A British/US Conflict – The War of 1812 (Part I)

In the first decade of the 19th century most Americans had considerable annoyance at the British and French practice of stopping, searching and sometimes seizing American merchant ships, but the single British activity that positively drew them together in anti-British anger was the Royal Navy’s habit of halting American ships on the pretext of searching them for British deserters, and then impressing seamen from these American ships. It is certainly true that there were many British sailors on American ships, and that some of these were indeed deserters from British warships, but this could not alter the fact that men, including many Americans, were forcibly removed from American-flagged ships. The British were at this time in desperate need of experienced men for their huge but war-weary navy in the Napoleonic Wars, and it is thought that more than 6,200 Americans were forced into British service.

Moreover, when American ships that were searched were found to be carrying goods that the British deemed to be contraband, such ships were taken into British ports and sold. At this point the commercial interests of east coast ship owners was affected, and such owners were loud in their demands that the government should provide naval protection for their ships. There can be no dispute, however, that the US Navy lacked the ships to provide such protection even if such protection had been agreed by the administration and the Congress. In the circumstances the owners still complained but at the same time continued to reap the profits of a trade whose occasional losses to British (and to a markedly lesser French) forced sales were small by comparison with the profits.

The British impressment of sailors from American ships was not important to them in short-term financial terms, and was therefore played down by the ship owners. For the average American, on the other hand, the seizure of sailors had an overall emotional impact far higher than the commercial loss of rich east coast ship owners, and the steady increase in this British practice aroused considerable fury. With hindsight it is clear that the popular feeling was right, although perhaps for the wrong reasons. Trade was the lifeblood of the American economy, and in the long term British impressment was of greater importance than the sale of American cargoes or even of American ships. Cargoes and ships could be replaced, but the sailors to man the ships were far more of a finite resource.

The Chesapeake Affair
The single episode of the impressment type that most rankled in American minds was the Chesapeake affair’ of 22 June 1807. On this date the British frigate Leopard opened fire on the American frigate Chesapeake off Norfolk Roads, Virginia. Several Americans were killed and wounded, and the British then boarded the American warship and removed four men alleged to be deserters from the British service. A wave of national indignation swept through the USA, and had President Thomas Jefferson urged a declaration of war on the UK he would have had the country united behind him. Instead the president prepared the legislation for the Embargo Act. Many New England ship owners were ruined, and the depression that hit the region proved very severe on many of the smaller ports. This switched the anger of the New England ships owners in particular and the east coast ship owners in general away from the British toward the president they thought guilty of ruining many of them.

The anger of the country as a whole against the British refused to die, however, and its main area of growth was in the Northwest Territory and the lower reaches of the Ohio River valley. Here the frontier people remained convinced of a British plot against American expansion. The frontiersmen thought that it was only as a result of British pressure that the Indian tribes resisted an expansion of the American frontier, and this general belief was carefully swollen by the expansionist ‘hawks’. After every Indian raid the ‘hawks’ spread the story that British weapons and equipment had been found at the scene, and such stories were soon taken as ‘proof’ that the British were the force behind the Indians. By about 1810 there was strong support for the expansionist movement in the north-west, with virtually the whole population of the region convinced that the USA must eliminate the British from Canada.

Pressure for a US seizure of Florida
A similar tendency was apparent farther to the south, although in this instance the expansionist fervour was directed against the Spanish rather than the British. In Georgia, Tennessee and the Mississippi Territory it was generally felt that the USA had to seize Florida, and there were strong feelings that as the British and Spanish were allies against Napoleon in Europe they might be plotting together against the USA.

It was with a keen sense of natural justice that the Americans heard of another naval episode in 1811. Here the boot was on the other foot, however, for on May 16 of that year the American frigate President overhauled the British sloop Little Belt while searching for a British warship that had recently impressed a number of Americans. The British vessel refused to halt, and President opened fire, disabling the small British vessel as well as killing or wounding 32 of her crew. This occurrence was just what the ‘hawks’ of the American expansionist faction had needed. It seemed to be a clear proof that the Americans had established some sort of superiority over the British, and that the time was therefore ripe for the USA to take Canada and Florida while the exhausted UK and Spain were too busy in Europe to look after their North American interests. The main focus of the expansionist faction was British power in Canada, and the growth of the US western population was shifting the power of the vote steadily westward. Political leaders had no option but to heed expansionist feelings, especially as a presidential election was due in 1812.

President James Madison’s use of economic pressure in fact succeeded in its task of forcing the British to lift their actions against American ships, but accomplished its task too late to avert war. The Non-Intercourse Act was a particularly severe blow to the UK, for it banned all trade with the UK and its colonies at a time when poor British harvests demanded the import of grain and when the British forces fighting the French in Spain were heavily reliant on American supplies. On 16 June 1812 the British foreign ministry announced that the blockade of Europe would be relaxed in favour of American shipping. In the USA this success for American economic pressure was not known when, on 18 June, the Senate approved by six votes the House of Representatives’ 4 June declaration of war on the UK. Yielding to nationalist pressure and expansionist demands, on 1 June Madison had asked the Congress for this declaration, quoting a list of British actions against American shipping and demanding that the USA fight to protect the ‘freedom of the seas’ and ‘sailors’ rights’.

‘Mr Madison’s War’
At the outbreak of the War of 1812, often known as ‘Mr Madison’s War’, the USA had a population of perhaps 7.7 million people. The US Army had an establishment strength of 35,600 officers and men, but its real strength was only about 11,750 officers and men including about 5,000 men recruited for the additional strength authorised in January 1812. The US Navy comprised 20 vessels of which three were large 44-gun frigates, three smaller 38-gun ‘Constellation’ class frigates, and and 14 others smaller still. As these numbers clearly indicated, the USA was in poor military condition to start a war against a country which was arguably the world’s major power. This should not be taken to mean, however, that the Congress had not finally possessed the will to prepare for the war. In March 1812 the complete inadequacy of the military agent system (supplies delivered by contracted civilian organisations) had been recognised in the re-establishment on the military staff of the Quartermaster Department, and at the same time an Office of the Commissary General of Purchases was created in the Department of War. This meant that for the first time in just under 30 years the army’s supply system was in the hands of the army, or at least of the Secretary of War. Moving further ahead in its effort to create an effective army, in May 1812 the Congress authorised the establishment of an Ordnance Department that was to be responsible for the inspection and testing of the army’s artillery and its ammunition (both solid shot and explosive-filled shell), the building of gun carriages, limbers and caissons, and the manufacture and inspection of gun powder. The Corps of Engineers was also expanded by the addition of a company of bombardiers, miners and sappers. This enlargement and improvement of the regular army was complemented by Congressional authorisation for the president to accept volunteer units and also to call up militia units.

The primary difficulty faced by the USA at this time was not the authorisation and planning of an enlarged army, however, but rather the recruitment of this enlarged force at a time when even the previous establishment was seriously undermanned.

US territorial ambition
As the course of American operations soon revealed, the main object of this American-declared war was not ‘freedom of the seas’ but the desire to conquer Canada, and in this region the American front line consisted of border forts each garrisoned by a small detachment of the US Army. From west to east the four most important of these outposts were Fort Dearborn (on the site of present-day Chicago) at the south-west tip of Lake Michigan, Fort Michilimackinac on the north shore of the strait between Lakes Michigan and Huron, Fort Detroit on the west side of the Detroit River where it leaves Lake St Clair on its short journey to Lake Erie, and Fort Niagara on the east side of the Niagara River as it flows into Lake Ontario.

Although the UK was considerably larger than the USA in population and possessed much superior military forces in overall terms, the number of troops available to the British in Canada was about equal with that of the Americans. The UK’s overriding concern at this time was the war against Napoleon, which was now entering its crucial final stages, so there was very little chance that its forces in North America could be bolstered to any real degree, at least in the short term, by men and/or ships from the European theatre. At the beginning of the War of 1812 British strength in Upper and Lower Canada (now the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, separated by the Ottawa River that flows into the St Lawrence River just above Montreal) was about 7,000 men of the regular army. In Upper Canada the governor, Major General Sir Isaac Brock, had about 1,600 regulars and about 800 militia men.

It is worth recording at this point that Upper and Lower Canada eventually put about 10,000 militia men into the field, whereas the USA employed perhaps 450,000 militia men on active service even if only about half of this total ever reached the front line. In numbers the British and Canadian effort was aided by several Indian tribes, and this was a source of manpower which the Americans could not tap. After the Battle of Tippecanoe in November 1811 had broken Shawnee power in the Indiana Territory, Chief Tecumseh led the remnants of his tribe north into Canada, and in the War of 1812 placed his men at the disposal of the British as the best means of fighting back at the Americans. Other Indian tribes joined the British, and although the maximum number of Indians to serve in the field was only about 3,500 in the Thames River campaign of 1813, their effectiveness in the scouting and skirmishing roles made it seem that their numbers were somewhat larger.

Of the very large British navy, only a small proportion could be spared for operations on the western side of the Atlantic Ocean. In September 1812, three months after the beginning of the war, this totalled 11 ships of the line, 34 frigates and about the same number of smaller vessels. This force was considerably larger than the whole US Navy, but also had far more extensive responsibilities. These ranged from a blockade of American ports via convoy of British merchant shipping and protection of the St Lawrence River to the hunting down of elusive American frigates and privateers.

US privateer effort
The outfitting of privateers provides a keen insight into the disunity of American public opinion at the time. In New England there was still great dislike of the government in Washington for its handling of the merchant shipping situation in the period leading up to the War of 1812. Within New England such disaffection for Washington ranged from simple but silent disapproval to openly expressed hostility. This range of opinion was mirrored in the privateering and overall war efforts: Connecticut and Massachusetts ship owners fitted out many privateers, but otherwise contributed virtually nothing to the American war effort. Indeed, they continued to deal with the British on standard commercial terms, selling them grain and other provisions.

This disunity was a severe hindrance to the United States in creating and running a national war effort, but the same cannot be said of Canada. It has to be admitted that there were many in Upper Canada who were recent immigrants from the USA (including many loyalists who had left after the end of the Revolutionary War) and did not want to fight against their former compatriots. There were also many who saw the Americans’ local superiority in numbers and economic muscle as making it impossible for the United States not to win the war. Even so, the high quality of British leadership soon brought even these doubters into the Anglo-Canadian fold.

American strategic plan
In strategic terms the United States planned a double drive against the British, with an offensive against Canada complemented by the release of the US Navy’s small number of warships and a horde of privateers against British merchant shipping. The offensive against Canada was itself planned an an ambitious three-pronged attack. From west to east, the three American axes of advance were east from Fort Dearborn, west from Fort Niagara, and north from Lake Champlain. The first and second axes were schemed as concerted drives with the object of taking Moravian Town and Hamilton as the first steps toward the capture of the large peninsula jutting south-west between Lake Huron on its north-west and Lakes Erie and Ontario on its south-east. Success here would give the Americans York (now Toronto), the capital of Upper Canada. The third axis was the now-traditional route via Lake Champlain and the Richelieu River with the object of taking Montreal, the capital of Lower Canada.

The overall plan was suitably simple but full of operational faults, most notably the division of objectives and therefore of American strength. The concept of an advance against Montreal in Lower Canada was certainly attractive, for success here would place the lower reaches of the St Lawrence River, with their large population and resources, in American hands. This would cut the British line of communications with the Anglo-Canadian forces in Upper Canada and, without reinforcements and supplies, the colony would have to surrender sooner rather than later. The trouble, so far as the Americans were concerned, was that such an attack would lack any element of strategic surprise and, being launched from an area notably cool to the whole concept of the war, would receive little active support from the New Englanders. At the other end of the front the concept of an advance against the York peninsula in Upper Canada meant that the Americans would be fighting weaker forces, but would also have only limited strategic options in an area that would in any case have to surrender if Lower Canada were captured.

The concept for the sea and land offensives was maintained wherever possible by the Americans right through the war, which fell into three distinct stages. The first stage lasted into the spring of 1813: the UK was too hard pressed in Europe to send reinforcements to North America, so the Americans possessed the strategic initiative and could thus launch their Canadian venture as well as send out commerce raiders. The second stage lasted from the spring of 1813 to the beginning of 1814: the British were able to create a tight naval blockade of American ports, but were still unable to reinforce Canada and the Americans, by now more experienced in major land warfare, were able to win their first victories. The third stage lasted to the end of the war: freed of European commitments by the abdication of Napoleon in April of that year, the British were able to reinforce both the land and sea forces in North America, undertake a series of major raids, and launch several offensives; yet the Americans also scored a number of major successes in the period.

The American commander in this western theatre was Brigadier General William Hull, the governor of the Michigan Territory. On 5 July Hull arrived from Dayton, Ohio at Fort Detroit with a force of some 300 regulars and 1,500 Ohio militiamen, and after a week of preparation this force crossed the Detroit River into Canada. Facing the Americans in this theatre were a mere 150 British regulars, 300 Canadian militiamen and perhaps 250 Indians led by Tecumseh. The main British base was Fort Malden, on the north shore of Lake Erie about 20 miles (32 km) south of Fort Detroit.

Too slow, too cautious
The situation clearly demanded that the Americans advance with all speed on Fort Malden to take the centre of resistance in this area, but Hull was an elderly officer who had acquired a streak of caution since his dashing days in the Revolutionary War. So rather than advancing straight on Fort Malden, Hull halted just inside Canada and issued a high-flown proclamation to the people of Canada. Hull also sent out a number of small raiding parties along the Detroit and Thames Rivers, but none of these achieved any notable success, and indeed one of them was fairly roughly handled outside Fort Malden.

General Brock lacked Hull’s indecision, and acted with vigour where the American commander had acted with caution. He despatched a small party of British regulars, supported by Canadian militia men and Indians, across the Detroit River to cut Hull’s line of communications with Ohio. Hull received news of this British move with some concern, and was then further discouraged when he learned that Fort Michilimackinac had been lost on 17 July when its 60-man garrison surrendered to a small force of British regulars aided by a very mixed force of Indians and fur traders who had marched at Brock’s suggestion from St Joseph Island, some 40 miles (64 km) to the north-east.

The next blow to American morale was the news that Fort Malden had been reinforced. Hull believed that this reinforcement was 10 times larger than it really was, and was now acutely worried that he would be cut off from his supply base in Ohio. On 7 August the American commander ordered his force to pull back across the Detroit River into Fort Detroit. No sooner had the Americans crossed the river into American territory than the British appeared on the Canadian side of the river and began to establish artillery positions opposite Fort Detroit. Soon five guns were in position, and on 15 August these started a bombardment of the fort. On the following day Brock led his force across the river in preparation for an assault. Before the preparations had been completed Hull surrendered his command. The militiamen were released on parole, while Hull and the American regulars were sent as prisoners of war to Montreal. Hull was later paroled, court-martialled for his conduct in this undistinguished campaign, found guilty, sentenced to be shot, and then pardoned.

One day before the surrender of Fort Detroit, the garrison of Fort Dearborn at the southern extremity of Lake Michigan had obeyed Hull’s order to abandon their fort and march to Fort Detroit. The small column was immediately attacked by Indians and every man was massacred. The Indians then destroyed the empty fort.

It was a disastrous start to the American campaign. Forts Dearborn, Detroit and Michilimackinac had been lost, and the whole region to the west and north of Ohio was under British control. The Indiana Territory was left completely exposed to attack, and the threat to its settlements was increased by the fact that many Indian tribes now allied themselves with the British. Perhaps just as important in a less obvious fashion was the replacement of most Canadians’ defeatist attitude by a spirit of confidence.

Lack of American co-ordination
The Americans had failed to ensure that their Detroit River and Niagara River offensives were launched at the same time, which would have swamped Brock’s smaller forces. So after the fall of Fort Detroit the British commander was able to switch his main strength to the east, where the Americans were clearly preparing a westward offensive between the southern shore of Lake Ontario and the northern shore of Lake Erie. Along the Niagara front the Americans had about 6,500 men. Based in Lewiston just north of the front’s centre were the 3,200 men (900 regulars and 2,300 militia men) of the senior American commander in the theatre, Major General Stephen van Rensselaer; based in Buffalo at the south of the front were 2,050 men (1,650 regulars and 400 militia men) under Brigadier General Alexander Smyth; and based in Fort Niagara at the north of the front were 1,300 regulars.

Van Rensselaer was a New York militia officer who owed his position to family influence. The senior regular army officer was Smyth. Van Rensselaer had never seen action, but unlike Smyth he was at least willing to take the offensive despite his lack of operational experience.

Van Rensselaer’s plan was to cross the Niagara River and take Queenston at the Queenston Heights, a high escarpment running at right angles to the river just south of Queenston. With his force on the Queenston Heights, van Rensselaer anticipated that he could command the Niagara peninsula and thus force the British to pull back. Smyth’s plan was to cross the Niagara River just above the Niagara Falls, where the river’s current is weaker and the banks are lower. The two generals could not agree a common course of action, however, so Smyth refused to commit his force and van Rensselaer, knowing that his command was in any event 10 times stronger than the British force facing it, decided to push on with his own plan.

Fiasco on the Niagara River
The first attempt to cross the Niagara River had to be called off because the boats lacked oars, but all was ready for a second effort on the morning of 13 October. The first wave numbered some 600 men, of whom about half were New York militiamen. Several boats were driven by the current far downstream of the planned landing area, and considerably under 500 men arrived on the Canadian bank of the river. Here the Americans were pinned on the river bank by accurate British fire, but then found an unguarded path that allowed them to gain the crest of the Queenston Heights. A fortified battery on the heights was stormed, and the surviving British were driven down the slope to Queenston. Later in the same morning the British launched a counterattack that was driven back with some losses, including Brock. Meanwhile 1,300 more Americans were ferried across the river despite the fire of a British battery north of Queenston, but fewer than half of these reached the main American position on the Queenston Heights: most of the militiamen stood on their legal right to fight only on American soil, and many of those who were persuaded to cross the river then refused to move up onto the Queenston Heights. Smyth pointedly refused to supply any of his regulars to replace the militiamen, and meanwhile the defence was being strengthened as British and Canadian reinforcements arrived under Major General Roger Sheaffe, Brock’s successor as commander in Upper Canada. Sheaffe began an advance on the American position with 800 troops supported by about 300 Indians. Tired and concerned about their loses, the Americans on the Queenston Heights put up a determined resistance but were finally defeated. American losses were about 300 killed and wounded as well as nearly 1,000 captured, while the British suffered 14 killed and 96 wounded.

Van Rensselaer resigned after this fiasco, and was succeeded in overall command on the Niagara front by Smyth. Much of this inadequate commander’s limited energy was devoted to the composition and issue of long proclamations. Smyth also marched the men of the army assembled after the Battle of Queenston up and down the American side of the front several times. In the end the men became so disgusted with constant returns to camp that many absconded. Those who remained were soon little more than an undisciplined mob, and at the end of November the volunteers were demobilised and the regulars ordered into winter quarters. In Washington there was considerable disquiet about progress, or rather about the lack of progress, on the Niagara front in this first campaigning season of the war. When Smyth applied for leave this was quickly granted, and the unhappy general was soon dropped from the army’s active list.

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