American History: The War of 1812

From the Lecture Series : A History of the United States, 2nd Edition

By Professor Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

No country was more ill-prepared to wage war in 1812 than the United States, much less to wage it against the world’s greatest naval power, Great Britain. What were the consequences of this war against Great Britain and how did it end?

The painting shows Macdonough's victory on Lake Champlain during the War of 1812.
During the War of 1812, the joint defensive by Brigadier General Alexander Macomb and Commodore Thomas MacDonough’s little fleet successfully stopped the British troops from entering into American territory. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

In 1812, the United States declared war on Great Britain due to unresolved issues such as violations of American rights at sea by the British, resistance from American Indians to the expansionist agenda of United States and the failure of the Embargo Act.

The American army consisted of a meagre 7,500 men commanded either by inexperienced junior officers or by senile veterans of the American Revolution. They had exactly 16 commissioned warships, 7 frigates and an assortment of sloops and gunboats in contrast to the 116 frigates and 124 mammoth ships of the British Navy. 

Twelve years of Republican rule had reduced the national budget of the United States and taxes had declined to one-fifteenth the size of Britain. As a result, the United States was left with hardly any fleet to respond with but none of these shortcomings seemed to deter the confidence of America.

Learn more about Republicans and Federalists.

Failed Attack on Canada

It was assumed that since the majority of the British Army and Navy would be engaged in their war against France, it would be easier to defeat Canada. William Eustis, President Madison’s secretary of war called for a three-pronged invasion of Canada.

The aging General William Hull would start off from Fort Detroit and occupy the southern tip of Upper Canada. He would be then joined by the central prong under the command of Stephen Van Renssalaer, to cross over the Niagara River and takeover Upper Canada. General Henry Dearborn would lead from the easternmost prong moving from Plattsburg toward Montreal and Lower Canada.

Easily said than done, not one of these plans worked. Hull’s two thousand men strong infantry surrendered to a much smaller contingent of about thousand Indians when he tried to cross into Lower Canada. Stephen Van Renssalaer, an officer of the New York State militia managed to cross the Niagara River, but Brigadier General Alexander Smythe refused to take orders from a militia officer. Smythe tried to lead the contingent by himself, but this time the New York state militia refused to provide support.

On the Eastern prong, Dearborn changed his plans and moved west along the St. Lawrence River while trying unsuccessfully to persuade his militia that it was not a violation of their constitutional rights as state militia to order them onto Canadian soil. As though these humiliations were not enough, William Henry Harrison, the hero of Tippecanoe was asked to undo Hull’s shameful surrender at Fort Detroit. Nonetheless, Harrison’s forces were massacred by a mixed British-Canadian-Indian force on the Raisin River.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Naval Battleships in the War of 1812

One of the surprises of the War of 1812 was that no one had really expected the Navy of United States to take on the British Navy with their handful of frigates. These American frigates secured some spectacular one-to-one victories against the greatest naval force of the world.

The frigate Constitution defeated HMS Guerriere in a single combat off Halifax in August and went on to sink another British frigate Java in the December of 1812. The other two famous frigates that captured British warships were United States and the sloop Hornet. However, a smaller frigate, Essex which initially captured the British sloop Alert was cornered by a British squadron that pounded the Essex to pieces in 1814.

The painting shows a scene from the naval battle between the US and Britain.
During the War of 1812, the US Navy fought hard against the British Navy, and secured key victories.
(Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

The greatest naval triumph of the War of 1812 was led by Naval Lieutenant Oliver Hazard Perry. He commanded the tiny naval base at Presque Isle on Lake Erie. Perry built a 12-ship flotilla of gunboats and small armed vessels under extremely difficult conditions and in the September of 1813, he captured the entire British Lake Erie squadron.

Perry had accomplished what the army couldn’t achieve in two years and the British evacuated Fort Detroit. During the next campaign that started in the spring of 1814, another regimented American force under a fighting Quaker named Jacob Brown crossed the Niagara River once again and defeated the British at Chippewa. Brown also fought the British at Lundy’s Lane in the July of 1814.

The British did not take these defeats lying down, they launched major counter-invasions. The strategy was for 11,000 troops to march to New York City, a joint operation by the army and navy under Admiral George Cockburn, raid the American coast and finally Major General Edward Pakenham would capture New Orleans. Cockburn’s combined fleet operation struck, first sailing into the Chesapeake Bay and burning down several towns including Washington D.C. However, Baltimore was saved due to the stubborn defense put up by the garrison of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor.

The British counter offensive on land was from Canada but was not as successful as Cockburn’s naval raid. The joint defensive by Brigadier General Alexander Macomb and Commodore Thomas MacDonough’s little fleet stopped Sir George Prevost’s troops, forcing them to retreat back to Canada.

Learn more about National Republican Follies.

Capitulation of the Creek Indians

The army of United States tasted success in the territories of Georgia and the Mississippi. When the British abandoned most of Upper Canada, one of Harrison’s old nemesis, Tecumseh tried to rally his Creek Indian followers, but was shot down at the Battle of the Thames. However, Tecumseh had successfully incited the young Creek Indians against the Americans. Around two thousand of these red stick Creeks raided American settlements along the Alabama River and massacred white defenders of Fort Mims near the border with Spanish West Florida.

The secretary of war authorized major general of the Tennessee militia, a former congressman, Andrew Jackson to deal with the Red Sticks. Jackson managed to stifle the Red Sticks at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in the March of 1814 and forced them to sign a treaty conceding twenty two million acres of their lands in the Mississippi Territory to the United States. After his successful pursuit, Jackson went to deal with the planned British assault on New Orleans. Jackson’s loyal Kentucky and Tennessee militiamen gunned down as many as two thousand British soldiers in this major assault.

Learn more about the Jeffersonian Reaction.

The Peace Treaty of Ghent

The War of 1812, marked by sparing victories for the United States had depleted the treasuries of the country. To make matters worse, the European wars had ended with the collapse of Napoleon at the Battle of Leipzig. So, the British were free to hound the American Republic which was already reeling under immense economic pressure. The country was deep in debt, unemployment was at a high and the British blockade was choking American commerce to death.

After rejecting the offer by the emperor of Russia to mediate between Britain and America, the British finally came around for direct peace negotiations. President Madison responded immediately by sending commissioners to the Belgian city of Ghent to negotiate the terms of peace.

In New England, the Federalists knew that the war was going really bad and it was time to make peace. They recognized the after effects of the war as New England had suffered the most due to the blockade by Britain. These disgruntled Federalists, passed a peace resolution and urged the New England states to make arrangements for a separate peace treaty with Britain.

In the December of 1814, they went on to organize a convention in Hartford, Connecticut, with 22 delegates from all the New England states demanding new constitutional amendments to restrict Madison’s powers. However, things turned out quite differently and the representatives who returned after delivering the convention’s ultimatums found the city rejoicing Jackson’s victory at New Orleans and celebrating the signing of the peace treaty at Ghent. The War of 1812 was over, but its after-effects would be felt for the next 40 years.

Common Questions about American History: The War of 1812

Q: Who led the greatest naval triumph for the US during the War of 1812?

During the War of 1812, the greatest naval triumph for the US was led by Naval Lieutenant Oliver Hazard Perry.

Q: What role did William Eustis play in the War of 1812?

William Eustis was President Madison’s secretary of war. He had designed a three-pronged plan to invade Canada in the War of 1812.


Q: How did the US deal with the resistance of the Creek Indians during the War of 1812?

During the War of 1812, the Americans had to face resistance from the Creek Indians. Andrew Jackson, the major general of the Tennessee militia, managed to stifle the Creek Indians at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in the March of 1814 and forced them to sign a treaty conceding twenty two million acres of their lands in the Mississippi Territory to the United States.

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