The War of 1812 Summary & Analysis
America's Forgotten War
The War of 1812 has been called America's forgotten war. Wedged between the Revolution and the Civil War, its causes, battles, and consequences are familiar to few.
The War of 1812 is also, perhaps, America's most diversely interpreted war. Everyone agrees that Britain's disrespect for American maritime rights—its interference with American trade and its illegal impressment of seamen off American ships—severely strained Anglo-American relations in the years before 1812. But there's considerable disagreement as to why this ultimately led to war and what this war represented.
One group of historians argues that the war was a complete waste of resources and lives. For starters, they say, it was unnecessary. When Britain failed to meet James Madison's demand that it revoke the Order in Council declaring American commercial vessels subject to interception and seizure, Congress declared war. Within a week of the declaration, however, Britain did suspend the provocative order—so the cause for war was eliminated.
With just a bit more patience, or more efficient communication, these historians argue, the war could've been avoided entirely.
In addition, these historians argue that the war was inconsequential. After three years of fighting and nearly 6,000 American casualties, the United States and Great Britain agreed to a treaty that resolved none of the substantive issues that had prompted the war. In fact, the argument over trade policies and maritime rights that preceded the war persisted well into the 1820s, almost as though the war had never occurred at all.
A second interpretation of the War of 1812 emphasizes the role of a new form of nationalism that emerged in the decade preceding the war. The congressional elections of 1810 returned an unusually large number of freshmen representatives.
Elected primarily from the West and the South, these first-year congressmen brought a more assertive, antagonistic American nationalism with them to Washington, D.C. The British maritime policies that had angered many Americans for years had little direct impact on the lives of these politicians or the people they represented. But shaped by a different experience, and animated by a different set of sensibilities, they expressed less patience than Easterners with Britain's disregard for American maritime rights. And therefore these "War Hawks" demanded that America defend its national honor.
This interpretation concedes that Western War Hawks were motivated, to a certain extent, by regional ambitions that weren't wholly altruistic. Many were anxious to acquire Canada and add new territory for American expansion. Others were more concerned with Native American resistance to western expansion, and they were aware that this resistance had been encouraged for years by British troops stationed in western Canada.
But these regional, self-serving objectives were combined, without embarrassment, with more principled demands for the vindication of American rights. In fact, within the frontier nationalism of these War Hawks, the expansion of America and the defense of its international honor were two sides of the same coin. Both rested on an understanding of America as a special nation with an obligation to extend and defend a set of progressive ideals.
Those advancing this interpretation of the war also find a certain symmetry between the war's origins and its conclusion. The victory of South Carolina-born Andrew Jackson—the man called "Old Hickory"—and his army of Tennessee and Kentucky volunteers signaled the arrival of a new type of leader and the further ascendance of frontier nationalism to the center of American public life.
There is yet another interpretation of the War of 1812, this one emphasizing the role that New England Federalists played in inadvertently bringing about the war.
While Republican Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison tried to force British recognition of American commercial and maritime rights through commercial pressure, Federalist opposition undermined their efforts. New England Federalists' evasion of Jefferson's Embargo of 1807 forced Congress to repeal the embargo before it had a chance to place any real pressure on the British economy. Moreover, Federalists' persistent and highly visible resistance to Republican policies encouraged an uncompromising and increasingly hostile stance from British policymakers.
When the war began in 1812, this interpretation continues, Federalist opposition became even more critical in its effects. New England's refusal to commit militia to the war weakened America's military effort, and the region's continued trade with Britain sent a message of national disunity to British officials. As a result, Madison's diplomatic objectives were undermined and the war was lengthened.
There's a great deal of truth within all three of these interpretations. In fact, the most complete analysis would draw from all three of these schools of thought. But there's also something more to the story. If we're really to understand the War of 1812, we must consider not just the impact of War Hawks and Federalists, but also the British policies that led to the international dispute and the response of Republican presidents to these policies between 1801 and the outbreak of war in 1812.
Most importantly, we must explore the role of James Madison. As Thomas Jefferson's Secretary of State, and then as president, Madison largely set the foreign policy course that led America to war. While the War Hawks elected to Congress in 1810 provided the votes Madison needed to secure a declaration of war, and while the Federalist opposition to Republican policies added a layer of complexity to foreign and military policies during these years, this was the primarily James Madison's war.
War of 1812: Turning Point at Fort Meigs
On the evening of January 22, 1813, Major General William Henry Harrison found himself in the last position any commander wants — in retreat. Circumstances had seemed so opportune that morning, but by dusk the calm winter air above the Maumee River in northwest Ohio was broken by the weary sound of axes, picks and shovels, as 900 men of the Ohio and Pennsylvania militias prepared a defensive camp. From a hill on the south bank of the river Harrison looked northward, expecting to see the British and Indians he had spent the afternoon fleeing.
Just two days earlier, Harrison, commander of the U.S. Army of the Northwest, had galloped from post to post between his headquarters at Upper Sandusky, Ohio, and the Maumee, gathering every man available to march for Frenchtown on the Raisin River in Michigan. The village, just 18 miles from the British base at Fort Malden, Upper Canada (present-day Ontario), was then being held by Harrison’s most experienced subordinate, Maj. Gen. James Winchester. The latter had 960 men, including several companies of the 17th and 19th U.S. Infantry regiments, which had driven more than 600 Indians and Canadian militia from the region on January 18. By reinforcing Winchester, Harrison felt that he could gain a foothold on Michigan soil and eventually retake Detroit, which Brig. Gen. William Hull had ignominiously surrendered to the British on August 16, 1812. By the night of January 21, however, Winchester had become overconfident and had neglected to post sufficient sentinels around Frenchtown. Consequently, the Americans were awakened early the next morning by British cannon fire, followed immediately by an assault by Regulars from the 41st Regiment of Foot’s light infantry company, the 10th Veteran Battalion and the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, as well as a large Indian force. Within hours, more than 300 Americans were killed and 500, including Winchester, taken prisoner. Twenty-seven wounded troops, mostly Regulars, were taken to cabins in Frenchtown.
Only 33 soldiers managed to escape and eventually met Harrison’s relief force a few miles below the village. In their shock, the survivors exaggerated the size of the British force and warned that it was marching south to engage any other Americans in the region. With no other intelligence to rely on, Harrison was compelled to abandon Winchester and save his own force. For the rest of that day, his troops marched back through 30 miles of frozen Michigan wilderness to the Ohio border and the Maumee, where he awaited reinforcements.
While Harrison withdrew, the British, under Colonel Henry Proctor, pulled back to Fort Malden, leaving hundreds of their Indian allies to guard Frenchtown and the wounded prisoners. During the evening of January 22, several warriors left a victory celebration and murdered all 27 prisoners. When word of the massacre reached Harrison’s camp, his troops became enraged. Holding Proctor responsible for leaving the wounded prisoners in the Indians’ hands, they labeled him a murderer, and soon took up the vindictive battle cry ‘Remember the Raisin!’
The U.S. Army’s sense of outrage was matched by its humiliation, however. Three months after the United States’ declaration of war on Britain on June 18, 1812, Harrison had been appointed to command the Army of the Northwest and given full freedom to carry out his general orders as he saw fit. Those orders were to retake Detroit and invade Upper Canada, to pinch the British between himself and Maj. Gen. Henry Dearborn on the Niagara front to the east. The Raisin River disaster, however, left the British and their Indian allies in possession of Michigan Territory. Harrison’s new objective was to try to stop the enemy from advancing into Ohio.
The first weeks of February 1813 saw Harrison’s troops still encamped on the high ground above the Maumee, although a British invasion was unlikely to come before spring. Holding to that probability, on February 2 the general ordered fortifications erected around the Maumee camp, which was to serve as his army’s main base. Work began immediately, while more soldiers came from Kentucky and Virginia, bringing the garrison rolls up to 1,800 Regulars and militia by the end of the month.
Harrison’s senior engineering officer, Captain Charles Gratiot, was gravely ill, so he placed Captain Eleazar Wood, a graduate of the young U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., in charge of construction. The Americans used the earth and timber readily at hand to build stockade walls enclosing a compound of nearly 10 acres. Seven two-level blockhouses were built to provide security at the critical angles of the wall. Three main batteries behind steep, earthen parapets facing the river were ready for anything going up or down the Maumee. The fort would not be fully completed for several more months, but with its basic configuration established, Harrison named it in honor of Ohio Governor Return Jonathan Meigs.
At Fort Malden, Proctor spent most of February 1813 assembling troops and warriors. Just before the end of the month, however, Harrison learned that part of the British fleet in Lake Erie, just below Fort Malden, was trapped by ice, which the general saw as an opportunity to lessen the odds against U.S. Navy Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s fleet, then still under construction at the east end of Lake Erie. On March 2, Harrison led a 170-man force, traveling on sleighs, out to the edge of Maumee Bay, 12 miles northeast of Fort Meigs. The raiders wore dark clothing and thick moccasins to muffle their footsteps on the ice, and each man carried one or two firebombs to be hurled or placed under a British ship. Leaving their sleighs at Middle Bass Island, the raiders, led by Captain Augustus L. Langham, marched northward — only to return a few hours later and report that the recent spell of unusually mild weather had broken up the lake ice and freed the British ships. Harrison took this latest venture as another personal failure in a campaign riddled with blunders and unkept promises. In September, the federal government and several states had agreed to provide 10,000 men for the Army of the Northwest. By the winter of 1813, however, Harrison had yet to see more than 60 percent of the forces promised him at any one time. Most of the men he had were thinly spread along a 200-mile line from Fort Meigs to western outposts in Indiana Territory. Supplies and ammunition were never sufficient, nor was discipline among the many state and territorial militias under his command.
Soon after returning to Fort Meigs, Harrison received word that several of his children were gravely ill in Cincinnati. He departed on March 5 for a combined visit to his family and an inspection of posts. Captain Wood left that same day to superintend the building of fortifications at Lower Sandusky. Brigadier General Joel Leftwich of the Virginia militia was left to continue fortifying Harrison’s base. When Wood returned to Fort Meigs on March 18, however, he reported that Leftwich had allowed the men to use the timber intended for building the blockhouses for fuel. Furthermore, ‘this phlegmatic stupid old granny, so soon as General Harrison left camp, stopped the progress of the work entirely, assigning as a reason that he couldn’t make the militia do anything.’ Moreover, Leftwich had no intention of remaining at Fort Meigs once his brigade’s enlistment term expired on April 1. Many Pennsylvania enlistments were also due to end that month.
Harrison’s trip was only in its 10th day when he received news of the coming crisis. He immediately set out for Fort Meigs, at the same time urging governors and assemblies of the regional states to hasten troops to the Maumee. He arrived at the fort on April 12, to learn that Leftwich’s Virginians and many of the Pennsylvanians had marched away on the 2nd, leaving Major Amos Stoddard of the 2nd Regiment of Artillery to maintain command. The garrison was reduced to only 500 Regulars and militia — a vulnerable number if the British had invaded at that point.
Moving with the same alacrity with which he had tried to reinforce Winchester at Frenchtown, Harrison called up troops from the many forts along his thin defense line across Ohio and Indiana. In little more than a week, Fort Meigs’ rolls were up to more than 1,100 soldiers. Governor Isaac Shelby of Kentucky was also sending 3,000 militia under Brig. Gen. Green Clay, a cousin of Representative Henry Clay, to reinforce Fort Meigs and the other depleted forts of the north.
Meanwhile, at Fort Malden, Brig. Gen. Proctor — who had been promoted after his victory at Frenchtown — had gathered as many troops and Shawnee, Wyandot, Chippewa and Lakota warriors as possible. At that point, Shawnee leader Tecumseh urged Proctor to attack Fort Meigs quickly or risk losing his Indians’ help. Proctor agreed to’smoke out’ the Americans from their ‘hive’ at the end of April. By the 25th, every available ship and boat at Fort Malden was loaded with 413 troops of the 41st Foot, 468 Canadian militiamen, artillery and supplies, then set out along the western end of Lake Erie, while about 1,200 Indians traveled overland. Proctor entered Maumee Bay the next day, landing his troops on the north shore, 12 miles northeast of Fort Meigs. It took another full day to unload the supplies and artillery. On April 28, most of the infantry was sent ahead to bivouac around the ruins of old Fort Miami, a British stockade abandoned after the American Revolution, located just two miles from Fort Meigs, and await the guns.
Increased Indian activity in the area had already aroused Harrison’s suspicions. When scouts reported British troops camping at Fort Miami, he immediately sent messengers to General Clay, requesting reinforcements. At the same time, he ordered Captain Wood to prepare an adequate defense against the British artillery, and Wood set his men to digging. The weather was rainy and cool, but no shovel or plank was idle as the troops piled dirt upon mud hour after hour. To conceal the work from the enemy, Wood kept a solid row of troop tents between the workers and British observers on the opposite hills.
The British, too, found the weather a problem. Dampness and mud slowed the movement of artillery through the forest above the river, and it was difficult getting even the lighter cannons to the top of the hill across from Fort Meigs. The largest guns, two 24-pounders, required hundreds of men and oxen to pull them a single mile in six hours.
Most of the British artillery was in position by the night of April 29, but no shots were fired then or the next day. Crossing to the American side of the Maumee, Tecumseh led hundreds of warriors and a detachment of Royal Engineers to set up a battery against the east angle of the fort. The Americans responded by placing several guns at that point, to harass the British with solid shot, and the Indians with grapeshot and canister.
On the night of April 30, a British gunboat fired 30 rounds into Fort Meigs with little effect, then withdrew. The rain-drenched dawn on May 1 found all quiet on both sides of the Maumee, save for an occasional exchange of musket fire between American sentries and Indians.
The standoff ended at 11 a.m., when the rumble of Proctor’s artillery filled the air. Before the smoke from the first British salvo rolled away, however, the row of tents was pulled down to reveal what Harrison called a ‘grand traverse,’ a 12-foot-high earthen embankment rising from a 20-foot base running 300 yards across the length of the compound and parallel to the British batteries to shield American troops, horses, mules and supplies. It was a frustrating sight to Proctor, who had hoped that Harrison would surrender after a few hours of heavy bombardment. The next few British salvos only served to satisfy Harrison that his grand traverse would absorb the cannonballs and shrapnel, while allowing men and supplies to move anywhere within the walls, with cover near at hand. In a rare display of pride, Harrison called to his quartermaster, Colonel William Christy, and told him, ‘Sir, go and nail a flag on every battery where they shall wave as long as an enemy is in view.’
For 12 hours, the British hurled about 250 heavy and light rounds at the wall embankments and traverses, while mortars lobbed fused bombs to explode over the defenders’ heads. Soon the rain-softened quagmire of the compound was filled with craters from spent cannon shot. When the guns fell silent a little before midnight, only two Americans were dead, but the four wounded included Major Stoddard, who died of his injuries 10 days later.
Shortly after dawn on May 2, Proctor reopened the bombardment, and during that day and the next more than 1,000 rounds were fired at Fort Meigs. Huddling behind their muddy traverse walls, the defenders became more concerned about their water supply, since the fort’s well had not been completed. With the Indians lurking so close at hand, getting water from the Maumee, as the garrison had done up to that time, became impossible, and several Americans were captured trying. Most of them had no recourse but to drink brackish rainwater skimmed from puddles.
From the beginning, Fort Meigs’ gunners returned fire sparingly, taking precise bearings before firing each piece, since they had relatively little ammunition — 360 rounds for the fort’s five 18-pounder guns, 360 for its six 12-pounders, and little more than that for six 6-pounders and three howitzers. Noting that most of the British guns were 6-pounders, Harrison offered a reward of a gill of whiskey for each salvageable enemy cannonball of that size turned over to the fort magazine and delegated Captain Wood to oversee the collection. With puddle water the only other available beverage, that incentive inspired hundreds of troops to brave enemy fire and recover more than 1,000 British rounds for reuse.
On May 3, British artillery observers got the range of Fort Meigs’ magazine. Noting the increase in enemy fire being directed there, Wood called for volunteers to heap dirt all over the magazine. Again, whiskey was passed around, this time to fortify the volunteers’ courage. After several hours of labor and many pulls on the keg, the Americans were defying the British with clenched fists to try and strike them down; but they also completed the task of shielding the magazine just as Proctor’s gunners began to fire glowing, heated balls in a belated, ultimately vain attempt to ignite the gunpowder. Proctor’s gunners fired 516 rounds into the fort on May 3. On the American side of the Maumee, the British had emplaced a light cannon and a mortar 300 yards from the east end of Fort Meigs, subjecting the garrison to cross-fire. The greatest danger, however, still came from the heavier batteries across the river.
On May 4, British fire slackened to periodic salvos. Although nothing of importance had been destroyed, the entire American ‘hive’ seemed to smolder from the three days of punishment it had endured. Yet each time the British guns ceased firing, the Americans cheered and whistled as if they had won the entire war. During one of the quiet intervals, Proctor sent a major under a white flag with a surrender demand. With visions of the Raisin River massacre still fresh in his memory, Harrison replied, ‘Tell General Proctor that if he shall take the fort it will be under circumstances that will do him more honor than a thousand surrenders.’ The siege resumed.
Late that night, Harrison’s messengers returned with good news — they had found General Clay at Fort Defiance, 45 miles to the west along the Maumee, and reinforcements were on the way. Upon learning of Fort Meigs’ situation, Clay ordered 18 large flatboats fitted with raised sides for protection against Indian musket fire from the shore. Loading them with 1,200 militia, including Colonel William Dudley’s brigade and a rifle company under Captain Leslie Combs, Clay set out immediately. Harrison’s couriers accompanied them to within 20 miles of Fort Meigs, then sped ahead to deliver the news. Knowing what Clay’s position would be before dawn on May 5, Harrison devised a plan to attack the main British batteries. Again, he dispatched a messenger to pass through the Indians by canoe. The courier carried a brief note on paper verifying his trustworthy character, but the attack plan was held in memory alone. Slipping past the Indians, he reached Clay at the river rapids and explained the plan, which called for 800 of Clay’s men to land on the British side, a mile west of their batteries on the heights. From there, the force was to get behind, as well as flank, the battery positions. Once they had taken the positions, the Americans were to spike the guns and withdraw back across the Maumee. The garrison would then attack the smaller batteries on their own side in force.
Clay agreed to the plan, and Dudley led the assault force from the rapids, with Combs’ company attached as rangers. In all, 846 troops in 12 boats veered toward the north bank, while Clay led his remaining Kentuckians to land on the south side and engage the Indians on his way to Fort Meigs.
Dudley’s boats swiftly reached the north bank, and his men sprang into the lower forest, driving the Indians back as they swarmed up the heights. Forming three hasty columns with Major James Shelby leading the leftmost, Captain John C. Morrison leading the center as a reserve, and himself at the head of the right column, Dudley led them toward the batteries, which they charged from the west, yelling and howling. After a brief struggle the outnumbered British gunners surrendered, except for a few who escaped into the forest to the east. Half of Dudley’s men pursued them through the trees and pushed several bands of Indians down the east slope, while others tore the Union Jack flying over the batteries from its mast. Meanwhile, Captain Combs’ 30 riflemen and several friendly Indians advanced north of the captured batteries to prevent a rear attack.
Unwilling to wait for the spikes being sent from Fort Meigs, Dudley’s men used broken musket ramrods and anything else at hand to plug the firing holes of the cannons. When their work was completed, they wandered carelessly around the battery sites, awaiting the rest of the regiment’s return. By then, however, the Kentuckians chasing the British gunners had scattered themselves widely throughout the woods. Dudley ordered them to retire to the high ground of the batteries, but few heard or obeyed. Several militiamen pursued the gunners and Indians to within sight of the main British camp.
As the alarm reached Proctor’s camp, Tecumseh rallied hundreds of Indians in the wooded ravines between his soldiers and the batteries. Other Indians maneuvered to face Combs to the north and attacked his riflemen. Combs was expected to fall back if he came under heavy attack, but he had not been given the complete plan. Therefore, the rifle company tried to hold its ground and was soon in desperate need of help.
Hearing the struggle, Dudley gathered as many troops as he could and charged into the woods to rescue Combs, but he was pressed back toward the batteries by growing numbers of Indians. Dudley was wounded and quickly overwhelmed by a rush of warriors as his and Combs’ men tried to get down to the river. He was killed and scalped. The other Kentucky troops on the east slope were also in retreat as more Indians gathered, and three companies of the 41st Foot and some Canadian militia advanced toward the batteries in skirmishing order.
By the time the Kentuckians reached the battery clearings, the Indians had them surrounded. Some managed to escape down the south slope to the river, but with Colonel Dudley dead most of the Americans were caught in the confusion of war whoops and musket fire, unable to muster a defense.
Another massacre was prevented only by the presence of British troops, who later took the prisoners to their camp. There, Combs later testified that the enraged Indians forced the prisoners to run the gantlet through two lines of braves who struck at them with tomahawks, clubs and pistol butts. More than 20 scouts were killed and scalped, and all the Americans might have been slaughtered had Tecumseh not intervened, shouting angrily, ‘Are there no men here?’
Finding Proctor in the vicinity, Tecumseh asked why he had allowed the warriors such free rein, to which the British general replied, ‘Your Indians cannot be controlled, cannot be commanded.’ ‘You are not fit to command,’ said Tecumseh contemptuously. ‘Go put on petticoats!’ For the prisoners’ safety, the British placed them inside the old stockade at Fort Miami.