Why did the British lose the War of 1812… consensus history teaches that the Napoleonic wars kept mighty England from crushing the upstart Americans. As expected, consensus historical lessons are wrapped too tightly, strangling the complexities from our past. America won the war, but Britain lost it just as much. We cannot pin this all on the French.
- Poor strategy and execution– As in the Revolutionary War, Britain attempted a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy. Simultaneous invasions would divide American forces and allow the British to defeat the disorganized American armies. Unfortunately, the invasions were far from timely; poorly organized and executed, British forces were unable achieve any strategic success during the invasions of upstate New York and Maryland. The third invasion at New Orleans ended in disaster. The first graduates from the American military academy (like Winfield Scott) were able to rally American forces, including the unreliable militiamen, to resist the uncoordinated assaults.
- Political disunity– The government of Spencer Perceval had taken a stand against American attempts to trade with France their during the war. Perceval’s ministers enacted the Orders in Council and did little as the tensions with America continued to rise. Diplomats serving in Washington did a poor job communicating Britain’s positions on key issues. Perceval’s assassination on May 11, 1812 brought to power Lord Liverpool, who sought to ease tensions with America. The repeal of the Orders in Council just two days before America’s declaration of war was not accepted by all British ministers. The disunity in Liverpool’s government continued as the hostilities escalated.
- Swatting flies– The British military machine was not built to fight an enemy like the United States. The British army was recruited and trained to fight on the sweeping fields of Europe, not the wilds of North America; geography proved to be a keen enemy in both wars Britain fought in America. The small, but powerful American fleet did not give the Royal Navy its Trafalgar of the west. The power frigates of the US fleet held their own in ship to ship combat. These small victories boosted American morale during the dark days of the conflict. The British dependence on its Indian allies on the frontier proved as detrimental as in the Seven Years War. The United States used its home field advantage to keep the British war machine from operating efficiently.
But it is said that we are not prepared for war, and ought therefore not to declare it. This is an idle objection, which can have weight with the timid and pusillanimous only. The fact is otherwise. Our preparations are adequate to every essential object. Do we apprehend danger to ourselves? From what quarter will it assail us? From England, and by invasion? The idea is too absurd to merit a moment’s consideration. –Henry Clay, 1811