War of 1812: Advances in the North & A Capital Burned

1814

Battle of Chippawa
American troops advance at the Battle of Chippawa. Photograph Courtesy of the US Army Center for Military History

1813: Success on Lake Erie, Failure Elsewhere | War of 1812: 101 | 1815: New Orleans & Peace

A Changing Landscape

As 1813 came to a close, the British began to focus their attention on the war with the United States. This began as an increase in naval strength which saw the Royal Navy expand and tighten their full commercial blockade of the American coast. This effectively eliminated the majority of American commerce which led to regional shortages and inflation.

The situation continued to worsen with the fall of Napoleon in March 1814. Though initially heralded by some in the United States, the implications of the French defeat soon became apparent as the British were now freed to increase their military presence in North America. Having failed to capture Canada or force peace during the war's first two years, these new circumstance put the Americans on the defensive and transformed the conflict into one of national survival.

The Creek War

As the war between the British and Americans raged, a faction of the Creek nation, known as the Red Sticks, sought to halt white encroachment into their lands in the Southeast. Agitated by Tecumseh and led by William Weatherford, Peter McQueen, and Menawa, the Red Sticks were allied with the British and received arms from the Spanish in Pensacola. Killing two families of white settlers in February 1813, the Red Sticks ignited a civil war among between the Upper (Red Stick) and Lower Creek.

American forces were drawn in that July when US troops intercepted a party of Red Sticks returning from Pensacola with arms. In the resulting Battle of Burnt Corn, the American soldiers were driven away. The conflict escalated on August 30 when over 500 militia and settlers were massacred just north of Mobile at Fort Mims.

In response, Secretary of War John Armstrong authorized military action against the Upper Creek as well as a strike against Pensacola if the Spanish were found to be involved. To deal with the threat, four volunteer armies were to move into Alabama with the goal of meeting at the Creek holy ground near the confluence of the Coosa and Tallapoosa Rivers. Advancing that fall, only Major General Andrew Jackson's force of Tennessee volunteers achieved meaningful success, defeating the Red Sticks at Tallushatchee and Talladega. Holding an advanced position through the winter, Jackson's success was rewarded with additional troops. Moving out from Fort Strother on March 14, 1814, he won a decisive victory at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend thirteen days later. Moving south into the heart of the Creek holy ground, he built Fort Jackson at the junction of the Coosa and Tallapoosa. From this post, he informed the Red Sticks that they were surrender and sever ties with the British and Spanish or be crushed. Seeing no alternative, Weatherford made peace and concluded the Treaty of Fort Jackson that August. By the terms of the treaty, the Creek ceded 23 million acres of land to the United States.

Changes Along the Niagara

After two years of embarrassments along the Niagara frontier, Armstrong appointed a new group of commanders to achieve victory.

To lead American forces, he turned to newly promoted Major General Jacob Brown. An active commander, Brown had successfully defended Sackets Harbor the previously year and was one of a few officers to have escaped the 1813 St. Lawrence expedition with his reputation intact. To support Brown, Armstrong provided a group of newly promoted brigadier generals which included Winfield Scott and Peter Porter. One of the few standout American officers of the conflict, Scott was quickly tapped by Brown to oversee the army's training. Going to extraordinary lengths, Scott relentlessly drilled the regulars under his command for the upcoming campaign (Map).

A New Resilience

To open the campaign, Brown sought to re-take Fort Erie before turning north to engage British forces under Major General Phineas Riall.

Crossing the Niagara River early on July 3, Brown's men succeeded in surrounding the fort and overwhelming its garrison by noon. Learning of this, Riall began moving south and formed a defensive line along the Chippawa River. The next day, Brown ordered Scott to march north with his brigade. Moving towards the British position, Scott was slowed by an advance guard led by Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Pearson. Finally reaching the British lines, Scott elected to await reinforcements and withdrew a short distance south to Street Creek. Though Brown had planned a flanking movement for July 5, he was beat to the punch when Riall attacked Scott. In the resulting Battle of Chippawa, Scott's men soundly defeated the British. The battle made Scott a hero and provided a badly needed morale boost (Map).

Heartened by Scott's success, Brown hoped to take Fort George and link up with Commodore Isaac Chauncey's naval force on Lake Ontario. With this done, he could begin a march westward around the lake towards York. As in the past, Chauncey proved uncooperative and Brown advanced only as far as Queenston Heights as he knew Riall was being reinforced. British strength continued to grow and command was assumed by Lieutenant General Gordon Drummond. Unsure of British intentions, Brown dropped back to the Chippawa before ordering Scott to reconnoiter north. Locating the British along Lundy's Lane, Scott immediately moved to attack on July 25. Though outnumbered, he held his position until Brown arrived with reinforcements. The ensuing Battle of Lundy's Lane lasted until midnight and was fought to a bloody draw. In the fighting, Brown, Scott, and Drummond were wounded, while Riall was wounded and captured. Having taken heavy losses and now outnumbered, Brown elected to fall back on Fort Erie.

Slowly pursued by Drummond, American forces reinforced Fort Erie and succeeded in repelling a British attack on August 15. The British attempted a siege of the fort, but were forced to withdraw in late September when their supply lines were threatened.

On November 5, Major General George Izard, who had taken over from Brown, ordered the fort evacuated and destroyed, effectively ending the war on the Niagara frontier.

1813: Success on Lake Erie, Failure Elsewhere | War of 1812: 101 | 1815: New Orleans & Peace

1813: Success on Lake Erie, Failure Elsewhere | War of 1812: 101 | 1815: New Orleans & Peace

Up Lake Champlain

With the conclusion of hostilities in Europe, General Sir George Prevost, the governor-general of Canada and commander-in-chief of British forces in North America, was informed in June 1814 that over 10,000 veterans of the Napoleonic Wars would dispatched for use against the Americans. He was also told that London expected him to undertake offensive operations before the close of the year.

Assembling his army south of Montreal, Prevost intended to strike south through the Lake Champlain corridor. Following the route of Major General John Burgoyne's failed Saratoga Campaign of 1777, Prevost elected to take this path due to antiwar sentiment found in Vermont.

As on Lakes Erie and Ontario, both sides on Lake Champlain had been engaged in a ship-building race for over a year. Having built a fleet of four ships and twelve gunboats, Captain George Downie was to sail up (south) the lake in support of Prevost's advance. On the American side, the land defense was headed by Major General George Izard. With the arrival of British reinforcements in Canada, Armstrong believed that Sackets Harbor was under threat and ordered Izard to leave Lake Champlain with 4,000 men to reinforce the Lake Ontario base. Though he protested the move, Izard departed leaving Brigadier General Alexander Macomb with a mixed force of around 3,000 to man the newly built fortifications along the Saranac River.

The Battle of Plattsburgh

Crossing the border on August 31 with around 11,000 men, Prevost's advance was harassed by Macomb's men. Undaunted, the veteran British troops pushed south and occupied Plattsburgh on September 6. Though he badly outnumbered Macomb, Prevost paused for four days to prepare to assault the American works and to allow Downie time to arrive.

Supporting Macomb was Master Commandant Thomas MacDonough's fleet of four ships and ten gunboats. Arrayed in a line across Plattsburgh Bay, MacDonough's position required Downie to sail further south and round Cumberland Head before attacking. With his commanders eager to strike, Prevost intended to move forward against Macomb's left while Downie's ships attacked the Americans in the bay.

Arriving early on September 11, Downie moved to attack the American line. Forced to combat light and variable winds, the British were unable to maneuver as desired. In a hard-fought battle, MacDonough's ships took a beating were able to overcome the British. During the battle, Downie was killed as were many of the officers on his flagship, HMS Confiance (36 guns). Ashore, Prevost was late in moving forward with his assault. While artillery on both sides dueled, some British troops advanced and were achieving success when they were recalled by Prevost. Having learned of Downie's defeat on the lake, the British commander decided to call off the assault. Believing that control of the lake was necessary for the resupply of his army, Prevost argued that any advantage gained by taking the American position would be negated by the inevitable need to withdraw down the lake.

By evening, Prevost's massive army was retreating back to Canada, much to the astonishment of Macomb.

Fire in the Chesapeake

With the campaigns underway along the Canadian border, the Royal Navy, guided by Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, worked to tighten the blockade and conduct raids against the American coast. Already eager to inflict damage on the Americans, Cochrane was further encouraged in July 1814 after receiving a letter from Prevost asking him to assist in avenging the American burnings of several Canadian towns. To execute these attacks, Cochrane turned to Rear Admiral George Cockburn who had spent much of 1813 raiding up and down the Chesapeake Bay. To support these operations, a brigade of Napoleonic veterans, led by Major General Robert Ross, was dispatched to the region.

On August 15, Ross' transports passed the Virginia Capes and sailed up the bay to join with Cochrane and Cockburn. Discussing their options, the three men elected to attempt an attack on Washington DC.

This combined force quickly trapped Commodore Joshua Barney's gunboat flotilla in the Patuxent River. Pushing upstream, they swept aside Barney's force and began landing Ross's 3,400 men and 700 marines on August 19. In Washington, the Madison Administration struggled to meet the threat. Not believing Washington would be a target, little had been done in terms of preparation. Organizing the defense was Brigadier General William Winder, a political appointee from Baltimore who had previously been captured at the Battle of Stoney Creek. As the bulk of the US Army's regulars were occupied in the north, Winder was forced to largely rely on militia. Meeting no resistance, Ross and Cockburn advanced rapidly from Benedict. Moving through Upper Marlborough, the two decided to approach Washington from the northeast and cross the East Branch of the Potomac at Bladensburg (Map).

Massing 6,500 men, including Barney's sailors, Winder opposed the British at Bladensburg on August 24. In the Battle of Bladensburg, which was viewed by President James Madison, Winder's men were forced back and driven from the field despite inflicting higher losses on the British (Map). As American troops fled back through the capital, the government evacuated and Dolley Madison worked to save key items from the President's House. The British entered the city that evening and soon the Capitol, President's House, and Treasury Building were ablaze. Camping on Capitol Hill, the British troops resumed their destruction the following day before beginning the march back to their ships that evening.

1813: Success on Lake Erie, Failure Elsewhere | War of 1812: 101 | 1815: New Orleans & Peace

1813: Success on Lake Erie, Failure Elsewhere | War of 1812: 101 | 1815: New Orleans & Peace

By the Dawn's Early Light

Emboldened by their success against Washington, Cockburn next advocated for a strike against Baltimore. A pro-war city with a fine harbor, Baltimore had long served as a base for American privateers operating against British commerce. While Cochrane and Ross were less enthusiastic, Cockburn succeeded in convincing them to move up the bay.

Unlike Washington, Baltimore was defended by Major George Armistead's garrison at Fort McHenry and around 9,000 militia who had been busy building an elaborate system of earthworks. These latter defensive endeavors were overseen Major General (and Senator) Samuel Smith of the Maryland militia. Arriving at the mouth of the Patapsco River, Ross and Cochrane planned a two-prong attack against the city with the former landing at North Point and advancing overland, while the navy attacked Fort McHenry and the harbor defenses by water.

Going ashore at North Point early on September 12, Ross began advancing towards the city with his men. Anticipating Ross' actions and needing more time to complete the city's defenses, Smith dispatched 3,200 men and six cannon under Brigadier General John Stricker to delay the British advance. Meeting in the Battle of North Point, American forces successfully delayed the British advance and killed Ross.

With the general's death, command ashore passed to Colonel Arthur Brooke. The next day, Cochrane advanced the fleet up the river with the goal of attacking Fort McHenry. Ashore, Brooke pushed on to the city but was surprised to find substantial earthworks manned by 12,000 men. Under orders not to attack unless with a high chance of success, he halted to await the outcome of Cochrane's assault.

In the Patapsco, Cochrane was hampered by shallow waters which precluded sending forward his heaviest ships to strike at Fort McHenry. As a result, his attack force consisted of five bomb ketches, 10 smaller warships, and the rocket vessel HMS Erebus. By 6:30 AM they were in position and opened fire on Fort McHenry. Remaining out of range of Armistead's guns, the British ships struck the fort with heavy mortar shells (bombs) and Congreve rockets from Erebus. As the ships closed, they came under intense fire from Armistead's guns and were compelled to draw back to their original positions. In effort to break the stalemate, the British attempted to move around the fort after dark but were thwarted.

By dawn, the British had fired between 1,500 and 1,800 rounds at the fort with little impact. As the sun began to rise, Armistead ordered the fort's small storm flag lowered and replaced with the standard garrison flag measuring 42 feet by 30 feet. Sewn by local seamstress Mary Pickersgill, the flag was clearly visible to all of the ships in the river. The sight of the flag and the ineffectiveness of the 25-hour bombardment convinced Cochrane that the harbor could not be breached. Ashore, Brooke, with no support from the navy, decided against a costly attempt on the American lines and began retreating towards North Point where his troops re-embarked.

The successful defense of the fort inspired Francis Scott Key, a witness to the fighting, to write "The Star-Spangled Banner." Withdrawing from Baltimore, Cochrane's fleet departed the Chesapeake and sailed south where it would play role in the war's final battle.

1813: Success on Lake Erie, Failure Elsewhere | War of 1812: 101 | 1815: New Orleans & Peace