War of 1812

The War of 1812

 USS Constitution vs Guerriere

            The War of 1812 is one of those strange events in history that time has dimmed into relative obscurity.  Despite the vast consequences this war had on America generally, and American trade specifically, it is only ever considered one of the minor wars in the nation’s history.  Similar to the French and Indian war 50 years earlier, the War of 1812 was a direct by product of the political and military events going on in Europe at the time.  The War of 1812 is just another example of how America is inextricably linked, both historically and culturally, to Europe.

The Napoleonic wars were in full swing on the European continent in the first decade of the 19th century.  The French and English were fighting tooth and claw, straining both of their economies and armed forces.  It was this conflict that created one of the main causes, and the only stated cause, for the War of 1812, between Great Britain and America.  This cause was the infringement by both these European powers on American maritime trade.  America, in it’s position as a neutral country, was conducting trade with both the British and the French, and neither the British nor the French were satisfied with the opposing power receiving the benefits of this commerce.  Both nations tried to influence American trade by setting restrictions on it.  America, in turn tried unsuccessfully, through political pressure, in the form of the Embargo Act and other legislation, to create a more favorable trading environment in Europe.

In addition to the restrictions placed on trade by Great Britain and France, the British Navy continued to outrage Americans by their belligerent and disdainful treatment of American shipping.  It was a common practice of the Royal Navy, stretched thin because of the fight with France, and in need of manpower, to board American vessels and press hands into His Majesty’s service.  This clear disregard for American sovereignty and international law was an act of war (Snow & Drew, 2010).

The issue of British naval harassment of American shipping was the stated cause for the War of 1812, but there were other deep-rooted mistrusts of the British that were also considerations.  Primary among these was the common belief that the British were stirring up the Indians against American settlers in the west and making westward expansion difficult.  This is partially why much of the support for the war was concentrated on the western frontier of the nation.  Support for the invasion of Canada, with the goal of unseating British power on the North American continent, also came from the West and South (Snow & Drew, 2010).

Militarily, America had what could be called mixed results at best.  All three of the prongs of the invasion of Canada failed to achieve their objectives.  General Hull’s entire command was surrendered after an ignominious retreat back to Detroit, followed by General Brock, the British commander, who, with the aid of Indian chief Techumseh, was able to convince him that he was outmatched.  American Naval victories on Lake Erie and individual ship actions off the eastern seaboard slightly brightened an otherwise bleak picture.  General Harrison was able to recapture Detroit and then engage the British in Canada, with moderate success.  While this was happening however, the British gained the victory over Bonaparte in Europe and freed many assets, which could be used against the Americans.  This new influx of soldiery and naval support enabled the British to engage in such operations as the raids in the Chesapeake Bay and the burning of Washington D.C.  After deciding that operations against Fort McHenry and Baltimore to be impracticable, they withdrew from the bay and proceeded south to prepare for their campaign against New Orleans.  As these preparations were proceeding, peace talks were already underway at Ghent.  These concluded on December 24, 1814 and the treaty of Ghent was later to be ratified by the United States on January 8, 1815.

This peace treaty concluded the war and left the two nations in relatively the same positions that they started in. However, it was during the period that immediately followed the peace that the mutual benefit of harmony between the two nations was truly recognized.  American trade with England blossomed.  American commerce was a growing and successful part of the economy.  America’s national sovereignty also came to be recognized during this post war period.  Ironically, the Royal Navy came to be one of the main protectors of American commerce worldwide as America was still without a navy to speak of.  While the performance by the American armed forces was by all standards poor, and the war generally could not be considered a military victory, the peace that followed it was a time of growth and development for the fledgling nation.

While the War of 1812 was really a conflict that dealt with American sovereignty and its relative position to the European states, its main causes can be directly traced to the political and military events of those same European nations.  The influence this conflict had on America’s international status and its implications for American trade were significant and greatly affected the growth and development of the nation.  But despite these facts, it still remains a conflict that is obscure.  Perhaps this is due to America’s poor overall performance, or perhaps it is because no significant changes in the visible sense took place.  Whatever the case, the War of 1812 was a defining event in American history.

Wyatt Fairlead