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.
Right on the nose !
- 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.
No contest, one on one.
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
Jefferson wrote to friend and newly-elected President James Madison… in 1809 “We should then have only to include the North(Canada) in our confederacy, which would be of course in the first war, and we should have such an empire for liberty as she has never surveyed since the creation…”
An empire for liberty
As Madison prepared the country for war with Britain… the acquisition of Canada was not far from his mind. Many felt it should have been seized during the Revolutionary War. British possession of Canada guaranteed their continued proximity and potential interference.
The conquest of Canada
Madison agreed with his friend and mentor… that a new war with Britain could settle old scores and solidify our control on North America. Madison responded, ” The conquest of Canada will do this…”
“Speaking generally, no penance is like having one’s picture done. You must sit in a constrained and unnatural position, which is a trial to the temper. But I should like to sit to Stuart from the first of January to the last of December, for he lets me do just what I please, and keeps me constantly amused by his conversation.” John Adams on sitting for Gilbert Stuart’s portrait sessions.
Only for the conversation
Gilbert Stuart always claimed his depiction of Washington most authentic… speaking about the famous Lansdowne Portrait- famously rescued by Dolley Madison(or her servants) in 1814. Stuart cited his authenticity-
“When I painted him [Washington], he had just had a set of false teeth inserted, which accounts for the constrained expression so noticeable about the mouth and lower part of the face…” Gilbert Stuart
Rejecting a third term
Light winds on September 10, 1813… turned the battle of Lake Erie into a slug fest. Neither commander could gain any true advantage in weather gauge- the two squadrons lay opposite one another, blasting away. American Oliver Hazard Perry’s flagship, Lawrence was taking the brunt of British fire as the rest of his command struggled to follow his aggressive example. Two British brigs pounded Perry’s ship until every gun was disabled and four-fifths of the crew was dead- Perry fled on a dingy, rowing a half-mile to the brig Niagara. Novelist and historian CS Forester wryly noted, “…it was as fortunate for the Americans that the Lawrence still possessed a boat that would float, as it was that Perry was not hit.”
Never give up the ship
Perry brought the rest of the American squadron… into line and drove the Niagara directly through the British formation. Perry’s aggressiveness overwhelmed the slower British ships- nearly every man aboard the two largest was killed. The surrender took place at approximately 3:00pm, just three hours after the first shot was fired. Perry accepted the surrender aboard the recaptured Lawrence, so the British officers could see the carnage his command endured. Perry cabled his counterpart on land, General William Henry Harrison;
We have met the enemy and they are ours. Two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop.
Yours with great respect and esteem,
Filed under Ephemera, News
Henry Clay was first elected Speaker of the House… on November 4, 1811. America was on the verge of war with Britain and the new Speaker(and freshman House member) immediately set the agenda. No previous Speaker had used the gavel in such a way. Henry Clay was not only pushing his country into war, he was revolutionizing policy making in the People’s House:
Henry Clay of Kentucky
“What are we to gain by war, has been emphatically asked? In reply, he would ask, what are we not to lose by peace?—commerce, character, a nation’s best treasure, honor! Let those who contend for this humiliating doctrine, read its refutation in the history of the very man against whose insatiable thirst of dominion we are warned. Let us come home to our own history. It was not by submission that our fathers achieved our independence.”
Clay’s silky smooth delivery in a deep baritone that commanded attention… made floor debates his stage. But, the Speaker’s conference room was where Clay was able to hammer out deals to guide difficult policies through the House. The War of 1812 was his first great accomplishment. Ever the gambler, Clay felt the struggle was worth the risk:
“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
Toll, Ian, Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the US Navy, Norton Publishing, New York, 2007- ISBN 978-0-393-05847-5
Ian Toll has written that rare book… that provides a fresh look at a little studied historical period, while remaining true to research pioneers in the field. Other studies, like Teddy Roosevelt’s Naval War of 1812, have examined the history of the fledgling US Navy, but Toll’s work fills the obvious gaps in historiography. Writers such as Roosevelt, Christopher McKee, Henry Adams, and even CS Forester have all studied the characters, battles, and politics of the Age of Sail, Toll’s book serves as an authoritative compendium to the previous histories.
“Joshua Humphreys proposed, in short, to build exceptionally large, heavily armed, fast-sailing frigates…” Toll is at his best when describing the intrigue surrounding the formation and construction of our first fleet. The same radicalism that had separated us from European monarchy and aristocracy was driving our chief shipwright to challenge ship building norms. America’s first warships were going to be exceptional- Humphreys is Toll’s unlikely hero. Just as America was designed to be unconventional, so would our Navy. Politics proved ruinous from the start, and Toll does the research required to show how second-guessing and patronage nearly ruined Humphreys’ exceptional fleet. On far too many occasions, the young US government allowed partisanship to risk our national security interests- Toll’s analysis fits into debate over current events as well.
Toll’s ability to focus his writing… on the original six frigates shows commendable restraint and prevents this study from deteriorating into muddled mass of dates, places, and names. Utilizing prior studies, Toll’s historical recounting of the Golden Age of Sail is both gripping and realistic. The narrative effortlessly guides the reader from the Quasi-War in the Caribbean to the Barbary Wars in the Mediterranean. Stephen Decatur and John Rodgers figure prominently in Toll’s story, but so do oft overlooked figures like Edward Preble, William Bainbridge, and Jesse Eliot. The founding of the American Navy was a difficult and sometimes bloody affair- Toll astutely points out how dueling nearly brought the officer corps of the Navy to it’s knees by the mid-19th century. And this is the essence of Ian Toll’s study– more than just battles and larger than life heroes– founding the US Navy was about blood, sweat, and good strong oak.
Consensus history records that America barely survived… the War of 1812; persistent peace negotiations combined with a distracted British military allowed the unprepared republic a fortuitous exit. A closer examination reveals a less than concerted British war effort with poor strategic planning. The same criteria applied conversely proves that America won the war every bit as much as Britain lost it. History shows us;
We have met the enemy, and they are ours…
- Timely victories– As in the Revolutionary War, the United States military sustained losses, but its victories had a greater impact. The early naval triumphs of the USS Constitution, President, and United States over the vaunted Royal Navy helped limit the setbacks suffered along the Canadian border. Oliver Hazard Perry’s victory on Lake Erie permanently isolated British forces in the west. William Henry Harrison’s decisive blow at the Thames broke the British-Indian alliance (and he finally killed Tecumseh.) The battle of Plattsburgh ended the poorly coordinated invasion of New York, sealing off the Niagara frontier.
- Bend, don’t break– British general Robert Ross made the same mistake Sir William Howe made in the Revolution, he believed that occupying the American capital would influence the war. The British occupation and burning of Washington on August 24, 1814 was a minor psychological blow, but had no strategic impact on the war. The US government simply moved, leaving no real prize for the British troops. The failure to capture Baltimore Harbour two weeks later brought the ill conceived campaign to end (and also produced Francis Scott Key’s poem about Fort McHenry.) The rigid strategic thinking of the British high command could not appropriately account for the flexibility of US forces defending their own soil.
- And for good measure– US troops proved their mettle against the mighty Redcoats at Lundy’s Lane, Chippewa, and North Point. The British army had no decisive advantage in land forces. The crushing defeat of General Edward Pakenham’s forces by Andrew Jackson’s defenders at New Orleans was an exclamation point on a war that had officially ended two weeks earlier. British forces suffered 2, 042 casualties (including the deaths of Pakenham and his chief Lt. Gibbs) while Jackson lost only 71 troops. Critics of the war were silenced when news of the triumph reached eastern seaboard.
Repel the invaders !
These proceedings and declared purposes, which exhibit a deliberate disregard of the principles of humanity and the rules of civilized warfare, and which must give to the existing war a character of extended devastation and barbarism at the very moment of negotiations for peace, invited by the enemy himself, leave no prospect of safety to anything within the reach of his predatory and incendiary operations but in manful and universal determination to chastise and expel the invader: James Madison, September 1, 1814