Jun 13, 2014

The War of 1812

It was a dark and stormy night, Wednesday night last. The tornado watch had been withdrawn, but the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria forces were advancing in Iraq. Still a dozen members of the club met in the Kensington Row Bookshop. With perhaps more than the usual diversions into other subjects, we had a lively discussion of The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies by Alan Taylor. One of the members brought a copy of 1812: The War That Forged a Nation by Walter R. Borneman which she had read, and commented from that reading.

Alan Taylor's book focuses on the war along the U.S.-Canadian border (as it existed in 1812), most notably Lakes Ontario and Erie, the areas around Detroit and Niagara, and the upper St. Lawrence River Valley.

The War of 1812 doesn't seem doesn't seem to be very important in to most Americans as they think of the country's history (it is perhaps more important in Canadian thought). When we Yanks think of the war at all, we are likely to do so in terms of the national anthem (written while the British were unsuccessfully assaulting Baltimore), Dolly Madison and the burning of the White House (in British retaliation for the American burning of York in Canada), and Jackson's victory in the Battle of New Orleans (which occurred after the peace treaty had been negotiated). The northern campaign is less understood, but was more important than any of these.

The war took place while the British and French were heavily engaged in the final stage of the Napoleonic Wars. Indeed, the British had far more invested in the war against France than that against the United States, while the United States was disappointed in any hope it had of help from France in North America.

A Nation Defining War

The discussion began with a comment that the United States of America had not been consolidated as a nation state in 1812. Federalists and Republicans were seriously divided (and the Hartford Convention orientation toward disunion led to the fall of the Federalists). Northern shipping and manufacturing interests tended to oppose the war while southern plantation agricultural interests tended to favor it; indeed, the divisions between north and south, that would lead to a civil war in less than 50 years were visible. Some Americans thought that all or part of the Canadian colonies of Great Britain should be incorporated into the United States.

Some, especially in Upper Canada and England, thought that the United States would fail, and the former colonies could be returned to the British empire. Many in Europe and Canada thought that countries should be run by monarchies and aristocracies, and that democratic republics were bound to fail. Indeed, Lincoln famously said in 1863 that the United States was then (a half century after the War of 1812) engaged in a civil war to determine whether this nation or any nation so conceived could long endure. The War of 1812 has  been described as the second war of independence, ending all thought that the United States could be brought back within the British empire.

The treaty ending the War of 1812 fixed a long part of the border that to this day separates the United States and Canada. Moreover, authors Taylor and Borneman suggest, that the war brought Americans more together as a single people, helping in the formation of the United States as a modern nation state.

The Incompetence of the U.S. Government in 1812

The members of the club expressed surprise at how incompetent the government of the United States in 1812 appears in retrospect. While George Washington and the Federalists had thought to have a national government that could collect enough taxes in order to support a standing professional army and navy, the Republicans had been in power since Thomas Jefferson assumed the presidency in 1802. Their policy was to minimize the tax burden, reduce the size of the army and navy and depend on militias for defense. This Republican policy proved disastrous.

The governor of Massachusetts refused to call out that state's militia (which had been the most effective in the Revolutionary War. The southern states refused to send militias to the north where the fighting was taking place (perhaps keeping them at home to keeps slaves in check and protect against any possible British attacks in the south). While the western militias from Ohio and Tennessee fought well (for example, under Harrison at Tippecanoe and under Jackson at New Orleans), Detroit was surrendered without a shot being fired by the militia, and militias panicked in other engagements. U.S. state militias usually proved unreliable fighting Indians or fighting professional British troops.

President Madison did not order his forces in the north concentrated for a single major thrust, but rather divided them, sending one force to Detroit to attack Upper Canada from the West, one force to the Niagara River area between the lakes, and one force to the east; consequently none of the three could bring overwhelming force against the enemy. He appointed politicians to lead forces who had neither training nor experience and who often performed dismally.

American soldiers were ill equipped. The supply lines were long and supplies seldom arrived where they were needed. Corruption was rampant. Camps were unhygienic swamps, and illness a far more debilitating and lethal enemy of the American troops than the British or Canadians.

Perhaps the best strategy for the United States would have been to control the St. Lawrence River, blocking supplies to Upper Canada. Without supplies needed by the military and the settlers, Upper Canada might well have fallen quickly to the U.S. forces. However, David Parish, opposed that strategy. He was a very wealthy immigrant to the United States who had acquired 200,000 acres of land on the U.S. side of the valley and was renting to settlers. Those settlers were conducting a vibrant trade with Canada during the war, selling much needed foods to Canadian colonials and British soldiers alike, and even cannon balls to the enemy. Parish did not want military campaigns to interfere with their business nor his income. As the war progressed, the U.S. government had increasing difficulty financing it, and Parish agreed to make (what for the time was) a major investment in U.S. Government bonds, but only on the condition that President Madison agreed not to prosecute the war in the St. Lawrence Valley. Thus U.S. military strategy was in part determined by the financial interests of people trading with the enemy because of the financial weakness of the U.S. federal government.

Land Battles of the War of 1812 on the U.S.-Canadian Border

The conduct of the war on water was perhaps more successful for the United States. Club members wondered how the Americans had managed to build fleets on Lakes Eire and Ontaria, and even gain naval superiority over Lake Erie; it was suggested that the wooden ships of the lake fleets may have been relatively simple, and that there were many skilled ship builders on the Atlantic coast who might have been employed. There were successful engagements of American frigates against British frigates at sea, shocking the English who depended on naval superiority.

We also noted the relative importance of privateers in causing economic damage on both sides. More than 3,000 commercial ships were taken during the war, more than 1,500 by American privateers. A member of the club commented that there was profit in owning and operating a ship as a privateer.

The Causes of the War

One member asked for a discussion of the causes of the war. Why did the United States declare war on Great Britain in 1812?
  • An important cause was the impressment of sailors from American ships. The British in desperate need of sailors for their navy blockaded American ports, stopped American ships and impressed seamen. They ignored citizenship in the United States and papers that should have made individuals immune to such impressment, maintaining that anyone born in the British Empire could be pressed into service. It was noted that there was little chance that a British ship at sea could actually prove that someone was born in the British empire.
  • We believed that at least some of the leaders in the United States thought that territory could be conquered in Canada and added to the United States -- part of what would become known as Manifest Destiny.
  • The British had been interfering with American commerce with continental Europe.
  • (We did not mention the issue of "honor" of the nation, which some Americans of the time felt was being undermined by the British. Nor did we mention the British continued occupation of forts that were to be abandoned by the treaty ending the Revolutionary War.)
  • British military alliance with and support for Indian tribes, the raiding of settlers by Indian tribes, and the desire of U.S. settlers west of the Appalachian Mountains to remove the threats from Indians.
With regard to this last item, we noted the efforts of Tecumseh and his brother to forge an alliance of tribes over a large area to resist the incursions of the whites. We also noted that the Iroquois had once dominated an area that reached from Canada to the Carolinas. By the beginning of the 19th century, Iroquois tribal leaders had become quite sophisticated in the ways of Europeans and white Americans, but had also lost a great deal of the area that had been under their control.

We went back to the resolution of the French and Indian War (Seven Year War) which resulted in the French ceding all of the empire's North American territory. Territory to the east of the Mississippi went to the British and the Louisiana territory to Spain. The British had in the aftermath of that war prohibited white settlement to the west of the Appalachians, seeking to preserve that land for the Indians. Napoleon had installed his brother over Spain, and took possession of Louisiana. With the loss of Haiti, and in grave need of money, he began negotiations with the United States. While the U.S. had begun that negotiation in order to achieve trading rights from New Orleans, given the opportunity the negotiators agreed to pay $15 million to France in the Louisiana Purchase. U.S. funding for France did not please the British.

Ultimately, there was U.S. pressure to settle west from the original eastern colonies. Settlement was already taking place east of the Mississippi and the Louisiana territory was there to be settled. An Indian alliance to stop the economic exploitation of those lands was not to be tolerated. American victories over the Indians in the War of 1812 effectively ended the possibility of Indian tribal union against U.S. settlements between the Mississippi and the Appalachians.


We wondered about Madison's government and how it could make what seems now so foolish a decision as to declare war on the British empire in 1812. Did that government not realize how weak the U.S. army and navy were, how incompetent they would be against the experienced forces of the British empire in the final stages of winning the Napoleonic wars? Did they not realize how costly the war would be, and how poorly prepared to finance a war the government would prove to be? While the British were quite generous in the peace terms, the U.S. government could not have depended on that generosity when declaring war.

We noted that governments many times before and since had made similarly bad decisions about going to war. Perhaps it was the news of the event in Iraq, but we then went off on a tangent to discuss the Bush administration's decisions with regard to the Iraq war. "People who fail to study history are likely to repeat historical mistakes, and too few of us seem to study history."

We also wondered what would have happened had things gone differently. What would it be like now in the lower 48 had we stayed within the British empire? (Someone suggested "the hell that is Canada" as a metaphor.) Perhaps something along the lines of Canada, Australia, or New Zealand might not have been that bad.

The discussion was lively. It seemed to be strengthened by the depth of reading that some of the members had done on American history in the late 18th and early 19th century. The Kensington Row Bookshop continues to be a good host for these meetings, providing adequate space in a book filled environment with a kind hostess. 


  1. Norm shared this comment on the club listserve: (Part I)

    Alan Taylor’s Civil War of 1812 marshals an impressive amount of detail about incidents along the U.S.-Canadian border. Much additional history lies beyond that border, for example:
    George McClure’s aide William Beatty Rochester was the first-born son of Nathaniel Rochester, who departed Hagerstown, Maryland, to found a flour mill alongside the Genesee River falls near Lake Ontario. It became Rochesterville, later Rochester, which was my birthplace – located about halfway between the campaign points of Oswego, NY, and Newark, Ontario.
    Oswego was a target for the British because it was the repository of U.S. munitions and supplies. Its loss crippled much of the planned action on Lake Ontario. It remains a bucolic but pleasant area that I visited as a teenage camper.
    Newark, Ontario – at the western side of Niagara River discharge into Lake Ontario – is now called “Niagara on the Lake”. Decades ago it was restored by a wealthy benefactor into a pleasant town containing a Shaw performance theatre, three very good wineries that also serve excellent cuisine in very pleasant surroundings, and other attractions. It is the place to book in, as I did, whenever visiting Niagara Falls.
    William Beatty Rochester and his colleague Jessie Hawley actively petitioned for construction of a canal from Lake Erie to the northern Hudson near Albany, persuasive upon Republican New York State politician DeWitt Clinton who also served on an “Erie Canal Commission”. Clinton nearly beat Madison for the presidency in 1812, later becoming governor of New York in 1817 (re-elected twice). As governor he persuaded the NY legislature to allocate $7 for the canal, against vocal opposition (“Clinton’s overpriced ditch”); but it proved crucial to stimulating trade as far west as Duluth, and for changing New York City from a dinky town into a commercial metropolis. The cost of the canal was returned within six years. During my teens, a great sport for young bucks like me was taking young ladies out on the canal in canoes. Weeping willow trees along the shore provided hidden sanctuaries where boaters could stop and, say, have lunch. Or whatever.
    Originally the canal went through the center of Rochester via a Roman-style aqueduct. George Eastman’s first photograph showed that aqueduct crossing over the Genesee River; and it was at that intersection my father was employed half a century as a law-book printer.
    Another strong advocate of the Erie Canal was Stephen Van Rensselaer III, whose father was the ninth patron of Rensselaerswyck, a 1,200 square-mile grant in upstate New York awarded by Dutch colonists to his ancestor Kiliaen van Rensselaer – making SVR III the tenth-richest American of all time (adjusted for inflation) and the 22nd richest in history. He was Lieutenant-Governor under John Jay, and in 1812 the leading candidate to replace Governor Daniel Tompkins. Tompkins cleverly eliminated the rivalry of SVR III by offering him command of the U.S. army facing the well-fortified British at Queenston Heights on the Niagara escarpment (p. 183). As Taylor notes, Van Rensselaer, an untrained militia general, was a bumbling commander; and despite the demise of British general Brock during battle, SVR III lost the assault. Although Taylor doesn’t mention this, the British victory was helped significantly by Laura Secord, wife of a British soldier wounded a year earlier, who acquired information about SVR III’s impending attack and walked 20 miles to alert a British lieutenant defending the escarpment. Today, “Laura Secord” is the name of Canadian chocolates; the joke being that most U.S. purchasers do not recognize he significance of that name.

  2. Norm's comment, Part II:

    Although his military incompetence did preclude his gaining the governorship, as Tompkins intended, SVR III later used part of his inheritance to found the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a reputable university in Troy, New York (near Albany).
    A major turning-point in the war was the construction and command of several formidable warships at Erie, PA, by Navy Commander Oliver Hazard Perry on Lake Erie (pp. 243, 246). He engaged British commander Barclay in a close victory, which he communicated to General William Henry Harrison with the well-known line, “We have met the enemy and they are ours”. Perry then transported Harrison’s army north of Detroit, from where it advanced to a U.S. victory in the 1813 Battle of the Thames. (Devotees of Walt Kelly’s “Pogo” comic strip may remember his support of EPA programs with a poster in which Pogo converts Perry’s line into “We have met the enemy and they are us”.) Perry’s next action in South America did him in. But his younger brother Matthew C. Perry – who had served with Oliver in the Lake Erie victory – capped a distinguished Navy career by taking a floatilla of steam powered warships (the latest technology of the time) into Edo (Tokyo) Bay and intimidating the Emperor into granting a coaling base and trading post with the U.S. Prior that event, the Tokugawa Shogunate had for 200 years permitted only limited trade, and then only with a Netherlands monopoly.
    Finally, there is mention of Abraham Markle (p. 247), born in New York State and a lively if ruthless entrepreneur, briefly an hotelier in Newark (Niagara on the Lake) and a colleague of Canadian “deserter” Joseph Willcocks. Don’t know for certain owing to lack of documentation, but I believe he was an ancestor of my mother, also a Markle.

  3. Oops! The Erie Canal cost $7 million, not $7.

  4. DP wrote:

    Jonathan Yardley has an interesting review of a new book by Peter Snow (British author) in the Wash. Post today on the burning of Washington: When Britain Burned the White House, The 1814 Invasion of Washington. He calls it “a fine example of serious and literate popular history.” He also calls Anthony Pitch’s The Burning of Washington published in 2000, “one of the best accounts of a war that hardly deserves to be forgotten.” I had read a review of Pitch’s book that was slightly uncomplimentary, but most Amazon reviews are 4 or 5 stars. His very detailed book would naturally be of more interest to locals than others. This local author has also led Smithsonian tours of historical Washington.