The War of 1812 Timeline
How It All Went Down
Order in Council
In the immediate aftermath of the American Revolutionary War, a British Order in Council is issued to redefine trade relations between Great Britain and the newly independent United States of America. American commercial access to British West Indian ports is severely restricted. Specified raw materials are allowed access to English ports but American manufactured goods are prohibited.
Madison Trade Crusade
The second session of the First United States Congress convenes in New York. During this session, James Madison will begin his twenty-year crusade to force British trade concessions through discriminatory tariffs on British goods.
France Wars with Britain
France declares war on Great Britain after learning that Britain is preparing to join an alliance with Austria and Prussia, nations already at war with France.
Rule of 1756
British Orders in Council are issued declaring that all neutral ships bound for and departing from French ports will be intercepted and searched by the Royal Navy. Contraband, including naval stores and food stuffs, will be confiscated. The "Rule of 1756" is also asserted, declaring that ports closed to a country during peace may not be opened to that country during war—in other words, French ports that had previously excluded American vessels may not now receive them.
The Jay Treaty between the United States and Great Britain is ratified by the Senate. Negotiated by John Jay, the treaty increases American access to British West Indian ports and establishes a commission to negotiate compensation for American cargoes illegally seized by the British. In return, the United States agrees to the establishment of a commission to resolve debt disputes dating to before the Revolutionary War.
France Protests Jay
France refuses to receive Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, the newly appointed United States minister to France, to protest the Jay Treaty. Believing the treaty signals a de facto alliance between the United States and Britain, France increases its harassment of American shipping.
A British Order in Council formalizes a loophole within its maritime policies allowing the United States to carry non-contraband goods from French colonial ports to France, provided that the cargoes make an intermediary stop at an American port. This doctrine of the "broken voyage" will allow American shippers to prosper as neutral carriers during the Napoleonic Wars.
Convention of 1800
The Convention of 1800 (a.k.a. the Treaty of Morfontaine) is signed with France. The treaty places American-French trade on most-favored-nation basis and acknowledges the neutral right concept of "free ships free goods." American shippers, as neutrals in the war between France and Britain, will be allowed to carry non-contraband goods to British ports without interference from the French.
British Seize Ships
A British Court condemns the American merchant ship Essex for violating British maritime policies. The Essex had been carrying a cargo picked up in Martinique—a Caribbean possession of Britain's enemy, France. The decision signals, for all intents and purposes, a revocation of the doctrine of the "broken voyage" that had previously allowed American shippers to prosper as neutral carriers. American ships, carrying French cargoes, will no longer be able to "neutralize" these cargoes by making a stop in an American port. Within weeks of this ruling, dozens of American ships will be seized by the British navy.
Battle of Trafalgar
One of history's great naval clashes, the Battle of Trafalgar, is fought off the coast of Spain. Britain defeats the combined fleets of Spain and France, securing British control of the Atlantic for the next century.
France issues the Berlin Decree, announcing a blockade against Great Britain and declaring that all ships engaging in commerce with Britain will be subject to seizure. This will be followed by the Milan Decree of 17 December 1807, declaring that the ships of any nation acquiescing in Britain's orders in council will be seized.
American envoys James Monroe and William Pinkney negotiate a treaty with Great Britain in an attempt to improve trade and diminish maritime tensions. The United States seeks increased commercial access to British markets in the West Indies and the revision of British policies on neutral shipping and impressment. While Britain makes some concessions on trade, it refuses to relinquish the right to stop foreign vessels and search their crews for deserters from the British navy. Jefferson therefore will find the terms of the Monroe-Pinkney Treaty unacceptable and will refuse to submit it to the Senate for approval.
Leopard Attacks Chesapeake
The USS Chesapeake, sailing off the Virginia coast, is fired upon by the Leopard, a British ship of war, when the Cheaspeake's commander refuses to allow the British to board his ship in order to search for British naval deserters. The American public is outraged and Jefferson orders all British ships out of American territorial waters.
Foreign Commerce Embargo
Congress passes an embargo against all foreign commerce, permitting American ships to sail to American ports only. Foreign vessels will be permitted to deliver but not pick up cargoes in American ports. Through this embargo, Jefferson hopes to prevent war with Britain and, by applying economic pressure, convince Britain to revise its maritime policies.
The Electoral College selects James Madison as the fourth president of the United States. Madison receives 122 votes; Federalist candidate Charles Cotesworth Pinckney receives 47. George Clinton, a second Republican candidate representing a northern branch of the party, receives 6 votes. Clinton also receives a majority of the second ballots and is elected vice-president.
Thomas Jefferson signs the Non-Intercourse Act, passed by Congress to replace the embargo passed in December 1807. This new act legalizes trade with all nations except Great Britain and France, and authorizes the president to re-open trade with either or both of those countries if they revise their maritime policies and recognize American claims to neutral shipping rights.
James Madison is inaugurated as the fourth president of the United States.
Congress passes Macon's Bill No. 2 to replace the Non-Intercourse Act. This new bill authorizes the president to reopen trade with both Great Britain and France. It further authorizes the president to impose trade restrictions on either country if the other modifies its trade policies before 3 March 1811. Should one country agree to allow American commerce to operate without interference, the other must match these concessions within three months or the president will be authorized to suspend American commerce with the offending country.
French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte orders his foreign minister, the Duc de Cadore, to inform the United States of his willingness to lift all trade restrictions against the United States upon the condition that the United States impose trade restrictions against Great Britain according to the terms of Macon's Bill No. 2. Upon receiving the "Cadore letter," President James Madison, on 2 November 1810, will declare that trade is open with France and will cease with Britain as of 2 February 1811 unless Britain similarly terminates its harassment of American trade.
War Hawk Congress
The Twelfth United States Congress, elected 5 November 1810, convenes in Washington. The Congress will be heavily influenced by freshmen representatives, elected from southern and western districts, that are impatient with British treatment of the United States. Labeled "war hawks," these representatives will support Madison's pursuit of a more aggressive foreign policy and his request for a declaration of war in 1812.
British Trade Embargo
After Britain refuses to meet the terms of President James Madison's ultimatum of 2 November 1810, Congress passes a resolution enacting the president's embargo against trade with Great Britain.
President Attacks Little Belt
The USS President fires upon HMS Little Belt, killing nine British sailors and disabling the ship after mistaking it for the Guerriere, a British ship that had recently intercepted an American merchant ship and impressed an American citizen.
Harrison Defeats Tecumseh
General William Henry Harrison leads a force of 1000 men against an Indian encampment on the Tippecanoe River in Indiana Territory. In the battle, Harrison's men defeat a coalition of northwestern tribes forged by Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa, or The Prophet, in an effort to resist the expansion of white Americans into Indian lands.
War of 1812
The Senate, by a vote of 19-13, passes the declaration of war against Great Britain requested by President James Madison. Two weeks earlier, the House of Representatives passed a similar war measure by a vote of 79-49.
Massachusetts Condemns War
Massachusetts's House of Representatives issues a statement condemning the war against Britain.
Massachusetts and Connecticut Refuse War
The governor of Connecticut, Roger Griswold, announces that his state's militia will not serve in the war against Britain. Massachusetts Governor Caleb Strong will similarly refuse to commit Massachusetts state militia to the war effort on 5 August 1812.
Captain Isaac Hull, commanding the USS Constitution, destroys HMS Guerriere off the coast of Nova Scotia. British artillery fire fails to damage the Constitution's oak hull during the battle, earning the American frigate its famous nickname, "Old Ironsides."
Surrender of Detroit
The first major battle of the War of 1812 ends in disaster for the United States when General William Hull, leading an American army of 2200 men, surrenders to British forces at Detroit without firing a shot. Hull will be courtmartialed for cowardice and sentenced to death, but the 61-year-old Revolutionary War veteran will be pardoned by President James Madison.
Battle of Queenston Heights
General Stephen Van Rennsselaer leads American forces across the Niagara River into Canada, where they clash with British forces at Queenston Hights, Ontario, in the second major battle of the War of 1812. New York state militia refuse to follow Van Rennsselaer across the border, claiming that they are only required to fight on New York soil. As a result, the Americans are defeated and 900 American soldiers are captured.
United States Captures Macedonian
Captain Stephen Decatur, commanding the USS United States, captures the Macedonian, a British warship, near the Madeira Islands off the coast of North Africa.
Canada Nearly Invaded
General Henry Dearborn, having advanced to the Canadian border in order to attack Montreal, retreats to Plattsburg, New York when the militia under his command refused to cross the border, claiming that they are only required to fight to defend American soil.
James Madison is elected to a second term as president of the United States. He receives 128 votes in the Electoral College. De Witt Clinton, representing the Federalist Party and an anti-war faction within the Republican Party, receives 89 votes. Elbridge Gerry is elected vice-president.
St. Petersburg Delegation
An American delegation, consisting of Albert Gallatin, James Bayard, and John Quincy Adams, arrives in St. Petersburg, Russia at the invitation of Tsar Alexander I. Alexander, anxious to increase his influence in European affairs, has offered to mediate the Anglo-American war. But by the time the American delegation arrives, the British have decided not to participate.
Battle of Lake Erie
Captain Oliver Hazard Perry leads a squadron of ten ships against a British fleet of six vessels on Lake Erie. A fierce ten-hour naval battle ends with American defeat of the British, giving the United States control over Lake Erie for the duration of the war. Perry announces the American victory in a memorable dispatch to headquarters: "We have met the enemy and they are ours."
General William Henry Harrison leads a force of 4500 Americans across the recently secured Lake Erie in pursuit of British troops forced to abandon Detroit. On 5 October, Harrison will overtake the enemy at Moravian Town to defeat the British and their Indian allies in the Battle of the Thames. Tecumseh, the Shawnee leader of the Pan-Indian confederation earlier defeated at Tippecanoe, will be killed in the battle, leading many of Britain's Indian allies to abandon the alliance.
In Europe, Napoleon's French army is crushed at the Battle of Leipzig. Napoleon, forced to retreat from Russia in 1812 after seeing 400,000 of his men killed and 100,000 captured in an ill-fated invasion, sends a new but untrained army into battle against a coalition of European nations at Leipzig, suffering another defeat that forces his retreat back into France.
Following the abdication in defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte as Emperor of France, the Napoleonic Wars end with the signing of a peace treaty between France and the European coalition of Great Britain, Russia, Prussia, and Austria.
Direct talks between the United States and Great Britain, proposed by the British foreign minister, Lord Castlereagh, begin in Ghent. The American delegation consists of Albert Gallatin, James Bayard, John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and Jonathan Russell.
White House Burned
British forces capture Washington, D.C. The White House, the Capitol, and executive department offices are burned. Secretary of War John Armstrong, blamed for the poor planning and intelligence that left America's capital poorly defended, is forced to resign.
American Victory at Lake Champlain
American forces turn back a British army of 11,000 men under the command of Sir George Prevost at Lake Champlain, New York. The Americans, outnumbered three to one, establish superior positions on the lake and shoreline, forcing Prevost to withdraw from the field. In the wake of his defeat, Prevost will abandon his invasion and retreat to Canada.
The Star Spangled Banner
The British attack on Baltimore, initiated on 14 September, is repelled after three days of fighting and the British begin their long retreat to their ships in the Chesapeake. The battle turns largely on the accuracy of the American artillery at Fort McHenry, which prevents the British fleet from entering the harbor. Francis Scott Key witnesses the battle, inspiring him to write "The Star Spangled Banner."
The Hartford Convention convenes as Federalist delegates from Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island meet to discuss their opposition to the war. There is speculation that the convention will recommend New England's secession from the United States and the negotiation of a separate peace with Britain. Instead, the delegates propose constitutional amendments requiring a two-thirds vote for declarations of war and laws restricting commerce, forbidding successive presidents from the same state, eliminating the three-fifths clause, and restricting future presidents to one term in office. These proposals will reach Washington just weeks before the end of the war. Outside New England, the convention, and the Federalist opposition to the war more generally, will generate charges of unpatriotic betrayal in a time of war, leading to the rapid decline of the Federalists as a national party.
Treaty of Ghent
Britain and the United States sign the Treaty of Ghent, ending the War of 1812. The treaty calls for the return of all prisoners of war and captured territory, amnesty for all Indian participants in the conflict, the return of slaves seized during the war by the British, and a commitment from both nations to end the international slave trade. Commissions are established to address miscellaneous boundary questions. The substantive issues that had prompted the war—British maritime policy, neutral rights, and impressment—are ignored, but it is agreed that commercial issues will be addressed at a future conference. The treaty will be unanimously ratified by the United States Senate 17 February 1815.
Battle of New Orleans
Two weeks after negotiators in Europe reach agreement on a peace treaty to end the War of 1812, but a month before news of the treaty reaches North America, the United States wins its greatest military victory of the conflict. At the Battle of New Orleans, General Andrew Jackson and a force of 5000 Americans turn back an invading British army of 7500 soldiers in a lopsided encounter, resulting in 2036 British casualties to the Americans' 21. Andrew Jackson will become a national hero, leading eventually to his election to the presidency in 1828.