The Second American War Against the British

By mid-1814, the British had finally defeated Napoleon and sent him into exile. Now they could turn their full attention to the war in America — and unlike the first war with Britain, America wouldn’t be getting any help.

Britain’s first big effort came in August 1814, when a force of about 4,000 veteran British troops landed in the Chesapeake Bay area east of Washington, D.C. At the village of Bladensburg, the Brits encountered a hastily organized force of 6,000 American militiamen who quickly showed they had no stomach for a fight.

Almost as soon as the shooting started, the militia ran like scalded dogs, and the British army easily strolled into America’s capital.

The government officials fled, and the British burned every public building in the city. The burnings were partially to avenge the American torching of the Canadian city of York and partially to take the heart out of the Yanks. Instead, they enflamed U.S. anger and delayed the British advance on Baltimore, which was the real military target.

[Credit: © Bettmann/CORBIS]
Credit: © Bettmann/CORBIS

By the time the British forces got to Baltimore, the city’s Fort McHenry had been fortified. An all-night bombardment of the fort accomplished nothing, except to inspire a Washington lawyer who watched it from the deck of a British ship, where he was temporarily a prisoner.

Francis Scott Key jotted down his impressions in the form of a poem, on the back of a letter. After the battle, he revised it a bit and showed it to his brother-in-law, who set it to the tune of an old English drinking song called “To Anacreon in Heaven.”

It was published in a Baltimore newspaper as “Defense of Fort McHenry” but was later renamed “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Soon soldiers were singing it all over the country. Meanwhile, the British efforts to invade Baltimore ended.

A second, even larger British force attempted an invasion of the United States via a land-water route through New York. In September 1814, a British fleet sailed against an American fleet on Lake Champlain, near Plattsburgh.

The U.S. fleet, under the command of Lieutenant Thomas Macdonough, was anchored, and Macdonough rigged his ships so they could be turned around to use the guns on both sides. After a savage battle, the American fleet prevailed thanks to Macdonough’s trick, and the shaken British force retired to Canada.

The third and last major British effort took place at New Orleans. A 20-ship British fleet and 10,000 soldiers squared off against an army of about 5,000 American soldiers, backwoods riflemen, and local pirates who disliked the British more than they disliked the Americans.

The American force was under the command of a tall, gaunt Tennessee general named Andrew Jackson. Jackson had already made a name for himself as a great military leader by defeating the Creek Indians earlier in the war. After a few fights to feel each other out, the two sides tangled in earnest on January 8, 1815.

Actually, it was more of a slaughter than a fight. The British charged directly at Jackson’s well-built fortifications, and U.S. cannon and rifles mowed them down. In less than an hour, more than 2,000 British were killed, wounded, or missing, compared to American losses of 71. The British retreated.

It was a smashing victory for the United States. Unfortunately for those killed and wounded, it came two weeks after the war had formally ended.

Working on a settlement

Early in 1814, both sides agreed to seek a settlement. A few months later, America sent a team of negotiators to Ghent, Belgium, led by its minister to Russia, John Quincy Adams, and House Speaker Henry Clay.

At first, the British negotiators dragged things out while waiting to see how their country’s offensive efforts worked out on the battlefield. England then demanded America turn over loads of land in the Northwest Territory and refused to promise to stop kidnapping American sailors off U.S. ships. But when news of the defeats at Plattsburgh and Baltimore reached Ghent, the British tune changed.

They dropped their demands for territory, agreed to set up four commissions to settle boundary disputes, and agreed to stop the habit of impressing American seamen. On December 24, 1814, both sides signed a treaty that basically just declared the war over.

“I hope,” said John Quincy Adams in toasting the treaty, “it will be the last treaty of peace between Great Britain and the United States.” It was — the countries have never gone to war against each other since.

Squawking about things in New England

In New England, meanwhile, Federalist Party officials had been chafing for a while about the dominance of the Democratic-Republican Party and the waning influence of the region as the country moved west. In late 1814, representatives from five New England states sent delegates to Hartford, Connecticut.

They met for about three weeks and came up with some proposed amendments to the Constitution, including requiring approval by two-thirds of the states before any future embargoes could be set, before war could be declared, or before any new states could be admitted.

There was even some talk about states leaving the Union. (Although it didn’t amount to much, it was a chilling harbinger of things to come.) Eventually, three of the delegates were sent to Washington with the demands. They got there just in time to hear about the victory at New Orleans and the treaty at Ghent. They left town quietly.

Thus did a goofy war end. Fewer than 2,000 U.S. soldiers and sailors were killed. No great changes came immediately from it. But the War of 1812 did serve to establish America firmly in the world’s eye as a country not to be taken lightly. It may not always choose its fights wisely or fight with a great deal of intelligence. But it would fight.

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