If anyone had been taking bets on who would win the War of 1812 when it began, gamblers would have made Britain a heavy favorite. While the Americans might have had the advantage of fighting on their own soil, the Unites States military was small and poorly trained. Its army consisted of only 7000 men. Theoretically, this force was augmented by thousands of citizen soldiers serving in their states' militias, but there were legal questions surrounding how and where these militia could be used. The Constitution granted the president the authority to call them into service to suppress insurrections and repel invasions—but the consensus among Republicans was that state militia could only be ordered to meet these duties in their own states.
The army's officer corps was equally unimpressive. Most of its officers had never seen combat; many of those who had hadn't seen active service since the Revolution, over 30 years earlier. The United States Military Academy at West Point had been established in 1802, but by 1812 it could count fewer than 100 graduates ready to assume command. Therefore, in fleshing out the officer corps, President Madison had been forced to turn to men like Henry Dearborn—a Revolutionary War veteran, but now 61 years old and seriously overweight.
The navy was in equally bad shape. When John Adams left the presidency in 1801, he handed to Thomas Jefferson a navy capable of defending the American coast and maintaining a viable presence in the Caribbean. But Jefferson, believing that navies led countries inevitably into foreign conflicts, had allowed the navy to wither. By 1812, the US Navy counted only twelve ships of any size, and only three fully dressed battleships.
In comparison, the British had 250,000 men in uniform. Six thousand of these British regulars were stationed in Canada. And these were augmented by more than 2000 Canadian militiamen and roughly 3000 allied Indian warriors. More intimidating, the British navy floated 500 ships of the line, with 80 of them permanently stationed in the west Atlantic between Canada and the Caribbean.
On paper, the conflict looked to be a rout. But James Madison was no fool. He had no military experience but he could do the math; the great bulk of the British military was tied down in Europe, fighting the mighty armies of Napoleon. Of course, this meant that the British army and its officers were battle-hardened in ways that the American army and its aging officer corps were not. But so long as Napoleon stayed in the field—and in 1812 there were no signs he would soon retire—the American army would never have to face the bulk of the British fighting forces.
Madison also counted other advantages. For starters, his goals were diplomatic; in going to war he sought only a recognition from the British of American rights on the high seas. He had no territorial ambitions. He was not interested in acquiring Canada, and he certainly had no interest in taking the war to the British Isles. Madison also believed that Canadians would support any American army invading Canada. After all, roughly two-thirds of the Canadian population had migrated there from the United States. Some Americans believed that Canadians had been awaiting liberation from the British Empire since 1776—and therefore America's invading army would be greeted as liberators.
Madison was less committed to this vision of continental liberation than others, always defining his objectives as diplomatic rather than territorial. But he subscribed to a portion of the fantasy, believing that American troops would find plenty of support in Canada and therefore he planned his military strategy accordingly. When war broke out, he would invade Canada. The United States Army, augmented by state militia, would capture British territory there and force Britain to the negotiating table. Britain would not want to lose its important western colony—nor would it be able to remove many troops from the more critical European theater to bolster Canada's defense. Britain would therefore be forced to negotiate and America would win recognition of the maritime rights it had long pursued.
The plan made sense. But the military problems that would plague the American effort throughout the war surfaced almost immediately as Madison fine-tuned his strategy. Militarily, it made the most sense to attack the British at Montreal. Traveling up the Hudson River and over Lake Champlain, a concentrated American force could capture the critical city, shutting off western Canada from the eastern seaboard.
But while militarily logical, this course proved politically impossible. The New England states, dominated by Federalists, opposed the war. They had long protested Republican policies that threatened to antagonize Britain, their primary trading partner. It was feared, therefore, that New England's militias, so necessary to a concentrated attack on Montreal, would simply refuse to turn out for battle.
As a result, Madison was forced to proceed along a different, less desirable course. Rather than a concentrated attack against Montreal, he decided to divide his forces to launch a three-pronged northern invasion. While one army attacked Montreal, a second would attack from Fort Detroit in the far west. In between, a third invading army would proceed from Fort Niagara and into Canada at the western end of Lake Ontario.
If New England's unreliability provided Madison with his first challenge, his aging officer corps provided his next. From Fort Detroit, General William Hull led more than 2000 soldiers across the Detroit River into Canada. There, the revolutionary veteran and governor of the Michigan Territory prepared cautiously—his critics said timidly—for an attack on the British Fort Malden. But after a series of skirmishes in which he was outmaneuvered, he retreated to Detroit. There, fearing a British assault, and unnerved by British cannon fire, he ran up the white flag, surrendering himself and his army to the British without firing a shot in anger.
It was not an auspicious start to the War of 1812... and things only grew worse. At Fort Niagara, the American army again outnumbered the British forces opposing them. But the American command was divided. In order to appease rival factions within Congress, General Dearborn had decided to split the army into two divisions—one commanded by a Virginian, Alexander Smyth, the other led by a New Yorker, Stephen Van Rennsselaer. Both were political appointees; neither had any military experience to speak of. And in no time they were both quarreling over tactics.
Thus when Van Rennsselaer decided to attack the British on Queenstown Heights, just on the Canadian side of the border, Smyth refused to join him. And to make matters worse, when Van Rennsselaer crossed into Canada most of the New York state militia refused to follow. They could not be ordered, they argued, to fight outside the state of New York. As a result, Van Rennsselaer's weakened army was crushed—and 900 of the 1300 men who stuck with him were captured.
The first year of the war was not an unmitigated disaster. In August 1812, the USS Constitution defeated HMS Guerriere in a ferocious battle off the coast of Nova Scotia. The durability of the American ship against British cannon fire earned it the nickname "old ironsides." And in October, Stephen Decatur, commanding the USS United States, captured HMS Macedonian, a fully dressed 38-gun battleship. James Madison, desperate for a victory, hung the captured British flag at his Christmas ball.
In September 1813, the United States achieved further naval success on Lake Erie. Commander Oliver Perry's fleet of ten ships outmaneuvered a squadron of six British ships despite being outgunned by the much larger enemy vessels. This victory gave the Americans control over the critical waterway for the duration of the war. Perry also left Americans with a memorable line: "We have met the enemy and they are ours."7
The next month, William Henry Harrison—one of two future presidents to win great fame in the War of 1812—led a small army across the recently secured Lake Erie and defeated the British and their Indian allies in the Battle of the Thames. During the battle, Tecumseh—leader of the pan-Indian confederation Harrison had dealt a devastating defeat to in the 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe—was killed. The victory left America's northwest frontier secure, and it led many of Britain's Indian allies to abandon the alliance.
But in a war that seemed strangely jinxed from the start, even good news often morphed into bad. Perry, certainly one of the navy's best field officers, was given a promotion that left him chafing behind a desk. Harrison was accused of accounting irregularities by Secretary of War John Armstrong, perhaps because he saw in the younger officer a future political threat, and was forced to resign.
On the battlefield, the stunning victories on Lake Erie and at the Thames were offset by American defeats at Chrysler's Farm and Fort Niagara. And back in Washington, D.C., the costs of fighting the war threatened to spin out of control. Land sales, generating only $600,000 per year, provided just a fraction of the necessary revenue to pay for the army and navy. And tariff revenues were reduced by the British blockade of American commerce. (Ironically, the only significant source of import tax revenue during the war came from New England ports illegally importing British goods.) Given the inadequacy of existing revenues, the government was forced to borrow heavily; by 1814, $34 million had been borrowed to finance the war, with no relief in sight.
On the diplomatic front, the news was also discouraging. In March 1813, President Madison sent a delegation consisting of Albert Gallatin, John Quincy Adams, and James Bayard to St. Petersburg in response to an offer from Russian Tsar Alexander I to mediate. But by the time the American delegation arrived, the British had opted out of the talks, leaving Madison disappointed and also depriving him for many months of the counsel of Gallatin, his most trusted advisor.
Perhaps most disturbing, in the last months of 1813, dispatches from Europe were filled with reports of Napoleon's military retreat across Europe. Forced to withdraw from Russia in 1812, Napoleon was hit by nationalist uprisings in Germany and Italy as he raced back to France. Dealt a crushing defeat at Leipzig in October 1813, he was forced to abdicate in April 1814. And one month later, on 30 May 1814, the French signed a peace treaty with Britain and its allies. For Europe, this treaty meant at least temporary peace. For Americans, it meant 250,000 British troops were now potentially available for deployment in Canada.
In mid-July, 1814, Royal Navy ships carrying close to 6000 British regulars sailed into Chesapeake Bay. Madison had long worried about just such an invasion. But his Secretary of War, John Armstrong, had dismissed these fears. America's coastal cities were of greater strategic value, he argued, and the difficulty of accessing the swampy and forest-shrouded city of Washington would discourage any British schemes against the capital city. But Armstrong was wrong, and by the time American leaders realized what was going on, the British were less than a day's march from the capital. One error followed another. Poor intelligence left American forces (which actually outnumbered the British) badly deployed. And those soldiers that did encounter the British, the vast majority of them citizen militiamen, fled as soon the battle began. The British then marched almost unchallenged into the city. In one of the most humiliating moments in American history, Redcoat soldiers burned the capitol and the White House, a handful of other public buildings, and even the offices of the National Intelligencer—a newspaper that had printed unflattering allegations against the British commander, Admiral Cochrane.
It was James Madison's darkest hour. But striking was the president's stoic response. His treasury was depleted, New England's Federalists were threatening secession, his military had performed miserably, and now his capital was burned—but he continued to believe that America would prevail. Thirty years earlier, during debates over the suitability of a republican form of government to a country as large as America, he had argued that America's size would prevent any faction or narrow interest group from dominating the government. Now he argued that America's size would ensure that an isolated defeat here or there would not destroy the entire country. The United States was too large and consequently too resilient. It could afford to lose battles at Detroit, Niagara, and even Washington; it could absorb the disloyalty of Massachusetts and the incompetence of a cabinet officer. It was simply too large and too diverse to be conquered.
And he seems to have been right. After burning and looting the capital, the British marched from Washington to Baltimore. But there they encountered a more skillfully deployed American force of militia and army regulars. While American sharpshooters turned back one British division attempting to approach the city by land from the south, the big guns at Fort McHenry prevented the British fleet from entering the city's harbor. On 14 September, the British were forced to withdraw and abandon their campaign in the Chesapeake.
Simultaneously, American forces stationed on Lake Champlain turned back a British invading army under the command of Sir George Prevost. Unable to fight their way past an American squadron masterfully deployed by Captain Thomas Macdonough, 11,000 British troops were forced to retreat back into Canada.
Thus the year ended with just enough good news to lend credence to Madison's optimism. But even with the good news from Baltimore and Lake Champlain, maintaining this optimism required considerable faith. Another year of war meant another year of borrowing; Madison reported that there was only $5 million left in the Treasury. It also meant another year of resistance from New England Federalists. In December 1814, a group of powerful Federalist statesmen gathered at Hartford, Connecticut to discuss their opposition to the war and their options for resisting it. Rumors circulated that they were considering secession, or perhaps sending a delegation to the British to negotiate a separate peace agreement for the region. On the military front, a British fleet carrying 7500 soldiers was sailing toward New Orleans. On the diplomatic front, dispatches from Ghent, where American and British delegations met to negotiate a possible cease-fire, reported that the British had taken a hard line. They were insisting on a new Canadian border located farther to the south, the creation of an independent Indian state in the northwest, British navigation rights on the Mississippi River, and the exclusion of American fishing boats from the Grand Banks and the American navy from the Great Lakes. American prospects looked bleak.
But what these dispatches, sent in the fall of 1814, failed to report was that the British public had grown tired of war. After more than twenty years fighting France, Britain's people and its business community were anxious for peace. They were also unsettled by recent military setbacks in America; some even criticized the looting of the American capital. Perhaps most critically, British military leaders questioned whether complete victory was possible. The Duke of Wellington, soon to become the hero of Waterloo, was offered command of an enlarged British force in North America but declined to accept it; echoing Madison's assessment, he questioned whether the American continent could ever be subdued.
All of this combined to produce a remarkable about-face among the British diplomats gathered at Ghent (in present day Belgium). They dropped their aggressive demands and proposed a simple cease-fire. Prisoners of war and captured territories from both sides would be returned. Impressment was not mentioned, but it was agreed that past and future trade policies would be addressed at a subsequent conference..The American negotiating team was shocked, and then ecstatic. The terms were rushed back to Washington, arriving just weeks after Harrison Gray Otis, representing the disgruntled Federalists meeting at Hartford, delivered his convention's report to President Madison. The treaty also arrived just days after news reached Washington from New Orleans of the remarkable battle that had been fought there.
On 13 December, a British fleet had landed about 40 miles east of New Orleans. As the British prepared their assault on the city, American General Andrew Jackson prepared his defenses. This was no simple task. The French-turned-Spanish-turned-French-turned-American city had a very diverse population, and one that resisted organization. Therefore Jackson declared martial law and at one point threatened to blow up the provincial legislature if it did not comply with his demands. He organized all available manpower—including the city's unusually large population of free blacks and even the river pirates led by Jean Lafitte. And then he built a defensive line between the city and the approaching British forces.
It was a hopeless tactical situation for the British. A swamp to the east of the American lines, and the Mississippi River to west, left the British only one route of attack—straight into the guns of the American forces tucked inside a dry canal. Tennessee and Kentucky riflemen laid a withering fire against the advancing British lines, killing or wounding more than 2000 British soldiers, including two generals, in less than an hour. Crouched inside the canal, only eight Americans were killed, and another thirteen wounded.
It was a tremendous victory—totally unnecessary in one sense, as (unbeknownst to all participants) a treaty had already been signed ending the war. But the success at New Orleans contributed to the American sense that the war had been won, not just ended. In the American imagination, the triumph at New Orleans converted the British cease-fire into a surrender. It made Andrew Jackson a national hero. And it allowed President James Madison to trumpet, "the late war, although reluctantly declared by Congress, had become a necessary resort to assert the rights and independence of the nation. It has been waged with a success which is the natural result of the wisdom of the legislative councils, of the patriotism of the people, of the public spirit of the militia, and of the valor of the military and naval forces of the country Peace."8