War of 1812: Surprises at Sea & Ineptitude on Land


William Hull
Brigadier General William Hull (circa 1800). National Park Service

Causes of the War of 1812 | War of 1812: 101 | 1813: Success on Lake Erie, Indecisiveness Elsewhere

To Canada

With the declaration of war in June 1812, planning began in Washington to strike north against British-held Canada. The prevailing thought in much of the United States was that the capture of Canada would be a simple and swift operation. This was supported by the fact the US possessed a population of around 7.5 million while Canada's numbered only 500,000. Of this smaller number, a large percentage was Americans who had moved north as well as the French population of Quebec. It was believed by the Madison Administration that many from these two groups would flock to the American flag once troops crossed the border. Indeed, former President Thomas Jefferson believed that securing Canada was a simple "matter of marching."

Despite these optimistic prognostications, the US military lacked the command structure to effectively execute an invasion. The small War Department, led by Secretary of War William Eustis, consisted of only eleven junior clerks. In addition, there was no clear scheme for how regular officers were to interact with their militia counterparts and whose rank took precedence. In determining a strategy for moving forward, most were in agreement that severing the St. Lawrence River would lead to the capitulation of Upper Canada (Ontario). The ideal method for achieving this was through the capture of Quebec. This idea was ultimately discarded as the city was heavily fortified and many remembered the failed campaign to take the city in 1775. In addition, any movement against Quebec would need to be launched from New England where support for the war was particularly weak.

Instead, President James Madison elected to approve a plan put forward by Major General Henry Dearborn. This called for a three-prong attack north with one moving up the Lake Champlain corridor to take Montreal while another advanced into Upper Canada by crossing the Niagara River between Lakes Ontario and Erie. A third thrust was to come in the west where American troops would advance east into Upper Canada from Detroit. This plan had the added advantage of having two offensives depart from strong War Hawk territory which was expected to be a strong source of troops. The hope was to have all three attacks commence at the same time with the goal of stretching the small number of British troops stationed in Canada. This coordination failed to occur (Map).

Disaster at Detroit

The troops for the westernmost offensive were in motion prior to the declaration of war. Departing from Urbana, OH, Brigadier General William Hull moved north towards Detroit with around 2,000 men. Reaching the Maumee River, he encountered the schooner Cuyahoga. Embarking his sick and wounded, Hull dispatched the schooner across Lake Erie to Detroit. Against the wishes of his staff who feared the ship's capture as it passed British Fort Malden, Hull had also placed the complete records of his army on board. By the time his force reached Detroit on July 5, he had learned that war had been declared. He also was informed that Cuyahoga had been captured. Hull's captured papers were forwarded to Major General Isaac Brock who was in command of British forces in Upper Canada. Undeterred, Hull crossed the Detroit River and issued a pompous declaration informing the people of Canada that they were free from British oppression.

Pressing down the east bank, he reached Fort Malden, but despite having a large numerical advantage, did not assault it. Problems soon arose for Hull when the anticipated support from the Canadian people failed to materialize and 200 of his Ohio militia refused to cross the river into Canada stating they would only fight on American territory. Growing concerned about his extended supply lines back to Ohio, he dispatched a force under Major Thomas Van Horn to meet a wagon train near the River Raisin. Moving south, they were attacked and driven back to Detroit by Native American warriors directed by the feared Shawnee leader Tecumseh. Compounding these difficulties, Hull soon learned that Fort Mackinac had surrendered on July 17. The loss of the fort gave the British control of the upper Great Lakes. As a result, he ordered the immediate evacuation of Fort Dearborn on Lake Michigan. Departing on August 15, the retreating garrison was quickly attacked by Native Americans led by the Potawatomi chief Black Bird and took heavy losses.

Believing his situation to be grave, Hull withdrew back across the Detroit River on August 8 amid rumors that Brock was advancing with a large force. The maneuver led to many of the militia leaders to ask for Hull's removal. Advancing to the Detroit River with 1,300 men (including 600 Native Americans), Brock utilized several ruses to convince Hull that his force was much larger. Holding his larger command at Fort Detroit, Hull remained inactive as Brock began a bombardment from the east bank of the river. On August 15, Brock called for Hull to surrender and implied that if the Americans declined and a battle resulted, he would not be able to control Tecumseh's men. Hull refused this demand but was shaken by the threat. The following day, after a shell hit the officers' mess, Hull, without consulting his officers, surrendered Fort Detroit and 2,493 men without a fight. In one quick campaign, the British had effectively destroyed the American defenses in the Northwest. The only victory occurred when young Captain Zachary Taylor succeeded in holding Fort Harrison on the night of September 4/5.

Causes of the War of 1812 | War of 1812: 101 | 1813: Success on Lake Erie, Indecisiveness Elsewhere

Causes of the War of 1812 | War of 1812: 101 | 1813: Success on Lake Erie, Indecisiveness Elsewhere

Twisting the Lion's Tail

When the war began in June 1812, the fledgling US Navy possessed fewer then twenty-five ships, the largest being frigates. Opposing this small force was the Royal Navy which consisted of over a thousand ships manned by over 151,000 men. Lacking the ships of the line required for fleet actions, the US Navy embarked on a campaign of guerre de course while engaging British warships when practical. To support the US Navy, hundreds of letters of marque were issued to American privateers with the goal of crippling British commerce.

With news of the defeats on the frontier, the Madison Administration looked to the sea for positive results. The first of these occurred on August 19, when Captain Isaac Hull, nephew of the disgraced general, took USS Constitution (44 guns) into battle against HMS Guerriere (38). After a sharp fight, Hull proved victorious and Captain James Dacres was forced to surrender his ship. As the battle raged, several of Guerriere's cannonballs bounced off of Constitution's thick live oak planking giving the ship the nickname "Old Ironsides." Returning to Boston, Hull was feted as a hero. This success was soon followed on October 25 when Captain Stephen Decatur and USS United States (44) captured HMS Macedonian (38). Returning to New York with his prize, Macedonian was bought into the US Navy and Decatur joined Hull as a national hero.

Though the US Navy endured the loss of the sloop-of-war USS Wasp (18) in October when it was taken by HMS Poictiers (74) after successful a action against HMS Frolic (18), the year ended on a high note. With Hull on leave, USS Constitution sailed south under the command of Captain William Bainbridge. On December 29, he encountered HMS Java (38) off the Brazilian coast. Though he was carrying the new governor of India, Captain Henry Lambert moved to engage Constitution. As the fighting raged, Bainbridge dismasted his opponent and compelled Lambert to surrender. Though of little strategic importance, the three frigate victories boosted the confidence of the young US Navy and lifted the public's flagging spirits. Stunned by the defeats, the Royal Navy understood the American frigates to be bigger and stronger than their own. As a result, orders were issued that British frigates should seek to avoid single ship actions with their American counterparts. Efforts were also made to keep the enemy ships in port by tightening the British blockade of the American coast.

All Wrong Along the Niagara

Onshore, the events in the field continued to go against the Americans. Assigned to command the attack on Montreal, Dearborn dallied most of the fall raising troops and failed to cross the border by year's end. Along the Niagara, efforts moved forward, but slowly. Returning to Niagara from his success at Detroit, Brock found that his superior, Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost had ordered British forces to adopt a defensive posture in the hopes that the conflict could be settled diplomatically. As a result, an armistice was in place along the Niagara which allowed American Major General Stephen van Rensselaer to receive reinforcements. A major general in the New York militia, van Rensselaer was a popular Federalist politician who had been appointed to command the American army for politic purposes.

As such, several regular officers, such as Brigadier General Alexander Smyth, commanding at Buffalo, had issues with taking orders from him. With the end of the armistice on September 8, Van Rensselaer began making plans to cross the Niagara River from his base at Lewiston, NY to capture the village of Queenston and the nearby heights. To support this effort, Smyth was ordered to cross and attack Fort George. After receiving only silence from Smyth, van Rensselaer sent additional orders demanding that he bring his men to Lewiston for a combined assault on October 11.

Though van Rensselaer was ready to strike, severe weather led to the effort being postponed and Smyth returned to Buffalo with his men after being delayed en route. Having spotted this failed attempt and received reports that the Americans might attack, Brock issued orders for the local militias to begin forming. Outnumbered, the British commander's forces were also scattered along length of the Niagara frontier. With the weather clearing, van Rensselaer elected to make a second attempt on October 13. Efforts to add Smyth's 1,700 men failed when he informed van Rensselaer that he could not arrive until the 14th.

Crossing the river on October 13, the lead elements of van Rensselaer's army achieved some success during the early parts of the Battle of Queenston Heights. Reaching the battlefield, Brock led a counterattack against the American lines and was killed. With additional British forces moving to the scene, van Rensselaer attempted to send reinforcements, but many of his militia refused to cross the river. As a result, American forces on Queenston Heights, led by Lieutenant Colonel Winfield Scott and militia Brigadier General William Wadsworth were overwhelmed and captured. Having lost over a 1,000 men in the defeat, van Rensselaer resigned and was replaced by Smyth.

With the conclusion of 1812, American efforts to invade Canada had failed on all fronts. The people of Canada, who leaders in Washington had believed would rise up against the British, had instead proved themselves to be stalwart defenders of their land and the Crown. Rather than a simple march to Canada and victory, the first six months of war saw the Northwest frontier in danger of collapse and stalemate elsewhere. It was to be a long winter on the southern side of the border.

Causes of the War of 1812 | War of 1812: 101 | 1813: Success on Lake Erie, Indecisiveness Elsewhere

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Hickman, Kennedy. "War of 1812: Surprises at Sea & Ineptitude on Land." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/war-of-1812-naval-ground-problems-2361350. Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). War of 1812: Surprises at Sea & Ineptitude on Land. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/war-of-1812-naval-ground-problems-2361350 Hickman, Kennedy. "War of 1812: Surprises at Sea & Ineptitude on Land." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/war-of-1812-naval-ground-problems-2361350 (accessed May 29, 2023).