The War of 1812 is one of the least studied wars in American history. This page offers answers to frequently asked questions about this formative and dramatic conflict.
The War of 1812 lasted from June 1812-February 1815, a span of two years and eight months. Peace negotiations began in late 1814, but slow communication across the Atlantic (and indeed across the United States) prolonged the war and also led to numerous tactical errors for both sides.
The border between the United States and Canada was the major flashpoint of the War of 1812. (Wikimedia Commons)
The War of 1812 was fought in many places in the United States, Canada, and on the high seas. Many battles were fought against British, Canadian, and Native American opponents in Michigan and New York and in the Canadian (then still under British rule) provinces of Ontario and Quebec.
Throughout the war, American forces also faced Native American foes in the territories of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. In the war’s final stages, British regulars attempted a seaborne invasion of the Gulf Coast, leading to combat in Louisiana.
The British enforced a blockade of American ports, particularly in the South, along the Atlantic seaboard. Naval engagements flared, especially around the Chesapeake Bay, as this blockade was challenged. Additionally, since the war had a distinct commercial character, pirate-style raids were carried out against trade ships throughout the Atlantic.
The Great Lakes Erie and Ontario played a major role in the War of 1812. Sitting amidst the main theater of operations in the North, they shaped the movements of the contending armies. Large ships were built and put on the Lakes, where they engaged in full-scale battles for supremacy in order to move troops and bombard rival towns.
The War of 1812 was part of a larger, global conflict. The empires of England and France spent 1789-1815 locked in an almost constant war for global superiority. That war stretched from Europe to North Africa and to Asia and, when the Americans declared war on England, the war engulfed North America as well.
The United States had a variety of grievances against Britain. Many felt that the British had not yet come to respect the United States as a legitimate country. The British were “impressing,” or forcibly drafting, American sailors at sea as well as blocking American trade with France—both of these were also spillover policies from the British prosecution of the war with France. The British were also unsubtly supporting Native American groups that preyed on American settlers along the frontier.
The peace treaty was negotiated in Belgium, which was considered neutral territory. (Library of Congress)
The peace terms that ended the war were those of status quo antebellum, “the state of things as they were before the war.” So, while the War of 1812 was legally a tie—a wash—in terms of territorial acquisitions, historians now look at its long term effects to judge who won.
The Americans declared war (for the first time in their nation’s history) to stop British impressment, reopen the trade lanes with France, remove British support from Native American tribes, and to secure their territorial honor and integrity in the face of their old rulers. All four of these goals were achieved by the time peace broke out, although some British measures were scheduled to be repealed before the war had even begun. By establishing a respected footing with Britain and Canada, the United States also experienced a commercial boom in the years after the war. The overall result of the war was probably positive for the nation as a whole.
The British gained little to nothing from the war, save for an honorable friendship with the United States. Valuable resources were diverted from the battlefields of Europe for the War of 1812, which brought no land or treasure to the crown. The British also lost their Native American lodgment against United States expansion, further unleashing the growth of a major global trade competitor. However, the British did ultimately defeat France in their long war while avoiding a fiasco in North America, which is a considerable victory in the context of the global conflict they waged.
Many Native American tribes fought against the United States in the Northwest, united as a Confederacy led by a Shawnee man named Tecumseh. Many of these tribes had allied with the British during the Revolutionary War as well. The Creek tribe in the Southwest battled settlers and soldiers throughout the War of 1812, eventually allying with a column of British regulars. In reaching peace through status quo antebellum, however, the Native Americans all lost their main request of a recognized nation in North America. British support also evaporated in the years after the war, further quickening the loss of Native lands.
James Madison, “the Father of the Constitution,” was the president throughout the war. When the nation was first founded, Madison was closely allied with Thomas Jefferson in seeking a decentralized agrarian democracy. As time wore on, however, the man changed. Throughout the War of 1812, he struggled to motivate northeastern states to contribute men and money to the war effort. By the time the war was over, Madison was a proponent of centralized power and a strong manufacturing economy.
The most widely used weapon in the War of 1862 was the smoothbore musket, which was carried by most of the infantrymen in the field. These had an effective battlefield range of 50-100 yards, necessitating close assaults and bayonet tactics be employed. There were also some units equipped with rifles, which were used primarily as light or specialized infantry.
Cannons were smoothbore as well, though they could shoot roughly 400 yards accurately. They were used with deadly, decisive effect on the battlefield.
Cavalrymen generally carried pistols and sabers and were used to outmaneuver or charge enemy formations.
The War of 1812 was fought in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, in which a variety of technological advancements came together to forever change the way humans lived and worked.
Sailing ships ruled the seas during the War of 1812. (Library of Congress)
Steamships and steam-powered railroad engines came into profitable use for the first time during the war years. While they had little effect on the North American conflict, these steam machines would become the technological standard in the decades to come.
Machines made with interchangeable parts became more common during the War of 1812, although the practice was not yet applied to military manufacturing. For the common soldier, the most significant advancement may well have been improved food storage through airtight packaging.
Internationally, the war helped codify a fair standing between the United States, Britain, and Canada. This led to an era of mutually beneficial trade and diplomatic partnership.
Domestically, the war exacerbated tensions between northern industrialists and southern planters. Industrialists were reluctant to go to war with Britain, which was then the worldwide model of the Industrial Revolution. Southerners, on the other hand, were quick to remember the French assistance that had helped win the southern campaigns of the American Revolution as well as the ideological similarities between the two revolutionary nations. The American public generally viewed the outcome of the war favorably, causing the anti-war Federalist Party to fade from national prominence.
In the early years of the 19th century, the United States was a rapidly expanding commercial power. Many historians cite this growth as a key factor in Britain’s desire to contain American expansion. The war helped to secure America’s unfettered access to the sea, which played a large role in a post-war economic boom.
The prosecution of the war cost the United States government 105 million dollars, which equates to roughly 1.5 billion dollars in 2014. The strain of raising this money drove legislators to charter the Second National Bank, taking another step towards centralization.
Only 7,000 men served in the United States military when the war broke out. By the end of the war, more than 35,000 American regulars and 458,000 militia—though many of these were only mustered in for local defense—were serving on land and sea.
The global British regular military comprised 243,885 soldiers in 1812. By war’s end, more than 58,000 regulars, 4,000 militia, and 10,000 Native Americans would join the battle for North America.
Roughly 15,000 Americans died as a result of the War of 1812. Roughly 8,600 British and Canadian soldiers died from battle or disease. The losses among Native American tribes are not known.
Oliver Hazard Perry was a young naval officer who won the Battle of Lake Erie, capturing an entire British naval squadron and permitting the liberation of Detroit.
Jacob Brown was an infantry officer who built up an impressive service record in the war, culminating in the successful defense of Fort Erie despite a seven-week siege. He was later promoted to Commander General of the U.S. Army.
William Henry Harrison was responsible for the military destruction of Tecumseh’s Confederacy, a dangerous Native American concentration in the northwest. He was later elected President of the United States.
William Hull coordinated the first invasion of Canada. Within weeks, however, he surrendered Detroit and his army to a smaller British force without firing a shot.
Andrew Jackson defeated Native American opposition in the southeast, adding 23 million acres to the United States, and won a stirring victory against British regulars at the Battle of New Orleans. He was later elected President of the United States.
Winfield Scott was a brave fighter who also implemented a training system that greatly improved the battlefield performance of the American army. He would later conceive of the “Anaconda Plan” that shaped Northern strategy in the Civil War.
Isaac Brock was a popular imperial administrator in Canada for many years before the war. He became a hero posthumously for his heroic but fatal defense of Queenston Heights.
Robert Ross led the veteran expeditionary force that burned Washington, D.C. He was killed outside of Baltimore at the Battle of North Point.
James Fitzgibbon practiced guerrilla warfare, using deception, local intelligence, and guts to halt an American invasion of Canada at the Battle of Beaver Dams.
Edward Pakenham was a respected Napoleonic War veteran who led the British column that attacked the Gulf Coast. He was killed at the Battle of New Orleans.
Tecumseh was a Shawnee leader who organized Tecumseh’s Confederacy, a resistance group allied with the British in the northwest. He was killed at the Battle of the Thames and his Confederacy fell apart.
Black Hawk was a Sauk chief who fought against American frontiersmen. After the War of 1812, Black Hawk organized a new confederacy, leading to the Black Hawk War of 1832.
Gordon Drummond was a Canadian-born officer in the British Army. He played an important role in the Battle of Lundy’s Lane and the subsequent siege of Fort Erie, later becoming a major politician in Lower Canada.
Robert Livingston was a military courier who had, over the course of his life, been half-blinded by a tomahawk, speared more than twice, and shot in the thigh. He helped lift the siege of Fort Mackinac by smuggling in fresh supplies using camouflaged boats.
Richard Pierpont was a former slave who won freedom by fighting for the British in the Revolutionary War. He organized “The Coloured Corps,” made up primarily of slaves who had escaped to Canada, which fought at the Battles of Queenston Heights and Fort George.
The War of 1812 was shaped by battles on land and sea.
The capture of the HMS Java, HMS Guerriere, and HMS Macedonian (August-December 1812) – The new US frigates Constitution and United States started the war with a bang, performing well in a series of Atlantic engagements that boosted American morale after a disappointing beginning on land.
The Battle of York (April 27, 1813) – American forces burned York, the capital of Upper Canada, after winning a hard-fought land battle.
The Battle of Lake Erie secured the lake and gave American forces the chance to recapture Detroit. (Library of Congress)
The Battle of Lake Erie (September 10, 1813) – Oliver Hazard Perry won fame for his heroic deeds in this victory, which secured Lake Erie for the rest of the war and paved the way for the liberation of Detroit.
The Battle of the Thames, Ontario (October 5, 1813) – William Henry Harrison crushed a combined force of British and Native Americans in this battle, killing the Shawnee leader Tecumseh and thus removing the most dangerous threat to American settlers in the northwest.
The Battle of Horseshoe Bend (March 27, 1814) – Andrew Jackson defeated the Red Stick Creeks and then forced the tribe to cede their claim to 23 million acres of what is now Alabama and Georgia.
The Battle of Plattsburgh (September 11, 1814) – The British launched a poorly coordinated joint operation against the shipyard at Plattsburgh, but were decisively repulsed in one of the war’s largest naval engagements.
The Battle of North Point and the Defense of Fort McHenry (September 12-13, 1814) – After burning Washington, D.C., British forces advanced on Baltimore. Stubborn resistance at North Point and Fort McHenry saved the city, compelled the British to suspend their campaign, and inspired the American national anthem.
The Battle of New Orleans (January 8, 1815) – Andrew Jackson inflicted 2,000 casualties on attacking British troops while suffering only 71 in return. The battle became a touchstone of American pride.
The capture of Detroit (August 16, 1812) – Only weeks after the war began, American General William Hull surrendered Detroit, along with a sizable army, without resistance to a smaller British force.
For many, the British burning of Washington, D.C. is the most notable event of the war, but the burning lacked major strategic significance. (Library of Congress)
The Battle of Bladensburg (August 24, 1814) – British regulars routed Maryland militia in this battle, opening the road to Washington, D.C., which they burned.
The Battle of Queenston Heights (October 13, 1812) – In a dramatic battle, British and Canadian troops turned back an American incursion into Canada. British General Isaac Brock was killed.
The Battles of Stoney Creek and Beaver Dams (June 6-24, 1813) – Another invasion of Canada was repulsed in these battles.
The Battle of Lundy’s Lane (July 25, 1814) – In one of the bloodiest battles of the war, one marked by extensive hand-to-hand fighting, the Americans were forced out of Canada for good.
Disease was the primary cause of death during the War of 1812, not battlefield wounds. When men were wounded, they had little to look forward to in the hospital. Although sanitation was recognized as being medically important, advancements such as anesthesia and ambulatory care were still decades away. A British surgeon (who, along with one assistant, would generally be responsible for 1,000 men) remembered this:
“There is hardly on the face of the earth a less enviable situation than that of an Army Surgeon after a battle – worn out and fatigued in body and mind, surrounded by suffering, pain, and misery, much of which he knows it is not in his power to heal…. I never underwent such fatigue as I did the first week at Butler's Barracks. The weather was intensely hot, the flies in myriads, and lighting on the wounds, deposited their eggs, so that maggots were bred in a few hours.” – Tiger Dunlop, 89th Regiment of Foot
African Americans were not officially allowed to join the U.S. Army during the War of 1812, although they served extensively in the U.S. Navy. Approximately one-quarter of the U.S. sailors at the Battle of Lake Erie were African American. Roughly 350 men of the “Battalion of Free Men of Color” fought at the Battle of New Orleans.
A company of mostly escaped slaves served with the British in Canada, participating in the Battle of Queenston Heights and the Siege of Fort Erie.
During the Royal Navy’s blockade of the Atlantic seaboard, roughly 4,000 slaves escaped onto British ships, where they were welcomed and freed. Many of them joined the British military, participating in the Battle of Bladensburg and the burning of Washington, D.C.
The Smithsonian National American History Museum is a treasure trove of information and artifacts, including the original Star-Spangled Banner.
Walter Lord's book, The Dawn's Early Light, is a great history of the war.
Many battlefields from the War of 1812 are preserved in part or in full, but many are not. The United States federal government compiled a study in 2007 that identified development threats to many battlefields and described more than half as already being "destroyed or fragmented."
The purpose of Campaign 1776 is to protect the battlefields of the Revolutionary War and War of 1812, and to educate the public about the importance of these battlefields in forging the nation we are today. See the ways you can Take Action with Campaign 1776