war of 1812 painting

U.S. Military History: War of 1812

Historians don’t always agree about the winner and loser of the War of 1812. It has been referred to as the “Second War of Independence” from Britain since the combatants were the same. The Americans wanted to remind the British of their hard-won sovereignty. Some Americans felt they were ready to push their territories to the North and oust the British from Canada.

Ramping up to War

The British began the policy of Impressment of American sailors into the British Navy in 1803. They would take British citizens off American ships to serve in their navy, but took Americans as well. Secretary of State, James Madison, reported this interference to Congress in January 1806.

In June 1807, an international incident was caused when the British ship, “Leopard”, fired on the American “Chesapeake”. In December 1807, President Thomas Jefferson placed an Embargo against the British.

James Madison became President in March 1809. On November 7, 1811, Americans defeated the Indian Confederation at the Battle of Tippecanoe in the Indiana Territory. The British supported the Indian Confederation, led by Tecumseh and his brother, the Prophet. The Prophet’s forces attacked the Americans led by Territorial Governor, William Henry Harrison. The Americans won but suffered heavy losses. That battle, along with the continued maritime issues, led to the convening of the War Congress in November 1811.

Justification for War

Great Britain was not anxious to fight another war with the Americans. They were busy in Europe fighting Napoleon, but their policies provided the Americans justification to declare war June 12, 1812. The Americans also felt it was a chance to take territory in Canada from the British. They cited these causes:

  • The British naval blockade of Europe in the war with Napoleon. They captured 400 American ships. (The French had actually taken more ships than the British, but the French were considered allies)
  • The British policy of Impressment of British and American sailors to serve in the Royal Navy.
  • The British gave supplies and weapons to the natives, who were continually in conflict with the American settlers. They felt the natives could be easily defeated if the British were removed.

Sizing up the Strengths and Weaknesses

Many Americans were not in favor of another war with Britain. After the war was declared in Congress, there were riots in Baltimore, June through August, against the war. In early 1812, the US Army only had 4000 officers and enlisted men. In January 1812, Congress authorized the US Army to rise to 30,000 officers and men plus 30,000 one-year volunteers. The war hawks who wanted to invade Canada were anxious to declare war. The Navy only had five frigates, three sloops and seven brigs. Poor training of volunteers and lack of cooperation among military leaders turned out to be problems for the Americans.

The British had a superior Royal Navy and their troops were trained military, not volunteers and militia. However, they were very busy fighting the war with Napoleon. The British troops were supplemented by the native fighters who proved to be valuable allies.

Major Battles and Leaders Timeline


July 12: The first invasion into Canada was a disaster. The Americans were poorly trained and organized. The Americans were led by General William Hull. British forces were led by General Isaac Brock, with Tecumseh leading the Shawnee tribe. When Hull heard that Mackinac Island surrendered without a shot, he retreated to Detroit. The Americans surrendered Detroit on August 16.


October 13: Battle of Queenston Heights - Two American generals, Smyth and Van Rensselaer, crossed the Niagara River with a superior number of troops to the British and native forces. However, the two American generals did not work together and the militia refused to cross the border in support. The Americans were soundly defeated with high casualties. The British General Brock, an excellent leader, was killed.

January 22: Battle of Raisin River - US forces, commanded by General Winchester, were advancing toward Detroit but sustained severe losses. They surrendered to British Colonel Henry A. Proctor.

April 27: Americans under General Henry Dearborn and Naval forces under Commodore Chancy captured the British base at York, Canada. The troops aboard the ships were commanded by General Zebulon Pike, a famous explorer. The American troops looted and burned government buildings in York. It was considered the first US victory in the land campaign against Canada, but General Pike was killed.

September 10: Battle of Lake Erie-American fleet under Master-Commandant Oliver defeated and captured the British fleet. This was the first time the British fleet was forced to surrender. Purportedly, Perry sent a message to Major General William Henry Harrison saying, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”

October 5: After the American victory at Lake Erie, the forces led by General William Henry Harrison crossed the lake into Canada for the Battle of Thames. The British forces commanded by General Proctor withdrew. The American forces decisively defeated the British and Indians. The Indian Chief, Tecumseh, was killed.


July 25: Major General Jacob Brown and Brigadier General Winfield Scott led forces across the Niagara River to defeat the British at the Battle of Chippewa. General Jacob Brown led 5000 well trained and equipped American troops toward Fort Erie. They took the fort with little resistance.

August 24: British General Ross, leading British regular forces were met by American General William Winder, with a mostly under-trained militia. The British reached Washington where they easily defeated the militia and burned Washington including the White House. President Madison was quoted as being astounded at the superiority of the regulars versus his militia.

September 11: British General Provost ordered the Royal Naval squadron on Lake Champlain to destroy the American naval force, but his forces failed to take out on-shore guns. When the fleets met, the British were defeated and Provost retreated.

September 14: Americans defended Fort McHenry at the Battle of Baltimore, which inspired Francis Scott Keys to write the words of what would become “The Star Spangled Banner” national anthem.

December 24: The British and the Americans signed the Treaty of Ghent (in Belgium). News travels slowly from Europe.


January 8: The Battle of New Orleans was after the treaty was signed. General Andrew Jackson had a force of mostly volunteers including free blacks, Tennessee and Kentucky riflemen, Louisiana militia, and even some pirates. Jackson’s forces were vastly outnumbered but defeated the British. He became a folk hero and he later became the President.

Was there a Winner?

It is debatable who won this war. The British prevented the loss of Canada as a British territory, which was to their advantage. However, the British relinquished their protection and help of the natives who were their allies. The Treaty of Ghent established the same prewar borders between America and Canada. However, with their abandonment of the natives, the Americans were able to continue their Westward march, taking native lands with less dispute. The British had proved again the strength of their well-trained military and navy, but the Americans had proved their tenacity to the Europeans again. It was the last time Americans were the underdogs in a war.


Amateurs, to Arms!: A Military History of the War of 1812

Encyclopedia Britannica

World Atlas


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