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John Stagg, editor of The Papers of James Madison and a professor at the University of Virginia since 1987. (Courtesy of the University of Virginia)

Two hundred years after the outbreak of the War of 1812, it remains among the least understood conflicts in American history. Questions about it abound: Why did the United States, with only a handful of warships, declare a largely maritime war on Great Britain, which boasted one of history’s mightiest navies? What causes and goals justified such a move? And why did the U.S. Army perform so miserably? University of Virginia historian John Stagg addresses such questions in his new history, The War of 1812. Viewing the conflict from the diplomatic, economic, political and military perspectives, he clarifies the motivations of the United States, Britain, Canada and the North American Indian confederations. As editor of The Papers of James Madison, the wartime president, Stagg brings unique qualifications to his analysis.

‘By 1815 it became extremely difficult to see how either side could have carried on the war for another year’

What led the United States to declare war on Britain?
The general conditions that underlay the war had existed for years, particularly the impressment of American seamen by the Royal Navy and the restriction of American neutral trade. Before 1811 the U.S. government felt the differences were potentially negotiable. In the summer of 1811 President Madison learned the British were not going to negotiate as long as the Napoleonic wars continued. At that point Madison said, “We now have to prepare for war.”

Why was the Royal Navy impressing American seamen?
The Royal Navy was Britain’s mainstay in the war against Napoléon. The fleet needed 130,000 to 150,000 seamen, and the British could not supply that many. During the Napoleonic wars, with America left after 1807 as the only major neutral nation in the Atlantic trading system, American ships were much more vulnerable than in the past.

Why did the U.S. Army perform so badly?
Historians usually point to such factors as numbers of troops, supply problems, logistics, communications, strategy, and untrained and incompetent officers. The officer corps had a very high rate of turnover. Most were civilians with very little military training or experience; West Point hadn’t produced enough graduates at that point to make any difference. The senior Army officers, particularly in the first year of the war, were old men, and by 1812 they had neither the experience nor the stamina to meet the demands of an invasion of Canada.

The only exception to this proves the rule: On the Niagara Peninsula in the summer of 1814 Winfield Scott and Jacob Brown put together 4,000-odd regular troops and gave them a sustained period of drill and training, and disciplined them properly. When they invaded Canada in the summer of 1814, they performed creditably.

Why did the U.S. Navy perform better than the Army?
Navies—and privateers—kept their ships pretty much at sea all the time. So seamen were continually training on the job. Armies at peace, on the other hand, did very different things from armies at war. Troops doing garrison duty were not training for battle; they were mending roads and planting gardens for food. The British army had similar problems, but they went to war more regularly.

Were there decisive events in this war?
One of the most decisive from the American point of view is that they defeated the Indian confederations, and the United States in the peace treaties took a large amount of land from the Indians.

The American failures in the first year of the war—the first attempt to invade Canada, the loss of Detroit and the Queenston Heights and that sort of thing—were also decisive in that the United States never recovered from those setbacks. So the war never went the way the Americans wanted it to.

Another decisive event is that Napoléon Bonaparte failed in Russia in 1812. Had Napoléon won, Britain would have been a much weaker enemy for the United States to deal with. But that didn’t happen. Britain was never in the weakened state the Americans hoped it might be, and, of course, that made it much more difficult to get any sort of diplomacy or negotiations going. The British were under much less pressure to concede anything.

How important was political factionalism in the United States’ conduct of the war?
There was conflict between the Federalists and the Republicans, and the Republicans as the majority governing coalition also suffered from factionalism. They controlled Congress, but were often divided on measures the administration considered necessary to carry on the war.

In the wider national context, Federalist obstructionism displayed to the world that the United States was not united about the war. The British tried to manipulate this, nowhere more so than when they blockaded the United States. For a long time they exempted New England from the blockade—which encouraged New Englanders to trade with the enemy.

So partisanship does affect the ability of the administration to mobilize the resources of the country fully for this war, and that problem just gets worse as the war goes on.

Did the United States also consider war with France?
Yes, particularly in the weeks preceding the declaration of war. The Federalists would point out that there was no case for war against Great Britain that could not also be made against France. But there was much less likelihood of the United States going to war with both Britain and France at the same time, for all the obvious practical reasons.

How did the United States avoid losing the war?
The United States didn’t lose, but the British couldn’t win it either.

The British did perfectly well as long as they stayed on the defensive. But once they tried to take the offensive after the summer of 1814, they did no better than the Americans. They burned Washington, but that didn’t do them much good. They couldn’t take Baltimore, and they couldn’t invade through Plattsburgh. And New Orleans was an absolute disaster. So by 1814, with the [seeming] end of the Napoleonic wars in Europe, there was a sense in Britain there was not much reason to continue this war. By that time the British had been at war more or less continuously since 1793, and Parliament wasn’t going to spend more for a war that seemed to yield very little in tangible returns. They figured they might as well make peace. In that sense both sides experienced both defeat and victory.

Did any nation win the War of 1812?
Canadians are emphatic that America did not win, and the British agree. Americans usually argue that we really did win. In terms of military outcomes, “stalemate from mutual exhaustion” is the phrase to use. By 1815 it became extremely difficult to see how either side could have carried on the war for another year. In that sense nobody won.

What were the consequences for the U.S. Army and Navy?
There was a general realization the Army’s performance had to improve, that we couldn’t have another war like that. The Army made rapid strides after 1815 toward a more professional service, particularly with respect to staff departments and its officers.

A lot of people in the early 19th century weren’t sure the United States should even have a navy. But the Navy won the most spectacular victories, guaranteeing itself a place in the nation’s defense establishment. But in the longer term—after the 1820s—Congress wasn’t prepared to spend much on the Navy. So the war helped ensure the Navy became more professional and better organized, with Mediterranean and Caribbean squadrons. But in the absence of war there wasn’t that much for the Navy to do, and it became an organization in which men waited for their superiors to die so they would get promoted.

Among the war’s participants, who fared best in the end?
America and Britain, in different ways. The Americans didn’t win the war and didn’t get the peace treaty they wanted, but the war decided who would dominate the heartland of North America. The British did OK, in that the United States was less likely to want to fight Britain again to take Canada, and Canada survived. There were conflicts between Britain and America in the 19th century, and there could have been another war in the 1840s, the 1860s or even as late as the 1890s. But there wasn’t, and I think the War of 1812 had something to do with that.

And, of course, the Indians fared worst of all.