The United States Lost the War of 1812

by Timothy Chilman


An artist's representation of the craft with which Napoleon was to invade Britain

As the 19th century commenced, Britain was embroiled in a war with France where the very survival of the nation was at stake. In 1797, a French invasion fleet embarked for Ireland, which was ruled by Britain at the time, but the weather was so violent that troops could not land.

Both countries sought to prevent the other from trading with the United States. France made noises, but could do little to enforce an embargo without a decent navy. Britain was the world’s leading naval power after Lord Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar in 1805. In 1807, Britain ordered that all ships acquire a license from British authorities before trading with France or its colonies.

A major point of conflict between Britain and the United States was impressment, where sailors could be taken from boarded U.S. ships and obliged to serve in the Royal Navy. The practice had been indulged in since the reign of King Edward I in the thirteenth century. The Navy was 140,000 strong and much deserted-from. Impressment provided half its crews. Boardings were common to check for “contraband” and deserters. Six thousand sailors fell victim. Sailors were taken who had been born British but were American citizens (“Once an Englishman, always an Englishman”) and some were actually American from the start.

U.S. maritime interests did not opposes impressment forcefully, as losing a few sailors did not significantly affect the bottom line. Trade with Britain remained extremely profitable. The country at large, however, took impressment as an insult to the flag, and tempers reached fever-pitch in June of 1807 with the Chesapeake Affair.

Sailors on the USS Chesapeake firing the one shot they managed against HMS Leopard

Four British sailors had deserted and joined the U.S. Navy. The 38-gun USS Chesapeake’s captain was aware his crew included deserters. The 50-gun HMS Leopard attempted to board the Chesapeake to search it, but the U.S. ship did not heave to. The Leopard opened fire, killing three men and injuring 18. The British then boarded and seized the four men, of whom one was later executed for desertion. Britain offered to pay damages, but even level-headed Americans were outraged.

In the United States in May, 1810, the Non-Intercourse Act prohibited trade with France and Britain. Napoleon suggested he would cease restrictions on trade, and President James Madison relented in France’s case. Measures against Britain were frequently circumvented by smuggling from Canada.

New members of Congress known as the War Hawks agitated for war. In the northwest, Britain was held responsible for encouraging Injun hostility to American expansion. After every Injun raid, stories circulated of captured British muskets and other equipment. In the south, the states of Tennessee, the Mississippi Territory, and Georgia had designs upon Florida, which was ruled by Britain’s ally, Spain. Southerners also wished to remove from play a destination for escaped slaves.

On June 1, 1812, Madison asked Congress to declare war. Both houses approved wholeheartedly. War was declared on June 18. To its supporters, it was the Second American Revolution. Its detractors believed Madison had been dragged into war by the War Hawks and called it Mr. Madison’s War.

Spencer Percival, the only British Prime Minister to be murdered while in office

On May 11, 1812, the British prime minister, Spencer Percival, was shot in the House of Commons (“Argh! My House of Commons!”). He was shot dead by John Bellingham, a merchant who had become bankrupt after a business venture in Russia. This is a popular trivia question, and is worth remembering. The bloodstains are visible to this day. Bellingham had entreatied Percival for help, but none had been forthcoming. Bellingham was arrested, tried, and executed within the space of a week, which was indecent haste even at the time. The jury took 14 minutes to arrive at its decision. It is said that the night before his murder Percival had a dream where he was murdered in the lobby of the House of Commons, and he told his family of it on the morning of his demise. Bellingham’s descendants own a manufacturing business in the unfashionable NotLondon area of England, and the company website boasts of the association.

Percival was a hardliner. His replacement, Lord Liverpool, rescinded the requirement for a license to trade with France days before the United States declared war. There had been a poor grain harvest in Britain, which therefore needed American provisions for its troops on mainland Europe. Madison said that had he known, there would have been no war. Had the telegraph been invented, the War of 1812 would never have happened.

When war began the army of the United States was 11,744 strong. The navy amounted to 20 vessels. At the same time there were approximately 7,000 British and Canadian regular soldiers. Canada had a population of only around half a million, and therefore less militia. There were about 10,000 militia during the war, compared to 480,000 in the United States, of which no more than half ever fought. Injuns felt they required British support to prevent American settlers from forcing them from their land, providing a source of manpower, 3,500 at its peak, which the United States lacked. Being somewhat preoccupied by Napoleon, Britain could spare only 34 frigates and eleven ships of the line.

The disunity of the country was a significant weakness of the American position. Opposition to the war was strongest in New England, which traded extensively with Britain. Many shipbuilders in Connecticut and Massachusetts constructed privateers – privately owned, armed vessels – but New England otherwise made little contribution to the war effort. Merchants in New England continued to sell provisions to the British.

Brig. Gen. William Hull, who led the first American invasion of Canada during the War of 1812

Enthusiasm for war in the west was greater and Canadian forces were weak, making it the safest theater of operations, although one with few strategic possibilities. Brig. Gen. William Hull, governor of Michigan, led the first American invasion of Canada across the Detroit River. In Canada, he issued a histrionic proclamation to the Canadian people, but sent only small raiding parties further.

The British dispatched forces to sever Hull’s communication with Ohio. Fort Michilimackinac in Michigan was seized. A dashing young officer during the Revolution, Hull had become timid with age. He overestimated British reinforcements of Fort Malden tenfold, and withdrew across the river to Fort Detroit. A column retreating from Fort Dearborn, present-day Chicago, was massacred by Injuns, who destroyed the fort. The British followed Hull to Fort Detroit, and shelled it. On August 16, when the British General, Isaac Brock, led a force across the river in the direction of the fort, Hull and his 1,600 men surrendered. Hull was taken prisoner but paroled, and was court-martialed for incompetence when he returned States-side.

The USS Constitution defeating HMS Guerriere

On August 19, around 400 miles southeast of Halifax, the 56-gun USS Constitution sighted the 38-gun HMS Guerriere. The two ships exchanged broadsides and boarding parties. On seeing an 18-pound cannonball bounce off the Constitution’s hull, one U.S. sailor exclaimed, “Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!” which gave the U.S. ship its nickname of Old Ironsides. The Guerriere lost two of its masts, leaving it unable to maneuver. Its captain surrendered. The ship was so badly damaged it was set on fire and abandoned.

Maj. Gen. Henry Dearborn invaded Canada with 4,000 men. Outnumbered two to one, the British retired, abandoning Forts George and Queenston. Dearborn sent 2,000 men in pursuit two days later, and they struck camp within 10 miles of the British. During the night, around 700 British attacked and beat off the Americans. Dearborn withdrew to Fort George. Around two weeks later, 500 of Dearborn’s men surrendered to a force of British and Injuns half their size.

William Henry Harrison, the governor of Indiana, had led U.S. troops to victory against the Injuns at Tippecanoe in 1811. Dependent on homemade cartridges and clothing, he made a move on Fort Malden. Hugely outnumbered, the British abandoned Forts Malden and Detroit. Harrison pursed the enemy with around 3,500 men. On October 5, he encountered the British around 85 miles from Malden on the banks of the Thames River. There were 900 British regulars and 2,000 Injuns under Tecumseh. Harrison ordered a mounted attack. The British surrendered and the Injuns fled. Tecumseh was killed, but Harrison could not exploit his victory as his Kentuckians wished to return to their farms for the harvest.


The Injun defeat at Thames River led to the Curse of Tecumseh. It is said that either the man himself or his half-brother, Tenskwatawa, said, “Harrison will die, I tell you, and after him, every great chief chosen every 20 years thereafter will die. And when each one dies, let everyone remember the death of my people.”

Harrison was elected President in 1840 with John Tyler as veep under the slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too.” Harrison made an inaugural speech one hour and forty five minutes long, longer than that of any other President, in freezing weather. He wore no coat or hat, and caught a cold which turned into pneumonia. He died one month after his election, making him the shortest-serving President ever.

The seven presidents elected every 20 years after that died in office, which is most unlikely to have occurred naturally. The chain was broken by Ronald Reagan. Reagan was shot by John Hinckley in an attempt to impress Jodie Foster, but his surgeon said the bullet missed his heart by an inch. He was brain dead for a period much shorter than his detractors claim. Possibly, he survived because the emaciated Nancy was aware of the curse and took corrective action, consulting voodoo witch doctors and other mystics. Dubya should have died, but perhaps escaped the curse because he was not elected and was instead chosen by the Supremes.

The monument to Isaac Brock at Queenston Heights

The United States lost at the Battle of Queenston Heights on October 13 after militiamen refused to enter Canada because it violated their terms of employment. Brock was killed during this engagement while leading his troops personally, and a statue of him stands in Queenston on a pillar 14 feet higher than Nelson’s Column.

Harrison made for Detroit with 6,500 men. 1,000 were sent to the small, Canadian outpost of Frenchtown, and defeated by a marginally larger enemy force on January 22, 1813. 100 Kentucky riflemen were killed and around 500 captured. Wounded American prisoners were killed by their Injun guards in the Raisin River massacre, giving rise to the battlecry, “Remember the Raisin”.

At the end of 1812, Commodore Isaac Chauncey amassed a fleet of 14 ships at Sackett’s Harbor, New York. On April 27, 1813, 1,700 U.S. troops assigned to Maj. Gen. Henry Dearborn landed unopposed around four miles west of York, present-day Toronto, where a powerful warship was being built to challenge Chauncey.

The British garrison of 300 regulars, 300 militia, and 100 Injuns was bested. British troops set fire to the gunpowder magazine of the warship, the explosion of which killed 36 people including the American field commander, Brig. Gen. Zebulon Pike, who was standing in for the sick Dearborn. Almost 20 percent of Dearborn’s men were killed or wounded. U.S. soldiers plundered the city, burning many buildings. A British attack on Sackett’s Harbor while the U.S. fleet was at the other side of the lake failed after two frontal assaults.

Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry transferring between ships during the Battle of Lake Erie

Hull had claimed that British control of Lake Erie allowed the enemy to reinforce at will. The two sides assembled fleets on the spot: the Americans, nine ships, and the British, six. They came to blows on 10 September 1813 at Put-in-Bay. U.S. Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry triumphed, and wrote: “We have met the enemy, and they are ours.” He was the first man in history to defeat a whole British squadron. American soldiers ransacked Canadian property.

The U.S. expedition against Montreal was one of the greatest disasters of the war. 4,000 men were commanded by Brig. Gen. Wade Hampton and 6,000 by Maj. Gen. James Wilkinson. Neither could capture Montreal alone, but the pair barely spoke. Hampton retreated after an advance party was defeated at the Battle of Châteauguay on October 26. Wilkinson retreated in Hampton’s wake. Hampton resigned from the Army shortly after.

In December 1813, the British recaptured Fort George, then crossed the river and took Fort Niagara. The Americans burned the town of Newark and a section of Queenston before departing. Newark was occupied by only wimmen and children who were made homeless in the depths of winter, and many were found dead from exposure by British troops the next day. In retaliation, the British unleashed their Injun allies upon the countryside, and the towns of Buffalo, Youngstown, Machester, and Lewiston were burned, with many American deaths.

The British blockaded Delaware and Chesapeake Bays, confining the U.S. frigates Constellation and Adams. Only small American gunboats took to the sea. The Constellation was anchored at a Navy yard at Norfolk. There were 580 regulars and militia, and 150 sailors and marines from the Constellation. The British plan was to land 800 men on the mainland and than have another 500 arrive by rowing boat. Extremely accurate gunnery by the Constellation caused the British to retreat after taking 81 casualties. The British had more joy at Hampton, whose 450 miltiamen were defeated. The town was pillaged.

Davy Crockett, who said of the Injuns at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, "We shot them like dogs."

The U.S. government had attempted to transform the society of the Creek Injuns from hunting and gathering to agriculture and from rule by clans to rule by a council nominated by whites. Inspired by Tecumseh, Creek insurgents known as Red Sticks perpetrated a number of outrages culminating in the massacre of more than 500 civilians at Fort Mims. Gen. Andrew Jackson did not take action against the 800 Injuns until he had almost 600 regulars, 2,000 militia, and several hundred friendly Injuns under his command. At the Battle of Horseshoe Bend on March 27, 1814, American regulars mounted a bayonet charge which routed the Injuns, who were hunted down. Present was a Tennessee soldier by the name of Davy Crockett, who said, “We shot them like dogs.” Only around 100 Injuns survived.

American privateers captured 1,300 British merchant ships during the war. By the opening of 1814, Britain was effectively blockading the entire coast which forced American naval ships and privateers to not venture forth. Wilkinson’s foray from Plattsburgh with around 4,000 men penetrated a whole eight miles into Canada before 200 British and Canadian troops halted it.

Brig. Gen. Jacob Brown crossed the Niagara River on July 3 and took Fort Erie, then moved toward the Chippewa River, around sixteen miles away. An advance party of 1,300 men under Col. Winfield Scott came upon 1,500 British regulars who had crossed the river undetected. Scott ordered a charge, which the British advanced to meet. At their closest, they were between sixty and eighty yards apart. The British line broke. 48 of Scott’s men died while 227 were wounded, and the British suffered 137 dead and 304 wounded.

American infantry at the Battle of Lundy's Lane

Brown followed the British to Queenston where he awaited Chauncey’s fleet, but Chauncey did not oblige. Brown withdrew to Chippewa and then embarked upon a cross-country march along Lundy’s Lane. Brown’s force of 2,900 men met 3,000 British. The battle took place mostly after nightfall, lasted two hours, and was the fiercest of the war, but was inconclusive. Scott and Brown were both severely wounded. The two British generals were also wounded, and one, Riall, was captured. Brown’s invasion of Canada ended there.

British troops burning buildings in Washington in 1814

In 1814, Britain reinforced Canada with 16,000 men who were no longer needed against Napoleon. Raids upon the American coast were staged. Eastport and Castine were occupied without resistance. On August 19, 4,000 men under Maj. Gen. Robert Ross marched on Washington. Ross’ force easily saw off 5,000 Americans five days later at the Battle of Bladensburg. The British entered Washington and burned any private houses from which shots were fired and all public buildings with the exception of the Patent Office. Burned were the Capitol and Executive Mansion, an act as shocking as the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001. The latter was rebuilt and painted white – the White House. Madison’s wife, Dolley, saved a famous painting of George Washington when she fled with her husband. Governor Sir George Prevost’s 11,000 veterans of the Napoleonic Wars were defeated at Plattsburgh on Lake Champlain, source of a major tributary of the St. Lawrence River.

On September 13, 1814, Fort McHenry at Baltimore withstood 25 hours of bombardment by 19 British ships. The next morning, soldiers hoisted an enormous American flag, the sight of which inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem, Defense of Fort McHenry, while detained aboard a British ship some miles distant. It was sung to the tune of an old English drinking song, The Anacreontic Song. Later known as The Star-Spangled Banner, it was adopted as the national anthem of the United States in 1931.

Dismayed by the failed attack on Baltimore, Britain sued for peace. Britain promised to desist from efforts to create a buffer state of Injuns. On Christmas Eve, the Treaty of Ghent was signed.

Gen Andrew Jackson commanding U.S. troops in the repulsion of British soldiers

Unaware of moves toward peace, around 8,000 British soldiers under Maj. Gen. Edward Pakenham arrived at Lake Borgne on December 12. New Orleans, control of which granted control of the Mississippi River, was defended by Jackson and 4,000 men. 42 British armed longboats saw off the five American gunboats on the lake, allowing troops to land. The armies met ten miles south of the city on January 8, 1815. In slightly more than two-and-a-half hours, Jackson’s force defeated the British. 1,900 British were killed or wounded, while the Americans suffered seven dead and six wounded.

New Orleans is often cited as the final battle of the war, however the final engagement was between the USS Peacock and the British merchant, Nautilus. The Peacock ignored British insistence of a peace treaty, and captured the other ship after a 15 minute battle.

News of the peace deal came at roughly the same time as news of Jackson’s victory in New Orleans, causing some people to regard the war as an American victory. ABC News said, “The British lost.” The Conservapedia said, “The Americans thus achieved all their main war goals.” Had it truly been an American victory, however, the date of its end would be a national holiday. Most historians consider the war to have been a draw.

U.S. soldiers losing the War of 1812

The United States had two aims: the end of impressment and the conquest of Canada. Britain had three: to retain impressment, to defend Canada, and to create an Injun buffer state. The United States scored zero out of two while Britain managed two out of three. Impressment had virtually ceased by 1814. It ended because it was no longer needed and thousands of sailors were being discharged, and not due to American pressure.

John Hopkins University professor, Eliot Cohen, who advised Dubya’s administration on geopolitical strategy from 2007 to 2009, wrote in his book, Conquered into Liberty: “The nominal causes for which <the Americans> had fought the war had advanced not an iota.” In Forgotten Conflict, historian Donald Hickey wrote: “Far from bringing the enemy to terms, the nation was lucky to escape without making extensive concessions itself.”

When the War of 1812 began, the U.S. battlecry was: “On to Canada!” By the end, it was: “Not an inch of territory lost!” Jonathan Vance, a historian at Western University in Ontario said, “The acid test is, if we hadn’t won, we wouldn’t be independent, we’d be part of the U.S.”

In 1990, Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Kuwait. They were ejected in 1991, Iraq did not lose any territory, and Saddam remained in power. Who says that was a draw?


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