The End of the War of 1812

The War of 1812 between the United Kingdom and the United States of America, which began when the USA declared war on 18 June 1812, formally ended on 18 February 1815 when the US Senate unanimously ratified the Treaty of Ghent, which had been signed on 24 December 1814. It was a war without a clear winner, but it did have a clear loser: the Native Americans.

The British initially demanded at the peace conference that a Native American buffer state be set up in the Ohio/Wisconsin area, but were not in strong enough position to insist on this proposal when the USA rejected it, so  quickly dropped the idea. Most, although not all Native Americans, backed the UK in the war. The Creeks also fought and lost a war with the USA in 1813-14.

The Native Americans played a significant role in several British victories, including Detroit and Queenston. However, the death of their leader Tecumseh at the Thames was a severe blow. The British inability to establish a Native American state left them open to US expansion westwards after the war.

The USA had originally gone to war because the UK’s economic war with Napoleonic France was producing British interference with US trade and because the Royal Navy impressed [often shortened to press] US sailors into service. Under British law, the RN was entitle to impress, or conscript, British merchant sailors. These included men who it considered to be British, but who were US citizens in American eyes.

All these causes disappeared when Napoleon was forced to abdicate in April 1814, but fighting in North America continued. Negotiations between the belligerents began at Ghent in August 1814. The victory of the Anglo-Canadian army at Lundy’s Lane on 25 July had by then ended the threat of a US invasion of Canada. The US naval victory at Lake Champlain on 11 September ended the threat of a British invasion of the USA. Consequently, although both countries held some enemy territory, neither had enough of an advantage to affect the negotiations.

The negotiations continued for several months. Eventually, war weariness, the stalemate along the frontier and the removal of the original American grievances by the end of the UK’s war with France led to the negotiators agreeing terms on 24 December: little changed from the pre-war situation. They still had to be ratified by the respective governments: geography meant that the UK did so very quickly, but it took until February before the terms reached Washington.

Operations continued until then. The British control of the seas meant that they could launch a series of amphibious assaults, including one that resulted in the burning of the White House and an unsuccessful attack on Baltimore and another that led to the American victory at New Orleans.

Many Americans heard of the end of the war soon after they learnt of their victory at New Orleans, so it was natural for them to assume that New Orleans had won the war for the USA, but this was not the case. The British were in the early stages of an attack on Mobile when they learnt of the end of the war. It took some time until all the warships at sea learnt that a peace treaty had been signed, so some naval actions took place after the official end of the war.

If there was a decisive American victory of the war it was Lake Champlain. It prevented the British from capturing American territory, which would have given them a bargaining chip that might have forced the US to accept their demand for a Native American buffer state.

Although the war was a draw, a draw was enough for the USA to firmly establish itself as an independent nation and for Canada to remain part of the British Empire and thus later become an independent nation. The war gave Canada a sense of national identity.

The United States Navy was a relative gainer, since it put up a better performance than the United States Army and a established a tradition of victory. However, apart from Lake Champlain, the major naval actions of the war were won by the side that should have won on paper.

The US squadron at Lake Erie was much stronger than the British one. The USS Constitution captured HMS Guerriere and HMS Java in separate actions, whilst the USS United States took HMS Macedonian. In each case the US ship was more powerful.

The apparently most evenly balanced frigate action was when HMS Shannon captured the USS Chesapeake, which was similar in size and firepower. However, Philip Broke had captained the British ship for seven years, training her crew to a high level of efficiency. Captain James Lawrence had been in command of  the American ship for only 12 days. The other two American frigates to be captured by the British, the USS Essex and President, were both outnumbered. The sloop USS Wasp captured the roughly equal brig HMS Frolic, but was then forced to surrender to the much stronger HMS Poictiers.

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