Naval Heritage Centenary

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The War of 1812


On 18th June 1812, James Madison, the Republican President of the United States, declared war on Britain. He listed three major grievances which made war a necessity. These were the impressment of American sailors into the British navy, the use of illegal blockades on American trade by reintroducing the ‘Rule of 1756’ denying neutral carriers access to the lucrative colonial trade, and the orders in council which prevented trade with Europe. There was also a perceived threat to American independence and the republican form of government.

America neglected to make adequate preparations for war. Their navy, established in 1794, was still small; it was, however, manned by excellent seamen and contained frigates larger and superior to those in the British navy. In contrast, their militia was badly trained with few experienced officers and not enough men. The New England states were opposed to the war and refused to send their troops. The British had the problem of being involved in two wars simultaneously. Their best ships and crews were involved in the war with France and they could only send ships and troops that could be spared. Rear-Admiral George Cockburn, who was to make a significant contribution to American history, was one of the senior officers sent to the American theatre.

On land, the war was centred around Lake Erie and the naval forces would become the deciding factor in the war. The American plan was to invade Upper Canada (Ontario) from each end of the lake by crossing the Niagara and Detroit. The first naval action took place on 19th August 1812 between the USS Constitution and HMS Guerriere with the Constitution winning the action after twenty-five minutes. This was demoralising for the British and matters did not improve. On the 18th October, USS Wasp captured HMS Frolic followed by HMS Macedonian surrendering to the USS United States on the 25th.. On 29th December, the Constitution captured HMS Java, which lost its captain and one third of its crew during the battle. Other single ship actions between smaller vessels in 1812 produced similar results. These defeats led to Admiralty instructing their captains not to engage American ships of superior force. At the same time, American privateers were attacking British shipping. Five hundred British merchant ships were listed in Lloyd’s List as having been captured between October 1812 - May 1813.

In 1813, the American militia under General Winchester were defeated by a force of British force militia and Native Americans under the command of General Proctor. The Native Americans, led by Tecumseh, had allied themselves with the British after General Harrison had moved a small army into destroy Tecumseh’s town in an effort to extend their territory. Proctor then laid siege to Fort Meigs on Maumee, but was forced to retreat to Canada. Later in the summer the British attacked Fort Sandusty but were repulsed with heavy losses.

Command of Lake Erie was the essential factor of success in Upper Canada, and so both countries turned their attention to building a powerful flotilla. In 10th September 1813, the two squadrons fought on the Lake. There were nine American vessels, led by Admiral Perry against six British, led by Admiral Barclay. Perry’s flagship USS Lawrence was badly damaged, but Perry was able to move his flag and continued to fight. Barclay was compelled to surrender and Lake Erie came under American control. Perry’s success was followed up on land two weeks later, when Harrison’s army of 7000 men crossed the lake forcing Proctor to evacuate Detroit. Harrison pursued Proctor and on 5th October, Harrison’s force completely defeated Proctor’s force on the River Thames. A great part of the British force was captured and Tecumseh died in the action, his body being mutilated by the victors. This battle settled the control of the Detroit area for the rest of the war and destroyed the vestiges of Native American power there.

On Lake Ontario, the American navy under Captain Chauncey had constructed a squadron superior in power to the British force under the command of Captain Yeo. The American squadron attacked York (Toronto) which fell on April 27th 1813. A month later, Chauncey successfully attacked Fort George on the Niagara. This resulted in the British abandoning the fort and the river. On 29th May, Yeo’s flotilla raid upon the American naval base at Sacketts Harbour was repulsed with heavy losses. The raid was partially successful in that naval stores were largely destroyed. For the next few months, both sides were engaged in building ships on Lake Ontario and as each ship was completed, the two sides took it in turns to command the lake.

In June 1813, the British defeated the American flotilla on Lake Champlain, and later in July, destroyed the barracks and military stores at Plattsburg on the edge of the lake. At sea, the British were also beginning to make their presence felt. The estuaries of Delaware and Chesapeake were entered and used as British bases by the navy. The navy raided the coastal areas and attacked the American militia. On the 1st June, the Chesapeake, under Captain Lawrence engaged HMS Shannon, under Captain Broke, off Boston. The battle was brief and bloody. 148 Americans and 83 English were killed or wounded in a battle which lasted only fifteen minutes leading to the defeat of the Chesapeake. On 24th June, American land forces, under Dearborn, were captured by Native Americans at Beaver Dam. On 11th November, Wilkinson’s army was defeated by British troops at Williamsburg during the failed expedition against Montreal.

In July 1813, the United States were engaged in the Creek War. The Native Americans from Mississippi and Florida region, inspired by the memory of Tecumseh, were resisting American encroachment. By March 1814, the Native Americans were defeated leaving the American forces free to defend New Orleans. While this had been happening, the Americans had scored another couple of victories over the British navy. The USS Hornet sunk HMS Peacock and USS Enterprise took HMS Boxer in February 1814. However, not all victories were on the American’s side as in the same month HMS Pelican captured the USS Argus.

The naval war in Europe ended in April 1814 and this allowed Britain to devote greater resources to the American war. The Navy undertook coastal raids and a major offensive down Lake Champlain to force the Americans to retreat from Canada and make peace. Between May and December, Rear- Admiral George Cockburn resumed work in the Chesapeake Bay area. He exploited the opportunity to offer freedom to any slave who would desert their owner and join the British forces. This had a powerful effect in the southern states where the slave population greatly outnumbered their masters. In August, Cockburn wiped out an American gunboat flotilla in Patuxent River, and later, the British troops marched on Washington. They entered Washington and set fire the public buildings in retaliation for the American attack on York (Toronto). The scorching of the Presidential mansion required it to be whitewashed over the damage and it was subsequently renamed the White House. The whole coast was now open to the British. On 28th August, the British captured Alexandria in Virginia and seized the shipping. In September, they attacked Baltimore, but were unable to penetrate the American defences and withdrew. One result of this was the writing of the Star Spangled Banner.

The British had occupied Maine since early September and blockaded its harbours; however, on 11th September, they were defeated and forced to retreat into Canada. This failure persuaded the British government to accept a status quo in the peace negotiations with American. Peace was signed at Ghent on 24th December 1814. However, before the news reached the war zone, the British attacked New Orleans, and at sea, HMS Endymion captured the USS President on the 15th January 1815. This was the largest prize of the war as the ship was one of Americas three super frigates.

The Royal Navy took 1400 American prizes during the war, in addition to several hundred ships which were taken by British and Canadian privateers. The effectiveness of the British blockade had led to large scale privateering. During the war American privateers captured approximately 1350 British merchant ships, while national warships only took 254 warships and merchant vessels. However less than one-third of all prizes got back to American ports.

During the war, the British blockade of the American coast had decimated the American merchant marine. In 1813, only one-third of all American sea-going merchant ships left port and in 1814 only one-twelfth. This led to the cessation of merchant shipbuilding. This large scale stoppage of economic activity depressed the customs revenues which the American government relied upon to fund the war. The only alternative to coastal shipping was the uneconomic, labour intensive and slow system of land transport. The disruption, damage and cost of the war set back the development of the American merchant shipping industry for some years.

The experience of the blockade, and of the cost of land carriage prompted the post war American policies of creating a blockade-breaking fleet of heavily armed battleships, the construction of inland canals and making canals from rivers. Additional canals were also built to ease communications with the Great Lakes, for the transportation of shipbuilding stores and munitions. Although eventually defeated, simply by surviving, the Americans had improved the credibility of their country and the republican system of government. They were now taken seriously as a naval power, an honour the British afforded to very few nations.

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©NMRNP, 2010

The information contained in this sheet is correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for a list of further reading materials, if available