Overview of the War of 1812

An introduction to the conflict between the US and Britain

Naval battle between the USS Constitution and the HMS Guerriere, August 19, 1812

Getty Images / De Agostini Picture Library

The War of 1812 was fought between the United States and Great Britain and lasted from 1812 to 1815. Resulting from American anger over trade issues, impressment of sailors, and British support of Indigenous attacks on the frontier, the conflict saw the US Army attempt to invade Canada while British forces attacked south. Over the course of the war, neither side gained a decisive advantage and the war resulted in a return to status quo ante bellum. Despite this lack of conclusiveness on the battlefield, several late American victories led to a newfound sense of national identity and a feeling of victory.

Causes of the War of 1812

President James Madison, c. 1800

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Tensions between the United States and Great Britain increased during the first decade of the 19th century due to issues involving trade and impressment of American sailors. Battling Napoleon on the Continent, Britain sought to block neutral American trade with France. In addition, the Royal Navy utilized a policy of impressment which saw British warships seize sailors from American merchant vessels. This resulted in incidents such as the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair which were affronts to the United States' national honor. The Americans were further angered by increased Indigenous attacks on the frontier which they believed the British to be encouraging. As a result, President James Madison asked Congress to declare war in June 1812.

1812: Surprises at Sea & Ineptitude on Land

With the outbreak of war, the United States began mobilizing forces to invade Canada. At sea, the fledgling US Navy quickly won several stunning victories beginning with USS Constitution's defeat of HMS Guerriere on August 19 and Capt. Stephen Decatur's capture of HMS Macedonian on October 25. On land, the Americans intended to strike at several points, but their efforts were soon put in jeopardy when Brig. Gen. William Hull surrendered Detroit to Maj. Gen. Isaac Brock and Tecumseh in August. Elsewhere, General Henry Dearborn remained idle at Albany, NY rather than march north. On the Niagara front, Maj. Gen. Stephen van Rensselaer attempted an offensive but was defeated at the Battle of Queenston Heights.

1813: Success on Lake Erie, Failure Elsewhere


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The second year of war saw American fortunes around Lake Erie improve. Building a fleet at Erie, PA, Master Commandant Oliver H. Perry defeated a British squadron at the Battle of Lake Erie on September 13. This victory allowed Maj. Gen. William Henry Harrison's army to retake Detroit and defeat British forces at the Battle of the Thames. To the east, American troops successfully attacked York, ON and crossed the Niagara River. This advance was checked at Stoney Creek and Beaver Dams in June and American forces withdrew by year's end. Efforts to capture Montreal via the St. Lawrence and Lake Champlain also failed following defeats at the Chateauguay River and Crysler's Farm.

1814: Advances in the North & A Capital Burned

Having endured a succession of ineffective commanders, American forces on the Niagara received capable leadership in 1814 with the appointment of Maj. Gen. Jacob Brown and Brig. Gen. Winfield Scott. Entering Canada, Scott won the Battle of Chippawa on July 5, before both he and Brown were wounded at Lundy's Lane later that month. To the east, British forces entered New York but were forced to retreat after the American naval victory at Plattsburgh on September 11. Having defeated Napoleon, the British dispatched forces to attack the East Coast. Led by VAdm. Alexander Cochrane and Maj. Gen. Robert Ross, the British entered the Chesapeake Bay and burned Washington DC before being turned back at Baltimore by Fort McHenry.

1815: New Orleans & Peace

Illustration of the Battle of New Orleans

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With Britain beginning to bring the full weight of its military might to bear and with Treasury near empty, the Madison Administration began peace talks in mid-1814. Meeting at Ghent, Belgium, they ultimately produced a treaty which addressed a few of the issues that had led to the war. With the conflict at a military stalemate and the reemergence of Napoleon, the British were happy to agree to a return to status quo antebellum and the Treaty of Ghent was signed December 24, 1814. Unaware that peace had been concluded, a British invasion force led by Maj. Gen. Edward Pakenham prepared to attack New Orleans. Opposed by Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson, the British were defeated at the Battle of New Orleans on January 8.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "Overview of the War of 1812." ThoughtCo, Oct. 2, 2020, thoughtco.com/war-of-1812-an-overview-2361373. Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, October 2). Overview of the War of 1812. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/war-of-1812-an-overview-2361373 Hickman, Kennedy. "Overview of the War of 1812." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/war-of-1812-an-overview-2361373 (accessed April 2, 2023).