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The War of 1812
The History Cat Classroom
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Thinking Questions

Kentucky congressman Henry Clay and his fellow “War Hawks” had been beating the drums of war for the past five years. They were practically frothing at the mouth for the United States to get into a second scrap with Great Britain. On the floor of Congress, they gave impressive speeches about patriotism and protecting American ships from British impressment. For the past 10 years, Britain had been kidnapping (they called it impressment) any sailors that they suspected had gone AWOL from the British Navy. Now the War Hawks were demanding that the U.S. pull up its pants and go to war.


But the real motivation for The War Hawks' bloodlust was far bigger and colder than protecting a few merchants ships. Their eyes were on the prize of Canada. In the end, the war hawks succeeded in bullying James Madison, the President of the United States, into going along with the whole thing.


Cue the War of 1812...


The War of 1812 got off to a great start in July 1812… for the British. The Americans made one stupid mistake after another; like sending the memo through the regular mail that the country was now at war. If you think snail mail is slow today, consider that it could take months for a letter to travel from New York to a remote outpost like Fort Mackinac in upper Michigan.  The British, who were much better organized, marched on the fort with their Indian allies. Fort Mackinac, guarding the most important waterway in the Great Lakes, was now in British hands after surrendering without a shot. But things were about to get a whole lot worse.


The best part about the war of 1812 is that the War of 1812 didn’t even need to have happened. Thanks to a mail system that was slower than a herd of snails in peanut butter, the United States got the message that the British Parliament had repealed the Orders of Council after war had been declared. The most pointless war in North American history was on. We take that back, Storage Wars is the most pointless, but we digress… Madison was said to have been “white as a sheet” when word reached him that the Senate had voted for the war.


The War Hawks

Henry Clay
Andrew Jackson

"Who are we? And for what are we going to fight? Are we the titled slaves of George III? The military conscripts of Napoleon the Great? Or the frozen peasants of the Russian Czar? No. We are the free born sons of America. The citizens of the only republic now existing in the world. And the only people on earth who possess rights, liberties, and property which they dare call their own."


- Andrew Jackson

Oh, Canada


Congressman Henry Clay had once boasted that the Americans could take Canada with only the Kentucky militia. On paper things just looked that good. The United States had 7.5 million people to Canada’s 500,000; nearly two-thirds of which were French-speakers living along the St. Lawrence River. But what the Americans didn’t seem to get was that the French trusted the Americans even less than they did the British. There was no chance of Canada giving up without a fight.


Henry Adams was an American historian writing in the 1890s when he put these words to paper: “Many nations have gone to war in pure gayety of heart, but perhaps the United States were the first to force themselves into a war they dreaded, in the hope that the war itself might create the spirit they lacked.” Adams hit the nail on the head. No war vote in American history had come this close—19-13 in the Senate. Not only was America’s heart not in the fight, but neither was its wallet. In 1812, the United States relied on the militia to do its fighting. The regular army could only claim about 4000 men.


If the army was in bad shape, the navy was worse. When Thomas Jefferson and his Republican Party (not the same Republican Party as today) were in power they held firm to the ideals of small government and when it came time to build a navy, they said “pass”. Therefore, when war finally broke out the U.S. Navy had only a few battleships and sixty-two gunboats, which were basically like oversized sailboats; hardly enough to take on the British navy— yeah, the same British navy that Napoleon couldn’t even beat.


Realizing that they didn’t have much of a chance of beating the British on the High Seas, the American decided to concentrate their war effort on conquering Canada in a three-prong attack. The first strike would come from Detroit into Upper Canada (now called Ontario). The second strike would be at Niagara in New York State. The third and most important thrust would be to conquer Montreal. Outnumbered and with a vast territory to defend the odds were not in Britain’s favor. But thankfully poor American planning was there to help them out.


War of 1812

In theory the three pronged attack on Canada should have happened simultaneously. But ironically, it was cowardly General William Hull, commander of Fort Detroit, who made the first move. Sadly, Hull’s cowardice would lose the second most important fort in the Great Lakes. Hull shared the prejudice of Native Americans that most Americans held: they were savages, barely human, and capable of immense violence.  War with the Indians always brought out the worst in people as both sides burned towns and massacred the innocent. In frontier war, neither side was very keen on taking prisoners. So when Hull learned that the Indian chief Tecumseh was now in the fight, he called off the invasion of Canada and holed his troops up in Fort Detroit.


British commander Isaac Brock and Tecumseh— who by this time had formed a solid bromance—used a tactic straight out of Loony Toons, to capture Detroit.  Dressing the Canadian militia in the uniforms of the better trained British army while Tecumseh and his few hundred warriors ran around the fort in circles to make his numbers look bigger they were able to fool Hull into believing that he was surrounded and outnumbered. Hull nearly wet himself at the thought of being taken prisoner by Indian “savages”. Hull did the only thing that he knew how to do. He surrendered the second most important western fort to the British without firing a shot. His men were so angry that they had him court-martialed for cowardice. He was later found guilty and it was only by order of President Madison that he avoided being executed.


At Niagara, things weren’t going much better. But at least this time the Americans put up a fight. Here the invasion of Upper Canada involved crossing the Niagara River and attacking the village of Queenston.  The objective:l capture Fort George. From the start, the campaign was a disaster. The October weather was cold and rainy. Troops got bogged down in the muddy tracks that were passed off as roads. One soldier got fed up with serving in the army and deserted, taking all of the oars with him. Without a way of crossing the river, the Americans had to stall. When the campaign got underway the Americans bravely pushed on despite taking heavy fire from the heights above. Then everything fell apart.


The Iroquois led their warriors behind American lines, cutting off any chance of escape. Hearing the Indian war whoops and gunshots, the militia— still on the American side of the river— turned back and went home. The good news for the Canadians was that a second invasion had been stopped dead in its tracks. The only good news that the Americans could claim is that a bullet caught General Isaac Brock in the chest, killing him instantly.


Now on to Canadian invasion Part Trois (part 3). The American commander was Henry “Granny” Dearborn, who wasted so much time getting his army together that the government finally ordered him to get the invasion of Montreal in gear. But once Dearborn’s men got to the Canadian border the militia flat out refused to cross the border.


The number one lesson that the Americans learned from the War of 1812 was that you just couldn’t trust the militia. Sure, they were a dirt cheap way of raising an army. But you get what you pay for. The militia was made up of farmers, lawyers, and business types who were called up to fight. Most militia volunteers showed up to socialize, do a little fighting, and have a few drinks at the tavern afterward. But risking your life to conquer a foreign nation? Not a chance. The invasion of Montreal was dead before it even got off the ground.


That folks, was how 1812 ended for the Americans and 1813 would turn out to be a mixed bag for both sides. That year the Americans managed to push back a British offensive in Ohio and chase them back to Canada. Another plus for the Americans was that the Shawnee leader Tecumseh (a major ally for Britain) was killed at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. With Tecumseh out of the picture the Indian resistance against the United States fizzled. Dozens of tribes suddenly were eager to make separate truces with the United States, each involving more land cessions. The power of the Great Lakes Indians was effectively at an end.



Deserters Tip # 1

Nothing says "I quit" like stealing the boat oars!

War of 1812 Battles

Burn Baby Burn!


It's a classic tale of David vs. Golaith. Only this time David is a kid with extreme ADD and Goliath is busy trying not to get his butt handed to him by schoolyard bully. We are of course talking about the epic underdog tale of the War of 1812.


The United States, having grown tired of having its ships seized and sailors impressed into the British Navy, went to war to defend its honor (and perhaps pick up Canada in the process).


While Great Britain is distracted fighting off the Emperor Napoleon's schemes to dominate Europe The Americans declare war and march into Canada. But the war doesn't go exactly as the American war hawks had planned. After losing a few key forts in the Great Lakes and a couple of draws in Canada the Americans scored their first win at the Battle of York. More of a sneak attack than an actual battle. But hey, a win's a win, right?


Fighting had been going hot and heavy along the Canadian border for the better part of a year. By October 1813, The Americans had managed to beat back a British offensive in Ohio and chase them back to Canada.


The big event of 1813 is that the Americans were trying to capture Canada—for the third time. Canadians, listen up, this is your moment. The 3rd  American invasion plan called for splitting up 12,000 men into two columns. One column would head north from upstate New York, the other would go up the St. Lawrence River— the lifeline of Canada and the gateway to Montreal. The first column marched through the woods into Quebec and were met by a force of Canadian militia one-fifth their size at the Chateauguay River. There the Canadian militia and their Mohawk allies fought like cornered badgers, driving the Americans back across the border.


The other major wing of the invasion was marching up the St. Lawrence River. The fortified city of Kingston lay at the place where Lake Ontario meets the St. Lawrence. Capture Kingston and the Americans had a shot at Montreal. But there was one kink in this plan; the entire American navy on the Great Lakes consisted of a single ship. Before conquering Kingston the Americans needed to get more ships and they knew just the place.


The town of York was a backward little hick place in the middle of nowhere, oh and, it just so happened to be the capital of Upper Canada. The one thing that the town had going for it was its shipyard, where Americans believed they would be able to capture British vessels. Well, they were wrong. The only thing that was found there were two ships— one rotting and useless and the other partially built. Poorly disciplined troops ignored orders to leave the city alone and began burning the public buildings of York. The city that would one day be renamed Toronto, was now engulfed in flames.


The burning of York sparked a string of retaliatory town burnings that would make a pyromaniac giddy. Both sides didn’t stop at just torching houses— killing, torturing, and scalping innocent civilians became common— even children weren’t spared. But the Americans are about to learn firsthand that karma is a bear.


The British Invasion...

and we Don't Mean Ringo... 


By 1814, the Americans were being so badly beaten that the British were drawing up terms of surrender that would transfer parts of Maine and Minnesota to British Canada as well as create a permanent buffer zone out of Michigan, Indiana, and half of Ohio for their Indian allies. Not only had the invasion of Canada been stopped cold in its tracks, the British army and navy were on full assault along the eastern seaboard of the United States. But, wait there’s more (bad news)! In 1814, Napoleon was defeated.  The British could now turn their full attention and resources to crushing the Americans. Uh Oh.


The British began by tightening their blockade of the entire Atlantic seaboard from Florida to Maine. Unable to even sneak out of port, the American economy took a nosedive. The New England states which were being hit hardest by the embargoes and blockades were seriously discussing seceding from the Union. Did you think that the South was the first to come up with this plan?  Then in August, all Hell broke loose when 5000 well-trained British regulars sailed up the Chesapeake Bay and landed in Maryland.


At first, no one believed that the British would seriously think of attacking Washington D.C. I mean seriously, who in their right mind would waste their energy attacking a construction site still covered in swamp water and dirt roads? Oh right. Soldiers bent on avenging the burning of York, that’s who.


With all of the professional soldiers busy failing at capturing Canada, there was literally no one defending our nation’s capital. That’s how totally unprepared the government was for an invasion of the United States. In a panic, President Madison began riding around on his horse in an effort to rally the Virginia and Maryland militia. This he managed to do just as the British were a few miles outside of Washington.


At a little town called Bladensburg, MD the two sides clashed in battle. But battle might be the wrong word for the total rout that happened next.  When British regulars, fresh from squaring off against Napoleon, squared off with the undisciplined, untested American militia. Let’s just say that the battle was afterward nicknamed the “Bladensburg Races” because of the speed at which the militia broke and ran. The city of Washington was left totally undefended.


When the British troops arrived at 8 p.m. they found the capitol more deserted than a vegan restaurant in Texas. President Madison was outside of the city trying to throw together a hasty defense. His wife Dolly, was running around the White House rescuing the silver. Dolly was one brave lady. With the British only a few miles away, she risked her safety—after all the first lady as a hostage would have made a great war prize— to rescue a portrait of George Washington that certainly would have become target practice had the redcoats gotten their hands on it. Throughout the city, clerks scrambled to box up important government documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.


By nightfall, Madison and other Washingtonians watched from the hills as their city burned. The White House, Congress, Library of Congress, and Treasury were among those put to the torch to avenge the burning of York.


 The next stop on the British tour was the naval yards of Baltimore. Baltimore was a perfect choice. Not only was it America’s fifth largest city in those days, but it was also where most of the American privateers held their base. Privateers were basically legal pirates, who were hired by the government to attack British merchant ships. Because they worked on commission from the goods they looted, privateers were a favorite choice of any budget-conscious government.

British Burn Washington D.C.
The Canadians get sassy
Ren & Stimpy.
British Invade Washington D.C.
Burning the White House
Burning of the White House



War of 1812 Dolly Madison
Thanks to some quick finger pointing, Dolly Madison saves the portrait of Washington from becoming target practice. No wonder they named a snack cake after her. 



Another Useless Battle


Meanwhile, back in the United States... In December 1814 a British naval flotilla heads straight for the city of New Orleans. The goal is to take control of the city and the entire Mississippi River, cutting the Americans off from the Louisiana Territory.  Ironically, the Battle of New Orleans took place AFTER the British and Americans signed the treaty of Belgium. But slow communication, what can we say.


At the head of the American troops was future President Andrew Jackson. In fact, it was because of this victory (spoiler alert) that Jackson became a household name.  4000 men, mostly militia, make a stand in the swamps outside of the city. Waiting for the British to arrive was no picnic, but on the bright side, it wasn’t much fun for the British who were marching for miles through the mosquito and snake-infested swamps.


The Americans outnumbered 3 to 1, open up a hail of fire from behind a dirt rampart. Under Jackson’s leadership, the men hold their position, mowing down row after row of advancing redcoats. The whole thing takes two hours. The British commander is dead alongside two thousand of his men. The Americans had lost only 13! The Battle of New Orleans didn’t decide the outcome of the war, but it did give Americans a sense in a national pride that had been missing since the American Revolution.

Author's Note: None of the lyrics in this song make any sense nor are they accurate in any way. Except, maybe using an alligator as a cannon, because that's scientifically sound

One War...Four Views


Across the ocean, in Ghent, Belgium the British and Americans decide to finally sit down and start talking peace. The old issues of free trade, Indian land, and impressment were on the table. A few of the issues like the Orders of Council had become a non issue after Napoleon was defeated.


And despite the British claims of wanting to create an Indian homeland in the Great Lakes region, it wasn’t all that committed to helping their Indian allies. The Americans flat out refused to negotiate if the price of peace was to give back land that they had won in the Indian wars.


The last item was impressment, which the British were equally donkey stubborn about. The Americans saw impressment as a violation of their rights. The British saw it as a necessary and legal policy that kept their Navy from deserting. For months the two sides argued back and forth. Mostly, both sides were stalling until their side won a decisive victory that would allow them to demand peace on their terms.  


In the end, the Treaty of Ghent put everything back the way that it was before 1812. Officially both sides claimed victory, which meant that both sides also equally lost. Call it a draw if you’re the optimistic type. Canada remained a British colony until 1931, but after the War of 1812, the Canadians began to think of themselves as more than just British subjects or colonials. In fact, the War of 1812 inspired pride in Canadians who had managed to beat back an invasion of their country by a much greater force. Never again, would Americans try to lay claim to the Great White North.  


To the British, the War of 1812 was a slap in the face. Here they were defending the world from Napoleon’s bully tactics when America starts whining about a few impressed sailors. The British saw the war with America as an annoyance rather than a real threat. The British sent over a few thousand troops and some old ships to prevent the Americans from stealing Canada, but other than that all of the media hype was paid to the war in Europe. Once the War of 1812 was over, everything went back to the way it was and the British promptly forgot about the whole bloody mess. In fact, if you take a look at a British textbook you probably won’t see more than a footnote about the conflict that the Americans called the Second War for Independence.


To the Americans, the war was a fight for respect. It was a free country and wanted to be treated like one of the big boys but the British and French kept pushing them around. Winning the war was a miracle and proved that the Americans could hold their own in a fight. In fact, many Americans began calling it their second war for independence. Immediately after the war, the Americans picked up their westward expansion where they left off. Six new states were admitted to the Union between 1814 and 1820. This opened up new conflicts over slavery, which would in a matter of decades plunge the country into civil war. The next time that the United States and Britain clashed over territory would be over Oregon and this time they settled their differences with diplomats rather than cannon balls.


The real losers of the conflict were the Native Americans. No Indian representatives had been invited to the peace talks. The British thought of sending out an E-vite but the Americans argued that Indians weren’t a real nation. For the Native Americans, the War of 1812 was literally a fight for life or death. If the United States had lost the war then the states of Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana would likely have been turned into a permanent Indian nation held by the various tribes. But after the death of Tecumseh, the dream of a united Indian confederacy died along with him. One by one, the tribes were forced to cede their land until finally all tribes east of the Mississippi River were either pushed west or rounded up and force-marched in the Trail of Tears.  Two centuries later, nearly all everybody had forgotten about a little war that helped determine the fates of three peoples.


This is what the U.S. would have likely looked like had it lost the War of 1812.
War of 1812 Treaty

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