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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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The Battle of Lake Champlain 11 September 1814

The American victory at the Battle of Lake Champlain, sometimes called the Battle of Plattsburg, on 11 September 1814 was the most decisive naval victory of the War of 1812.

In September 1814 11,000 British and Canadian troops under Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost invaded New York State. Prevost’s men were a mixture of veteran units recently arrived from the Peninsular War, British soldiers already in Canada and Canadians. His intention was to march along the western bank of Lake Champlain. The lakeside town of Plattsburg was defended by fewer than 2,000 effectives under Brigadier-General Alexander Macomb.[1]

The British plan required naval control of Lake Champlain. Both sides strengthened their squadrons in August, with the brig USS Eagle being launched on 16 August and the frigate HMS Confiance nine days later.

The following table shows that the British had two ships more than the Americans, with a greater total tonnage and more sailors, although the British ships may have carried fewer men than their official complements. The total broadsides fired by the two squadrons were very similar, but the British had a significant advantage at long range. Confiance was much bigger than any other vessel on either side, so the advantage would swing towards the Americans if they could put her out of action.

Displacement Broadside, tons
Name Tons Crew Total Long Short
USS Saratoga 734 240 414 96 318
USS Eagle 500 150 264 72 192
USS Ticonderoga 350 112 180 94 96
USS Preble 80 30 36 36 0
6 American gunboats totalling 420 246 252 144 108
4 American gunboats totalling 160 104 48 48
14 American vessels totalling 2244 882 1194 490 714
HMS Confiance 1200 325 480 384 96
HMS Linnet 350 125 96 96 0
HMS Chubb 112 50 96 6 90
HMS Finch 110 50 84 12 72
5 British gunboats totalling 350 205 254 108 146
7 British gunboats totalling 280 182 182 54 128
16 British ships totalling 2402 937 1192 660 532
Source: T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812. 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2), vol. Ii, pp. 117-20. The original gives the broadside of the 5 larger British gunboats as being 12 tons from long guns and 72 from short guns. This is presumably a typo, being both improbably low and the same as HMS Finch in the row above. The correct figure has been calculated from Roosevelt’s totals.

Lake Champlain is long and narrow with the wind normally blowing either north or south and a northward current.

Master Commandant [equivalent to a modern Commander] Thomas Macdonough, the American naval commander, anchored his ships in a line in Plattsburg Bay, which meant that the British would have to engage at short range, negating their advantage at long range. The northern end of his line was so close to Cumberland Head that the British could not turn it. A shoal prevented the British from attacking his southern flank.

The order of the American line from the north was the USS Eagle, flanked by two gunboats on each side, Macdonough’s flagship the USS Saratoga, three gunboats, the USS Ticonderoga, three gunboats and finally the USS Preble. The anchors of the four largest American ships had springs attached to them, enabling them to swing in wide arcs whilst remaining anchored. The USS Saratoga, had kedge anchors off her bows, which would allow her to turn round. The positioning of the gunboats prevented the British from attacking the American line from both side, as Lord Nelson had done to the French at the Nile.

Captain George Downie’s British squadron sailed at daybreak and sailed down the lake with the wind almost aft. HMS Chubb and Linnet engaged the Eagle, Downie’s flagship HMS Confiance the USS Saratoga and HMS Finch and the gunboats the rear of the American line.

Downie held HMS Confiance’s fire until everything was ready, with the result that her first broadside was devastating. Half of the USS Saratoga’s crew were thrown off their feet, although many of them were not seriously hurt. However, the American ship replied and Downie was soon killed. Both ships had many guns put out of action, some by enemy fire, others because their inexperienced crews overloaded them.

HMS Chubb was badly damaged by the USS Eagle and the leading American gunboats, drifted away and was captured. HMS Linnet concentrated on the USS Eagle, which was also receiving some of HMS Confiance’s fire. Damage to one of the USS Eagle’s springs meant that she could no longer fire on HMS Linnet, so she cut her other cable, sailed south and anchored in a position where she could fire on HMS Confiance. HMS Linnet then fired on the American gunboats and drove them off, before raking the USS Saratoga’s bows.

Theodore Roosevelt notes that the American would now have lost the battle ‘had not Macdonough’s foresight provided the means of retrieving it.’[2] He ordered the anchor astern of the USS Saratoga to be let go and had her hauled round far enough to allow her undamaged port batteries to come into action.

HMS Confiance had been anchored by springs on her unengaged starboard side. These could not be shot away as had those of the USS Eagle, but did not allow her to turn in order to bring her unengaged batteries into action. With over half her crew casualties, most of the guns on her engaged side out of action and her masts and sails badly damaged, she was forced to strike her colours about two hours after she opened fire.

HMS Linnet could not withdraw because of the damage to her masts and sails, but kept on fighting in the hope that the British gunboats would come to her aid. They did not, and she was forced strike her colours about two and a half hours after the battle began. HMS Finch had already been crippled by the USS Ticonderoga and forced aground. The British gunboats withdrew, possibly taking a shot accidentally fired from HMS Confiance by the Americans after her capture, as a signal to do so.

Roosevelt estimates that over 300 British and about 200 Americans were killed and wounded in the battle. Macdonough reported 52 killed and 58 wounded, but this excludes about 90 lightly wounded who did not have to go to hospital. The Americans took 180 dead and wounded from HMS Confiance, 50 from HMS Linnet and 40 from4 HMS Chubb and Finch. There were 55 shot holes in the USS Saratoga and 105 in HMS Confiance. Macdonough allowed the captured British officers to keep their swords because of the gallant fight that they had put up.[3]

Lake Champlain was the United States Navy’s greatest victory of the War of 1812. The frigate actions were all won by the stronger side. Macdonough was faced by a squadron that was much stronger than his at long range and roughly equal at short range. He placed his squadron in such a way as to force the British to fight at short range and to give him an advantage. Roosevelt describes him as ‘the greatest figure in [US} naval history’ before the American Civil War.’[4]

Alfred Mahan blames Prevost for the British defeat, arguing that he should have taken Plattsburg before the naval action.[5] The American shore batteries of the fortress could not fire on the British squadron without risking hitting the American one. However, if there had been British guns on the shore Macdonough’s position would have been untenable. He would have had to have moved his squadron further out into the lake, where the British superiority in long range gunnery ought to have proved decisive.

Prevost, however, thought that a joint attack on land and water  had to be made. His orders to Downie, according to Mahan, ‘used language indefensible to itself, tending to goad a sensitive man into action contrary to his better judgement.’[6] The land attack was called off once it became clear that the British had lost the naval action.

The result of the Battle of Lake Champlain was that the British invasion of the USA was halted. because it was impossible to advance on land without control of the lake. Peace negotiations had started in Ghent the month before, and the British would have been able to obtain better terms had they held a significant amount of US territory.

[1] T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2). vol. ii, pp. 113-14.

[2] Ibid., pp. 137-38.

[3] Ibid., pp. 140-41. and footnote 2,

[4] Ibid., p. 143.

[5] A. T. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812, 2 vols. (London: Samson Low, Marston, 1905). vol. ii, p. 201.

[6] Ibid., p. 201.

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The Battle of New Orleans 8 January 1815

Negotiations between the United Kingdom and the United States to end the War of 1812 began in Ghent in late August 1814. A peace treaty was signed on 24 December and ratified by the British government three days later. However, the slow speed of communications in those days meant that it took some time until the news reached the USA. Fighting therefore continued for nearly two months.

In December 1814 10,000 British troops landed near New Orleans. They were commanded by Sir Edward Pakenham, like most of his men a veteran of the Peninsular War. The advance guard under Major General John Keane camped nine miles from New Orleans at noon on 23 December. By the early evening his initial 1,900 men had been joined by another 400.[1]

Andrew Jackson, who had been in command of the defences for only three weeks, decided to strike the first blow. He attacked Keane with a force of just over 2,000 after dark on 23 December. The British troops were more experienced as well as more numerous. They could possibly claim a tactical victory as they held their ground, albeit at the expense of nearly 300 casualties versus over 200 American. The latter withdrew three miles.

However, the action was a strategic success for the Americans, who halted the British advance for long enough to erect a series of breastworks, defended by 3,000 men, with their flank protected by the corvette USS Louisiana in the Mississippi.

Pakenham advanced to the breastwork on Christmas Day. He then halted for three days, before launching a series of probing assaults. Heavy British guns were brought up, with the intention of attacking on 1 January. However, the Americans had the better of the pre-attack artillery duel, so Pakenham cancelled the assault.

The next attack was to take place on 8 January. A canal would be dug to take 1,500 men under Colonel William Thornton to the Mississippi in ship’s boats. They would then cross the river and assault a redoubt that had been established on the west bank with three 24 pounders and six 12 pounders, which could fire into the flank of the attack by the other 8,500 men on the east bank.

The official US returns stated that there were initially 4,698 men on the east bank and 546 on the west. Another 500 men were ordered by Jackson the reinforce the latter, but 100 did not arrive in time and only 250 of the others were armed. This gives a total of 5,494 Americans at the battle, but Theodore Roosevelt notes that there may be a double counting of the 500 sent to the west bank, reducing Jackson’s force to about 5,000.[2]

The sounds of the British preparation alerted Jackson the impending assault, so his men were on the alert before dawn. The British attackers on the east bank were initially protected by a fog, but it lifted when they were 400 yards from the American defences.

The sides of the canal that was intended to take Thornton’s force to the river caved in, with the result that it was late in setting off and only 700 men crossed. They landed in the wrong place, but were able to take their objective. Jackson organised a counter attack, but the British withdrew before it went in as Colonel Alexander Dickson, the British artillery commander, estimated that 2,000 men would be needed to hold the position.

By then, the main British attack had been repulsed with heavy casualties. Pakenham, his second in command Major General Sir Samuel Gibbs being killed. Keane was wounded, leaving Major General Sir John Lambert, the only uninjured British general present, in command. Gibbs, Keane and Lambert had all been knighted on 2 January. Wikipedia gives British casualties as being 2,042: 291 killed, 1,267 wounded and 484 captured or missing. American ones were 71: 13 dead, 39 wounded and 19 missing.

The two armies then faced each other for 10 days. The position was too strong for the British to take, especially as Jackson was receiving reinforcements. However, he was unwilling to attack, since the British troops were more experienced than the Americans, so would have an advantage fighting in the open.

Lambert retreated his force on 18 January. It re-embarked on its transport ships and headed for Mobile. On 8 February 1,500 men were landed at Fort Boyer, which surrendered with the honours of wars on 12 February, a few hours before the news of the end of the war arrived. Casualties were 11 Americans and 31 British.

New Orleans was a major US victory that saved the city and Louisiana from being devastated. As Americans learnt of it before they heard about the end of the war, it was natural for them to assume that it won them the war. However, this was not the case as peace terms had already been agreed. Jackson, the architect of the victory, was rightly regarded as the best American general of the war and later became President.

 

 

[1] Troop numbers and casualties are from T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2). vol. ii, pp. 211-68

[2] Ibid., p. 238. Note 2.

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