Panel 1Only twenty-nine years after winning its independence from Great Britain in the American Revolutionary War, the United States found itself at war once again with its former mother country. The War of 1812 began on June 18, 1812 when Congress officially declared war on Great Britain, the first time Congress had ever issued such a declaration. But the extremely close vote (79-49 in the House of Representatives and 19-13 in the Senate) revealed that the country was by no means united behind the war effort. Because of the lack of unity, this war turned out to be one of America's worst-fought wars. The United States declared war on Great Britain in 1812 for many reasons, but the roots of the conflict can be traced back to a series of wars between France and Great Britain in the 1790s and early 1800s known as the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars. During the early years of these wars, the United States made a great deal of money as a neutral maritime carrier trading with both France and Great Britain. However, by 1805, the British began to blockade French ports, and the French responded by cutting off all European and American trade into British ports. As a result, Britain and France began to seize American merchant ships headed for enemy ports, an act considered by many Americans to be a clear violation
of America's maritime rights. As much as Americans hated the capture of American ships, they hated the abduction of actual Americans much more. The British Navy's use of impressment - the practice of seizing American sailors and forcing them to serve in the Royal Navy - really wounded American pride. Many Americans called for a declaration of war long before 1812, but President Thomas Jefferson and then President James Madison preferred instead to keep the peace through economic sanctions. The declaration of war in 1812 came not only because of perceived violations of America's maritime rights, but also because of events happening on the northwestern frontier in America. As American pioneers began to move west, they increasingly encroached on Indian lands. The Indians, wanting to turn back the white settlers and defend their land, looked to the British military in Canada for support. Though Indian efforts to stem the tide of American settlers proved to be unsuccessful even with British support, many Americans became convinced that the only way to solve the nation's problems with the Indians once and for all was to remove their British allies from Canada. Cries of "On to Canada, on to Canada" could be heard in the halls of Congress from the most vocal American proponents for war against Great Britain, the so-called "War Hawks" who had been
swept into Congress in the election of 1810. These "War Hawks" were newly elected southern and western congressmen who were outraged by the continued humiliation of impressment and fed up with the continuing Indian threats. They wanted the president, James Madison, to act boldly against Britain. Bowing to pressure, President Madison sent a war mes- sage to Congress and Congress responded with a declaration of war. The United States entered the war a divided nation. Most of the support for the war came from Republicans in the south and west. But members of the other major party in the country at the time, the Federalist Party, opposed the war. Disunited and militarily unprepared, the United States went to war against the most powerful empire in the world. Things went badly for the United States from the start.Panel 2The American offensive strategy against Canada was poorly conceived and executed. In 1812 and again in 1813, the British and Canadians very easily repelled several American land invasions into Canada. Fortunately for the United States, they had much greater success on the sea. America did not have nearly the amount of vessels as the British, but the American frigates were manned by more skillful crews, had more firepower, and thicker sides. As a result, the Americans won some impressive victories in single-ship engagements, perhaps none more famous than the USS Constitution's (nicknamed "Old Ironsides) destruction of the HMS Guerriere in 1812. By 1814, despite a few successes on the sea, the United States was far from achieving its intended goal of conquering Canada. In fact, Americans were being forced to defend their homeland against invading Brits. By the middle of 1814, when Britain finally defeated Napoleon in Europe, it began to turn its undivided attention to the war effort in America. The British began to send thousands of new troops into America. They also had developed a very well-defined three-pronged strategy- attack New York, move into the Chesapeake Bay to overwhelm Washington D.C., and seize New Orleans in order to control the Mississippi River. Things did not go as easily as the British had planned. In New York, as the Brits came down Lake Champlain, an American fleet led by Thomas Macdonough engaged and defeated them at the Battle of Plattsburgh Bay. In D.C., British troops met much less resistance. They were able to enter Chesapeake Bay and march into Washington with relative ease in August 1814. The British troops proceeded to burn most of the public buildings there including the Capitol building and White House. Their attempt to take nearby Baltimore in September, however, turned out to be a failure. The Americans were able to withstand a major naval bombardment at Fort McHenry which inspired Francis Scott Key to write the "Star-Spangled Banner." While British troops made their way to New Orleans for the third phase of their strategy, peace talks were in progress in the Belgian town of Ghent. They had started back in August 1814, but the British stalled to see how their efforts in New York and Washington D.C. turned out before commit- ting to anything. When news of Plattsburgh and Baltimore reached them, they decided to seek peace. For their part, the Americans decided that not losing the war was victory enough. The Treaty of Ghent, signed on December 24, 1814, settled almost none of the issues over which the war was fought. The Americans got no British assurances to end impressment and the British failed to get Indian buffer states in the northwestern territory which had become one of their main goals. The treaty was essentially an armistice. Nevertheless, most Americans came away with the notion that the United States had won the war even though it had not reached any of its objectives. In large part, that feeling came from the pride the nation felt in winning the Battle of New Orleans, a battle waged ironically two weeks after the war was officially over. Because trans-Atlantic communication in the early nineteenth century was slow, the news about the signing of the Treaty of Ghent did not make it back to America until after Andrew Jackson's outnumbered American army defeated the British army on January 8, 1815. This ushered in a period of American patriotism that brought the country together. The nation entered the War of 1812 divided, but came out as one.