Francis Scott Key and the rockets’ red glare at Fort McHenry. Dolley Madison rescuing Washington’s portrait from the sack of the White House. Andrew Jackson’s lopsided victory at New Orleans after the Treaty of Ghent. These are colorful episodes that people at least hazily associate with the unfortunately named first war declared by the young American republic. But if incidents from the War of 1812 nurtured a sense of national identity, few Americans realize that the same could be said for Canada. J. C. A. Stagg describes the conflict as “a civil war among the fragments of the first British Empire whose constituent groups were not yet reconciled to the settlement that had been made in 1783.” For that matter, it was, in fact, the third panel in a triptych of the struggle for mastery in North America. The first was the great war for empire between Britain and France, which we know as the French and Indian War (1754-63).
Few historians are better placed than the accomplished long-term editor of the Papers of James Madison to write about this conflict, which Stagg ruefully describes as having “long been regarded as the most unsatisfying and least well understood of all the wars of the United States.” After all, it was, as others have said, “Mr. Madison’s War.” Stagg begins with a short introduction—a bit slow in patches—relating the historiography of his subject. The reader leaves this overture understanding how commentators from the outset viewed the evolution of the American nation as reflected in the mirror of the war.
The disjoined series of clashes that made up the War of 1812 stemmed from America’s frustrated effort to find its place in the international arena. Caught between the dominant powers of the Napoleonic era, the United States struggled to maintain neutrality. The Royal Navy’s impressment of sailors on American-flagged ships stoked a long-running grievance. No policy—from Jefferson’s embargo, to nonintercourse proclamations, to completely unrestricted trade—could force belligerents to respect American sovereignty.
In the end, Madison opted for war with Great Britain. In fact, he also contemplated fighting France because both powers preyed with equal ferocity on American shipping. When Congress finally deliberated Madison’s war bill, the House gave solid, but not overwhelming, approval. The measure only squeaked by in the Senate, 19-13, on June 17, 1812. Ominously, all the Federalists, as well as a few disgruntled Republicans, opposed the bill. America found itself at war once again with its imperial nemesis.
Stagg describes the first year of conflict as “marked on the American side more by military fiascoes than successes . . . with occasional naval victories at sea.” Because United States citizens outnumbered Canadians by a factor of 15, American strategy focused on conquest to the north, with disappointing results. Revolutionary War veteran William Hull botched his invasion of Upper Canada. He retreated to Detroit, “where he was then trapped, paralyzed by his fear of the Indians and his lack of confidence in his own men.” They reciprocated the sentiment, and their commander surrendered to the British. The more competent William Henry Harrison fared little better. To the east, Henry Dearborn failed in a feeble thrust toward Montreal late in the year. So ended the efforts of 1812, wrote a congressman: “in a miscarriage without even the heroism of disaster.”
At sea, the United States Navy acquitted itself well, despite being shortchanged in the runup to war. Some in Congress favored having privateers attack British merchantmen rather than directly confront the Royal Navy. The House Foreign Relations chairman demanded “a public war on land and a war by private enterprise at sea.” Eventually, the administration realized it needed the Navy to protect the seaborne commerce that generated customs revenue. America’s sailors put to good use their recent experience in the quasi-war with France and against the Barbary pirates of North Africa. Their superior frigates bested the British in a dramatic series of single-ship engagements. Chagrined, the Royal Navy whined that it had been beaten in unfair contests by “a few fir-built frigates, manned by a handful of bastards and outlaws.” Despite the boost to American morale, such victories were (in Stagg’s opinion) “inconsequential.”
In Stagg’s retelling, the United States suffered woefully in military capacity. Budget cuts from the Jefferson years bore ugly fruit. The pool of potential army officers was shallow, as recommendations for commission often bore out. One sarcastic letter proposed “Crazy Bob” Livingston of New York as excellent officer material, “if throwing Decanters and glasses were to be the weapons used.” Recruiting officers fought an unequal battle against lawyers brandishing writs for “wrongful enlistment.” Madison, repeatedly frustrated by a lack of financial firepower, called Congress “unhinged” for the nation’s lack of preparedness. As a result, “a largely untrained and haphazardly organized army, led by too many manifestly inadequate generals” was completely mismatched with Madison’s goal of grasping Canadian soil to barter for recognition of neutral rights. The first year of conflict “brought only capture, defeat, and sickness to the forces, [and] the regiments were left as hollowed-out shells of what they should have become.”
By the beginning of 1813, the war had lost what popularity it enjoyed. Anemic public response greeted the Treasury’s attempts to float loans. The secretary warned Madison that the government had barely a month’s reserves left to operate. Another American surrender in June stymied efforts to seize Canadian territory across the Niagara River. The tide turned in July when Oliver (“we have met the enemy and they are ours”) Hazard Perry defeated British ships on Lake Erie. Perry then transported William Henry Harrison’s army across to Canada, where it defeated a British-Indian force at the Battle of the Thames. With the death of their leader Tecumseh, Stagg writes, “the power of the confederated Indians in the Northwest was broken, forever.”
The secretary of war, John Armstrong, chose James Wilkinson to lead the advance on Montreal in 1813. He could hardly have made a poorer choice. Wilkinson, the Army’s ranking general, had no experience of battle command and bore the taint of the murky Burr conspiracy. The other American commander, Wade Hampton, loathed him, and their two armies failed to coordinate in the autumn campaign. In the advance on Montreal, desultory efforts by both commanders failed. As they withdrew to winter quarters, “all that remained were the recriminations.”
With the advent of 1814, international conditions shifted against America, and the initiative passed to the British. Beset by financial woes, the United States wished to curtail the fighting, but Britain did not. The Niagara campaign achieved some modest American gains but ended without a foothold on Canadian soil. In the meantime, the British advanced along the Chesapeake, pillaging freely. In August, they swept aside the force arrayed against them at Bladensburg, Maryland, entered Washington, D. C., and proceeded to burn the White House and most other public buildings. Confidence in Madison’s administration collapsed. Nothing could stop the British until they stumbled at Baltimore. After failing to reduce Fort McHenry, which guarded the harbor, they withdrew. The nation exhaled, spared further depredations along the eastern seaboard. The administration still faced a scarcely less menacing peril in the failure of Congress to fund continuation of the war.
As Stagg points out, intermittent attempts to end the war began almost at the outset. Eventually, the two sides sent diplomats to negotiate in Ghent, Belgium, during the last months of 1814. In the meantime, Madison’s supporters feared growing disloyalty in Federalist-dominated New England—even secession and a separate peace with Britain. News of agreement at Ghent reached Washington in early 1815, too late to prevent the Battle of New Orleans, which had no effect on the outcome of the war.
Because Congress failed to fund the war effort adequately, it is doubtful the United States could have resisted if the British had decided to prolong the struggle. The prospect of victory in Europe by Britain and its allies over Napoleon in 1814 persuaded the Madison administration to relinquish its stand on impressment, one of its chief grievances. “Thirty months of conflict,” Stagg concludes, “had weakened the capacities of the federal government more than it had strengthened them.” A decidedly different outcome would follow most subsequent American wars.
Stagg knows the American political scene inside out, not surprising for the editor of 17 volumes of Madison’s papers. And he is very good at explaining the international political context. He calls the price of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase a down payment on Napoleon’s next war with Britain. Also, the role of the Russian czar may come as a surprise to some readers. Just a few months after America declared war, Alexander I offered to mediate the dispute. He did not want the British distracted across the Atlantic when he needed them to hammer Napoleon closer to home.
In assessing the war, Stagg finds complications on all sides. For Americans, after the humiliating fall of the capital city and threatened disunion in New England, came electrifying news from New Orleans. Despite that distant victory, the administration faced dim prospects for prolonging the war. No wonder Americans were elated to hear that their diplomats had concluded peace in Ghent, even though it merely restored the status quo ante bellum and gave no satisfaction on war aims. No matter. Americans viewed the war as a victory. It would take the long years of post-Waterloo peace in Europe to resolve the issue of impressment.
British Canadians heralded the outcome as a victory, too: They had survived the threat to their independent existence from the south. That survival was a crucial prerequisite to the 1867 act creating the dominion of Canada.
The British had a hard time claiming victory, even though it was their army and navy that sustained a separate Canada. Stagg argues that the main conundrum of the war was why the United States failed so miserably in multiple attempts to conquer the less populous colonies to the north. Despite such failure, in the years that followed, Great Britain came to realize that conflict with the United States was foolhardy, even with the Royal Navy’s control of the high seas.
Stagg’s slim volume offers readers a surefooted guide through the thickets of American political intrigue and international affairs, but they will have to turn elsewhere for the thunder of cannon and the clash of arms. As we enter this conflict’s bicentennial years, readers should begin with Stagg, and then branch out to explore particular military and naval campaigns in the surprising wealth of recent books on the War of 1812.
Nelson D. Lankford, editor of the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, the quarterly journal of the Virginia Historical Society, is the author, most recently, of Cry Havoc! The Crooked Road to Civil War, 1861.