The Magazine

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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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.

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