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The War of 1912 pitted Britain against the United States. There are myriad reasons as to why the war broke out and some of these include the trade restrictions that the US faced due to the Britain- France war that resulted into American merchant sailors being conscripted into the Royal Navy, Britain’s decision to support Amerindians against America’s expansionist tendencies, and America’s humiliations at high seas.
Causes of the war of 1812
America won her independence in 1873 and was henceforth considered a minor powerhouse without protection from the British. After attainment of independence, the Royal Navy was withdrawn. This made American sailors to fall prey to racketeers from the French Revolutionary forces and other pirates. American sailors took advantage of the prevailing hostilities in Europe to further their trading initiatives in Europe, France, and other Spanish Islands.
By breaking the passage, American Sailors intended to evade seizure that was enforced by the British rule of 17561. The rule of 1756 forbade neutrals from carrying out trading activities that were not allowed during peacetime. In 1805, American ships were reported to have broken the rule. However, an Essex court ruled that the ships did not circumvent the provisions spelt out in the rule of 1756. Consequently, more American ships were seized by Great Britain.
In 1806, the Great Britain partially blocked the European coast. This prompted the decision by the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte to block the British Isles. Napoleon successfully managed to conquer Europe but lacked the naval strength to spread his influence to Britain. Napoleon had only one option at disposal, that is, to cripple Britain economically.
Other than issuing the Berlin Decree of 1806, Napoleon instituted a continental system which targeted British goods cleared through Britain’s ports. These goods could not be used in countries under French control. This continental system was instituted in 1807 and made all trade neutral except with Britain. The British Orders in Council also forbade trade with France.
European ports were closed to trade and foreign ships could not enter them before calling on English ports and paying duties. The trade between Britain and France could only take place when goods touched at English ports. These developments threatened American merchant fleets as they feared that confiscation could be done from either side of the divide. The French forces subjected the American sailors to some considerable arbitrary treatment.
However, American differences with the British became more apparent. Because the impressments of sailors were alleged to be perpetrated by the British, an anti-British feeling developed among Americans. The Royal Navy blocked French ports and maintained a heavy presence of military personnel in its vast territory. Press gangs were quite often sent to round up people from brothels that were found in British ports.
Occupants of neutral commercial vessels that belonged to the United States were mostly targeted. These ships were stopped and its crew inspected2. Despite the fact that the law only required impressed recruits to be British citizens, it overlooked the fact that a large number of American sailors were born in Britain and had since become American citizens by naturalization.
The British Soldiers did not recognize that these sailors were American citizens and this led to seizure of many American sailors. The soldiers argued that ‘Once an Englishman, always an Englishman’. By 1812, more than 5000 American sailors had been forced into the British Royal Navy. Three quarters of these people were legitimate American citizens.
The American government protested at this process, however, the British Foreign Secretary Lord Harrowby scoffed at such sentiments saying Madison’s assertion that American flag should protect everyone boarding merchant ships bordered on extravagance. Impressments were epitomized by Chesapeake affair of 1807.
In this affair, sailors deserted HMS Melampus while it was at Norfolk. Three of these sailors enlisted aboard USS Chesapeake which was fitting for patrol in the Mediterranean3. When this incident became known, the British Consul at Norfolk demanded for the return of these sailors.
However, Madison, who believed that these sailors were Americans, objected to this. This was later confirmed by affidavits. The men asserted that they had been impressed. Rumors that were doing rounds that other British deserters were part of the Chesapeake crew heightened tensions between these countries. Subsequently, an order from Vice Admiral George Berkeley stated that any British warship that encountered Chesapeake had to stop so that a search for the deserters could be undertaken.
On June1807, HMS Leopard hailed down Chesapeake after it had shortly cleared the Virginia Cape. A messenger was sent to the American ship to stop it so that searches could be done but the request was turned down by Commodore James Barron who instead ordered the ship to prepare for battle. Because the ship had fresh crew, the procedure moved slowly.
After some verbal exchanges between the two parties, HMS Leopard fired a warning short, then followed with a hail of bullets towards an unready American ship. As a result, three men were killed and 18 wounded. Americans were outraged by Chesapeake-Leopard affair and called upon President Thomas Jefferson to declare war on Britain and protect America’s honor.
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American government administration led by President Jefferson was optimistic that a peaceful settlement of the issue would be reached despite the fact that the American citizens’ rights were being infringed4.
Jefferson supported a total embargo on trade hoping that piling economic pressure on Britain would lure them to negotiation tables5. This prompted the institution of Non-Importation Act of 1806 and the Embargo Act of 1807. The Embargo ended American foreign trade with Britain. American ships could therefore not call at any overseas port. Jefferson wanted to deprive France and Britain of American goods. However, this move crippled America’s economy.
The embargos were rendered ineffective and difficult to enforce because England was not dependent on America. Because of ineffectiveness of the embargo, the American government instituted the Non-Intercourse Act in 1809. The Act allowed America to participate in overseas trade but not with either Britain or France.
The Non-Intercourse Act was superseded by Macon’s Bill No. 2. The Bill repealed the trade restrictions against Britain and France with a provision that if any of the countries withdrew its offensive orders, non-intercourse would be re-imposed with the other. After passage of Non-intercourse Act, an amicable agreement was reached with British Minister, David Erskine. The minister promised a repeal of provisions of orders in council. However, this agreement was disowned by the British Foreign Secretary.
In fact David Erskine was replaced by F.J. Jackson, who further distanced himself from the pact. After Jefferson had been replaced by James Madison as the President of the United States, Napoleon managed to convince Madison into re-imposing the Non-Intercourse Act on England. Negotiations for a repeal of the order of council continued to no avail. The orders of council were repealed just when the War of 1812 was about to break. This was too little too late.
Another course of the war of 1812 was the War Hawks and expansion in the west. After the American Revolution, settlers ventured beyond the Appalachians to create new settlements. This resulted into the creation of the North West territory in 1787, prompting movement of people into present day Ohio and Indiana.
This pressured the Native Americans, some of whom had to move. Previous bids to stop the white settlers moving into these areas led to conflicts as indicated by 1794 Battle of Ellen Timbers when the American Army defeated the Western Confederacy. Several years after the war, a number of treaties were negotiated that pushed Native Americans further west. This was opposed by leaders of the Native Americans6 and this led to the institution of confederacy to oppose the Americans.
The leader of the western confederacy, Tecumseh, accepted funds from the British in Canada to further their course of opposing the Americans. The British promised Tecumseh an alliance should a war occur. Harrison was determined to break this western confederacy before it was fully formed. In the battle of Tippecanoe, Harrison managed to defeat Tenskwatawa, the brother to Tecumseh, in November 1811. Soldiers who settled on the frontier faced constant ambush from Native Americans.
Many believed that the British residing in Canada were behind all these attacks. This led to the Americans resentment against the British. In fact, the events at sea where a group of politicians known as War Hawks begun to emerge only added fuel to the already burning fire. This group wanted war with Britain to end the incessant attacks, restore America’s honor, and drive away the British from Canada.
Henry Clay, the leader of War Hawks, was incidentally elected to the House of Representatives in 1810. He was later elected as the House Speaker. As the speaker he furthered the War Hawk agenda. Under his leadership, Congress moved down the road to war.
Consequences of the war of 1812
The war of 1812 obviously had inherent effects on Britain, the United States, Canada, and the Native Americans who were somehow the reason as to why the war broke out. After the Treaty of Ghent of 1815, the United States and Britain were officially at peace. Ghent, Belgium was chosen because both the parties considered it a neutral position. However, nothing really changed after the treaty. In fact, neither Britain nor United States let go of their previous territories after the war.
The British sat on the Western frontier that included Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. From these territories, they would harass the US citizens who settled in these territories. They could also ally with the Native Americans. However, this did not happen. Since France was no longer at war with Britain, Britain stopped doing all the activities that had led to the war of 1812. Besides, US sailors were not impressed anymore, US ships were not captured, and there were no harassment on US lands.
Instead, Britain invested resources towards maintaining Canada. The British were determined to engage in profitable trade with the United States. Consequently, the US dropped its ambition of conquering Canada and directed her resources towards rejuvenating its strength and reputation that had been dented by war that they lost. Washington, which had endured the most of war, was rebuilt and a more modern navy instituted.
The idea of relying on gunboats to defend United States coasts was abolished. The war of 1812 really impacted New England and Deep South because occupants of these areas opposed the war and were taken as British allies. After the Battle of New Orleans, there was hostility towards these regions, especially New England. As a result, in 1814 to 1815, the state of New England held a conference where they called upon the federal government to restore the states’ control over their militia and finances.
They were against participation in the blockade or war taxation. Rumors did rounds that the conference that was convened in New England was intended for secession and leaving the union. This fueled a lot of animosity. In fact, occupants of New England were suspiciously looked at and it took some time before they regained their standing7. With these unfolding of events, New York took over as the most important city in the North East and New England was relegated to the backseat of the thriving metropolis.
When the War of 1812 broke out, the slaves in the Deep South joined ranks with the British because they were promised freedom. African Americans risked their lives in the process of aiding the course of the British soldiers. However, they faced a disappointment of lifetime when the British did very little to keep their promise to them8. Just like the African American slaves, the Native Americans were also losers in the war.
In fact, after the war, the British withdrew their financial and military support from the Native Americans who occupied the western frontier. They faced more devastating effects as more white settlers moved into their lands, in addition, they had no leader who could unify them against the white settlers leave alone the money to buy arms to be used in their resentment against settler occupation. They either moved west or were segregated among the white settlers.
Their problems multiplied when Andrew Jackson, a confessed Indian hater, became the president and declared that he would destroy all Native American groups within the United States. In fact, he overturned a Supreme Court order that endeavored to protect Cherokees. The Cherokees were marched from Georgia to Oklahoma in 18389.
Summary of main events of the war
Neither side was prepared to go to war. The British were so pre-occupied with the Napoleonic wars10 and this prompted the Royal Navy to blockade most of the coast of Europe. The British Navy had to use a defensive strategy where a few troops could be sent to reinforce North America. On July 12, 1812, about 1000 untrained American forces occupied Sandwich. This group later retreated and surrendered to British troops, Canadian militia, and Native Americans11.
The United States forces were subsequently defeated in the Battle of Queenston Heights. They also tried to recapture Montreal but failed due to logistical problems. After losing a series of battles, American forces retreated in disarray in October 1813. In 1813, American forces regained control of Lake Erie in the battle of Lake Erie12.
After suffering this defeat, the Royal Navy was once again defeated in the battle of Thames in October 181313. The British Royal Navy attacked Washington and burnt the White House, the Capitol, the Navy Yard, and other buildings. The veteran troops were sent to the United States in 1814 leading to the invasion of New York14. However, the American forces gained control of Lake Champlain. The British lost the Battle of Plattsburg in September 1814.
Arguments have always been made to the effect of who won and who lost the War of 1812. Native Indians were the clear losers of this war. They virtually lost their land, their power, and the hope of one day becoming autonomous. The fact that the war ended without any side gaining or loosing territory helped in ushering in a new era of friendly relationship between the United States and Britain. It is not contested that the treaty of Ghent brought down the curtains of war that neither side seemed ready to fight.
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Hibbert, Christopher. Wellington: A personal History. Reading, MA: Perseus Books, 1997.
Hickey, Donald. The War of 1812: A forgotten Conflict. Urbana, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989.
Hickey, Donald R. The War of 1812: A Short History. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.
Latimer, Jon. War with America. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2007.
Malcomson, Robert. Historical Dictionary of the War of 1812. Land ham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2006.
Schama, Simon. Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution. New York: Harper Collins, 2006.
Tanner, Helen H. Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History. University of Oklahoma Press, 1987.
Taylor, Alan. The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2010.
Updyke, Frank A. The Diplomacy of the War of 1812. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1915.
1 Hibbert, Wellington: A personal History, (Reading, MA: Perseus Books, 1997), 47
2 Latimer, War with America, (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2007), 74-77
4 Updyke. The Diplomacy of the War of 1812. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1915), 12.
5 Latimer. War with America. (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2007), 3-6.
6 Latimer. War with America. (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2007), 40.
7 Latimer, War with America, (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2007), 12.
8 Schama, Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution, (New York: Harper Collins, 2006), 54.
9 Tanner, Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History, (University of Oklahoma Press, 1987), 15.
10 Hickey, The War of 1812: A forgotten Conflict, (Urbana, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989), 67-9.
11Taylor, The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies, (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2010), 5.
12 Malcomson, Historical Dictionary of the War of 1812, (Land ham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2006), 4.
13 Hickey, The War of 1812: A Short History, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995), 17.
14 Heidler and Heidler, The War of 1812. (Westport; London: Greenwood Press, 2002), 29-32.