As Jefferson’s Secretary of State, James Madison did not have success in convincing the French and British to leave Americans alone. Now as president, his role had changed, but the problems he faced were still the same. Although neither France nor Britain wanted to harm the United States, neither cared what damage they inflicted on the Americans as long as they were able to continue fighting one another. America could not avoid the conflict; Madison had to try something new. The previous attempt to use economics had not only failed but had unintentionally harmed the United States. In place of the Embargo Act, Madison began his presidency with the Nonintercourse Act, which allowed American trading with all nations excepting France and Great Britain. In practice, this move was little better than the previous Embargo Act, and the economy still suffered.
On May 1, 1810, a new plan, Macon’s Bill Number 2, was put forward by Congress. It opened trade again with whichever nation was first to recognize American neutrality and cease attacking American ships while refusing trade with the other warring nation. Madison did not like the plan, but since Congress passed the bill, he had to enforce it. Napoleon Bonaparte of France quickly accepted the terms. For Napoleon, it marked an opportunity to offend the British and hopefully cause them some economic damage at the same time. It worked to a certain extent. The British were offended, worsening their already tense relations with the Americans. The economic impact, though, never manifested.
Meanwhile, Madison faced a war with the Indians of the Northwest. Many Indian leaders of the tribes in the Northwest had tried to adapt to the American ways. They signed treaties ceding lands in Ohio and Indiana to the United States, thus allowing for American settlers to move in and slowly expand American territory. These chiefs who supported peace with the United States dominated the Indians of the area, such as the Shawnee, Miami, and Lenape, until 1805 when illness, smallpox, and influenza swept through the tribes. Among the dead was a Lenape leader, Buckongahelas, who had led his tribe from Delaware to Indiana to escape American expansion years before. He and others like him did not trust the Americans and did not want contact with them, due in part to the history of violent conflict between the two peoples. With the death of Buckongahelas, new leaders rose from the tribes in the region, including two brothers from the Shawnee: Tenskwatawa, also known as The Prophet, and his brother Tecumseh.
Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh both were opposed to the Americans and what they saw as an unhealthy American influence on their people. Tenskwatawa had himself been a heavy drinker before having a transformative experience during the time of illness in 1805. From then on, he began to promote a return to the old ways, following strictly Indian customs, promoting Indian culture, and rejecting American, or “white,” things such as alcohol. As the brothers rose to prominence and attracted followers, they created problems for the nearby Indians who were pro-American and who were trying to peacefully co-exist with the settlers.
In 1808 the brothers and their followers were forced to move further toward the northwest into lands inhabited by other tribes in Indiana. They established Prophetstown on the Wabash River where it joins the Tippecanoe River, south of Lake Michigan and not far from the Indiana-Illinois border. The village was named after Tenskwatawa, who was seen as a prophet by many who believed in his spiritual/cultural revival. This time was one of great trouble for the Indians of the area. Deadly bouts of illness continued to occur, bringing misery to the tribes. Many remained pro-American or pro-British, wanting to trade with, and learn to live with, the whites, while others were drawn to Tenskwatawa. The differences of opinion crossed tribal lines, creating a sense of uneasiness both for the Indians and American settlers of the area. These white settlers were concerned about the growing influence of Tenskwatawa and his anti-white view. Still more settlers were ready to move into the fertile lands, and, in 1809, William Henry Harrison negotiated the Treaty of Fort Wayne in which he purchased millions of acres of land from the Indians of the area. The Indians were not all in agreement about the sale, a fact that added to the troubles.
Tenskwatawa and his followers were particularly determined in their opposition to the sale. Tecumseh, who was emerging from his brother’s shadow, was outraged. He argued that no one tribe owned the land and so no tribe could sell it unless all Indian tribes agreed to the sale. Harrison had been successful in negotiating the sale because he was able to get several tribes to agree to it, for example, by getting one tribe to persuade others until enough had agreed and the sale went forward. Tecumseh spoke of killing the chiefs who had signed the treaty and of killing Harrison as well.
By 1811 Prophetstown’s population had grown to around 3,000 Indians from various tribes of the Algonquian group, including Shawnee, Winnebago, Iroquois, Kickapoo, Sauk, Fox, and Potawatomi, among others. With Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa actively opposing the Americans, Harrison had to act. He led a force to Prophetstown in November, 1811. At this time, Tecumseh was away in the South, encouraging the Creeks and others to rise against the Americans. While Harrison said he wanted to negotiate with Tenskwatawa, and Tenskwatawa said he wanted to meet with Harrison, both were prepared for a fight. Tenskwatawa struck first but was defeated. He was not a military leader, unlike his brother, but a spiritual one. While his followers attacked the Americans, Tenskwatawa prayed for their safety and victory. When they lost, he was blamed and denounced by his own followers, who believed that he did not have the spiritual powers he had claimed. Prophetstown was burned by the Americans, and Tenskwatawa was abandoned by his followers. This event was the Battle of Tippecanoe and was hailed by the Americans as a great victory for Harrison. In reality, it was not so much the military victory but rather the destruction of the Indian alliance that followed Tenskwatawa that proved significant. Harrison would later successfully run for president with the slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.” Although Tenskswatawa was disgraced, Tecumseh’s reputation and influence continued to grow as he worked to create an Indian alliance to resist the Americans. He fought on, becoming an ally of the British. The Indian conflicts with the Americans that he encouraged would become part of the War of 1812.
Meanwhile, the British continued to harass American shipping, and Madison faced enormous pressure at home to do something to alleviate this situation, even if any action meant war. Madison knew that on paper the United States was militarily no match for Great Britain. But Britain’s continuing attacks on American ships fueled the calls for action from the War Hawks in Congress, particularly Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun. Madison, having done all he could to find a non-military solution, was finally pushed to call for a declaration of war on June 1, 1812, a declaration that won Congress’s subsequent approval.
The war began with the Americans facing several obstacles. First, the British had military superiority. Under Jefferson, the American army had been reduced as a cost-cutting measure. Now it needed to be expanded, and quickly. Second, raising funds for the war was inhibited by the lack of a national bank. The late Federalist Alexander Hamilton had been a proponent of a national bank and helped create it with a twenty-year charter in 1791. To the Federalists, having a national bank was vital for the health of the nation. To Democrat-Republicans such as Jefferson and Madison, a national bank was unnecessary and might even be dangerous to economic liberty. The charter for the bank expired in 1811 and was not renewed, as the Congress and the president were not pro-bank Federalists. The timing was truly unfortunate for Madison. In not renewing the bank’s charter in 1811, Madison stood on his political principles. In 1812, the virtues of having a national bank became clear to Madison, albeit too late. The final obstacle concerned the primary battlefield, the Atlantic Ocean: the American fleet consisted of less than 20 warships to face the most powerful navy in the world.
The one saving grace for the United States was the other half of the Napoleonic Wars. Britain was deeply entangled against Napoleon, having committed large parts of both its army and navy to the effort. For this reason, Britain was not prepared to turn the full force of its military might on the United States. In fact, the British Government had not wanted a war with the Americans at all. The actions of British naval captains on the high seas reflected the needs of the British navy, not the desires of the British government.
The Americans could not attack Great Britain directly; an invasion of the British Isles was out of the question. To conduct the war, the Americans had to find British military targets at sea, in the form of the British navy, and on land in North America, where the first obvious target was Canada.
During the American Revolution, the Americans had hoped to convince at least some Canadians to join their cause in revolt against the British Crown. Those hopes were doomed, as most French and British Canadians stayed loyal to Britain. After the American Revolution, many Loyalists who had remained in the American Colonies in hopes of a British victory moved to Canada to continue as British subjects rather than becoming citizens of the new United States. By 1812, some Americans believed that this time an American invasion of Canada would finally trigger a Canadian revolt and help ensure an American victory, which might even bring the war to a quick end. They were wrong. The war in the north went badly for the Americans at every stage.
Although the U.S. had declared war, Britain was better able to inform their colonists in North America about the official hostilities. For this reason, the American garrison at Fort Mackinac, Mackinac Island, Michigan was surprised when a British force arrived in July, 1812 and demanded their surrender. The British force was small, consisting of the garrison from St. Joseph Island along with Indians from several tribes and some Canadians. Fort Mackinac was on the southern end of Mackinac Island, off the northern tip of the main Michigan Territory between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. The location was remote in relation to the rest of the American territory and states, but of strategic importance in that area of the Great Lakes. The American commander of the fort, Lieutenant Porter Hanks, had no warning or instructions from his superiors concerning the war and the British. He had no way of knowing what sort of force he faced, as he could not actually see the British troops. His only information was one shot from a British cannon, followed by a demand for surrender presented on behalf of the British by some of the island inhabitants who apparently told Hanks that the British force had a great number of Indians. Hanks would have been aware of the Indian troubles from the previous year with Tecumseh and knew that the ill feelings continued. He surrendered his fort without firing a shot.
The British Commander, Captain Charles Roberts, let the American garrison go. He then took over the fort as his new base, which gave the British the first victory in the war, a toehold in American territory, and new Indian allies as news of the British victory spread.
The American troubles continued further south on the Michigan peninsula at Detroit. Indians from the battle at Fort Mackinac traveled south after that victory to join with Tecumseh. Brigadier General William Hull commanded the Americans at Detroit. Hull had served in the Revolution and was an experienced officer now at the end of a long career; perhaps he had served too long and was not fit to command. He invaded Canada but stayed on the coast and never moved on into Canadian territory. Rather than convince Canadians to revolt against the British and join the Americans, Hull’s actions served only to offend the Canadians and firm up their support for the British. Hull then returned to the American side of the Great Lakes where he learned that Indians were approaching, along with the British. The British were leading what was intended to be an attack against Hull, but the Indians were what Hull feared. He surrendered without a fight. In his defense, it should be noted that he was concerned not only for the lives of his men, but also for the many civilians in the fort. He feared that if he tried to fight and lost, the Indians, along with the British, would overrun the fort and a massacre might ensue. The British had done what they could to keep this thought in Hull’s mind, telling him they would not be able to control their Indian allies and trying to make their force seem larger than it actually was. Hull had no reports of his own as to the actual size and nature of the British force. This first stage of the war was a disaster for the Americans. The news of the fall of Detroit emboldened more Indians to rise against the Americans and support the British, while it increased British confidence in their ability to win.
United States Navy
Although the United States Army failed abysmally in their efforts in Canada and Michigan, the United States Navy surprisingly found success. The British Navy was the greatest navy in the world at that time. The U. S. Navy, meanwhile, was greatly underdeveloped. In theory, the campaign was fully skewed towards the British. Although the bulk of the British Navy was occupied with the Napoleonic Wars, the British were able to commit about eighty-five ships to fight the Americans. The entire American fleet numbered less than twenty, probably only about a dozen ships, most of which were small. The Americans had three forty-four-gunfrigates, the largest ships at American disposal, and six frigates, three large and three smaller ones which were designed to carry between thirty-six and fortyfour guns, although they could carry more. They were designed somewhat differently than European frigates with an emphasis on strength of hull and speed. They had three masts with full rigging and one actual gun deck. The American frigates carried crews of between 340 to 450 sailors and Marines, depending on the size of the ship. They could out run many enemy ships due to an innovative design using diagonal ribbing which provided a unique hull support and a slimmer frame that made the ships faster in the water. The best of the British fleet were the larger ships of the line, designed to form a line in the ocean and sail past the enemy, firing until one fleet or the other won. These heavy warships had multiple gun decks, carrying sixty-four or seventy-two or more guns. They could unleash devastating fire power at targets on land, such as in a harbor, or at ships at sea.
With their superior numbers, the British established a blockade of American ports. The Americans did not have the ships to break the blockade but did manage some naval victories which improved American morale. The star of the American fleet was the USS Constitution, “Old Ironsides,” as she came to be known, an American-designed and constructed frigate made from American oak. She first brought a cheer to the Americans under Captain Isaac Hull when she evaded a pursuing group of British ships for fifty-seven hours. Running away successfully may seem an odd victory, but for warships, speed was a source of pride. So, when the Constitution outsailed the best navy in the world in 1812, the Americans rejoiced.
A month later, the Constitution found the HMS Guerriere alone out in the Atlantic, a situation that gave Hull the perfect opportunity to show that the Constitution was built to fight, not run away. Officially, the Constitution carried forty-four guns. Hull added more. The Guerriere was originally a French frigate carrying thirty-eight guns that was captured by the British and put into British service. Her commander, Captain James Richard Dacres, was confident of his ship’s ability to take the Constitution, so when she was sighted, he ordered his ship to close with her in typical fashion of the day. As they approached, each ship fired at the other, even though shots from the forward cannons were not expected to have any real effect. The real damage would be done by the broadsides fired from the guns mounted down the sides of the ships. If the gunners were good, they could target the masts of the other ships; without masts, the enemy ship would be unable to maneuver or flee. To bring these guns into play, the two ships would sail past each other as close as each captain dared. After each pass, they turned to bring the guns back into position and fire again. Ultimately, the Constitution blasted the mizzen mast from the Guerriere; it fell overboard but was still attached to the ship, acting as a drag and preventing the British ship from moving properly. The American ship followed with more shots, dangerously damaging the Guerriere’s canvas and rigging.
Then a shot was fired from the Guerriere straight into the side of the Constitution. The American sailors who saw the shot coming were amazed when they saw the cannonball bounce off and fall into the water, thus giving the ship her nickname of “Old Ironsides.” The sign of surrender was to strike the colors, that is, to bring down the flag of your ship. Guerriere was so badly damaged she had no colors left to strike. Eighty members of her officers and crew, including the captain, were killed or wounded. American losses were comparatively light. The Guerriere’s crew was taken on board the Constitution, and what remained of the Guerriere was burned at sea.
Land War Moves South
The year 1813 brought more good news for the Americans. The U.S. Navy in the Great Lakes proved it had more than one fighting ship by winning control of Lake Erie. The army under the command of General William Henry Harrison then defeated the combined British and Indian forces at the Battle of the Thames. Tecumseh, the leader who had brought the Indian tribes together, was killed. Without his strong leadership, his confederation did not last. Although some Indians would continue to fight for the British, most returned home. The British lost their best allies, the Americans regained control of the Great Lakes, and the focus of the war moved south.
The Creek Nation was divided into Upper Creeks and Lower Creeks. Generally, the Lower Creeks were on good terms with the Americans, while the Upper Creeks favored the British. Tecumseh, whose own mother reportedly was a Creek, had traveled south in 1811 to encourage the Southern Indians to join his alliance and fight the Americans. While leaders were not keen to be involved, younger men, especially of the Upper Creeks, responded. The ideas of Tecumseh and his brother resonated with them, these ideas being the rejection of white influence, resistance to white expansion, a return to the old ways, and the preservation of their culture. These Indians formed a group referred to as the Red Sticks. Their fight against the Americans, the Creek War, soon became part of the larger War of 1812. It ended with a defeat in 1814 at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in Alabama, at the hands of Colonel Andrew Jackson.
The American actions in the north, that is, the attempts to invade Canada and the destruction of Canadian property, were offensive to the British. They realized that the American defenses were stretched thin, particularly along the Atlantic coast, thanks to the U.S.’s small navy. While the Americans might be able to win an occasional victory at sea, they could not adequately defend all of their seaports at the same time. In 1814, with the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the British could finally turn their attention to the war with the United States. The time was right to avenge the American actions in Canada.
The British first struck at Washington, D. C., which was under the command of Major General Robert Ross. They attacked with precision and discipline, destroying only public buildings, such as the Capitol and the White House, while leaving personal property alone. This decision brought mixed opinions in England; some approved, while others believed harsher treatment was justified in light of what the Americans had done in Canada. First Lady Dolly Madison famously stayed at the White House as the British worked their way through the town; she directed the removal of many valuables to save them from destruction. Both the Capitol Building and the White House were completely gutted by fires. Their sandstone exteriors survived, although blackened, even as their interiors went up in flames. One terrible loss for the nation was the Library of Congress, which had been housed in the Capitol and was burned. Thomas Jefferson’s personal library of over 6,000 books would serve as the core of the new Library of Congress in 1815.
In September, 1814, the British Army struck Baltimore again under the command of Ross in a combined action with the British Navy under Admiral Alexander Cochrane. Cochrane’s fleet attacked Fort McHenry, which was the main defense of Baltimore harbor. The plan was simply to bombard the fort until its defenders surrendered. The British continued the attack for twenty-five hours without success. As Francis Scott Key famously wrote, when it was over, our flag was still there. The defenders of Fort McHenry survived and flew a huge American flag, the Star Spangled Banner, to prove it. Cochrane tried landing a small force to attack on land, but that attack also failed.
Meanwhile, Ross personally led 5,000 British troops on their march to Baltimore, until he was shot down by American snipers, sent to hold off the British and allow more time for Baltimore’s defenders to secure their positions. Ross, mortally wounded, was carried back to the ships and died along the way. The British continued their advance until halted by stiff resistance from the Americans, who had artillery as well as defensive works. The British then retreated back to their ships. With both attacks by the army and navy having failed and the commander of the army dead, the British broke off their attack and sailed for New Orleans.
The Battle of New Orleans, the last and arguably the most famous battle of the War of 1812, actually happened when the war was nearly over. The Treaty of Ghent was signed on December 24, 1814 but not actually ratified by the American Government until February, 1815. The British attacked New Orleans on January 8, 1815.
The British fleet had reached the Gulf of Mexico on December 12, 1814 and set about removing the American naval forces in the area. By December 14th, their way was clear, and the British were able to build a garrison on an island thirty miles out from New Orleans, close enough to prepare for their eventual attack yet far enough away to be somewhat safe from an attack by the Americans. On December 23, a British advance group under the command of General John Keane moved inland along the Mississippi, drawing to within nine miles of New Orleans. Keane met no opposition but halted his advance to wait for the arrival of the rest of the British forces.
The Americans at New Orleans were commanded by Major General Andrew Jackson. Jackson, known for his decisive nature, reacted quickly when he learned of the British arrival. He organized a night attack on their camp. The attack was fairly brief before Jackson pulled his forces back, but it served its purpose. Jackson had made it clear he intended to defend New Orleans, and the British were caught off-guard by the attack. After Jackson withdrew back to New Orleans and prepared the defenses, Keane waited, unsure of what to do next. Days passed until a meeting of the British commanders settled the matter; meanwhile, the American defenses had been strengthened by the hour. The British made their first move on December 28th, with small attacks along the defensive works as they sought weak points. They then withdrew, and the Americans continued improving their defenses and placing a variety of artillery pieces. The British began their first real attack on New Year’s Day with an artillery barrage. They could not sustain their attack due to a lack of ammunition; still, they damaged some of the defensive works and destroyed a few American cannons. It was not enough to pave way for the next phase of the British plan, so Pakenham canceled the rest of the intended assault.
By January 8, more British troops had landed and joined Pakenham’s force, and an attack was launched early that foggy and wet morning. The British had not made proper preparations, leaving their troops to struggle in the mud of the canals instead of advancing along a prepared path. The British approached the American defensive works under the cover of fog, only to have the fog lift at the worst possible moment. The Americans, surprised to see British standing in front of their guns, did not hesitate to open fire. Many officers as well as soldiers were killed or wounded, while those who survived were confused and leaderless. Keane was among the wounded. Other British troops moved forward; without support, they failed to hold any positions they captured. Jackson’s artillery continued firing with grape shot. Some British never made it out of the canals; they were pinned down, unable to advance or retreat. Pakenham himself was mortally wounded. Caught in the open, the British suffered horrific casualties as the Americans mercilessly continued their fire. Finally, General John Lambert took command of the British and withdrew his infantry from the field. The British suffered over 2,000 casualties, killed or wounded, including their commander, compared to seventy-one killed or wounded Americans. Lambert ordered his men back to the fleet and left New Orleans. He planned to continue the campaign in Mississippi, until he received news of the Treaty of Ghent, declaring an end to the hostilities.
Most of the war went poorly for the Americans, a fact that demoralized those on the home front in general but in particular those in New England, the Federalist stronghold where the war was never popular. By 1814 feelings were running so high that some even suggested having New England secede from the United States and negotiate a separate peace with Great Britain. In response to the rising bitterness, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Vermont all sent delegates to Hartford, Connecticut to meet and consider what should be done. Their timing proved unfortunate for their purposes. Unknown to the delegates at the Hartford Convention, Andrew Jackson was in the midst of a smashing victory in New Orleans. News of Jackson’s victory reached Washington just in time to thwart any proposals from the Federalist Hartford Convention. Moderates had dominated the convention and had kept the more radical ideas at bay, but still the fact that the Federalists in New England convened to even discuss secession while Americans were fighting for victory in New Orleans seemed unsavory to the American public. The Federalists would never regain the trust and confidence of the American people, and the party would fade from the political scene.
The Treaty of Ghent officially ended the War of 1812. With the treaty, each side returned any territory and property it had taken in the war. All borders were returned to their 1811 state. The Indians were also promised to have their lands as of 1811 returned. This particular agreement, however, was not honored. The Americans, particularly Andrew Jackson, were not interested in honoring any agreement with the Indians that would ultimately limit American expansion. While Great Britain and the United States regained their former borders, the Indians would never be restored to their former condition. Indeed, from 1814 onwards, the Indians would continually be pushed aside by the United States: the United States was expanding, and the Indians were in the path with nowhere to go. The war had one other casualty: the Federalist Party. On the verge of death once before, their opposition to the war dealt them a fatal blow. American success cost the Federalists public approval. Some of their ideas survived, however, as the war gave James Madison reason to reconsider his own political views.
Madison inherited Jefferson’s foreign relations problems, and, although personally opposed to war, he was unable to find a peaceful solution, thus leading to the War of 1812. The War of 1812 was a costly solution to a diplomatic problem: the lack of respect for the sovereignty of the United States by the British, particularly the British sea captains who, due to the Napoleonic Wars, were desperate to find crew members for their ships. The Americans were beaten when they attempted to invade Canada; also, much of the capital, Washington, D.C., was burned. Although overall the British fared better in the War of 1812, it was seen as an American victory, particularly due to the Battle of New Orleans—despite the fact that that battle actually occurred after the war was technically over. Concerns over the course of the war and the fear of defeat at the hands of the British led the Federalists in New England to organize the Hartford Convention where the more radical members considered secession. This action led the demise of the Federalist Party. The War of 1812 officially ended with the Treaty of Ghent, which essentially returned American property to the Americans and British property to the British.
Madison was much better at finding a peaceful solution for the problems with the British and French than Jefferson.
Madison was enthusiastic about declaring war on the British.
The British Navy was the greatest in the world in 1812.
Andrew Jackson led the Americans at the Battle of New Orleans.