The War of 1812 and the Treaty of Ghent

American and British Representatives at the Signing of the Treaty of Ghent

Signing of the Treaty of Ghent

On 21 February 2015, the Norfolk (VA) Historical Society will sponsor a series of events to commemorate the ratification of the Treaty of Ghent by the US Congress in February of 1815 and 200 years of peace and friendship between the United States and Great Britain.  The capstone to events will be the Treaty of Ghent Bicentennial Gala.  Held at the Norfolk Yacht Club, this will include dinner, a 19th-century dance demonstration, a short talk on the Treaty of Ghent, and a chance for the public to try their hands at 19th-century dances. For reservations, please go to the event webpage

In honor of this anniversary, we will take a short look at the War, the Treaty of Ghent, and the aftermath of this last conflict between the US and the UK.

 The Causes of the War of 1812

The real origins of the War of 1812 were in the conflict that raged in Europe for two decades following Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power.  Britain gained mastery of the seas from Nelson’s naval victory at Trafalgar 21 October 1805.  On 21 Nov 1806, Napoleon ordered a blockade (the Berlin Decree) of shipping aimed at crippling British trade.  He ordered all European ports under his control closed to British ships.  He further decreed neutral and French ships seized if they visited a British port before entering a continental port (the so-called Continental System).  Britain responded with a series of Orders in Council (1807) that imposed severe restrictions on vessels trading with the continent, including requiring all neutral ships to get a license before they could sail to Europe.  Because of Nelson’s previously mentioned victory, Great Britain had the sea power to enforce its blockade.

For some 20 years, the Americans had grappled with the problems of being a neutral nation in the great European war.  Tensions mounted as the British began stopping American ships from trading in Europe, searching American vessels for “contraband” (defined by the British as goods that they declared illegal), and searching them for deserters who had fled the harsh conditions of the Royal Navy.  Many of these deserters had taken jobs on American ships and American certificates of citizenship made no impression on the British.  The last straw came when British captains to impress (seize) native-born Americans and put them into service on British ships.

USS Chesapeake Under Attack by HMS Leopard

USS Chesapeake Under Attack by HMS Leopard

These maritime tensions exploded, literally, in 1807 off the Virginia capes, just outside the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay.  A British naval squadron was watching the area for French ships when several British sailors managed to desert and promptly to enlist in the American navy on the crew of the USS Chesapeake.  The British complained through their embassy and an investigation was undertaken.  The captain of the American 38-gun frigate Chesapeake investigated the claims of the British Navy and found that three of the men were Americans who had been impressed into the Royal Navy.  The fourth man, was a British citizen, but had enlisted under an assumed identity, and so escaped detection as a British deserter.

When the Chesapeake set sail from Hampton Roads on June 22, the British were waiting for her.  After allowing her to move out of US territorial waters, the Captain of the Leopard hailed the Chesapeake and demanded the return of the four deserters, which the Chesapeake refused.  When HMS Leopard tried to board and search his ship, the Chesapeake refused to heave to, the 50-gun Leopard opened fire, killing three and injuring 18 of the crew.  The British boarded and seized the four men.  This “Chesapeake Affair” outraged even moderate Americans.  The actions of the British ship HMS Guerriere on 1 May 1811 in impressing an American sailor from a coastal vessel caused further tension. (Perkins, 1961)

British Removing the "Deserters" from USS Chesapeake

British Removing the “Deserters” from USS Chesapeake

President Jefferson, trying to avoid involving the United States in the European conflict between England and France, responded to the “Chesapeake Affair” by inducing Congress to pass the Embargo Act of 1807.  This act created a general Embargo that made illegal all exports from the United States.  The Act’s goal was to use economic coercion to avoid war, punish Britain and France, and force them to respect American rights.  Unfortunately, the effect of this embargo was not what Jefferson intended.  By the spring of 1808, New England ports had nearly shut down and the regional economy headed into a depression, with growing unemployment.  In New England and the Middle Atlantic states, ships rotted at the wharves, and in the agricultural areas, particularly in the South, farmers and planters could not sell their cotton crops on the international market. (Malone, 1974)

To make matters worse, the British were still able to export goods to America.  Smuggling was widely endorsed by the public and enforcement was all but impossible.  In Vermont, the embargo was doomed to failure, because of their dependence on Canada as a market for produce.  At St. John, Lower Canada, £140,000 worth of goods smuggled by water were recorded there in 1808 – a 31% increase over 1807.  The smuggling was not restricted to water routes, as smugglers drove herds of livestock across the uncontrollable land border.  Southbound commerce gained two-thirds overall, but furs dropped a third. (Muller, 1970)

Portraits of Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun

“War Hawks” Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun

The “War Hawks,” a group of Anglophobic and nationalistic congressional representatives from the south and west, were loudly demanding war.  This group was led by the new Speaker of the House, Henry Clay of Kentucky, and Representative John C. Calhoun of South Carolina.  Additionally, newly elected President Madison was intrigued by Major General Dearborn’s claim that in case of war, Canada would be easy pickings – that in fact an invasion would be welcomed by the Canadians.  Therefore, on 1 June 1812, President Madison sent Congress a request for an immediate declaration of war.  The Congress quickly obliged.

The War

Although years of provocations and diplomatic disputes preceded the outbreak of war, neither side was ready when it came.  Britain was tied up in the Napoleonic Wars with most of the British Army fighting in Portugal and Spain, and the Royal Navy blockading most of the coast of Europe.  At the outbreak of the war, there were only about 7,000 British and Canadian regulars in Upper and Lower Canada (now the provinces of Ontario and Quebec), supported by Canadian militia.

The United States was not ready to prosecute a war either.  Madison had assumed that the state militias would easily seize Canada and that negotiations would follow.  In 1812, the regular army consisted of fewer than 12,000 men.  Congress authorized expansion of the army to 35,000 men, but the service was voluntary and unpopular; it offered poor pay, and there were few trained and experienced officers.  The militia objected to serving outside their home states, was not open to discipline, and performed poorly against British forces when outside their home states.

On July 12, 1812, General William Hull led an invading American force of about 1,000 untrained, poorly equipped militia across the Detroit River and occupied the Canadian town of Sandwich (now a neighborhood of Windsor, Ontario).  By August, Hull and his troops (numbering 2,500 with the addition of 500 Canadians) retreated to Detroit, where they surrendered to a much smaller force of British regulars, Canadian militia, and Native Americans, led by British Major General Isaac Brock and Shawnee leader Tecumseh.  The surrender cost the United States the village of Detroit as well as control over most of the Michigan Territory.  Several months later, the U.S. launched a second invasion of Canada, this time at the Niagara peninsula.  On October 13, United States forces were again defeated at the Battle of Queenston Heights

Mortally Wounded Gen Brock Urging his Troops on at the Battle of Queenston Heights

Mortally Wounded Gen Brock Urging his Troops on at the Battle of Queenston Heights

Military and civilian leadership remained a critical American weakness until 1814.  The early disasters brought about chiefly by American unpreparedness and lack of leadership drove United States Secretary of War William Eustis from office.  His successor, John Armstrong, Jr., attempted a coordinated strategy late in 1813 (with 10,000 men) aimed at the capture of Montreal, but he was thwarted by logistical difficulties, uncooperative and quarrelsome commanders and ill-trained troops.  After losing several battles to inferior forces, the Americans retreated in disarray in October 1813.  In 1813, the Americans won control of Lake Erie in the Battle of Lake Erie and cut off British and Native American forces in the west from their supply base.  In October 1813, the decisive defeat of these western forces at the Battle of the Thames by General William Henry Harrison’s forces put an end to the threat of a British/native American coalition against the western frontier.  Control of Lake Ontario changed hands several times, with both sides unable and unwilling to take advantage of temporary superiority.

After Napoleon abdicated on April 6, 1814, the British could send veteran armies to the United States, but by then the Americans had learned how to mobilize and fight.  British General Prévost launched a major invasion of Upstate New York with these veteran soldiers, but the American fleet under Thomas McDonough gained control of Lake Champlain and the British lost the Battle of Plattsburgh in September 1814.  The British then launched a successful attack on Chesapeake Bay, capturing and burning Washington, looting Alexandria, and unsuccessfully attacking Baltimore and Norfolk/Portsmouth, trying to destroy the Gosport Navy Yard.  A British invasion of Louisiana (unknowingly launched after the Treaty of Ghent was negotiated to end the war) was defeated with heavy losses by General Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815.

The Treaty of Ghent

After the abdication of Napoleon in April 1814, British public opinion demanded major gains in the war against the United States.  The senior American representative in London told Secretary of State James Monroe:

“There are so many who delight in War that I have less hope than ever of our being able to make peace.  You will perceive by the newspapers that a very great force is to be sent from Bordeaux to the United States; and the order of the day is division of the States and conquest.  The more moderate think that when our Seaboard is laid waste and we are made to agree to a line which shall exclude us from the lake; to give up a part of our claim on Louisiana and the privilege of fishing on the banks, etc. peace may be made with us.” (American Historical Association, 1914)

However the English Prime Minister, aware of growing opposition to wartime taxation and the demands of merchants in Liverpool and Bristol to reopen trade with America, realized Britain had little to gain and much to lose from prolonged warfare.  With the defeat of Napoleon, the main British goals of stopping American trade with France and impressment of sailors from American ships were no longer necessary.  Negotiators from both sides met in Ghent, Kingdom of the Netherlands, starting in August 1814.  The Americans sent top leaders, including Henry Clay, John Quincy Adams, and Albert Gallatin, while the British sent minor officials who kept in close touch with their (much closer) superiors in London.

Portrait of Albert Gallatin

Portrait of Albert Gallatin

When the peace talks began, American diplomats decided not to present President Madison’s demands for the end of impressment and the suggestion that Britain turn Canada over to the U.S. (Adams, (1890) 1986).  They were quiet and instead the British opened with their demands, chief of which was creation of an Indian barrier state in the American Northwest Territory (the area from Ohio to Wisconsin), which the British would sponsor.  The British strategy for decades had been to create a buffer state to block American expansion (Remini, 1991).

While the negotiations were going on, the British had four invasions underway.  One force carried out a burning of Washington, but failed in its main mission of capturing Baltimore.  The British fleet sailed away when the army commander was killed.  A small force invaded the District of Maine from New Brunswick, capturing parts of northeastern Maine and several smuggling towns on the seacoast.  Much more important were two major invasions.  In northern New York State, 10,000 British troops marched south to cut off New England however; a decisive defeat at the Battle of Plattsburgh forced them back to Canada.  The defeat was a humiliation that brought about the court-martial of the commander (Latimer, 2007).  At the time, the fate of the other major invasion force, sent to capture New Orleans and control the Mississippi River was unknown.

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington

The British Prime Minister wanted the Duke of Wellington, now victorious in Europe, to command in Canada with the purpose of winning the War. Wellington replied that he would go to America, but he believed that he was needed in Europe (Lodge, 1913).  He also stated:

In regard to your present negotiations, I confess that I think you have no right, from the state of war, to demand any concession of territory from America…  You have not been able to carry it into the enemy’s territory, notwithstanding your military success, and now undoubted military superiority, and have not even cleared your own territory on the point of attack. You cannot then, on any principle of equality in negotiation claim a cession of territory except in exchange for other advantages which you have in your power…  Then if this reasoning be true, why stipulate for the uti possidetis? You can get no territory: indeed, the state of your military operations, however creditable, does not entitle you to demand any. (Lodge, 1913)

The government had little choice but to agree with Wellington.  After months of negotiations, against the background of changing military victories, defeats and losses, the parties finally realized that their nations wanted peace and there was no real reason to continue the war.  Now each side was tired of the war.  The War had paralyzed Export Trade and after Napoleon’s defeat in 1814, France was no longer an enemy of Britain so the Royal Navy no longer needed to stop American shipments to France, and it no longer needed more seamen.

On December 24, 1814, the members of the British and American negotiating teams signed and affixed their individual seals to the document.  This did not end the war itself—that required formal ratification by both governments.  The English Parliament ratified the treaty on December 30, 1814, and the US Congress on February 18, 1815.  The treaty released all prisoners and restored all captured lands and ships.  The United States regained about 10,000,000 acres (40,000 km²) of territory, near Lakes Superior and Michigan, and Maine, while American-held areas of Upper Canada (present-day Ontario) returned to British control.  The treaty thus made no significant changes to the prewar boundaries, although the U.S. did gain territory from Spain along the gulf coast.  Britain promised to return the freed black slaves that they had taken.  In actuality, a few years later Britain instead paid the United States $1,204,960 for them (Lindsey, 1920).  Both nations also promised to work towards an ending of the international slave trade.

Copy of the Treaty of Ghent in the US National Archives

Copy of the Treaty of Ghent in the US National Archives

Results of the War of 1812

British losses in the war were about 1,600 killed in action and 3,679 wounded; 3,321 British died from disease.  American losses were 2,260 killed in action and 4,505 wounded.  While the number of Americans who died from disease is unknown, authorities estimate that about 15,000 died from all causes directly related to the war.  These figures do not include deaths among Canadian militia forces or losses among native tribes.

There are no official estimates of the cost of the American war to Britain; it did add some £25 million to the national debt.  In the U.S., the cost was $105 million, about the same as the cost to Britain.  The national debt rose from $45 million in 1812 to $127 million by the end of 1815, although by selling bonds and treasury notes at deep discounts—and often for irredeemable paper money due to suspension of specie payment in 1814—the government received only $34 million worth of specie.

Results of the war between Britain and the United States involved no geographical changes and no major policy changes.  However, all the causes of the war had disappeared with the end of the war between Britain and France and with the destruction of the power of First Nation Indian tribes.  American fears of the Indians ended, as did British plans to create a buffer Indian state.  The British suspended their policy of impressment of American sailors, and never resumed it—but they insisted they still had the right to resume it.  Americans regained their honor and proclaimed victory in what they called a “second war of independence” for the decisive defeat of the British invaders at New Orleans seemed to prove that Britain could never regain control of America.  This new self-confidence led Americans to a new view of themselves and their country and was a major influence in the formation of the Monroe Doctrine.

The War of 1812 was highly significant in Britain’s North American colonies.  After the war, British sympathizers portrayed the war was as a successful fight for national survival against an American democratic force that threatened the peace and stability the Canadians desired.  In contrast to Canada, in Britain today, the public mostly forgets the War of 1812.  Primarily, this is because the dramatic events of the concurrent Napoleonic wars overshadowed it, and because Britain herself neither gained nor lost anything by the peace settlement.


Works Cited

Adams, H. ((1890) 1986). History of the United States During the Administrations of Madison (1809–1817) . New York: Library of America.

American Historical Association. (1914). Letters relating to the Negotiation at Ghent, 1812-1814. American Historical Review, 108-129.

Latimer, J. (2007). 1812: War With America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Lindsey, A. G. (1920). Diplomatic Relations between the United States and Great Britain Bearing on the Return of Negro Slaves, 1783-1828. Journal of Negro History, Volume 5, Nr 4, 391-419.

Lodge, H. C. (1913). One Hundred Years of Peace. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office.

Malone, D. (1974). Jefferson the President: The Second Term. Boston: Brown-Little.

Muller, H. N. (1970). Smuggling into Canada: How the Champlain Valley Defied Jefferson’s Embargo. Vermont History, pp. 5-21.

Perkins, B. (1961). Prologue to War: England and the United States 1805-1812. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Remini, R. V. (1991). Henry Clay, statesman for the Union. New York: W. W. Norton.


© 2014
Chuck H


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