The War of 1812 has been called "one of this nation's forgotten wars," yet it was a pivotal conflict that threatened the very existence of the young United States. Just three decades after American troops defeated British colonial forces in the Revolutionary War, the two sides faced off again. In the early 19th century, while Britain was at war with France, the Royal Navy had seized more than 10,000 U.S. sailors and forced them into service.
"It was something called 'impressment,'" explains historian Jack Langguth, "where the British took our citizens off ships, claiming that they had once been British citizens and therefore had to serve in the British Navy." Langguth, who's written a new account of the conflict -- Union 1812: The Americans Who Fought the Second War of Independence -- says President James Madison's declaration of war signaled America's intention to put an end to impressments and other British provocations like support for anti-American Indian tribes.
In 1812, the United States was small, just two new states had joined the original 13 at that point, and the country was not ready for a war. Nevertheless, as Langguth puts it, "We were a scrappy country." He says there was a martial spirit abroad in the land. "We were primed for it because the south and west were expanding greatly, bringing into the Congress what were then called 'War Hawks,' who treated any outrage against the United States as a national disgrace that had to be avenged. The War Hawks felt that if you didn't do something to show that we were not a supine power that could be trifled with, it was as bad as shirking a duel."
But Langguth says that Madison and the War Hawks overestimated the country's ability to fight its old nemesis. He notes that the United States had 17 ocean-going ships, and the British had 700. And, he says, the Americans blundered by assuming that northern neighbor Canada would be an ally. "The War Cabinet officer for Madison said that the Canadians would greet us as liberators, that when we came in, they would be so pleased to join us. It didn't turn out that way at all. We lost our first battles around Detroit [at the Canadian border] and lost ignominiously. They were allied with England."
Fortunately for the Americans, though, Britain was more focused on its war with France. The United States was a secondary enemy, a realization that surprised the historian as he began his research for Union 1812. "The war of 1812 was [a sideshow] to the British. They were in a life and death struggle with France. When I went to the British libraries, and looked up old newspapers, there'd be front pages about what was going on with Napoleon and maybe a [small item] about this little irrelevant affair in our country."
Langguth suggests that if Britain had thrown more of its resources against the Americans, that could have changed the course of U.S. history. But, he says, they never hoped to retake the colonies. "What they could do was establish that the whole middle west and southern areas of the United States were up for grabs. They were Indian-controlled. The British were more allied with the Indians than we were, and we'd be penned in on the eastern seaboard."
In one of the darkest periods of the war for the Americans, British forces sacked Washington, D.C., burning the White House and the Capitol building. But Langguth says subsequent American naval victories began to turn the tide. "On Lake Champlain [in the state of New York], where the British really probably should have had a major victory, there was a skirmish on the lake, and the American commander just dominated. Then [the British] hoped to take Baltimore. They were rebuffed." It was during the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore that Francis Scott Key wrote the poem that would become the U.S. national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner.
Three months later, in December, 1814, the British and the Americans signed a peace treaty in Belgium. The Treaty of Ghent returned control of all territory seized by British forces back to the United States. Ironically, the last battle was fought several weeks after the war ended. News of the peace treaty reached U.S. General Andrew Jackson after his victory in the Battle of New Orleans. However, as Jack Langguth notes, the battle, while irrelevant to the outcome of the war, further boosted American morale; as a result, the nation emerged from the War of 1812 stronger than before, and ready to expand westward with a new sense of pride and vigor.