WHY SHOULD I CARE?
Most adult Americans today are unaware of what caused the War of 1812, who started it, what the outcome was, or even who the belligerents were. If I recall correctly, my grade school / high school History Class covered The War Of 1812 — aka America’s Second War Of Independence, or America’s Forgotten War — for a total of maybe one week. And what a worthless week it was. Like most history teachers I’ve ever had, they turned an exciting story into a dry bundle of boring crap … focusing on memorizing dates and random events without getting to the real story behind the story; i.e. why did it happen, how does the war affect us today, and what can we learn from it? This is a crying shame because the war had a tremendous impact on American political development, territorial expansion, and national identity.
A 19th century French historian said, “History studies not just facts and institutions, its real subject is the human spirit.” The word ‘history’ comes from the Greek, and literally means “knowledge acquired by investigation”. So, let us investigate the War Of 1812, and the spirit of humanity which caused it … and changed America forever.
There were two major reasons given for the war.
First, Britain was at war with France since 1793. For twenty years the British claimed they had the right – as a legitimate and necessary wartime measure — to intercept American ships on the high seas, seize and keep their cargoes, and search the crews for British navy deserters. The British between 1807 and 1812 seized some 400 American ships and cargoes worth millions of dollars.
Second, was the British practice of ‘impressment’. A chronic manpower shortage in the Royal Navy led the Brits to stop American merchant vessels on the high seas and remove seamen. Between 1803 and 1812 the Brits captured an estimated six to nine THOUSAND Americans in its dragnet. These men were subjected to all the horrors of British naval discipline—enforced with the cat-o’-nine-tails—and made to fight a war that was not their own.
America felt this violated its rights as a neutral and sovereign nation. So, we declared war against the Brits in 1812.
THE END OF THE REVOLUTIONARY WAR SEEDED THE WAR OF 1812
Isn’t that often the case … that the end of one war, and the demands of the victor, eventually leads to yet another war? The war for American Independence lasted until 1783 when the peace treaty with the British was signed. Imagine the giddy feeling you would have had at that time. Freedom! Independence! But the rational exuberance was met with irrational naivete.
The American populace, including its politicians, assumed that the British would continue to allow access to British ports …. as if nothing at all happened! America assumed that the Brits needed our wheat, the British Navy needed our timber, hemp, and tar, and British colonies in the West Indies needed our fish, wheat, and salt to feed their slaves. This was a big miscalculation.
Canada and Ireland delivered most of the same goods. In fact, America needed the Brits more than they needed us as we depended on British manufacturing goods. America had zero leverage, and it was Britain that dictated foreign policy. They admitted American raw materials on a case-by-case basis, excluded manufactured goods altogether from entering England, and closed West Indian ports to American goods. Bullocks to America! What could America do? Nothing. We had no navy to back up our demands.
1801 – A PIVOTAL YEAR
George Washington negotiated the Jay Treaty in 1795. The Brits negotiated from a position of strength, and conversely, America from weakness. In a nutshell, the treaty granted the Brits virtually unlimited access to American markets in exchange for limited access to British markets in the West Indies. It also allowed British creditors to recover debts owed by Americans.
In 1801, Thomas Jefferson was elected president and James Madison was named his secretary of state. They quickly abrogated the treaty.
Madison took a hard-line approach towards the Brits. Even back in 1790, as a Congressman from Virginia, he championed the idea of countering British trade restrictions with a series of discriminatory tariffs via import taxes. George Washington and John Adams rejected the idea. Now, however, as Secretary of State, Madison hoped to implement what he believed was a long overdue aggressive trade policy against Britain. But, he shot himself in the foot big time …. by reversing the naval-building policies of John Adams
John Adams succeeded in his priority of strengthening the United States Navy. When he was elected in 1796, the navy had only three battleships. Five years later, in 1801, the navy had fifty … more than enough to defend America’s coastline and maintain a viable presence in the Caribbean.
Jefferson, and Madison, undid all this for several reasons. They felt maintaining a navy was too expensive. As Republicans they believed in frugal, tax-cutting government. And they believed that a large military posed a domestic threat in that the officer corps could harbor aristocratic ambitions and become a tool for would-be tyrants. Lastly, they felt navies led countries into unnecessary foreign entanglements. As such, Jefferson invested only in small gunboats for coastal patrols. The battleships atrophied. By 1812, the United States had only a dozen seaworthy battleships of any size.
Jefferson and Madison certainly were not stupid men. Yet, one must wonder “What were they thinking??” With no leverage (military power) to bring to the negotiating table, did they expect the Brits to just quietly and unquestioningly bend to American demands? Hardly! As should have been expected, Britain continued to apply both its commercial and naval power to dictate — by force as necessary — trade and maritime policy to the United States.
MORE HALF-ASSED DECISIONS AND ERRONEOUS BELIEFS
All governments do dumb-shit things, even that of our Founding Fathers.
So, in 1807 Jefferson tried to pressure the Brits and French by convincing Congress to secure a radical embargo against all foreign trade. (Embargo!!! Our government still loves them to this very day. When will we ever learn?) American ships were forbidden from trading overseas. The embargo only hurt America. It was quickly scrapped.
It was replaced with the Non-Intercourse Act. This act had nothing to do with the cessation of attacking the pink fortress. It allowed trade with all countries except Britain and France. It also allowed the President to restore trade with either country IF either belligerent ended its maritime harassment. That only intercoursed the American people, and didn’t work out either.
So, in 1810 Madison signed the ridicules Macon’s Bill No.2. Even he didn’t like it, but he could not yet get Congress to pass a war resolution. The bill authorized Madison to impose trade restrictions against one offending country if the other lifted its trade restrictions against the United States. In other words, the United States would commercially punish country A if country B agreed to allow America to trade freely. Pitting two countries against each other didn’t work either.
What was the result of all these half-assed measures to intimidate the British? They shopped elsewhere! For example, between 1808-1812 the Canadian timber industry exploded with its exports to England, increasing by 500%. Canadian agricultural production also increased greatly. The Brits were eating beef, Americans were eating crow.
Madison was getting desperate. He was conjuring up even more rigorous measures against the British fearing that the window of opportunity for gaining concessions through commercial pressure would soon close forever. His conjuring included plans for war.
He figured it would be a little war, and a quick one. (How many times have our Dear Leaders told us that? Especially since 1960?) Most of the British army and navy were bogged down in Europe, fighting a brutal war with Napoleon. The French controlled most of Europe, and the little Frenchie dictator assembled a 700,000-man army for an invasion of Russia. All Madison wanted was the right to trade freely and, gain the respect owed to the United States as an independent nation. He calculated that since he wasn’t seeking territory or conquest, that Britain would surely be willing to negotiate rather than have to deploy valuable ships and troops thousands of miles away from the war in Europe. Madison miscalculated. Madison was wrong to believe that the British would rush to negotiate with him. The British even refused Tsar Alexander I’s invitation to mediate in 1813.
Britain’s commitment to battle only strengthened over the first two years of the war. Madison was even wrong about the impact of the European war on America. He felt that when the European war ended, that the British would send the bulk of their armies to battle the United States. When you need popular support for a quick and easy war, you still need a little fear-mongering. “The British will come!!” One reason the Brits didn’t redeploy their troops was that American military incompetence at the beginning of the war made it unnecessary. More fortuitously, after more than two decades of continual war, the Brits had had enough, and by 1814 were more than happy to soften their demands. (The British Invasion finally took place about 150 years later. But with guitars and drums.)
THE FRENCH CONNECTION — TAKING ADVANTAGE OF MACON’S BILL
The Brits had the world’s strongest navy, and couldn’t be coerced into lifting its restrictions. France, on the other hand, had everything to gain. Their Berlin (1806) and Milan (1807) decrees imposed severe trade restrictions against any country trading with Britain. But France’s navy was not sufficiently powerful enough to enforce these decrees. So, in compliance with Macon’s Bill, France could force the United States to restrict itself. In other words, France repealed its restrictions against the United States, thus forcing the United States to suspend its trade with Great Britain. Thus, on August 5, 1810 the French lifted the Berlin and Milan decrees. Madison, in turn, ended all trade with Britain on Feb. 2, 1811.
The New England Federalists — who were dependent upon trade with Britain for their economic sustenance — immediately attacked the announcement. The claimed Napoleon could not be trusted, and that it would lead America into war. They were correct. Napoleon refused to release American ships already held in French ports, and continued to harass American shipping. America would declare war on June 18, 1812.
MADISON FINALLY GETS HIS WAR
It’s not entirely fair to say, as some do, that this was strictly Madison’s war. He had help. The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Henry Clay of Kentucky, his principal assistant, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, and other southern and western representatives were collectively known as “Warhawks” and pressured Madison into asking Congress to declare war against Great Britain.
When the war started, the American army consisted of 7,000 regulars. (Theoretically, there were also thousands of citizen soldiers in the militia. While the Constitution granted the president the authority to call them into service to suppress insurrections and repel invasions … the legal consensus was that state militia could only be ordered to meet these duties in their own states). Anyway, the military was poorly trained. The army’s officer corps was a ragtag outfit …most had never seen combat … and the ones that did were old, having last seen service in the Revolution, thirty years earlier. West Point, established ten years earlier, had fewer than one hundred graduates ready to assume command. The navy, as mentioned above, was a puny force. By 1812, the US Navy counted only twelve ships of any size, and only three fully dressed battleships.
The Brits had 250,000 battle-hardened men in uniform. True, the bulk of those were in Europe. Nevertheless, 6,000 were stationed in Canada … augmented by 2,000 Canadians, and roughly 3,000 Indians. The British Navy consisted of 500 ships …. 80 of them permanently stationed in the West Atlantic between Canada and the Caribbean. It should have been a rout.
THE CANADIAN DEBACLE
In the long run, the American navy could not possibly defeat their British counterparts. American politicians concluded the most realistic path to pressuring Britain was by targeting Canada …. which seemed like an easy target with a population of only 500,000 compared to 7.7 million in the United States in 1812. Virginia Congressman John Randolph even stated the conquest of Canada would be“a holiday campaign … with no expense of blood or treasure on our part”. (You know … just like that quick war in Iraq and Afghanistan which we were promised.)
Madison grossly miscalculated support from the Canadian populace. He believed the Canadians wished to be liberated from Britain … that they wanted their own 1776 moment. Why not? About two-thirds of the Canadian population had migrated there from the United States. So, the grand plan was to invade Canada when war broke out. The US Army would capture British territory, quickly, and force Britain to the negotiating table. After all, Britain certainly would not want to lose this colony, and they certainly would not divert troops from the European war, and therefore they would be delighted to negotiate favorable maritime rights America had been pursuing. In exchange, America would give Canada back (although there were some who wanted to make Canada part of America). Sounds logical. But, the devil is in the details, and this plan was SNAFU right from the get go.
The correct military strategy was to attack the British at Montreal. A concentrated force sailing up the Hudson River and over Lake Champlain probably could have captured the city. However, recall that the New England Federalists strongly opposed the war. Madison greatly feared that New England’s militias, most necessary to a concentrated attack on Montreal, would simply refuse to turn out for battle! On to to crappy Plan B!
Madison decided to launch a three-pronged northern invasion; 1) attack Montreal, 2) attack Fort Detroit in the far west, and 3) a third army would leave from Fort Niagara and into Canada at the western end of Lake Ontario. America lost the battle of Detroit without firing a shot. The Fort Niagara campaign was divided amongst two generals, neither had military experience, both were appointed political dogs who argued with each other and refused support at critical times, and out of 1,300 men, 900 were captured. The battle for Canada ended about as soon as it started.
Yes, folks, one can make the case that Canada — with a little help from their friends — defeated the United States in the War Of 1812. The immediate impact of the war was to strengthen Canada’s loyalty to England. The United States still had interest in conquering Canada – more half-assed ideas, really – but, by the 1890’s the two nations formed a permanent bond. For all practical purposes, the War Of 1812 was Canada’s war of independence, and they won.
A BRIEF REPRIEVE – US NAVAL VICTORIES
Out-gunned and out-manned the US Navy did achieve some clear victories, even early in the war. In 1812, the USS Constitution —aka, “Old Ironsides” — defeated HMS Guerriere in a ferocious battle off the coast of Nova Scotia. In the same year, the USS United States captured HMS Macedonian, a fully dressed 38-gun battleship. In September 1813, the United States achieved further naval success on Lake Erie. Also in 1813, Commander Perry’s fleet of ten ships outmaneuvered a squadron of six British ships despite being outgunned by the much larger enemy vessels. The same Perry who left Americans with a memorable line: “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” A month later, William Henry Harrison – yes, the future president – crossed Lake Erie and defeated the British and their Indian allies in the Battle of the Thames. Tecumseh — leader of the pan-Indian confederation – was killed in that battle. Many of Britain’s Indian allies subsequently abandoned the alliance, and America’s northwest frontier was secured.
MORE BAD NEWS ON THE POLITICAL FRONT
On the political front there was much bad news. Commander Perry – the navy’s best field officer – was “promoted” to a desk job. William Harrison was accused by Secretary Of War, John Armstrong, of financial impropriety, and Harrison, another excellent field commander, was forced to resign.
The cost of the war broke the Treasury. By 1814, $34 million dollars (a hefty sum in its day) was borrowed to finance the war.
Madison sent a delegation (including John Quincy Adams) to meet with Czar Alexander in St. Petersburg, but the British left before the delegation arrived and the whole thing was an embarrassment.
Madison probably suffered a severe anxiety attack on May 30, 1814 — the day the French signed a peace treaty with Britain and its allies. Madison strongly believed that a good portion of Britain’s 250,000 troops would make their way to Canada.
THE HOUSE, THE HOUSE, THE HOUSE IS ON FIRE!!!
Madison didn’t have wait long for some of his fears to come to fruition. Two months after the French-British peace treaty Royal Navy ships carrying about 6,000 British regulars sailed into Chesapeake Bay. Secretary of War, John Armstrong, did not believe the Brits would attack the swampy and forest-shrouded city of Washington … that the British had more interest in the coastal cities. Bad call, muchacho! American forces actually outnumbered the Brits. However, poor intelligence – such as Americans being badly deployed – and a multitude of errors, and many American deserters, led to the British marching virtually unchallenged into the city. Then the Brits burned all public buildings except the Patent Office …. and the White House.
[Worthy Of Further Study: Dolley Madison, the greatest First Lady of them all. Thomas Jefferson spent few resources on the presidential mansion, believing it would detract from the emphasis of a simple and frugal government. He also avoided elaborate social gatherings at the White House, as he believed they “stank” of the aristocratic courts of Europe. As such, when the Madisons moved into the White House in 1809, the building itself was in disrepair. Dolly established a new philosophy … that the White House should be decorated in a manner appropriate to the dignity of the office it represented. So, she completely refurnished the White House and transformed it into a compelling symbol for the new nation — not nearly as ostentatious as found in European palaces, but rather a quiet dignity within the framework of American political ideology. But, it was more than just a symbol. Dolly also turned it into an arena of governance. The many social events she planned were done with the intention of placing the White House at the center of Washington society … with her husband at the center of policy decisions and deal making. And as her beloved White House burned to the ground, she risked her life gathering up critical White House documents … as well as the great Gilbert Stuart portrait of President George Washington, and carried them away to safety.]
To his credit (I suppose) Madison never wavered that the United States would eventually achieve victory. Where did that confidence come from? Let’s recap:
—— the Treasury is depleted, the Canada campaign was a disaster, the Navy which actually won battles has its best commanders sitting behind a desk, military desertions are significant, military ineptness abounds, New England not only won’t help the cause but it threatening to secede while at the same time trying to negotiate a separate peace deal with the Brits, even as 7,500 British soldiers were headed towards New Orleans, and now his capital is burned! Hooahhh!!
To understand the source of his confidence one must look thirty years earlier. During debates over the suitability of a republican form of government to a country as large as America, Madison argued that America’s size would prevent any faction or narrow interest group from dominating the government. Now he believed that the United States could absorb battles lost at Detroit, Niagara, and even Washington, and that it could prevail despite the disloyalty of the Federalists in New England. The United States was simply too large, and consequently, too resilient, to be defeated. In other words, America was too big to fail!
HOW DID THE SUPERIOR BRITS MANAGE TO F*** THIS UP?
It seems, at least in this instance, that Madison was right about America’s size. British fortunes suddenly turned for the worse.
After burning (and looting) the capital, the Brits marched to Baltimore … and met a different fate at the hands of a more skillfully deployed American force of both militia and army regulars. American sharpshooters picked off one-by-one the British division approaching the city from the south. Meanwhile, the big guns at Fort McHenry prevented the British fleet from entering the city’s harbor. By 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 and 11,000 British troops were forced to retreat back into Canada. Mid-1814 ended relatively well for the Americans.
More importantly, back in England, British leaders lost the hearts & minds of their subjects. After 20 years of fighting France, and before that, fighting in the American Revolution … well, the people were simply fed up with war. The British became much more preoccupied in rebuilding Europe after the final defeat of Napoleon. A London newspaper even harshly criticized the burning of Washington. On top of all that, even military leaders were questioning whether victory was possible. The Duke of Wellington, the hero of Waterloo, was offered command of the British force in North America … and, he declined, saying the American continent could never be subdued. The loud drums of war fell deadly quiet.
WE WON! WE WON!!! Ummmmmm …. WHAT DID WE WIN?
This combination, military defeats in America and the loss of will to fight back in England, led to a peace treaty being signed in Ghent, Belgium on Dec. 24, 1814. The war would officially end in February 1815 after ratification by both governments.
However, the Ghent talks actually started earlier in the year in August 1814. Madison sent five delegates – including John Quincy Adams and John Clay – and amongst American demands were the end of impressment …. and turning over Canada to the United States. Madison had balls! The Brits made even more ridicules demands; 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, the exclusion of American fishing boats from the Grand Banks and the the exclusion of the American Navy from the Great Lakes. The Brits had no brains!
But, in Ghent by December 1814 all parties dropped their aggressive demands. A simple ceasefire was proposed, prisoners of war would be exchanged, and captured territories from both sides would be returned.
STUNNINGLY, impressment – one of the two major reasons for going to war in the first place — was not even mentioned. Maritime issues and trade policies – the other major reason for going to war – was mentioned, but only that it would be addressed at some future conference1.
Strangely, the American diplomats were ecstatic. Why??? After all that bloodshed and destruction, the Ghent Treaty insured that both sides gained absolutely nothing … as if the war never happened. A Canadian historian wrote;
“It was as if no war had been fought, or to put it more bluntly, as if the war that was fought was fought for no good reason. For nothing has changed; everything is as it was in the beginning save for the graves of those who, it now appears, have fought for a trifle.”
[1NOTE: By Dec 1814 the British practice of impressment had all but ended. And, since France was no longer an enemy of Britain, the Royal Navy no longer needed to stop American shipments to France. Nevertheless, the United States and Britain would argue about trade restrictions and access to markets for the next fifteen years after Ghent! By 1830, the West Indies were far less important to American exporters than new markets in Latin America. Also by 1830, Britain’s commitment to mercantilism had been replaced internally by support for free trade. In other words, the issues that so bothered Madison would have been resolved of their own accord in due time … WITHOUT A WAR. The War of 1812 wasn’t concluded at Ghent …. it died of old age.]
INJUN INTERLUDE #1: UP A CREEK
Worthy of much further study than I have room for here, is the significant victory by Jackson over the Creek Nation. At one time or another the Brits, French, Spanish, and even other Indian Nations (Tecumseh and his Shawnee) aligned with various factions within the Creeks to make war against the United States. The war against the Creeks officially ended in the Treaty of Fort Jackson just five months before the war’s final battle at New Orleans.
A couple staggering statistics; 1) about 15% of the Creek population was decimated and, 2) the treaty resulted in an enormous land grab as the Creeks lost 36,000 square miles of their territory (half of Alabama, and southern Georgia).
The Creeks, and to a lesser extent other Indian tribes, were to play a significant role in the British alliance to attack New Orleans. Had the Creeks won their war, the combined forces might very well have overcome Jackson’s army, and New Orleans might have been lost.
INJUN INTERLUDE #2: TECUMSEH, THE GREAT SHAWNEE WARRIOR
Tecumseh was sick and tired of seeing the social and cultural deterioration, inter-tribal conflict, and white encroachment on Indian lands. So, he developed a plan. Indians needed to restore control over their lives. The only way to do this, he said, was to be unified, to overcome tribal differences, rebuild their integrity, and create a Pan-Indian alliance strong enough to defeat the military forces supporting white expansion. Starting in 1807, he and his brother (Tenskwatawa – “The Prophet”) traveled throughout the interior of America building this alliance of Indian tribes. The obstacles were huge, especially overcoming the decades of inter-tribal prejudices, fears, and wars. But, Tecumseh was a powerful and compelling orator.
In village after village he preached unity to a dispirited people. He urged them to reject the pollutants of the white man; alcohol, European dress, Christianity. He also preached great patience. He said they must avoid all confrontations with the whites until the confederation was large and strong enough to effectively resist the power of white armies. Isolated skirmishes would only weaken them. They must wait until the time was right,
Legend has it that Tecumseh said he would send a message when the time was right. He would stamp his foot—and when he did, the earth would shake, the buffalo would stampede, the skies would become dark with birds taking flight, huge cracks would open in the earth’s surface, and the great river would flow backwards.
But, his brother, the Prophet, couldn’t wait. He launched into a fiery oratory and convinced his followers of his own bullshit – that the white man’s bullets could not harm them. So, in Nov. 1811 the Prophet battled an American force led by William Henry Harrison at Tippecanoe Creek. The Prophet lost, and the dream of a Pan-Indian alliance died with it. Tecumseh would go on to align his small remnant of the Indian confederation with the British, fought in the battle of Detroit, and was killed at the Battle of the Thames in 1813, disbanding the alliance forever.
Most interestingly though, on Dec. 16, 1811, just over a month after the disaster at Tippecanoe, a great earthquake shook Arkansas and was felt throughout the Mississippi Valley, from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico – the New Madrid earthquake. According to eyewitnesses, buffalo stampeded, the skies became dark with birds taking flight, huge cracks opened in the earth’s surface, and the great Mississippi River flowed backward.
Tecumseh’s prophecy had come to pass …. just not the way he expected.
WHAT THE HELL …. LET”S HAVE ONE MORE BATTLE IN NEW ORLEANS
The popular opinion amongst historians is that there simply wasn’t enough time to cross the oceans to stop the British attack on New Orleans. I don’t buy it.
The Ghent Peace Treaty was signed on Dec.24, 1814. On Dec. 13th, a British fleet had landed about forty miles east of New Orleans. It must have taken at least a month to get there. The Brits commenced fire on January 8, 1815. The British Commanders and Generals surely must have known that peace talks were in process. So, a prudent thing to do would have been to at least wait to see the results.
And don’t forget that the Ghent talks were initiated way back in August. Even during those negotiations the dastardly Brits had four invasions planned or underway; 1) the destruction of Washington, 2) the destruction of Baltimore, 3) the Battle of Plattsburgh – where 10,000 British troops tried to cut off New England, and 4) and the Battle Of New Orleans. The treacherous British had an Olive Branch in one hand, and a Murderous Dagger in the other.
Two things made this battle so important. First, a victory in New Orleans would have been a major boon for the British giving them access to the interior of the U.S. via the Mississippi River. Secongly, it would have given the Brits greater ability for their desire to seal off the United States from the Gulf of Mexico, further isolating the nation. (Furthermore — and this is my pure conjecture — it could have led to a reversal of the Louisiana Purchase, cutting the size of the United States in half.) But, this much is absolutely certain; it would have given the Brits a major trump card in negotiating the Ghent Treaty.
A popular opinion is that the British would have honored the Ghent Treaty even if they won the battle. Of course, we’ll never know but, I find that opinion enormously preposterous. The Brits, still butt-sore about the beating they took in the Revolutionary War – a war they still would not admit they lost in 1814 – hated America and wanted revenge and destruction. And what history is there of Britain – or any country – winning a huge major battle and then just walking away from it? None. A major victory such as New Orleans would absolutely have resulted in the United States being forced into major concessions. If fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it would have led to an outright abrogation of the treaty. The Brits were ruthless bastards when it suited them, and never forget, they really hated America.
What should be crystal clear is that far from being a senseless battle, a British victory at New Orleans would have drastically changed the future of America. But, they didn’t win. They were annihilated. Let’s look at some interesting details.
The British force consisted of roughly 8,000 troops — including Royal Fusiliers, Highlanders, Light Infantry, and Light Dragoons — disciplined troops with plenty of battle experience, having just defeated the French.
Why capture New Orleans? Lord Castlereagh, the British foreign secretary, said that once the large seaport towns of America were “laid in ashes” and New Orleans captured, that the British would have command of “all the rivers of the Mississippi valley and the Lakes … the Americans would be little better than prisoners in their own country.” The Brits also intended to prevent America from havingany access to all of the Gulf Of Mexico.
General Andrew Jackson first had to prepare the city’s defenses … not an easy task. New Orleans had a very diverse population and resisted organization. So, Jackson threatened to blow up the provincial legislature if it did not comply with his demands, one of which was to suspend habeas corpus. So, he declared martial law, turned the city into a military camp, and took over complete control of the city’s resources. This got their attention.
He organized all available manpower—frontiersmen, militiamen, regular soldiers, Indians, slaves, townspeople including the city’s unusually large population of free blacks and even the famous river pirate, Jean Lafitte — about 4,000 in total. And then he built the “Jackson Line” –a defensive line between the city and the approaching British forces. Rodriguez Canal was a ten-foot-wide millrace located just off the Mississippi River. Using local slave labor, Madison widened the canal into a defensive trench. He then built an eight foot tall earthen rampart, twenty feet wide in parts, buttressed with timber, and protected by eight artillery batteries When completed, it stretched nearly a mile from the east bank of the Mississippi to a nearly impassable marsh. Jackson told his men “Here we shall plant our stakes and not abandon them until we drive these red-coat rascals into the river, or the swamp.”
The British commander, Cochrane, felt the area could be taken with minimal forces with the help of the Spanish, Indians, and even the people of New Orleans who he felt would welcome the British as liberators. In retrospect, fairly idiotic assumptions.
The bottom line; it was a hopeless tactical situation for the British with a swamp to the east of the American lines, and the Mississippi River to west. This left the British with only one route of attack—straight into the guns of the American forces tucked inside a dry canal.
Tennessee and Kentucky riflemen laid withering fire against the advancing British lines, killing or wounding more than 2,000 British soldiers, including three generals and seven colonels, in less than an hour. One British veteran of the Napoleonic Wars claimed it was “the most murderous fire I ever beheld before or since.” American casualties were about 13 killed, and 39 wounded.
[NOTE: Considerably more Americans were killed in the skirmishes leading up to the final battle. For example, 6,000 British troops snuck into the British headquarters at Villeré’s plantation. Jackson resolved to attack immediately before the British advance was reinforced and organized. He assembled 1,800 men in a battle called “Night Attack”, and repelled the British, but not before suffering 215 casualties.)
New Orleans was a tremendous victory—one which made Andrew Jackson a national hero, and propelled him into the office of President. And, regardless of the reason for the battle, whether or not it was necessary, Madison certainly knew the fine art of Presidential spinning; — necessary war, reluctantly entered, rights, patriotism, and heroes – all in one brief sentence. (He might as well have been talking about Iraq.)
“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.”
A good detailed account of the battle can be found here: http://www.the-american-interest.com/2014/10/10/the-battle-for-the-big-easy/
THE AFTERMATH AND LEGACIES: 10 LESSONS
1)- First and foremost, let’s be brutally frank about the REAL reason for this war; PRIDE and PATRIOTISM! The Brits didn’t respect our independence. The French didn’t. Spain didn’t. Most of the world thought it was just a fluke. Madison was convinced the country had to prove to the rest of the world, as well as to itself, that this new experiment in republican government was a permanent fixture in the family of nations. And the way to go about that was to confront Britain – the world’s most powerful nation – that violating American rights would not go unchallenged or unpunished. Unbridled Patriotism …so sweet in the Revolutionary War, souring in the War Of 1812, and look where it got us today.
2)- The war reinforced the Executive branch’s de facto monopoly over foreign policy. When all’s said and done, this was Madison’s war. Another example: John Quincy Adams would defend Gen. Andrew Jackson’s invasion of Spanish Florida in the undeclared war on the Seminoles. Dissenting members of Congress could do nothing but gripe.
3) A NEW way of looking at the Constitution emerged. Henry Clay said (emphasis mine); —
“A new world has come into being since the Constitution was adopted. Are the narrow, limited necessities of the old thirteen states … as they existed at the formation of the present Constitution, forever to remain a rule of its interpretation? Are we to forget the wants of our country? I trust not, sir. I hope for better and nobler things.” Evidently, the concept of a Living Constitution took root a long, long time ago.
4)- The war changed how Americans viewed the military. The Army and Navy became professional. The State Militia took a back seat. Now the nation embraced military spending as a necessity … even during times of peace.
“The most painful, perhaps the most profitable, lesson of the war was the primary duty of the nation to place itself in a state of permanent preparation for self-defense” —— future President John Quincy Adams
Many learned that connection with the military is great for one’s political career. Of the eleven presidents between Madison and Lincoln, seven of them got their start in public life or boosted their public careers during the War of 1812.
It only took 29 years after the end of the Revolutionary War for America to declare its first war. Strangely enough, this war was a complete and utter waste of human and capital resources. The precedent was set. It wouldn’t be the last such time America fought such a war.
5)—Politicians learned that with proper spin and propagandizing the people can be rallied to LOVE A GOOD WAR. Precious few citizens were in strong favor of the war when it first started. But, at war’s end, the people were ecstatic. A common refrain throughout the country is depicted in this piece written in 1815 by a group known as “republican citizens of Baltimore” stating that the war;
“ … has revived, with added luster the renown which brightened the morning of our independence: it has called forth and organized the dormant resources of the empire: it has tried and vindicated our republican institutions: it has given us that moral strength, which consists in the well earned respect of the world, and in a just respect for ourselves. It has raised up and consolidated a national character, dear to the hearts of the people, as an object of honest pride and a pledge of future union, tranquility, and greatness.”
War is good for slogans and jingoes. “Don’t give up the ship” and “We have met the enemy and they are ours” and “Uncle Sam” and cute names for war equipment “Old Ironsides”, and populist songs abounded. Symbols, slogans, songs and sayings; that’s how you condition people’s minds as to what it means to be an American. Mold ‘em like clay into whatever form you want. At least there’s no record of Madison proclaiming “America is the greatest country in the world!!”.
6)- The war permanently changed America’s economic model. Previous presidents, especially Jefferson, championed an agrarian economy. He hoped that commerce would not dominate America or its politics since that preoccupation would inevitably draw the country into perpetual international turmoil. Shortages caused by the various embargos, as well as the war itself, led to the fast growth of the manufacturing sector in the United States. Manufactures wanted protection from foreign competition once peace was restored, even forming the ‘American Society of the Encouragement of American Manufacturers’, a pro-tariff group. Active promotion of commerce required further expansion of American military strength. In other words, America would promote “free trade” with the government’s help in aggressively opening foreign markets ….. and threatening retaliation in the case of uncooperative regimes by displaying the military card. It wasn’t all that long before “free trade” gave way to mercantilism — a special-interest economic protectionism.
7)- The devious and greedy amongst us started to notice that war is damn good racket. Shortly after the war, in 1817, the New York Stock Exchange was founded … born in a bubble created by the war. One year later the bubble burst in The Panic Of 1818. The war showed that hard money was for weenies. Paper money was the way to go, and reams of it was printed so the government could borrow it and finance the war. Note-issuing banks spread like wildfire. Once the war ended, imports swelled which led to falling commodity prices which led to big trouble for war-grown manufacturers. Businesses went bust while simultaneously some became filthy rich. See book —- >https://mises.org/library/panic-1819-reactions-and-policies
8)- Politicians learned that war makes government more powerful … and a great way to increase taxes. Albert Gallatin, secretary of the Treasury from 1801 to 1814, said that because of the war, the “people are more American; they feel and act more as a nation ….. the war has laid the foundation ofpermanent taxes and military establishments, which the Republicans had deemed unfavorable to the happiness and free institutions of the country.”
9)- The war ended a political party. The Federalist Party, the party of Washington and Adams, the party that had dominated national affairs during the 1790s, was all but dead after the war. They were staunchly against the war. They were even ready to introduce legislation requiring a two-thirds vote of approval for all future declarations of war, and that legislation restricting trade, such as the embargo, should also require a two-thirds vote. That is, until the stunning news of Jackson’s victory at New Orleans arrived in Washington. They picked the wrong cause. The country was in no mood for an anti-war party. And, within a few years of the war, they just faded into oblivion.
10)- Expansionism. The victory over not only the Brits, but also over the Indians in the Northwest and Southwest, opened up the West as never before, and resulted in huge territorial gains. Westward expansion, in turn, indirectly led to the Civil War forty six years later because it was bitter disagreement about the expansion of slavery, rather than its existence in the Old South, which was a key reason for the War of Northern Aggression.
GOOD, BAD, or UGLY?
I originally titled this article “1812: The War That Changed America Forever For Worse”. I’m not sure whether or not that conclusion is 100% accurate. The “inconsequential” war certainly and drastically changed America, of that there is no doubt. Whether for the good, or bad, you’ll have to decide for yourself.
On the positive side, the war did cement American independence. It proved that to defeat America on its home ground, a very, very large army, and a great commitment to prolonged and bloody war, was going to be needed. At the start of the war even Americans wondered whether the republic could survive a real crises. Many felt with Governor Morris did, that — ‘it was as vain to expect the permanency of democracy as to construct a palace on the surface of the sea.’ Now they had their answer.
Americans would no longer be oriented towards Britain. We achieved freedom from Europe. We would turn to developing our own vast resources, and forget about Europe. Our National Government was here to stay.
The end of the war led to a burst of patriotism in the USA as evidenced, in part, by the immediate and widespread popularity of “The Star Spangled Banner” The Nile Register wrote — “Who would not be an American? Long live the republic! All hail! Last asylum of oppressed humanity!” Such a comment would have never been made before the war. A whole new national identity arose in “the dawn’s early light”.
On the negative side; the war left the country with constitutional revisionism, centralized power, protectionism, mercantilism, expansionism, blind patriotism, and militarism. That decentralist small-government thingy conceived by the Founding Fathers didn’t last very long, did it? One must wonder“War, what is it good for? Was it all worth it?”