History of the War of 1812

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The War of 1812 was a war between the United States and Great Britain that greatly affected Massachusetts in the 19th century. The war was the second and last war between the two countries.

The war was fought for a variety of reasons but, much like the American Revolution, it was triggered by British interference in American trade.

The war has since been nicknamed “Mr. Madison’s War” because it was the sitting president at the time, James Madison, who urged Congress to declare war on Britain in 1812.

Who Fought in the War of 1812?

The various belligerents and countries who fought in the War of 1812 were:

♦ The United States of America
♦ Great Britain
♦ Spain
♦ Native-American tribes:

When Did the War of 1812 Take Place?

The War of 1812 took place between the years 1812 and 1815. The war officially came to an end with the Treaty of Ghent in 1815. Check out this timeline of the War of 1812 for more information.

Where Did the War of 1812 Take Place?

The battles of the War of 1812 took place on both land and sea. The land battles of the War of 1812 took place in the following locations in eastern and central North America:

New York
Washington D.C.

The naval battles of the War of 1812 took place in the following places:

Atlantic ocean
Pacific ocean

Why Did the War of 1812 Take Place?

The causes of the War of 1812 are still hotly debated to this day but it is believed to have been triggered by a series of incidents in the early 19th century involving British interference in American trade, particularly the impressment of American sailors into the British navy and the meddling of the British government in American trade with European nations.

“Yankee Doodle Upset,” drawing etched by British Lieutenant Elliot onto a window pane at a house in Castine, Maine after the town was captured by the British during the War of 1812. The drawing mocks America’s hostility towards the British and depicts the British flag above the American flag. The image was later published in the Pictorial Field-Book of the War of 1812 in 1869 after the author of the book saw the drawing still on the window pane in 1860.

“Yankee Doodle Upset,” drawing etched by British Lieutenant Elliot onto a window pane at a house in Castine, Maine after the town was captured by the British during the War of 1812. The drawing mocks America’s hostility towards the British and depicts the British flag above the American flag. The image was later published in the Pictorial Field-Book of the War of 1812 in 1869 after the author of the book saw the drawing still on the window pane in 1860.

In addition, another motivation for the war was a hidden desire by some members of the U.S. government to invade and seize British territory in Canada in order to expand into the region.

Due to many of these factors, the war echoed many of the issues of the American Revolution. In fact, many politicians who were in favor of the war often mentioned the revolution in their speeches in support of the war and compared their cause to the fight for independence in the 18th century.

Yet, since Northern states, especially New England states like Massachusetts, were against the War of 1812 and Southern states were in favor of it, the war also seemed to foreshadow the conflicts of the American Civil War due to its polarizing effects on the North and the South.

Due to this lack of consensus, the causes of the war and even the war itself has gotten muddled and sometimes even forgotten, according to Alastair Sweeny in his book Fire Along the Frontier: Great Battles of the War of 1812:

“Most Americans are confused by the War of 1812 and why it was fought. There are several reasons for this. First, the partisan propaganda of the era hid the real motives for the war. Second, it seemed a small, isolated war sandwiched between the American Revolution and the Civil War, whereas it was a major front in the Napoleonic Wars. Third, Americans are rightly embarrassed by the first 900 days of ‘Mister Madison’s War’ – a string of painful political and military failures. Nevermind that the last 100 days were marked by three glorious victories. And finally, the war of 1812 was an attempted land grab of today’s good neighbour Canada, a baffling country that had abolished slavery, rejected the blessings of American democracy, and refused to be liberated. Americans are also confused for another good reason. The major driving force behind the war was not ‘Mister Madison,’ but their eloquent, maddening founding father Thomas Jefferson himself. Readers will note that I title one chapter ‘Mister Jefferson’s War,’ because Jefferson’s love of France (and toleration of Napoleon), combined with this everlasting hatred of the British, drove most of his foreign and even domestic relations.”

How Did the War of 1812 Start?

In 1803, Great Britain went to war with Napoleon Bonaparte’s France. In an attempt to prevent supplies for getting into the hands of the enemy, both Britain and France tried to block the United States from trading with the other.

In need of more sailors to help fight the war, during the years 1803-1811, Britain also began engaging in the practice of impressment, during which the British would remove American seamen from U.S. merchant vessels and force them to serve on behalf of the British navy.

In June of 1807, the British ship Leopold fired upon the American ship the Chesapeake, which escalated the tension between the two countries.

In response, in December of 1807, President Thomas Jefferson approved the embargo act that cut off trade ties with Britain and France. This was met with protests in New England towns, whose economy was mostly based on the seafaring trade industry.

The embargo was an economic disaster for the United States and was discontinued in 1809. It was replaced with the equally ineffective non-intercourse act of 1809.

This act lifted all embargoes on American shipping except for those bound for French or British ports. The act’s intent was to damage the economies of Great Britain and France but it mostly hurt the economy in the United States.

The non-intercourse act was followed by Macon’s Bill Number 2 in 1810 which stated that if either Britain or France ceased attacking American merchant ships, the United States would end trade with the other, unless that other country agreed to recognize the rights of the neutral American ships as well.

Napoleon exploited the bill in his favor when he vowed to recognize the rights of the neutral American ships even though he had no intentions to follow through on his promise.

By the time President Madison realized this, the diplomatic damage was already done. Britain was highly offended by the agreement and threatened force, prompting Napoleon to withdraw his pledge that the American government had decided to ignore anyway.

Neither the United States or Great Britain were prepared for war by 1811 but it broke out anyway, on November 7, 1811, when the Battle of Tippecanoe took place, which is considered the first battle of the War of 1812.

The battle occurred due to the U.S. government’s aggressive policy of seizing frontier land from Native Americans. In the battle, a force of 1,100 U.S. troops under William Henry Harrison fought off an assault by a Native American confederacy, led by Shawnee chief Tecumseh, near the Tippecanoe River in Indiana, where Tecumseh had settled a large village of Indians, known as Prophetstown.

Harrison and his troops were victorious and forced the natives to retreat but, in the end, the battle only increased Indian resistance and pushed Tecumseh into an alliance with the British.

The British took advantage of the situation to continue to use Native Americans as agents to encourage rebellion. The thought of what the natives could do with the full backing of the British terrified the U.S. government.

In early June of 1812, President James Madison sent a message to Congress in which he listed complaints about the British, which include the following issues:

♦ Impressment of American soldiers into the British navy.
♦ Harassment of American commerce by British warships.
♦ British laws, Orders in Council, declaring blockades against American ships bound for European ports.
♦ Attacks by Native-Americans in the frontier believed to be instigated by British troops in Canada.

Following President Madison’s message, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives held votes on whether to go to war.

On June 4, 1812, the House of Representatives voted 79 to 49 in favor of war and on June 17, 1812, the U.S. Senate voted 19 to 13 in favor of war.

Finally, on June 18, 1812, the United States declared war on Great Britain. The official Declaration of War was signed by President James Madison on June 18, 1812 and states:

“Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That war be and is hereby declared to exist between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and the dependencies thereof, and the United States of America and their territories; and the President of the United States is hereby authorized to use the whole land and naval force of the United States, to carry the same into effect, and to issue private armed vessels of the United States commissions or letters of marque and general reprisal, in such form as he shall think proper, and under the seal of the United States, against the vessels, goods, and effects of the government of the said United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and the subjects thereof.”

What Happened During the War of 1812?

The war was fought on both land and sea and battles took place from as far north as Canada to as far south as New Orleans and Florida.

The British strategy in the war was to protect their own merchant shipping to and from Halifax, Nova Scotia and enforce a blockade of major American ports to restrict American trade.

The American strategy was to cause disruption through hit-and-run tactics and to battle British naval vessels only under favorable circumstances.

War of 1812 illustration, published in the Military Heroes of the War of 1812, circa 1852

War of 1812 illustration, published in the Military Heroes of the War of 1812, circa 1852

The war started out with the Americans launching a three-point invasion of the upper and lower region of Canada, which all failed. The American navy was more successful though with the USS Constitution and other American frigates winning important naval battles.

In 1813, the American forces won several important battles in the Great Lakes region but Britain still held control of the sea and blockaded the eastern seaboard.

In 1814, the Americans chose to again invade upper Canada because U.S. officials believed that if they could take upper Canada, it would force the British to cede that province to them when it came time for peace negotiations.

However, with the end of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe in April of 1814, Britain was able to devote more troops to the American war and in the spring of 1814, the British invaded the Chesapeake Bay area in the U.S. where they later bombarded Fort McHenry in Maryland and attempted to burn down the White House in Washington D.C. in retaliation for the earlier burning of government buildings in Canada by American soldiers.

In July of 1814, the British invaded northern Massachusetts, which is now modern-day Maine. They succeeded in securing the region and used Castine, Maine as their main base for the rest of the war.

Around the same time, the American forces were pushed out of the upper Mississippi region after a series of military losses there but still held control of Missouri and the St. Louis area.

Late in 1814, the war then moved to New York State when the British decided to invade Plattsburgh but ultimately failed to secure the region.

A major turning point in the war occurred on September 11, 1814 when Thomas Macdonough’s American naval force won an important victory at the Battle of Plattsburg Bay on Lake Champlain.

This victory forced the British army to abandon its invasion of the U.S. northeast and retreat back to Canada.

In September of 1814, British forces launched a double offensive in the south in Georgia and the Gulf Coast.

How Did the War of 1812 End?

Meanwhile, with the end of the Napoleonic War in April of 1814, the main British goals of stopping American trade with the French and the impressment of American sailors were obsolete.

With growing opposition to the war in both Britain and the United States and a desire by British and American merchants to reopen trade between the two countries, both sides realized the war had become a stalemate and that they had much to lose from a long drawn-out war.

As a result, peace negotiations began in Ghent, Belgium in August of 1814. After months of tense negotiations and talks, the Treaty of Ghent was finally signed on Christmas Eve in 1814.

The treaty called for all land, places and possessions seized by Great Britain and the United States during the war to be returned to its original owner and no new land was awarded, meaning neither side won anything.

In addition, the treaty include a clause for the natives that was essentially worthless. The treaty restored the natives “possessions, rights and privileges which they may have enjoyed, or been entitled to in 1811” but with no clearly-drawn map of the native’s land, this clause was unenforceable and left the natives with nothing.

News of the treaty took two months to cross the Atlantic ocean and British forces were not informed of it in time to stop their push across the mouth of the Mississippi River.

As a result, on January 8, 1815, the British attacked New Orleans but were defeated by a small American force led by General Andrew Jackson in one of the most striking U.S. victories in the war.

Word of the Treaty of Ghent and the American victory in the Battle of New Orleans reached the American public around the same time, spurring much celebration.

To learn more about the War of 1812, check out the following article on the Best Books About the War of 1812.

Lambert, Andrew. “A British Perspective on the War of 1812.” PBS.org, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/wned/war-of-1812/essays/british-perspective/
Foreman, Amanda. “The British View the War of 1812 Quite Differently Than Americans Do.” Smithsonian Magazine, Smithsonian Institute, July. 2014, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/british-view-war-1812-quite-differently-americans-do-180951852/
Andrews, Evan. “How the battle of Tippecanoe helped win the White House.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, LLC, 7 Nov. 2016, www.history.com/news/how-the-battle-of-tippecanoe-helped-win-the-white-house
“War of 1812-1815.” Office of the Historian, United States Department of State,
“The War of 1812: A Guide to Battlefields and Historic Sites.” PBS.org, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/wned/war-of-1812/historic-sites/
“War of 1812: Major Timeline of Events.” PBS.org, Public Broadcasting Service,
“The Treaty of Ghent.” PBS.org, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/wned/war-of-1812/essays/treaty-ghent/
“A Short History of the War of 1812.” USS Constitution Museum, ussconstitutionmuseum.org/history/essays/short-history-war-of-1812/
Horwitz, Tony and Brian Wolly. “The 10 Things You Didn’t Know About the War of 1812.” Smithsonian Magazine, Smithsonian Institute, 21 May. 2012, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-10-things-you-didnt-know-about-the-war-of-1812-102320130/
“War of 1812 Ends – Dec 24, 1814.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/war-of-1812-ends
“Places of the War of 1812.” National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior,

About Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

Rebecca Beatrice Brooks is the author and publisher of the History of Massachusetts Blog. Rebecca is a freelance journalist and history lover who got her start in journalism working for small-town newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire after she graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a B.A. in journalism. Visit this site's About page to find out more about Rebecca.

1 thought on “History of the War of 1812

  1. Mackenzie

    Congratulations on this. Very well written. I’m sure you’ll help lots of people with their history homework, not just me 😉

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