War of 1812 Bicentennial

History: 1814 (and a little bit of 1815)

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As you'll recall, we told the tale of 1813 in a more or less geographical order. For 1814, however, we're going to change things up and tell the tale in a more chronological fashion. Why? To keep you on your toes. Actually, it might make a bit more sense that way.

The spring of 1814 was fairly quiet in terms of battles. That's not to say that nothing was happening. In May the Americans landed in Port Dover and elsewhere around Lake Erie and burned everything in sight. Around the same time, on Lake Ontario, the British captured Fort Oswego. In June, the British, who had extended their naval blockade to the entire American coast, were burning and pillaging around the Patuxent River area. As we all know, fads come and go. The biggest fad of the year 1814 was burning stuff. This one had actually started a few weeks before 1814 started, with the burning of several towns on the Niagara River, but it really got rolling once 1814 came around. We'll get around to some more burning later. Now on to July.

After making little progress on the Niagara Frontier the past two campaigns, U.S. Secretary of War John Armstrong appointed some new leadership talent to serve on this front. Having been at war for two years now, the Americans had the luxury of being able to select men who had proven their worth in battle. Leading the Americans was Major-General Jacob Brown, who had successfully defended Sackett's Harbour the previous year. Under Brown were several Brigadier-Generals, including Winfield Scott, who had been promoted in March. Scott was no stranger to the Niagara Frontier. As a Lieutenant-Colonel, he had been taken prisoner at the Battle of Queenston Heights in 1812. Exchanged in January 1813, he was then promoted to Colonel and sent back to the Niagara Frontier, where he was injured at Fort George. Recovered in time for the next season's campaign, he got another promotion and another assignment to the Niagara Frontier. He would later go on to become General-in-Chief of the U.S. Army in 1841, a position he would hold during the Mexican-American War and the first year of the Civil War.

[Map of the Battle of Lundy's Lane]

On July 3 Brown crossed the Niagara River, took Fort Erie and began fortifying it. Two days later, a force under Scott defeated a British force commanded by Major-General Phineas Riall at the Battle of Chippawa. The Americans then got into the burning craze, burning the village of St. David's on the 19th. On the Canadian side, Lieutenant-General Gordon Drummond had returned to the frontier on the 22nd and on the 25th, the British took Lewiston, on the American side of the frontier. After hearing this news, Brown ordered a force under Scott to march against Queenston. At Lundy's Lane that afternoon the Americans met a British force under Riall. Drummond and Brown later arrived with reinforcements. The resulting battle, perhaps one of the most desperate of the entire war, centred around a struggle to control a rise of land, the possession of which went back and forth several times. The battle was fought until midnight. The result was a great British victory... or a great American one, depending on whose sources you're reading. Actually, the result of the battle was inconclusive, but the Americans ended up retreating. Each side sustained hundreds of casualties in killed and wounded; Drummond, Riall, Scott, and Brown were among the injured. Riall had also been taken prisoner.

After the Battle of Lundy's Lane, there was a lot of back-and-forth along the Niagara frontier for a while, with little progress made on either side. Eventually, on November 5th, the Americans found holding Fort Erie untenable and retreated across the river.

The British were also active in what is now Maine (then part of Massachusetts), the location of a long-standing border dispute. The 1783 Treaty of Paris, which specified the eastern border of the United States, was a masterpiece of geographical ineptitude. The treaty defined the border as "a line to be drawn along the middle of the river St. Croix, from its mouth in the Bay of Fundy to its source, and from its source directly north to the aforesaid Highlands, which divide the rivers that fall into the Atlantic Ocean from those which fall into the river St. Lawrence". Well, first problem was that there was no river St. Croix. Once they figured out, in 1798, which river was meant, there was still the issue of which branch of the river was met. The next part of the treaty, describing the highlands, seems quite clear, but since 1783 the British had discovered that the wording of the treaty would place the border dangerously close to the St. Lawrence, and sought to introduce ambiguity where none really existed. The British control of the seas gave them the opportunity to rectify some of these issues through military means. Starting on July 11th and going on for two months, they were able to capture a fair amount of territory. On September 21st Sir John Sherbrooke proclaimed the annexation of the eastern side of the Penobscot River and the country lying between that River and New Brunswick.

The highlight for the British on the Atlantic in the summer of 1814 lay further south. In the middle of August the British fleet sailed into Chesapeake Bay with 4,000 troops, commanded by General Ross, who marched towards the District of Columbia. On August 24 Ross met the Americans at Bladensburg, Maryland. Ross was outnumbered 4,000 to 6,000 or so, but had two advantages. The first was that the Americans were led by William Henry Winder, of whom Henry Adams later wrote: "When he might have prepared defences, he acted as scout; when he might have fought, he still scouted; when he retreated he retreated in the wrong directin; when he fought, he thought only of retreat," and whose major accomplishment in the war so far was getting captured at the Battle of Stoney Creek. The second was that around 5,000 of the 6,000 Americans were militia, who bolted after a relatively insignificant number of casualties, giving this battle the name "Bladensburg Races." As a British officer put it, "never did men with arms in their hands make better use of their legs."

The Americans then had little choice but to surrender and the British continued to Washington, D.C, the capital of the United States. That night, the public buildings in Washington were torched, including the Capitol and the White House. The Patent Office Building was the only public building to escape the torch. There's a story that says that the White House got its name after being re-painted to cover up the fire-damaged exterior, but unfortunately that's just a story (it was both white and known as the White House before that). President Madison watched from across the river. The British then marched back to their ships and sailed off.

So, around the latter part of the summer of 1814 the British had the advantage across the entire front except on Lakes Erie and Champlain (on Lake Ontario, they would launch the St. Lawrence, a huge 102-gun vessel, in the fall, giving them undisputed control of that lake). Military action to regain Lake Erie was not practical at that time, but capturing Plattsburg would give them the advantage on Lake Champlain. Eleven thousand veterans of the Peninsular Wars were available for that purpose. These soldiers, who, under the Duke of Wellington, had defeated Napoleon's armies in Spain and France, could well be called the best in the world. They significantly outnumbered the Americans defending this not particularly well-fortified fort, although the American Navy might help to offset that disparity.

The fort at Plattsburg was commanded by Brigadier-General Alexander Macomb, who had at his disposal only 1,500 American regulars and some 2,000 raw militia, including some from Vermont, a state which hitherto hadn't really participated in the war effort. The townsfolk, fearing the worst, had fled the town. Macomb wasn't particularly planning on putting up much of a fight against the vastly superior force headed his way. The attack was planned for the 11th. Prevost delayed launching the land battle too late, allowing the American naval forces under Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough to defeat the British naval forces under Captain George Downie. Naturally, it would have made a lot more sense to have captured the fort first and then use its long-range guns to aid in the naval attack, but that's not what Prevost did. With the naval battle lost, Prevost turned tail and retreated. The officers had never seen such disgraceful conduct when serving under the Duke of Wellington and were disgusted with Prevost's behaviour. After the news of Plattsburg reached the Duke of Wellington, he started lobbying for Prevost's recall. Prevost would be recalled to England simultaneously with the announcement of the end of the war. While there, various allegations about his ineptitude at Plattsburg and everywhere else came out. He faced a court-martial (at his own request) for this débâcle, but managed to avoid it by dying.

Meanwhile, Ross, fresh off of burning Washington, had his sights on Baltimore and Fort McHenry. He and his troops landed at North Point, where they defeated the Maryland militia on September 12th, but with heavy losses, the most significant being that of Ross. The remainder of the troops marched to Fort McHenry, where they found that the naval bombardment had barely made a dent in the fort's massive defences, and so marched back to North Point and disembarked. Meanwhile, several miles away, Francis Scott Key, an American lawyer who opposed the war, had been aboard a British ship negotiating for the release of prisoners. Detained by the British, he had noticed a large American flag that had been hoisted above Fort McHenry on the morning of September 14th, despite the overnight British naval bombardment (back then, the U.S. flag had 15 stars and 15 stripes, to represent the 18 states; Ohio, Tennessee, and Louisiana were the odd ones out). Key wrote a song about the battle and the flag, set to the tune of a bawdy drinking song. "Defence of Fort McHenry" took the nation by storm, and, 117 years later, the song, now known as "The Star-Spangled Banner," would become the national anthem of the United States.

By this point, both sides had long been interested in bringing about an end to the war. The United States had perhaps the most pressing problems. Money was one. Wars are expensive. Also, since the British Navy was blockading the entire U.S. coast, imports, and hence treasury revenues from import duties, were almost nonexistent. As well, Madison, in his infinite wisdom, had closed the National Bank several years before, which made it a little trickier for the government to get loans. Instituting an income tax was a possibility, but that might not fly with those old enough to remember firsthand why the United States were no longer British colonies. Would New England go along with high taxes for a war they didn't support and that was crippling them, or would there be another Boston Tea Party? By the end of 1814, New England's frustration with the war had reached a point that some seriously considered secession, one of several items discussed at the Hartford Convention.

Another problem for the Americans was that the Peninsular War in Europe was over. With Napoleon currently in exile on Elba, the British had more military resources available. Were the British to devote the Empire's resources to the war in America, and with Prevost soon to be out of the way, it may have seemed inevitable that they would likely emerge victorious eventually. So, Madison had become quite willing for the United States to enter negotiations with Great Britain, even at the cost of abandoning the issue of the Right of Search.

The British also had their own reasons for not wanting to continue to fight. They were financially better off than the United States, but only as long as they kept the already-overburdened British taxpayer amused. Now, exiling Napoleon to Elba, something like that would make everyone happy back home (earlier in the year, that event had turned much of England into a party zone for several days). Winning small battles in some isolated backwoods a continent away? Not so much. Any gains that could reasonably be made seemed unlikely to be worth the cost. Also, the British were more interested in straightening things out in Europe (and in the next year, they did in fact require a lot of straightening out) than fighting a war in North America. Also, negative outcomes at Plattsburg and Baltimore made the British increasingly amenable to negotiations, allowing American negotiators to get a better bargain than they otherwise would.

[Map of the Battle of New Orleans]

The outcome of this mutual desire to end the war was the Treaty of Ghent. It was signed just before Christmas, on December 24, 1814. So, that would stop the fighting, right? Not quite. There were no means of quick communication or transportation 200 years ago. No airplanes, trains, cars, cellphones, telephones, fax machines, or telegraphs. There were some advantages to this situation, like not having to shop around for car insurance, but on balance the bad outweighed the good, like in this situation, where it took over a month for the treaty to cross the Atlantic. The treaty wasn't ratified in the United States until February 16, 1815. By that time, General Edward Pakenham had led several thousand veterans of the Peninsular war against General Andrew Jackson at New Orleans, with disastrous results. Nearly 2,000 British were either wounded or killed, including Pakenham himself. The British army later sailed away and captured Fort Bowyer on February 12, and it was not until a few days later that they learned about the treaty. Even after the ratification of the treaty, a few isolated Indian tribes and ships in the Atlantic Ocean carried on the war for a few months longer.