A Sketch of the Principal Events of the War of 1812
By CARLOS PARSONS DARLING, B. L.
Charter Member of the Tioga County, Pennsylvania, Historical Society, Compiler of “The History and Genealogy of the Darling Family in America.”
THE American Congress on the Eighth of June, 1812, declared war against Great Britain, by a vote of seventy-nine to forty-nine in the House of Representatives, and nineteen to thirteen) in the Senate; in return for which the British Parliament decided unanimously to support the Prince Regent in the prosecution of the war declared against them by the United States of America. The following are some of the reasons for the measure. The extension of the American commerce, during the wars in Europe, excited the jealousy of Great Britain. It was to be expected that the vast power of England on the ocean would be employed to check the growing spirit of American commercial enterprise. It was unlikely, too, that the people of America would tamely submit to restraints.
The European wars threw the carrying trade into the hands of the American shippers. To distress her enemy, Britain proclaimed a blockade of the principal ports tinder the influence of France. Large as their naval power was, it could not enforce this paper blockade; but a pretext was afforded for the seizure of American produce, and immense spoliations by British cruisers were the consequence. American seamen were impressed, and compelled to serve in the English Navy, for an unlimited term.
It was believed that British traders from Canada fomented a spirit of savage warfare among the Indians on the frontiers of the United States. On the other hand, the British government charged that of the United States with subserviency to the politics of France. To obtain indemnity for British spoliations, and to cut off all opportunity of exciting the hostility of the Indians was the avowed object of the American government.
William Hull, Governor of Michigan Territory, who had been all officer in the Revolutionary War, took command of two thousands regulars, and one thousand, five hundred volunteers, and encamped on the Fifth of July, 1812, at Spring Wells, opposite Sandwich. lie made a descent on Canada in five days after his arrival on the frontiers. To the surprise of all, he soon retreated across the river, and posted himself at Detroit. He was pursued by the British under General Brock, who summoned and obtained possession of the fortress, without resistance. Thus all the military stores, and the Michigan Territory fell into the hands of the British.
Astonishment at the unexpected event pervaded all ranks of the American people. But triumph soon followed the disaster. The British frigate, Guerriere was taken by Captain Isaac Hull, commander of the American frigate, Constitution, in thirty minutes. The Guerriere was so completely reduced to a wreck by the fire of the Constitution that she could not be carried into port, and was burned the next day. This was the commencement of a glorious career of American victories on the ocean.
The Alert, the Swallow, the Frolic, and the Macedonian were captured by the American Navy the same season. The Wasp and the Frolic were taken by the British frigate, Poictiers. Beside the public vessels, a swarm of American privateers covered the ocean, and crippled the commerce of Britain by the capture of numerous and valuable prizes. The war on land was prosecuted with various success; but the conquest of Canada utterly failed. A great part of the Indians were the allies of Britain. Near the close of the year 18l2, the British frigate, Java, was captured and burned by Commodore Bainbridge on the Constitution.
It was thought by both the belligerents that the fate of Canada was suspended on the issue of naval engagements on the lakes. The British had made great preparations on Lake Erie. Their fleet, under Captain Barclay, consisted of six vessels, mounting sixty-three guns. The American fleet, under Captain Perry, consisted of nine vessels, mounting fifty-four guns.
On the Tenth of September, 1813, the two fleets met at the month of Put in Bay. At eleven A. M. the lines were formed, and the battle began. After three hours of close fighting, the whole of the British fleet was captured. The British loss was two hundred killed and wounded, and six hundred taken prisoners; that of the Americans, twenty-seven killed, and ninety-six wounded. The army under General Harrison, and the volunteers tinder Governor Shelby, passed the Lake and attacked the British troops commanded by General Proctor, and the Indians, under the noted Tecumseh, on the River Thames. The Americans gained a signal victory, killing great numbers, and taking six hundred prisoners, and the General’s carriage and all his papers.
Elated by these successes, the Americans expected that Canada would soon be conquered. The command of the army had been resigned by General Dearborn and given to General Wilkinson. General Hampton commanded a separate detachment. General Wilkinson’s force amounted to eight thousand, and a reinforcement was daily expected. It was resolved to attack Montreal, leaving several forts unreduced.
The British had strengthened their fortifications, concentrated their forces, and taken the best measures of defense. When they found the grand attack was to be made on Montreal, and the American army was descending the St. Lawrence River, they dispatched their best troops to harrass the invaders in the rear.
The season was far advanced, and, a misunderstanding happening between the commanding officers, General Wilkinson was compelled to go into winter quarters without effecting the intended object.
The loss of the Americans, in several engagements, was considerable. In the battle of Christler’s Field General Covington and a hundred and two men were killed, and two hundred and thirty-seven wounded. By these events Sir George Prevost, the commander-in-chief of the British troops, saw himself, for another winter at least, in quiet possession of the Province.
The success of the British and Continental arms in prostrating France, and the consequent peace in Europe, left almost the whole naval force of Britain at liberty to be employed in the war against America, and those who had served in Spain, disengaged from European wars, might now be employed to fight against the enemy in the New World. Great Britain rose in her demands and, it is thought, even meditated the dissolution of the Union, and the annexation of, at least, a part of her former American possessions. Negotiations had been opened, but they proved ineffectual.
These considerations were sufficient to have spread a gloom over the American public, but, like the Romans, they seem to have increased their energies in proportion as the dangers which threatened them increased. New levies were raised, loans were negotiated, and large appropriations were made to increase the navy.
The British resolved to harass the coasts, and their powerful fleets, early in the spring, were in the American seas. Hampton, Virginia; Havre de Grace, Maryland, and other villages, were plundered, burnt, and laid waste. The bold resolution was taken to seize the city of Washington, the capital of the Commonwealth. This enterprise was committed to General Ross.
On the Nineteenth of August, I814, the troops destined for this undertaking arrived at Benedict, and the next day their debarkation was completed. The detachment consisted of about six thousand troops. The American forces under General Winder, destined for the defence of Washington, amounted to no more than three thousand, of whom one thousand, five hundred were raw militia, when General Ross was within twenty miles of the capital.
On the Twenty-fourth the Americans were attacked at Bladensburg, and, after a considerable resistance, totally routed. The officers of the Government immediately fled, and the British army entered the city without opposition. The Capitol, the President’s house, and several offices, with all their papers, valuable libraries, the noble bridge over the Potomac and several private houses, with a wantonness that no excuse can palliate, were burned.
After remaining a few days in the city, the British army retired to the fleet, and would have retired with honour, had they been contented with burning the Navy Yard, defeating the American Army, and entering in triumph the capital. But burning- of property in no respect military tarnished all their laurels.
Their next object was an attack on Baltimore. This was less successful, or rather, totally failed. Fort McHenry repulsed the British Navy with great firmness. In the Battle of North Point the Americans were victorious. The loss of the invaders was double that of the Americans, and General Ross was among the killed. The fleet was withdrawn, and the reduction of Baltimore abandoned in despair.
The disaster which the invading army met at the capital of Maryland disconcerted what seems to have been a very extensive plan of operation. Had Baltimore fallen, the next object doubtless would have been Philadelphia, and then New York. Next, the British progress would have been up the Hudson River, and the cutting off the Northern States from the Union. Though this object was never plainly announced, yet it so much resembles the plan of operations in the Revolutionary War, and seems to account so well for the simultaneous movements of the British forces on the north and south, that no one can doubt that it actually had been formed.
Sir George Prevost had been reinforced on the north by a part of Wellington’s Army from the Garonne. A part of the reinforcement had been sent up to the Niagara River, while the remainder, to the amount of fourteen thousand men, were organized under Sir George for the invasion of New York. General McComb was stationed in feeble fortifications opposite Plattsburgh, on Lake Champlain. On this lake the British force had been increased and placed under the command of Captain Downie. It consisted of four vessels and twelve galleys. The American armament, commanded by Commodore McDonough, consisted of four vessels and ten galleys. The number of guns in the British fleet was ninety,-five, those of the Republic numbering eighty-six. The former were manned by one thousand men, the latter by eight hundred. Captain Downie was ordered to attack the fleet, while Sir George was to lead his forces against the fortifications on land.
On the Eleventh of September the British fleet bore down upon the enemy. When they hove in sight, Commodore-McDonough collected his officers and men around him, kneeled down, and implored in prayer the assistance of Almighty God.
At nine A. M. the lines were formed at three hundred yards distance from each other, and the engagement commenced. At the same time the battle between the land forces began. After two hours’ fighting on the Lake, the victory seemed to incline towards the British Lion. But the execution of a most difficult maneuver decided the conflict, and victory perched on the American banners.
After two hours and twenty minutes’ fierce combat the contest closed by the sinking of three British galleys, and the surrender of all the remainder of the fleet, except nine galleys which made their escape. The American loss was fifty-two killed, and fifty-eight wounded, while that of the British, besides their fleet, was fifty-eight killed, one hundred and ten wounded, and eight hundred and fifty-six taken prisoner. The number of prisoners actually exceeded the whole number of their captors. Sir George Prevost kept up a fire on the American lines until evening and then fell back under cover of the night. The Americans had command of the Lake, and the militia pouring in from every quarter, further operations by land would have been hopeless.
Great Britain now resolved to concentrate her land and naval forces for a grand attack on New Orleans. The Americans were soon apprized of this intention and made preparations to repel the formidable invasion that threatened them. The command was given to General Andrew Jackson, who had distinguished himself in former campaigns against the Southern Indians.
He received certain intelligence on the Fifth of December, 1814, that a fleet of sixty sail was off the coast of the Mississippi. All was activity in New Orleans to prepare for a vigorous defence. The American flotilla on Lake Pontchartrain was destroyed by the invaders. The army destined for operations on land was debarked under the command of Sir Edward Pakenham. The British force amounted to sixteen thousand troops, the most of them veterans from Spain; that of the Americans, raw anti undisciplined, to six thousand, but their General was a host.
After several preliminary skirmishes, on the Eighth of January, 18l5, Sir Edward made his grand attack. The American lines extended one thousand yards, and in front of the breastworks there were five feet of water in the ditch. The British advanced over an even plain, in solid columns, upon the American entrenchments. When in reach of the batteries, a most destructive cannonade commenced, and soon they were within the range of the riflemen and musketeers. The carnage was dreadful. Every shot from the American batteries seemed to take effect. The advancing columns were mowed down as the scythe of the mower levels the grass. The troops passed over the dead bodies of their companions to certain destruction. The assailants were thrown into confusion: no effort could rally them. No less than two thousand, besides the wounded, fell in a short space of time. Sir Edward Pakenham was among the slain. The American loss was seven killed and six wounded. It was the hand of the Almighty! The shattered forces were embarked as speedily as possible.
Before this great battle was fought Articles of Pacification had actually been signed at Ghent, the Twenty-fourth of December, 1814. By this treaty the two nations were placed nearly in the same relations as before the commencement of the war.
The War of the Revolution was planned for a wise purpose, and was directed by a Higher Power, but the War of 1812, considered by the light of the present- day wisdom, was an unnecessary and wanton exhibition of folly. England, once defeated and driven from the country, was only anxious to try again to redeem her lost honor, and America, goaded on by the impulsive ambition of the politicians like Calhoun, Clay, and others, were striving to turn the popular prejudice against Great Britain to their own political advantage. We gained the humiliation of asking terms, and seeking a cessation of hostilities. We lost thirty thousand lives, and hundreds of millions of dollars. We lost our national capitol and years of prosperous commerce. Public morals were outraged by all the evils which follow in the train of war.
There has ever remained a question as to the wisdom and justification of this war, which brought no benefit at all commensurate with the losses we sustained in blood, treasure, and prestige. The country at large was caused to stiffer, but the ambitious politicians were benefitted. It was one of the first object lessons given of the ambitious plotting for power and place that has grown up with our country and is today a ruling passion.