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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 Capture of the USS President 15 January 1815

The United Kingdom and United States of America agreed terms to end the War of 1812 on 24 December 1814. They were ratified by the UK government three days later, but the slow speed of communications from Europe to America meant that fighting continued until well into February.

The American frigate USS President (44 guns), the sloops USS Hornet and Peacock and the schooner USS Tom Bowline were in New York at the start of 1815. Commodore Stephen Decatur, captain of the President, intended to break out in order to raid British shipping. The harbour was large, but difficult to enter and leave in bad weather because of the many sand banks between Coney Island and Sandy Hook.[1]

On 13 January the port was blockaded by the razee (a 74 gun ship of the line cut down to be a heavy frigate), HMS Majestic (58) and the frigates HMS Endymion (40), Pomone (38) and Tenedos (38). Note that ships often carried more guns carried than their official rating. Captain Henry Hope’s Endymion, which had recently suffered heavy casualties in an unsuccessful attempt to capture the American privateer Prince de Neufchatel, had just arrived to replace her sister HMS Forth.

USS President: 32 x 24 pound long guns, 22 x 42 pound carronades (very powerful but short ranged guns), one 18 pound long gun.

USS Hornet: 18 x 32 pound carronades, two 12 pound long guns.

USS Peacock: 20 x 32 pound carronades, two 12 pound long guns

USS Tom Bowline: 12 guns. Size unknown.

HMS Majestic: 28 x 32 pound long guns, 28 x 42 pound carronades, two 12 pound long guns.

HMS Endymion: 26 x 24 pound long guns, 20 x 32 pound carronades, two 9 pound long guns.

HMS Pomone: 28 x 18 pound long guns, 16 x 32 pound carronades, two 9 pound long guns.

HMS Tenedos: 28 x 18 pound long guns, eight 32 pound carronades, 10 x 9 pound long guns.

The British squadron was clearly superior, whilst in a single ship action Majestic outgunned President, which was stronger than any of the British frigates, which were far superior to the three smaller US ships.

The British commander, Commodore John Hayes of Majestic, was expecting a break out, as the British had intelligence that the President ‘was victualled and stored for a very long voyage, even…seven or eight months…with…charts of the East Indies.’[2]

There was a snow storm on 14 January, which split up the British squadron for a period. Decatur decided to take advantage of this to slip out that night. The President was accompanied by the Macedonian, a supply ship owned by the first John Jacob Astor. She was a merchantman, not the frigate of the same name that then served in the United States Navy after being captured by Decatur’s USS United States from the Royal Navy in 1812. The Tom Bowline should also have gone with them, but she ran aground on 13 January, so was ordered to sail with the Peacock and Hornet later.[3]

The night was dark and windy, which made it easier to evade the blockade force, but hard to safely navigate the difficult waters. This was compounded by the fact that, although Decatur and his crew were very experienced seamen, this was the first time that they had taken her to sea; they had been transferred to her from the United States in May 1814, as there was no prospect of the latter breaking out from New London.[4]

The President, deeply laden with stores because she had been ordered to undertake a lengthy cruise, ran aground at 8:00 pm. She managed to free herself after over an hour and resumed her course. Her damage reduced her speed; Alfred Mahan and Theodore Roosevelt both state that she would have returned to port for repairs if the westerly gale had permitted this, but Andrew Lambert thinks it ‘more likely’ that Decatur did not want to rather than could not return to port.[5]

At 5:00 am the President encountered Majestic, Pomone and Endymion, which had been separated by the storm, but were now together again. A chase developed, with Tenedos re-joining by 8:00 am. The winds lightened around mid-day, and the heavy Majestic fell back. Decatur tried to lighten ship, jettisoning stores, but his and his crew’s lack of knowledge of their ship made it hard to optimise her trim.[6]

Endymion, the fastest of the ships involved, gained on the President, which opened fire on her at 2:00 pm. The British quickly replied.

Both captains intended to slow the enemy down by damaging her rigging. The British had won many actions against brave but poorly trained and led French and Spanish crews by quickly closing to close range, firing at the enemy’s hull and boarding if required. These tactics had failed against the Americans, who were better seamen and tacticians than Britain’s other opponents of this era. The US ships carried 20 per cent more anti-rigging ammunition than British ones, using it to cripple the British ship’s sails and masts before they could close the range. The Americans could then out manoeuvre the British.[7]

By 5:00 pm Endymion was just over 100 yards off the President’s starboard quarter, ‘a near perfect position’ from which few American guns could reply.[8] Decatur’s problem was that if he turned his ship to try and bring her superior broadside to bear she would no longer be heading away from the other British ships. However, in the current position she would soon be slowed by damage to her masts and rigging, so at 5:30 pm he turned her in an attempt to cross Endymion’s bow and rake her.

Hope could not allow his ship to be raked, so reacted to this move, resulting in the ships exchanging broadsides. The President fired at Endymion’s rigging, hoping to disable her in order to allow herself to escape. The British ship fired into the American one’s hull, aiming to inflict casualties and destroy guns. The effect of the American gunfire was reduced by poor quality powder.[9]

By around 8:00 pm Endymion’s rigging was mostly shot away. Lambert says that the President showed a light in her rigging at 7:58 pm, the night signal of surrender. Hope prioritised repairing his ship’s rigging and did not have any intact boats to send to take the surrender, so the President was able to sail away.[10] A ship that had struck her colours could not fire on the enemy, but was not obliged to heave to and wait to be boarded.

Roosevelt, however, makes no mention of the President striking her colours, writing that ‘Decatur did not board [Endymion] merely because her consorts were too close astern.’[11] Mahan argues that ‘[t]here is…no ground whatever for the assumption that the Endymion did, or singly would, have beaten the President.’[12]

Pomone, followed by Tenedos, caught up with the President by 11:00 pm. The American ship surrendered after Pomone had fired two broadsides at her. Lambert contends that Decatur’s failure to resist proves that he had struck his colours to Endymion.

Mahan quotes Decatur as saying that the damage and casualties suffered by his ship and the strength of the enemy meant that ‘without a chance of escape, I deemed it my duty to surrender.’[13] However, he goes on to suggest that Decatur ought to have engaged Pomone unless his ship was as badly damaged as the British claimed, since putting a second British frigate out of action would have significantly weakened the blockade of New York.[14] Roosevelt argues that Decatur had beaten Endymion, but then acted ‘rather tamely’ in surrendering.[15]

The most likely explanation is that, whether Decatur did or did not strike his colours to Endymion, his ship was too badly damaged to resist two British frigates even if they were both weaker than his ship. The British were able to examine the President after they captured her, so could see how bad the damage was. They took her into service under the same name, but broke her up only three years later. Another and very similar HMS President was then built. The actions of Decatur, whose personal courage has never ben doubted, at the time, and the RN three years later suggest that his ship was very badly damaged in its action with Endymion.

Casualties were 24 killed and 55 wounded out of 450 men on the President according to Roosevelt, but Lambert says 35 were killed and 70, including Decatur, wounded. Both give 11 killed and 14 wounded out of 346 on Endymion. Roosevelt says that many of the US casualties were inflicted by Pomone’s two broadsides.[16] Lambert notes that Decatur claimed this, but quote the President’s chaplain, Mr Bowie, as saying that Endymion caused all her casualties.[17]

Endymion had inflicted most, if not all, of the damage, but the RN’s rules were quite clear; the victory, and thus the prize money, was shared between the whole squadron since all were in sight of the enemy.

The other three American ships managed to get out of New York on 20 January, heading for a rendezvous at Tristan da Cunha. The Hornet arrived first, on 23 March. She met a British sloop, HMS Penguin, which was slightly inferior to herself: 16 x 32 pound carronades, and three 12 pound long guns, one of which could fire on either broadside.

Lambert says that the British knew that the war was over and told the Americans, but a fight still took place.[18] Penguin was forced to surrender, being so badly damaged that she had to be scuttled. Hornet suffered little damage. The British lost 14 killed and 28 wounded, the Americans one killed and 10 wounded.[19] This was one of the more evenly matched battles in a war in which the naval actions were normally won by the side that ought to have won on paper.

The Peacock, Tom Bowline and Macedonian arrived at Tristan da Cunha the next day. Peacock captured the East India Company sloop Nautilus on 30 June, but the prize had to be returned to its owners as the war had then been over for four and a half months.

 

 

[1] A. D. Lambert, The Challenge: Britain against America in the Naval War of 1812 (London: Faber, 2012). Kindle edition location 6896 of 12307

[2] Quoted in Ibid. location 6934.

[3] Ibid. location 7001.

[4] A. T. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812, 2 vols. (London: Samson Low, Marston, 1905). vol. ii, p. 397.

[5] Lambert, The Challenge. location 7005; Mahan, Sea Power 1812. vol. ii, p. 398; T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2). vol. ii, p. 146.

[6] Lambert, The Challenge. location 7043.

[7] Ibid. locations 7067-90.

[8] Ibid. location 7100.

[9] Roosevelt, Naval War. vol. ii, p. 150.

[10] Lambert, The Challenge. locations 7175-87.

[11] Roosevelt, Naval War. vol. ii, p. 148.

[12] Mahan, Sea Power 1812. vol. ii, p. 401.

[13] Quoted in Ibid. vol. ii, p. 402.

[14] Ibid. vol. ii, p. 403.

[15] Roosevelt, Naval War. vol. ii, p. 153.

[16] Lambert, The Challenge. location 7230; Roosevelt, Naval War. vol. ii. pp. 149-50.

[17] Lambert, The Challenge. location 7304-11.

[18] Ibid. location 7280.

[19] Mahan, Sea Power 1812. vol. ii, p. 406-7.

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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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The Burning of the White House and the Star Spangled Banner

On 2 June 1814, 2,500 men from Wellington’s army under the command of Major General Robert Ross, like many of his men a Peninsular War veteran, left Bordeaux, arriving at Bermuda on 25 July. Another battalion of 900 men was then added to Ross’s force.

Ross’s force and its naval escort then proceeded to Tangier Island in Chesapeake Bay where it joined a British fleet commanded by Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, who had been appointed to command of the Royal Navy’s North American Station in March. The combined fleet included more than 20 warships, four of them ships of the line, and a large number of transports. Ross’s force was increased to over 4,000 men by the addition of 700 marines.[1]

Cochrane sent frigates up the Potomac and towards Baltimore in order to confuse the Americans before entering the Patuxent. On 19 August Ross’s force made an unopposed landing at Benedict, 50 miles from Washington.. However, the difficulty of including horses in an amphibious operation meant his force lacked cavalry and had only one 6 pounder and two 3 pounder guns, which had to be man-handled.

Jeremy Black notes that:

‘the British could not only take Washington without fatal effects to the American war effort…but…the Americans had the opportunity to withdraw from Washington without losing their capacity to maintain their forces.’[2]

At Bladensburg on 24 August, Ross attacked a larger American force commanded by Brigadier-General William Winder, a lawyer before the war. He had been captured at the Battle of Stoney’s Creek in July 1813, and had only recently been released as part of a prisoner exchange.

Alfred Mahan quotes the subsequent US Court of Enquiry as saying that Winder had 5-6,000 men, all but 400 of them militia. The Navy had provided 120 marines under Captain Miller and the 500 sailors of Commodore Joshua Barney’s gunboat flotilla, but Barney had to leave some of his men behind to burn their vessels.[3]

Theodore Roosevelt says that the militia fled so quickly that only 1,500 British troops got into action, to be faced by 78 marines under Miller and 370 sailors under Barney with two 18 pounder guns and three 12 pounders.[4]

Mahan gives British casualties as being 64 killed and 184 wounded. He says that only 10 or 12 Americans were killed and 40 wounded ‘by the estimate of their superintending surgeon.’[5] Wikipedia quotes sources giving a range of 10-26 Americans killed, 40-51 wounded and 100-20 captured.  The small number of losses suffered by the losing side indicates how few Americans stood and fought. This should be blamed on politicians who did not make proper provision for the defence of their capital, rather than on poorly equipped, inexperienced and badly led citizen soldiers.

The British entered Washington the same night without further fighting. Rear Admiral George Cockburn ordered the destruction of the public buildings and military facilities, including the White House. Black comments that this was done:

‘in retaliation for American destructiveness at York in 1813, an attempt at equivalence not generally mentioned in American public history where the emphasis, instead, is in damage by the British.’[6]

It is often claimed that the White House is so called because it was painted white to hide the scorch marks from the burning. In fact it is built of white-grey sandstone;  the name was used unofficially from about 1810, when it was officially named the Executive Mansion, but it did not become the official name until 1902: see the Encyclopaedia Britannica‘s website.

Ross ordered that private property should not be destroyed. This was obeyed, with the exception of a small number of buildings whose occupants resisted the invaders. British looters were flogged.

The Americans themselves burnt the Navy Yard, its stores and supplies and two warships that were almost complete: the 44 gun frigate USS Columbia and the 18 gun USS Argus. The damage from this destruction alone was estimated to have cost $500,000.[7]

The invaders re-embarked on 30 August and landed at North Point, 10 miles from Baltimore. A force of Maryland militia confronted Ross and his advance guard. The British attacked and the Americans, assuming that they were heavily outnumbered, retreated, but Ross was killed.

The British, now under Colonel Arthur Brooke, another veteran, continued to advance, but met more Americans. The British defeated them, but Brooke halted his force a mile and a half from Baltimore as the British believed that the army could not advance further until the navy had overcome Fort McHenry. Baltimore’s defences had been greatly improved by Major General Samuel Smith, a rich merchant who commanded the Baltimore militia and was a Republican Senator.

The naval bombardment was carried out by the rocket ship HMS Erebus and the bomb ketches Devastation, Aetna, Meteor, Terror and Volcano, each carrying a 13 inch mortar with a range of two and a half miles. The bombardment lasted from dawn on 13 September to 7:30 am on 14 September. From 1,500 to 2,000 rockets and bombs were fired, but relatively little damage was done. Only four Americans were killed and 24 wounded.

The British ships stayed out of range of Fort McHenry’s guns, with the exception of a short period on the afternoon of 13 September, when they closed the range, before withdrawing again after being damaged by American fire. Ships of that period were vulnerable to forts, so the British were forced to stay at a range where they could do little damage. A night time amphibious assault also failed.

Brooke’s men re-embarked at North Point on 15 September and were taken to Jamaica. From there, they could threaten the Gulf Coast of the USA. The British defeat at Baltimore did not end their blockade of the USA.

The American victory was celebrated by Francis Scott Key in a poem called the Defence of Fort McHenry. It was then set to the tune of a British song called The Anacreontic Song, written by John Stafford Smith for the Anacreontic Society, a London social club for amateur musicians. It was renamed The Star Spangled Banner and became the US national anthem in 1931.

HMS Terror was used as a polar exploration ship from 1836; bomb vessels had to be strongly built, so were particularly suited to operating in ice. She was fitted with a steam engine before being sent on the expedition led by Sir John Franklin that set off in 1845 to try and find the Northwest Passage.

The HMS Erebus that accompanied her was not the ship of the same name that had taken part in the bombardment of Fort McHenry. The entire expedition was lost, but in September 2014 the underwater wreck of Erebus was found.

 

 

[1] Troop and ship numbers are from A. T. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812, 2 vols. (London: Samson Low, Marston, 1905). vol, ii, p. 184

[2] J. Black, The War of 1812 in the Age of Napoleon (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009), p. 167.

[3] Mahan, Sea Power 1812. vol. ii, pp. 185-87

[4] T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2). vol. ii, p. 44.

[5] Mahan, Sea Power 1812. vol. ii, p. 189.

[6] Black, War of 1812, p. 174.

[7] A. D. Lambert, The Challenge: Britain against America in the Naval War of 1812 (London: Faber, 2012). Kindle edition, location 6238.

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Lundy’s Lane and the Niagara Front in 1814

Major General Jacob Brown, commanding the US Left Division, failed to follow up the US victory at Chippawa on 5 July

1812. He allowed the defeated British, commanded by Major General Phineas Riall, to retreat to Fort George near the mouth of the River Niagara on Lake Ontario.

Brown advanced to Queenston, a few miles south of Fort George, but his force, whose largest guns were 18 pounders, was too weak to assault it. He hoped that 24 pounders might be brought from Sacket’s Harbor, but British control of the lake made this impossible. On 24 July the Americans withdrew behind the River Chippawa in order to re-supply before moving on the Burlington Heights.

Lieutenant General Gordon Drummond, the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, ordered a British force under Lieutenant Colonel John Tucker to advance from Fort Niagara along the east bank of the Niagara with the intention of threatening Brown’s lines of communication. Riall was to demonstrate on the west bank

Drummond left York for Fort George on the evening of 24 July, arriving at before daybreak the next day. He had intended to remain there for a day, but on arriving learnt that the Americans had withdrawn and that Riall had advanced after them. He therefore decided to follow with reinforcements.

Brown became aware of Tucker’s advance and decided that his best course of action was to move towards Queenston in order to force Tucker to return to Fort George. His leading unit was the 1st Brigade under Brigadier-General Winfield Scott.

The two armies met at Lundy’s Lane on the evening of 25 July. Both sides aimed to defeat the enemy, rather than to capture territory, but tactically it was a battle for the hill on which the British artillery was positioned. The action is sometimes called the Battle of Niagara Falls.

The position of the guns was crucial and the British ones inflicted heavier casualties because of their higher position. The Americans eventually took the hill and beat off a series of British counter-attacks, but were forced to withdraw overnight because of shortages of ammunition and water.

Donald Graves gives the following figures for troop strengths:

US: 2,508 infantry, 200 artillerymen and 70 cavalry totalling 2,778 men. The Left Division had 14 guns: five 18 pounders, three 12 pounders, four 6 pounders and two 5.5″ howitzers. However, probably only nine were present: three 12 pounders, four 6 pounders and two 5.5″ howitzers. On 23 July the Left Division had 5,009 men, but many were in garrisons and some were guarding the camp.[1]

Anglo-Canadian: 2,226 British regulars, 852 Canadian regulars and 550 Militia totalling 3,638 men Probable artillery strength was a rocket section and eight guns: two 24 pounders, five 6 pounders and one 5.5″ howitzer.[2] Many accounts of the battle mention the rockets, but Graves says that ‘there is little evidence that these dramatic projectiles caused much damage.’[3]

Drummond had 2,200 men on the field at the start of the battle, and thought wrongly that he faced 4-5,000 Americans.[4]

Official US casualties totalled 860: 173 dead, 571 wounded and 117 missing. Graves notes that many British and Canadian historians think that the true US casualties were higher.[5] However, he argues ‘that Brown’s return was probably as accurate as it could be.’[6]

Official British casualties totalled 878: 84 dead, 559 wounded, 193 missing and 42 captured. This return includes 142 casualties for the Militia, 75 of which were missing. A later return for the Militia one gives 97 casualties, including 36 missing, so some missing may have returned to the ranks. The US claimed 169 prisoners. Graves thinks actual British casualties were probably about 800.[7]

The wounded included Brown, Scott, Drummond and Riall. Riall was captured, lost his left arm and recuperated alongside Scott, who did not serve again in the war.

Jeremy Black notes that ‘both sides claimed victory and produced conflicting contemporary accounts.’[8] Casualties were similar on both sides, but the British were entitled to claim victory on the basis of possession of the ground after the battle.

Brigadier-General Eleazer Ripley, the surviving senior US officer, did not attack again the next morning, but retreated to Fort Erie. The US no longer threatened Canada and had lost the initiative.

The British besieged Fort Erie, but an attack by Drummond on the night of 15 August was defeated: casualties were about 900 attackers and 90 defenders. Brown launched a sortie on the night of 17 September. His men were outnumbered 3,000 to 4,000, but inflicted casualties of about 600 men for the loss of 500 of their own and captured or destroyed much of the British artillery.[9] This American victory forced the British to end the siege.

4,000 US troops under Major General George Izard were moved from Plattsburg to the Niagara front, arriving on 12 October. Izard had 7,000 men, but was reluctant to attack Drummond’s defensive position. The US won a small engagement at Cook’s Mill on 18-19 October, but Drummond did not react; Izard then withdrew to the US shore of the Niagara.

On 5 November Fort Erie was abandoned and destroyed. This largely ended operations on the Niagara Front and the US threat to Canada. However, the performance of Brown’s Left Division was important for American morale and the future of the US Army. It would, according to Alfred Mahan, ‘have been a calamity…had the record for that generation closed with the showing of 1812 and 1813.’[10]

Graves describes the Left Division as being the ‘best led, best trained and most experienced military force [the USA] was to field during the war…With some truth it can be said that the birth of the modern US army occurred not at Valley Forge in 1777-1778 but along the Niagara in 1814.’[11]

[1] D. E. Graves, Where Right and Glory Lead!: The Battle of Lundy’s Lane, 1814, Rev. ed. (Toronto: Robin Brass, 1997), pp. 257-58.

[2] Ibid., pp. 261-63.

[3] Ibid., p. 131.

[4] Ibid., p. 121.

[5] Ibid., p. 196.

[6] Ibid., p. 271.

[7] Ibid., p. 195.

[8] J. Black, The War of 1812 in the Age of Napoleon (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009), p. 156.

[9] Troop strengths and casualties in this paragraph are from T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2). vol. i, p. xxi

[10] A. T. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812, 2 vols. (London: Samson Low, Marston, 1905), p. 169. vol. ii,

[11] Graves, Where, p. ix.

 

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Battle of the Chippewa, July, 1814- when Cousin Jonathan finally received some respect

Excellent blog post about the Battle of the Chippewa 200 years ago from Bruce at History Stuff That Interests Me.

History That Interests Me

This coming Christmas Eve the United States and Great Britain will be celebrating the end of the War of 1812. It was on December 24th, 1814 that the two powers signed the Treaty of Ghent that ended the conflict.

It is unclear at this point whether President Obama and PM David Cameron intend to mark the occasion with a grand ceremony. I doubt it. In fact, I bet that many Americans or Brits are even aware that 200 years ago the two countries fought a bitter little war that lasted about 30 months.

While barely remembered in Britain and the US the event has been extensively celebrated in Canada who see it as a type of independence day-an independence not from Britain but from the US because the US took the occasion of the war to invade Canada more than once in an attempt to make it part of the…

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