The loss of its colonies frustrated Britain. After-all, those 13 American colonies had been a major source of income for the mother country. Now, the United States wanted to trade and make money (and complete) with Britain, and that wasn’t a preferred situation for the English merchants. The Napoleonic Wars in Europe further complicated maritime interests for America.
Irritations grew on both sides and eventually erupted into the War of 1812. This conflict – primarily rooted in maritime interests – allowed the new U.S. Navy to test its strength and the outcome would establish America as a rising world power, setting the stage for the continued rise of maritime trade and strength.
Since the War of 1812 is incredibly important to understanding the success of American Maritime during the 19th Century, we thought we’d share the top 12 things you should know about the conflict.
Napoleon’s Ambition and War Put America In The Middle
The War of 1812 was a conflict between the British and United States. To some extent it was provoked by the British who did not respect their former colonies as a united nation. The conflict began when Napoleon established his Continental System and the British responded with their Orders of Council in 1806 – trade restrictions effecting England, France, and the rest of Europe. These measures were not intended to stop the commerce of the United States, but seizing blockade running ships angered America, who claimed that such blockades were illegal since they maintained neutrality in the European wars.
2. Impressment Was NOT Popular
The British claimed the right to search American ships for deserters from their navy and generally took along a few American sailors with the deserters to keep a full crew on the warships.
In June 1807, Captain James Barron aboard the an America ship, the Chesapeake, refused to allow his ship to be searched by the captain of the HMS Leopard, which opened fire on the American ship; this affair, known as the Chesapeake Affair, ignited anti-British feelings in the United States and President Jefferson ordered all British ships to leave the United States’ harbors. In 1811, the British government apologized for the affair, but the damage had already been done in the minds of the American people.
3. Embargos & Threats Backfired
The blockades against commerce particularly upset the Americans, since, at the time, their economy depending on trade and exportation. During the first decade of the 19th Century, the Thomas Jefferson and the United States government responded to the European port blockades by closing American ports to British goods and halting American trade in European ports.
The plan backfired; European nations managed without American supplies while the New England ship-owners and sailors were unemployed and the exports from the South rotted in port. Fifteen months after it was instated, the Embargo Act was repealed after it had damaged the United States economy, raised regional tension, and not harmed the European powers.
When Napoleon repealed his trade restrictions with the U.S., America cut trade with Britain, which was exactly what Napoleon wanted…
4. War Hawks Contribute To Sectionalism
Angered by the trade restrictions, impressments, and the Chesapeake Affair, “War Hawks” in Congress, led by Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, urged a war with Britain. New England states opposed the idea, fearing further destruction for their seafaring economy, causing sectional divide.
5. America Declares War
On June 1, 1812, President Madison requested Congress to declare war on Britain for the offenses of impressments, interference in trade, and supposed encouragement of Native American warfare in the northwest part of the country. Congress declared war on June 18th, unaware that two days prior, the British had revoked the Orders of Council and lift trade restrictions.
The United States had little money to fund a war, the army consisted of about 10,000 troops, with inexperienced officers, the navy had less than 20 ships, all of which were smaller than a British ship of the line, and New England, violently opposing the war, refused to give money or raise troops. America had decided to go to war the nation with most powerful navy in the world and one of the best disciplined armies in Europe.
5. New England Talked About Secession
New Englanders were so angry about the embargoes, the war, and the continuing troubles for their maritime industries and livelihoods that the northern states actually talked about seceding. (Why does everyone like to sweep this under the rug when we get to southern secession during the Civil War era?)
Fortunately, peace talks began before the New Englanders actually got around to formally deciding to leave the Union.
6. On The High Seas
Throughout the War of 1812, there were individual conflicts on the high seas, which, although not tactically important, raised American morale and are remembered for the gallantry of the captains and crews involved.
One of the most notable of these individual conflicts was between the USS Constitution and the HMS Guerriere off the coast of Nova Scotia on August 19, 1812; in twenty minutes the HMS Guerriere was a floating wreck and the USS Constitution, virtually unharmed, had gained the nickname “Old Ironsides” because the cannon balls bounced off her sturdy hulls.
Privateers, employed by the United Sates, captured about 1,500 prize ships, thereby slightly damaging the British commerce.
7. Naval “Battles” Occurred On The Great Lakes
Both sides wanted access to the Great Lakes, and since it bordered British-held Canada, that area saw land and maritime fighting during the war. Both sides built lake “fleets.”
The most famous lake battle of the war occurred on September 10, 1813, in the Battle of Lake Erie, United States Master-Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry with 3 brigs and 6 schooners managed to blockade the British fleet at the west end of the lake and defeat them. His famous dispatch to the secretary of war in Washington D.C. read, “We have met the enemy and they are ours” and news of this victory thrilled the struggling nation.
8. On Land
Even though this is a maritime study, we’d be neglecting our commitment to sharing accurate history if we let you think the War of 1812 was only fought at sea and on the Great Lakes.
“Campaigns” occurred in the Great Lakes and Canadian border regions. And along the Atlantic seaboard, the British navy terrified civilian ports with raids. One inland raid brought British soldiers to Washington D.C. and they burned the capital. The defense of Fort McHenry against the British bombardment resulted in a work of poetry by Francis Scott Key, “The Star Spangled Banner.” The battle at New Orleans was fought after the peace treaty was signed in Europe; the American victory in this final battle promoted General Andrew Jackson to national hero.
9. The War Really Lasted Until 1814 or 1815
So…it’s called the War of 1812. It would be logical to think it was fought in 1812, right? Well, go figure this fact: the War of 1812 was fought between 1812 and 1815.
Why did I say 1814 or 1815? Because the Treaty of Ghent was signed in Belgium on December 24, 1814. But Andrew Jackson in New Orleans didn’t get the memo (remember the news had to cross the ocean in a sailing ship!) and fought a battle at the beginning of January 1815.
The Treaty of Ghent was formally ratified by Congress on February 17, 1815. It didn’t hurt to have an extra battlefield victory to America’s credit…
10. The War of 1812 Was America’s Early Attempt To Play In International Affairs
The War of 1812 was an attempt by the United States to prove that they were a nation that could take part in world affairs. Having somewhat successfully made a statement to the Barbary Pirates, America tried fighting for respect and neutral trade rights with Britain and France. Although the conflict didn’t significantly “scare” Europe, it did help the America develop a regular army and navy.
11. Sectional Lines Were Based On Economic Interests
While the Southern and Western states united to support the war effort, the northern states (as a whole) hated the war. It pinched their economic livelihood which relied heavily on trade and maritime interests (which included not having ships stopped or attacked at sea.)
The regional division lines drawn during the War of 1812 would prove to be contentious points for the next half century, eventually culminating in the American Civil War.
12. The War of 1812 Re-opened Trade Opportunities For American Maritime
Although they hated it at the time, New England’s maritime industries benefited from the results of the War of 1812.
First, better trade relations were establish with Britain, allowing for less restrictions and great profits.
Secondly, impressment started to fade – allowing liberty and less fear for American sailors.
Thirdly, America started using its navy to protect trade interests; the Second Barbary War and global cruises made statements that the U.S. would protect its merchant fleets. (We’ll be talking about American trade and global ventures in March 2017!)
P.S. Anyone else want to see a historically accurate movie about the Battle of Lake Erie? It could be amazing on the big screen…