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Victory at Sea

The Navy comes of age in the War of 1812.

Dec 5, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 12 • By JOSEPH F. CALLO
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Towards the end of 1812 there’s a key passage. It contains a response by the Duke of Wellington to his prime minister’s suggestion that he go to Canada and take over the land war along the Canada-U.S. border. At that point Wellington had demonstrated his skills in the field in the Peninsula war against Napoleon’s army, and the War of 1812 had been dragging on for two years. His response went to a critical strategic point:

That which appears to me to be wanting in America is not a general, or a general officer and troops, but a naval superiority on the Lakes. .  .  . The question is, whether we can obtain this naval superiority. .  .  . If we cannot, I shall do you but little good in America.

Wellington articulated a truth that his civilian leadership was just beginning to grasp. His reply also reflects a penetrating analysis of the strategic issues of the War of 1812, in this case the question of which nation would control the crucial means of communication and supply associated with the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain. There was no question of Wellington’s confidence in the seasoned troops he would command, but he understood that even his Peninsula veterans could not succeed apart from strategic logistical realities.

Wellington had zeroed in on the kind of point that’s often neglected in analyses of the War of 1812. Frequently that war is seen as a sequence of freestanding, intensely dramatic events rather than as the tightly intertwined series of battles, military campaigns, diplomacy, and domestic politics that it was. But if a compulsion to concentrate excessively on the more spectacular bits and pieces of the conflict has been an endemic problem among academics and writers, this volume is an antidote. Daughan not only thoroughly illuminates the emotion-triggering events of the conflict; he also adds the background that connects the highlights. That background includes, for example, the American and British domestic politics and diplomacy, which were continuously both cause and effect in the process.

The importance of context is nowhere more important than when trying to establish the basis of the conflict. The American declaration of war in June 1812 is generally attributed to America’s need to assure “free trade and sailors’ rights.” But behind that memorable American battle cry there were strong political and diplomatic crosscurrents that shaped the decisions of James Madison and the two prime ministers who served during the conflict.

For example, during the runup to the war, and while Madison was leader in the House of Representatives, he had worked hard against pressure from Congress’s War Hawks. After he became president, and as war approached, he maintained that posture and believed it was possible to convince Prime Minister Spencer Perceval that war was inevitable unless Britain dealt with the issues of free trade and the impressments of American seamen. Madison’s belief that America’s disputes with Great Britain could be settled peacefully was supported by his expectation that Britain would continue to be preoccupied with Napoleon for the predictable future.

For his part, Perceval was convinced by political divisions within the United States, combined with America’s obvious military weakness, that Madison’s warnings were mere rhetoric. He firmly believed that the United States had no real alternative but to tolerate Britain’s aggressive maritime policies. Paralleling that opinion was the psychological residue left with the British public and its leaders after the American Revolution. Daughan doesn’t equivocate: 

The Treaty of Paris .  .  . hardly reconciled the king or his people to colonial liberty. Bitter about their humiliating defeat, the British watched with satisfaction as the thirteen states floundered without a central government. .  .  . Many in London expected the American experiment in republican government to fail.

In the lengthening perspective of history, those deep-seated feelings become possibly more significant as drivers of British attitudes and behavior towards the United States than the disagreements over current maritime policies. Both Madison and Perceval miscalculated, and similar mistakes in diplomatic judgment continued as the war evolved. There were the early, spectacular single-ship victories of the U.S. Navy, the impact of American privateers on British commerce, and American naval victories on Lakes Erie and Champlain. Contrasting with those American successes were the dismal failures of American attempts to invade Canada.

For Britain’s part, there were the economically suffocating Royal Navy blockade of American ports and the punitive expeditionary raids along the Atlantic coast, counterbalanced with the frustration of Britain’s plans to establish an Indian nation to block American expansion to the northwest. As in the runup to war, the events of the conflicts continued to be riddled with miscalculations by the leaders of both countries; but eventually, partly through the intervention of Czar Alexander I in 1813, direct negotiations between the United States and Great Britain began at Ghent. By then Perceval had been assassinated and replaced by the Earl of Liverpool.

Lord Liverpool, like his predecessor, continued to be convinced that America could not sustain the war. Britain was buoyed as Napoleon was driven from power, and the political reorganization of Continental Europe began. It was, in the opinion of Liverpool and key members of his cabinet, only a matter of time and Britain’s ability to apply steady military pressure before they would force a peace with the United States that would work to Britain’s benefit.

Although generally a pragmatic politician, Liverpool was not immune to the widespread British hostility towards America, and as a result, was anxious to punish Britain’s obstreperous and rapidly growing economic competitor across the pond. His means of exacting retribution included the hope of driving a wedge between New England, where the war was generally unpopular, and the rest of the United States. He even anticipated an invasion of New England to make it a part of Canada.

On the face of things, by the middle of 1813, it appeared that Liverpool’s assessment might have been right; but the decisive victory of Commodore Thomas Macdonough at the Battle of Lake Champlain in September 1814, and the accompanying ground action at Plattsburgh, radically changed the dynamics of the war. Those decisive successes, plus the earlier victory by Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry in 1813 at the Battle of Lake Erie, changed everything. The United States had gotten inside the British decision cycle, and the negotiations that had appeared to be going inexorably in favor of the British suddenly took on a different direction.

Writes Daughan: 

After the humiliation of [the burning of] Washington, Macdonough’s wholly unexpected victory and [British general] Prevost’s headlong retreat [from Plattsburgh] gave an immense boost to Madison’s morale. .  .  . Prime Minister Liverpool and his colleagues would be thunderstruck when they heard the news from Plattsburgh. The British public would be as well. A major reappraisal of Britain’s strategy in North America, however distasteful, would then be called for.

In context, the actions on Lake Champlain and companion events on the ground at Plattsburgh, both of which usually get minor attention, could well be identified as the war’s tipping point. It was the point at which attitudes—particularly among the British public and government—began to shift significantly.

As a greater degree of reality began to emerge on both sides, the status quo ante bellum appeared attractive to both parties. The stunning American victories at Lake Erie and Lake Champlain, plus the need for the British government to (in Liverpool’s words) “pay serious attention to the state of our finances,” had changed attitudes.

The final agreement that ended the war was reached by the Treaty of Ghent on Christmas Eve 1814. Ironically, the issues that appeared central to the conflict at its outset, “free trade and sailors’ rights,” were never addressed in the treaty, and there were no major changes in borders or possessions. Further, there were no reparations paid by either side. “The maritime disputes about free trade and sailors’ rights,” writes Daughan, “were not even mentioned. The War seemed to have settled nothing.”

There were, however, a number of critically important direct results of the War of 1812 that were, in the long term, exceptionally important. From the British perspective, her de facto dominance of the seas was confirmed, and the adversarial relationship between Britain and the United States began shifting towards something closer to a peer relationship between two major allies.

From the American point of view, the possibility of an Indian buffer nation against U.S. expansion to the northwest was eliminated. Almost certainly of greater importance, the United States gained international stature that did not exist before the war, and at the center of that new stature was the United States Navy. In the final analysis it would be hard to deny that the principal element of power that achieved America’s new geopolitical status was the Navy, where leaders like Perry, Macdonough, Isaac Hull, William Bainbridge, and Stephen Decatur had come to maturity. It was a force that had established emphatically that it not only would fight against the best but could also win decisively at that level. And it could win not only in a tactical context but in a strategic context as well. In basic terms, and in Daughan’s words, the United States Navy had “found a permanent place in America’s strategic thinking.”

Joseph F. Callo is the author of John Paul Jones: America’s First Sea Warrior.

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