 2-1 the
British lost the battle and suffered roughly 2000 casualties against 100
American. Soon after, word had reached that the war was over, and the British
packed up and left. The British campaign had been a failure, and Jackson's
conduct of the battle would one day propel him to the Office of President of
the United States.
The events of 1814 and early 1815 were, with some notable exceptions,
disastrous for the Americans. Their campaign to take Mackinac Island and cut
off the remnant native warriors from supply was an absolute failure. While
General Brown's army showed much competence on the Niagara front, the
stubbornness of his naval counterpart destroyed any chance of his conquering
Upper Canada. If Brown was ultimately forced to withdraw across the Niagara
River to Buffalo, the failure of the campaign was hardly his fault. Elsewhere,
the American fleet's victory over its British counterpart on Lake Champlain
halted General Provost's attack towards Plattsburgh, but otherwise accomplished
nothing significant. The Americans also did little to prevent General
Sherbrooke from capturing Maine. Most significantly, the American militiamen
under General Winder failed to prevent General Ross's British regulars from
advancing on and burning Washington. While Andrew Jackson's victory at New
Orleans did much to restore American pride, it could not disguise the fact that
1814 had come and gone and that British North America remained part of the
It is debatable who won the war of 1812. Militarily, it was obviously the
British, who won the most important battles and captured the most important
territory taken during the war. They had also secured their primary objective –
the sovereignty of British North America. Politically, the issue is more
complicated. America might have failed in its primary objective of annexing
Upper and Lower Canada, but it secured many concessions in the peace treaty.
This has led historian Bruce Hutchinson to declare that "The United States had
lost a war and won a conference." Chief among these concessions was the
abandonment by the British of their native allies. While the Treaty of Ghent
restored the borders to their prewar positions, the Americans were now free to
attack the natives and take their lands whenever they wanted, while Britain
washed their hands of their responsibility to them. Therefore, while it is
questionable who won the war, the British or the Americans, there is little
ambiguity on who lost it… the natives.
From a purely military point of view, the British won the war. While they were
usually outnumbered in land engagements, the British regulars, militias, and
their native allies were in general better led and better trained. This helped
them triumph over American forces that enjoyed numerical superiority, but
suffered from poor leadership and inadequate training. The British land forces
held off the American army until the time that Britain could finally reinforce
British North America adequately. At sea, the Royal Navy remained dominant in
the Atlantic, blockading the Eastern United States and facilitating the
damaging raid on Washington in 1814. However, on the Great Lakes the RN record
is less impressive, as the American navies won indisputable control of Lake
Erie and Lake Champlain during the war, and controlled Lake Ontario during
several crucial intervals. Overall, whatever the faults and disasters incurred
by the British Military Administration during the war, it had prevailed against
the odds and saved Canada from U.S. annexation.
The American land forces were not effective in the early stages of the war. The
initial American plan to invade Canada was based largely on hubris. This
attitude can be summed up by Thomas Jefferson's famous declaration that the
conquest of Canada would be "a mere matter of marching." Perhaps this
explains why America's land forces were so ill-prepared for war, with only
twice the number of soldiers that Britain had in North America at the beginning
of the war. While the American militia would eventually grow to a staggering
450,000 men, most never set foot across the borders of their own states.
However, even with their numerical advantage, the army was not without serious
faults. Its leaders were usually politically appointed, and lacked experience.
Its militias were poorly equipped and badly trained, and its numerical
supremacy was offset by bad military policy that divided, rather than
concentrated, forces towards multiple objectives that were usually of dubious
These problems were gradually corrected the way most problems are – through
failure and by necessity. Defeats result in the capture or discredit of
incompetent officers as well as the exposure of outdated and ineffective
strategy and tactics. If a nation wants to be successful at war it must, by
necessity, appoint competent officers and officials to power and adapt its
strategy and tactics to the real conditions of war. To its credit, the American
military administration did this, and the army it sent across the Niagara River
in 1814 under the Command of General Brown was a match for any British regulars
in North America. Unfortunately for the Americans, while their army performed
mostly well during 1814, it ran out of time when British reinforcements
The American Navy was undoubtedly a very competent and effective force. However
it was never a serious match for the Royal Navy in the Atlantic, and mostly
focused on defending the coast and capturing or disrupting British trade.
However, on the Great Lakes it was a serious threat. As stated earlier, the
American navies on the Great Lakes won control of Lake Erie and Lake Champlain,
and took control of Lake Ontario at certain crucial moments. American sailors
were experienced and well-trained, and were often more than a match for their
British counterparts. However, the Commander of the American Lake Ontario
Fleet, Isaac Chauncey, spoiled the Americans' best chance of conquering Upper
Canada when he failed to support Brown's army on the Niagara front in 1814.
This did nothing but tarnish the record of what was a great navy.
The Americans lost the War of 1812 militarily because they failed to
effectively utilize their superior resources and manpower, employed defective
military strategy, experienced rivalry between high ranking officers, and did
not adequately improve the quality of their soldiers before Napoleon's defeat
in Europe allowed the British to adequately reinforce Canada. The American
population gave the U.S. the potential of fielding armies that the British
could never dream of matching in North America. However, most of the American
soldiers never even crossed the border. The Americans also had superior
ship-building capabilities, but started late and never caught up to the
British. The American strategy of the war cannot escape censure. Rather than
concentrating American forces on an objective that could have decisively
crippled the British in Canada, the Americans tended to disperse their military
power against targets of dubious strategic value. Rivalry also had a place in
the American defeat. General Smyth sat out the Battle of Queenston Heights,
General Hampton's dislike of General Wilkinson limited any chance of taking
Montreal in 1813, and Commodore Isaac Chauncey's refusal to support General
Brown's Niagara Campaign in 1814 doomed it to defeat. Finally, the inability to
significantly improve the quality of their soldiers before British
reinforcements arrived in 1814 meant the most the Americans could accomplish by
then was a stalemate. While Britain fought well and fought hard to secure
Canada from American domination, the Americans had all the advantages.
Logically they should have won the war. For that reason, the lesson of the War
of 1812 is not that the British defied all the odds to win it, but that the
Americans defied all the odds to lose it.
Show Footnotes and
. Wikipedia Article on the War of 1812 [Online]:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_of_1812 [2007, March].
. Will Ferguson, Canadian History for Dummies (Toronto: Wiley
Publishing, 2000), 173.
. Carl Benn, The War of 1812 (New York: Osprey Publishing, 2002),
. Ibid., III; 20-21, 27.
. Ibid., IV.
. Ibid., III; 21, 25, 27.
. Ibid., VI.
. Ibid., II; 175-176.
. Ibid., III; 34-35.
. Wesley B. Turner, The War of 1812: The War That Both Sides Won (Toronto:
The Dundurn Group, 2000), 46-50.
. Ibid., X; 52-53.
. Ibid., III; 45.
. Ibid., I.
. Wikipedia Article on the Battle of Lake Erie [Online]:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Lake_Erie [2007, March].
. Ibid., I.
. Ibid., II; 177.
. Ibid., III; 36-37.
. Ibid., X; 69-70.
. Ibid., III; 41.
. Ibid., III; 46-47.
. Ibid., I.
. Ibid., II; 178.
. Ibid., I.
. Ibid., III; 47.
. Ibid., III; 47-48.
. Ibid., X; 101-102.
. Wikipedia Article on the Battle of Mackinac Island [Online]:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Mackinac_Island [2007, March]
. Ibid., X; 93.
. Ibid., III; 49-51.
. Wikipedia Article on the Battle of Lundy’s Lane [Online]:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Lundy%27s_Lane [2007, March]
. Ibid., III; 51.
. Ibid., III; 51-52.
. Ibid., III; 52.
. Ibid., III; 61.
. Ibid., X; 106-107.
. Ibid., III; 62.
. Ibid., III; 20.
. Ibid., X; 107-109.
. Wikipedia Article on the Battle of New Orleans [Online]:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_New_Orleans [2007, March]
. Ibid., I.
. Ibid., II; 182.
. Ibid., XXXXI.
. Ibid., III; 20-25.
. Ibid., II.
. Ibid., XXXXIII.
. Ibid., I.
. Ibid., XXXXIII.
. Ibid., I.
Benn, Carl. The War of 1812. New York: Osprey Publishing, 2002.
Bercuson, D. J. and J. L. Granatstein. Dictionary of Canadian Military History.
Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Ferguson, Will. Canadian History for Dummies. Toronto: Wiley
Publishing, 2000. (General Historical Account)
Francis, R. D. and Richard Jones and Donald B. Smith. Origins: Canadian History
to Confederation. Calgary: Thomson Nelson, 2004.
Gauthier, Alain. "Quartered in a far-away colony, Isaac Brock would emerge as
one of Britain's most ablest and tragic figures," The War of 1812 Website,
Henderson, Robert, ed., "An Account of the Battle of Ogdensburg N.Y., February
22nd, 1813," The War of 1812 Website, [Online].
http://www.warof1812.ca/o_burg.htm. [2007 February]
Henderson, Robert, ed., "An Account of the Battle of Queenston Heights, October
13, 1812," The War of 1812 Website, [Online].
http://www.warof1812.ca/queenstn.htm. [2007 February]
Suthren, Victor. The War of 1812. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart,
Turner, W. B. The War of 1812: The War That Both Sides Won. Toronto:
The Dundurn Group, 2000.
Wikipedia Article on the Battle of Mackinac Island [Online]:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Mackinac_Island [2007, March]
Wikipedia Article on the Battle of Lake Erie [Online]:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Lake_Erie [2007, March].
Wikipedia Article on the Battle of Lundy’s Lane [Online]:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Lundy%27s_Lane [2007, March]
Wikipedia Article on the Battle of New Orleans [Online]:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_New_Orleans [2007, March]
Wikipedia article on the War of 1812: [Online].
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_of_1812 [2007 February].
Copyright © 2007 Andrew Wright.
Written by Andrew Wright. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Andrew Wright at:
Please take the time to visit Andrew Wright's site at
About the author:
Andrew Wright is attending his second year at the University of Regina,
majoring in History and minoring in Political Science. His hobbies include
reading, writing, politics, history, Halo (X-Box) and other strategy games like
Chess, Axis and Allies etc. He has lived in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada most
of his life, but have also lived in London England for a year and travelled
around Europe including: United Kingdom, France, Germany, Holland, Belgium,
Italy, Greece. He has an extensive military history book collection (500 or
more books). He is the author of After Iraq: A Year in the Middle East.
Published online: 5/28/2007.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.