Sunday, April 1, 2012

War of 1812

Great History!

200 years ago the United States of America, led by President James Madison, declared war on Great Britain.  James Madison was a Republican and a protege of Thomas Jefferson.  He was a principal author of the US Constitution and co-author with Hamilton of the Federalist papers. He, like Jefferson, believed in a strictly limited governmental role and his party was friendly with France and hostile to Great Britain. Republican political strength was concentrated in farmers in the south and west.  He was motivated to declare war on account of the British policy of impressment.  Britain's empire depended upon the global domination of the world's waters by the Royal Navy and their navy needed trained seamen.  It was to policy of the Royal Navy to impress or kidnap seamen of all nationalities.  As a result, many American sailors were forcibly impressed into the Royal Navy.  22 Americans, for example, served on board Nelson's flagship the HMS Victory at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

Madison's pre-war assumptions were...
1) that Napoleon would triumph in his invasion of Russia
2) that Canada would be easy for the US to invade and occupy,
3) that the US Navy would be irrelevant on account of the strength and quality of the Royal Navy (the British had a 1,000 ship fleet versus America's 20 ships).

All three of these assumptions would be completely overturned in the course of the war.  Napoleon's invasion of Russia was an unmitigated disaster that decimated La Grande Armee.  The American invasion of Canada was a disaster*; Detroit was captured by the British and parts of northern Maine were occupied by the British at the war's conclusion.  The scrappy US navy, on the other hand, exceeded all expectations and proved a worthy opponent to the royal navy again and again.

The War of 1812 was a "war of choice" led by a libertarian president in a nation that was deeply divided. It was also a partisan war favored by the Republicans and largely opposed by the Federalists.  The House vote on the declaration of war in June of 1812 was 79 to 49 in favor, while the senate narrowly passed the measure by 19 to 13. The Republican party believed that a strong standing army was a threat to liberty.  They relied instead upon local state militia who had a spotty record during the war.  Jefferson was a hopeless military strategist who had also championed the notion of small gunboats which proved almost useless in the course of the war.  Madison believed that Canada, which was largely populated by former Americans, would greet an American invasion with open arms and that the conquest of Canada would be a walkover.  Madison sought imperial conquest but he and his party were unwilling to impose the taxes that would be required to pay for a substantial regular army or navy

Madison was opposed by the Federalist party which was the party of Washington, Adams and Hamilton.  Their support was concentrated in New England and the Northeastern states.  They supported manufacturing and trade and were friendly with England.  The federalists supported a strong navy.

Madison's declaration of war on Great Britain made the USA a de facto ally of Napoleon.  American naval vessels and privateers used French ports such as L'Orient to raid British merchant shipping.  Madison hoped that Napoleon's invasion of Russia in the summer of 1812 would be successful and that Britain would be brought to its knees.  There was, however, no real coordination of strategy with Napoleonic France in the struggle against Britain.

In dramatic contrast to the "total war" of World War II, the War of 1812 put many Americans in opposition to their own government's policies.  The Royal navy occupied Block Island off of New York during the war and was able to purchase cattle and other supplies from farmers along the Eastern seaboard.  "By the end of 1812 American farmers were shipping an astonishing 900,000 barrels of grain per year to Wellington."  Prior to their invasion of northern Mine in 1814, British forces based in Canada bought most of their food from the farmers of Vermont.  Some members of the British government even hoped that New England might secede from the Union on account of Madison's war.  Meanwhile, many of the crewmembers of the Royal navy were Americans who had been impressed and fought their own countrymen with distinctly mixed feelings.

US and British ships in action

There were a series of naval battles fought by a scrappy US navy.  The US Constitution led by Captain Isaac Hull captured and then burned a similarly sized frigate--the Guerriere.  The naval battle of Plattsburgh on Lake Champlain foiled an attempted British invasion of upstate New York.

Thousands of US sailors were captured in the course of the war.  Estimates are that 14% of the US Navy and private seamen, perhaps 10,000 in all, were captured by the British during the conflict (see earlier post The Fighting Temeraire 1/16/12) .  The British using their command of the sea, launched a raid on Washington itself.  In 1814 The White House, Library of Congress and the Washington naval yard were all burned to the ground -- not long ago Tony Blair apologized to President Bush for the burning of the White House!
Brits burn the White house

The biggest land battle of the War of 1812, the battle of New Orleans was fought after the peace of Ghent ending the war had already been signed.  Sir Edward Pakenham, the Duke of Wellington's brother-in-law, was killed in the battle.  Wellington's Peninsular war veterans were routed (291 killed and 1,262 wounded on the British side, 13 killed and 39 wounded on the American side) by an army led by Andrew Jackson that was aided by Jean Lafitte's pirates and the USS Louisiana.

Although the war ended with no territorial changes and no clear resolution of the impressment issue it did have far-reaching consequences for the young Republic.  The United States had won the re-match of the American Revolution.  The young Republic had passed its test of fire and the Union was bound more tightly together as a result.  In the war's darkest days in 1814 representatives of the New England states gathered secretly for the Hartford Convention;  they rejected the idea of secession for fear of the civil war it would have caused.  It was the British naval bombardment of Fort McHenry near Baltimore on in 1814 that inspired Francis Scott Keys to write the poem that makes up or national anthem (hear Whitney Houston belt it out below!).  The US naval victories against the best the Royal navy had to offer inspired a whole new respect for the young Republic.  In spite of not having been agreed to by the peace treaty, impressment of American sailors would no longer be an issue after the War of 1812.

The Republicans were vindicated as Madison fought a war that did not breach the US Constitution.  The Federalists won in the sense that their policies of a strong army and navy prevailed.  Veterans of the War of 1812 would go on to lead the Republic in the coming century -- with Benjamin Harrison, Zachary Talylor and Andrew Jackson all serving as president.

Here is what historian George C. Daughan writes, "Madison believed the danger would be significantly increased if the United States demobilized (after the war) -- as she had after the
Revolution and the Quasi-War with France.  Disarmament might tempt Britain to renew her aggressiveness on the high seas and expand her North American empire.  Presidents Washington and Adams had also believed that military weakness invited European meddling.  For years, Madison and his mentor Jefferson had rejected that view.  Keeping the army and navy small was fundamental to heir political philosophy.  the war changed Madison's mind, however.  He now thought Washington and Adams had been right.  A politically united country with a respectable army and navy was the best safeguard against a renewal of war with Britain or any other imperialist country."

USS Constitution defeated 3 Royal Navy ships in the War of 1812

Here is what James Madison himself had to tell congress on February 18th, 1815, "Experience has taught us that neither the pacific disposition of the American people nor the pacific character of her political institutions can altogether exempt them from the strife which appears beyond the ordinary lot of nations to be incident to the actual period of the world, and the same faithful monitor demonstrates that a certain degree of preparation for war is not only indispensable to avert disasters at the onset, but affords also the best security for the continuance of peace."  1812: The Navy's War, George C. Daughan, 2011.

The butcher bill for the War of 1812 was about 15,000 total casualties from all causes (about 1,600 killed in action on the British side).  In spite of the lack of territorial gains, the war significantly unified the young Republic and strengthened the nation's commitment to a strong military (the US army, for example, grew five-fold during the course of the war from 7,000 to over 35,000 by war's end).  Moreover, our country's credible performance during War of 1812, while not a strategic victory, was enough to secure a lasting peace with Great Britain and Canada that endures to this day. 

The United States and Great Britain essentially fought the War of 1812 to a draw.  Canada, on the other hand, was a clear winner from the war -- the US would never invade again.  The Native Americans, however, were a clear loser; their most distinguished leave Tecumseh was killed during the war.  The British had asked for an Indian nation that would have limited America's western expansion, but they backed down in the treaty of Ghent settlement.

Commander Kelly says, "Consider this history when you next hear our national anthem."

* A disaster in which an ancestor of Commander Kelly, the "hapless" General Stephen van Rensselaer, participated at the battle of Queenston in October 1812.  Daughan writes, "Van Rensselaer, as he had throughout the battle, stayed on the New York side of the river away from the fighting."

Star Spangled Banner

Battle of New Orleans

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