The War of 1812 is a war often overlooked and somewhat forgotten by most Americans. It is none the less an important part of American history and was sometimes referred to at the time as the second war for independence. The war was from June 1812 to February of 1815 and was fought with Great Britain. By and large it would be a fight for freedom of navigation of the seas.
This would be the first time the fledgling nation of the United States would declare war on any nation. There were three main causes leading to this decision. The restriction of US international trade by Britain, the British practice of impressment, and British encouragement of Indian uprisings and hostility against America`s westward expansion. Britain had been at war with Napoleonic France since 1793. During this time in an attempt to keep supplies from reaching France, Britain placed trade restrictions on any ships heading for French ports. France would also impose similar restrictions placing the Unites States in an awkward position. In response to this Thomas Jefferson signed a poorly thought out embargo act in1807 which closed America’s ports to international trade. It had very little effect on Europe but plunged America into a depression. Another factor leading to war was the British practice of impressment whereby the British would stop American ships and force their crews into the service of the Royal Navy.
They did this because the Royal Navy had grown, and they could not man all their ships with volunteer sailors alone. They would even stop ships in American territorial waters to impress sailors. This practice rightly outraged the United States. The last major cause of the war was the British involvement in support of the Indians fight against westward expansion. As Part of the Treaty of Paris of 1783 the British had given the Northwest Territory of America to the United States. The British however saw the Indians as an important ally to them. They created a buffer between British Canada and The United States. The area was also good for the Canadian fur trade. Because of this the British decided to supply the Indians with arms and encourage raids. In the two years before the war, 1810 and 1811, the Indian raids became frequent and unbearable and Americans demanded the government do something. This created even more tension between Britain and the United States. In 1808 James Madison was elected as the fourth president of the United States. He informed Congress that they needed to prepare for war with Britain. In 1810 several new Congressmen were elected Henry Clay and John Calhoun among them. Known as “War Hawks” they were part of a rising tide that wanted war with Britain. Facing ever increasing pressure, President Madison would finally sign a declaration of war with Britain on June 18, 1812.
Oddly enough the trade restrictions that were one of the main causes of the war were in the process of being repealed by Britain at the time war was declared. Britain would initially wait to see what would happen when this news reached America. Fighting began despite the repeal and the United States battle strategy would initially consist of an invasion of British Canada. The thought was If they could capture large amounts of territory it could be used as a valuable bargaining chip in bringing Britain into negotiations. This invasion however would not go well for America as they would not gain any territory in Canada but would suffer several defeats instead. The American army was defeated at the battle of Queenston Heights, Detroit was captured by Canadians, and a drive to capture Quebec was repelled. The American Navy would fare much better however with some early victories over the Royal Navy such as the destruction of HMS Guerriere by USS Constitution on August 19, 1812 which was a boost to American morale. The war overall did not go well for America, initially Britain had taken a more defensive posture but with the defeat of Napoleon in 1814 Britain was able to give all its attention to the war with America. British forces would invade the Chesapeake Bay area and captured Washington, D.C. on august 24, 1814. They burned many buildings in the capitol including the White house.
America would win a significant victory at the Battle of Baltimore, September 1814, where a combined British sea/land invasion was repelled. As part of this battle Fort McHenry withstood massive bombardment by the British Navy. The next day the fort raised a huge American flag which inspired a lawyer, Francis Scott Key, to write “The Star-Spangled Banner” which would eventually become the national anthem. The British commander was killed, and Britain suffered heavy losses and would withdraw to regroup for an attack on New Orleans. The Battle for New Orleans would be fought on January 8, 1815 and was an overwhelming defeat for the British at the hands of General Andrew Jackson. The battle was unnecessary however as the Treaty of Ghent had been signed on December 24, 1814 ending the war officially. Word of the wars end had not reached either side until after the battle. The treaty returned things to pretty much the way they were before the war between Britain and the United States. What America did gain from the war was an increased sense of national pride and confidence. They had also gained major victories over the Indian population who had suffered several crushing defeats. Now without British support the Indians were doomed to defeat and the door of American westward expansion was wide open.