War of 1812: New Orleans & Peace

Fighting at the Battle of New Orleans, 1815
Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

As the war raged, President James Madison worked to bring it to a peaceful conclusion. Hesitant about going to war in the first place, Madison instructed his chargé d’affaires in London, Jonathan Russell, to seek reconciliation with the British a week after war was declared in 1812. Russell was ordered to seek a peace that only required the British to repeal the Orders in Council and halt impressment. Presenting this to the British foreign minister, Lord Castlereagh, Russell was rebuffed as they were unwilling to move on the latter issue. There was little progress on the peace front until early 1813 when Czar Alexander I of Russia offered to mediate an end to hostilities. Having turned back Napoleon, he was eager to benefit from trade with both Great Britain and the United States. Alexander also sought to befriend the United States as a check against British power.

Upon learning of the czar's offer, Madison accepted and dispatched a peace delegation consisting of John Quincy Adams, James Bayard, and Albert Gallatin. The Russian offer was declined by the British who claimed that the matters in question were internal to the belligerents and not of international concern. Progress was finally achieved later that year following the Allied victory at the Battle of Leipzig. With Napoleon defeated, Castlereagh offered to open direct negotiations with the United States. Madison accepted on January 5, 1814, and added Henry Clay and Jonathan Russell to the delegation. Traveling first to Goteborg, Sweden, they then headed south to Ghent, Belgium where the talks were to take place. Moving slowly, the British did not appoint a commission until May and their representatives did not depart for Ghent until August 2.

Unrest on the Home Front

As the fighting continued, those in New England and the South grew tired of the war. Never a great supporter of the conflict, New England's coast was raided with impunity and its economy on the verge of collapse as the Royal Navy swept American shipping from the seas. South of the Chesapeake, commodity prices plummeted as farmers and plantation owners were unable to export cotton, wheat, and tobacco. Only in Pennsylvania, New York, and the West was there any degree of prosperity though this was largely related federal expenditures relating to the war effort. This spending led to resentment in New England and the South, as well as precipitated a financial crisis in Washington.

Taking office in late 1814, Treasury Secretary Alexander Dallas forecasted a $12 million revenue shortfall for that year and predicted a $40 million shortfall for 1815. Efforts were made to cover the difference through loans and issuing treasury notes. For those who wished to continue the war, there was a genuine concern that there would not be funds to do so. During the course of the conflict, the national debt had ballooned from $45 million in 1812 to $127 million in 1815. While this angered Federalists who had opposed the war initially, it also worked to undermine Madison's support among his own Republicans.

The Hartford Convention

The unrest sweeping parts of the country came to a head in New England in late 1814. Angered over the federal government's inability to protect its coasts and its unwillingness to reimburse states for doing so themselves, the Massachusetts legislature called for a regional convention to discuss the issues and weigh whether the solution was something as radical as secession from the United States. This proposition was accepted by Connecticut which offered to host the meeting in Hartford. While Rhode Island agreed to send a delegation, New Hampshire and Vermont refused to officially sanction the meeting and sent representatives in an unofficial capacity.

A largely moderate group, they convened in Hartford on December 15. Though their discussions were largely limited to a state's right to nullify legislation that adversely affected its citizens and issues related to states preempting federal collection of taxes, the group badly erred by holding its meetings in secret. This led to wild speculation regarding its proceedings. When the group released its report on January 6, 1815, both Republicans and Federalists were relieved to see that it was largely a list of recommended constitutional amendments that were designed to prevent foreign conflicts in the future.

This relief quickly evaporated as people came to consider the "what ifs" of the convention. As a result, those involved quickly became and associated with terms such as treason and disunion. As many were Federalists, the party became similarly tainted effectively ending it as a national force. Emissaries from the convention made it as far as Baltimore before learning of the war's end.

The Treaty of Ghent

While the American delegation contained several rising stars, the British group was less glamorous and consisted of admiralty lawyer William Adams, Admiral Lord Gambier, and Under-Secretary of State for War and the Colonies Henry Goulburn. Due to the proximity of Ghent to London, the three were kept on a short leash by Castlereagh and Goulburn's superior, Lord Bathurst. As the negotiations moved forward, the Americans pressed for the elimination of impressment while the British desired a Native American "buffer state" between the Great Lakes and the Ohio River. While the British refused to even discuss impressment, the Americans flatly refused to consider ceding territory back to the Native Americans.

As the two sides sparred, the American position was weakened by the burning of Washington. With the deteriorating financial situation, war-weariness at home, and concerns over future British military successes, the Americans became more willing to deal. Similarly, with fighting and negotiations at a stalemate, Castlereagh consulted the Duke of Wellington, who had turned down command in Canada, for advice. As the British held no meaningful American territory, he recommended a return to the status quo antebellum and an immediate end to the war.

With talks at the Congress of Vienna breaking down as a rift opened between Britain and Russia, Castlereagh became eager to end the conflict in North America to focus on European matters. Renewing the talks, both sides ultimately agreed to a return to the status quo antebellum. Several minor territorial and border issues were set aside for future resolution and the two sides signed the Treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814. The treaty included no mention of impressment or a Native American state. Copies of the treaty were prepared and sent to London and Washington for ratification.

The Battle of New Orleans

The British plan for 1814 called for three major offensives with one coming from Canada, another striking at Washington, and the third hitting New Orleans. While the thrust from Canada was defeated at the Battle of Plattsburgh, the offensive in the Chesapeake region saw some success before being halted at Fort McHenry. A veteran of the latter campaign, Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane moved south that fall for the attack on New Orleans.

Having embarked 8,000-9,000 men, under the command of Major General Edward Pakenham, Cochrane's fleet arrived off Lake Borgne on December 12. In New Orleans, the defense of the city was tasked to Major General Andrew Jackson, commanding the Seventh Military District, and Commodore Daniel Patterson who oversaw the US Navy's forces in the region. Working frantically, Jackson assembled around 4,000 men which included the 7th US Infantry, a variety of militia, Jean Lafitte's Barataria pirates, as well as a free black and Native American troops.

Assuming a strong defensive position along the river, Jackson prepared to receive Pakenham's assault. With both sides unaware that peace had been concluded, the British general moved against the Americans on January 8, 1815. In a series of attacks, the British were repulsed and Pakenham killed. The signature American land victory of the war, the Battle of New Orleans forced the British to withdraw and re-embark. Moving east, they contemplated an attack on Mobile but learned of the war's end before it could move forward.

The Second War of Independence

While the British government had speedily ratified the Treaty of Ghent on December 28, 1814, it took much longer for the word to reach across the Atlantic. News of the treaty arrived in New York on February 11, a week after the city learned of Jackson's triumph. Adding to the spirit of celebration, the news that the war had ended quickly spread throughout the country. Receiving a copy of the treaty, the US Senate ratified it by a 35-0 vote on February 16 to officially bring the war to a close.

Once the relief of peace had worn off, the war was viewed in the United States as a victory. This belief was propelled by victories such as New Orleans, Plattsburgh, and Lake Erie as well as by the fact that the nation had successfully resisted the power of the British Empire. Success in this "second war of independence" helped forge a new national consciousness and ushered in the Era of Good Feelings in American politics. Having gone to war for its national rights, the United States never again was refused proper treatment as an independent nation.

Conversely, the war was also viewed as a victory in Canada where the residents took pride in having successfully defended their land from American invasion attempts. In Britain, little thought was given to the conflict especially as the specter of Napoleon rose again in March 1815. While the war is now generally viewed as a stalemate between the principal combatants, the Native Americans exited the conflict as losers. Effectively forced out of the Northwest Territory and large tracts of the Southeast, their hope for a state of their own vanished with the end of the war.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "War of 1812: New Orleans & Peace." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/war-of-1812-developments-in-181-2361353. Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). War of 1812: New Orleans & Peace. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/war-of-1812-developments-in-181-2361353 Hickman, Kennedy. "War of 1812: New Orleans & Peace." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/war-of-1812-developments-in-181-2361353 (accessed May 31, 2023).