Although the dispute leading to the War of 1812 was over freedom of the seas, the war itself was fought chiefly on land. Madison believed that the motive behind British policy had been to eliminate the United States as a maritime trading rival, while the British, occupied with fighting France in a battle for survival, considered the war with the United States a sideshow, at least initially.
The Canadian campaign. For the United States, the most obvious British target was Canada. Its population was small, many Canadians were actually Americans by birth, and a quick victory there would stop British plans to ruin American trade. The military facts painted a different picture, however. Thousands of Native Americans in the northwestern territories sided with the British when the war began, bolstering their strength, while the small U.S. army was composed of poorly trained state militiamen led by elderly and incompetent generals.
In July 1812, an American army led by General William Hull moved from Detroit into Canada. Almost immediately the Shawnee cut his supply lines, forcing him back to Detroit. Although Hull commanded two thousand men, he surrendered to a considerably smaller British and Native American force. Other embarrassments followed as the United States suffered defeat at Queenston Heights in western New York, and the militia under General Henry Dearborn refused to march to Montreal from northeastern New York.
The United States fared better on Lake Erie in 1813. The Royal Navy could not reach the lake from the St. Lawrence River, so both the British and Americans raced to build ships on opposite sides of the lake. On September 10, 1813, the small American fleet under Oliver Hazard Perry defeated the British in the Battle of Lake Erie. “We have met the enemy, and they are ours,” he reported, a victory statement that became legendary.
Less than three weeks later, on October 5, William Henry Harrison (a general by then) defeated a combined British and Native American force at the Battle of the Thames. Tecumseh was killed in this battle, ending Native Americans' hopes for a coalition that could stand against the advance of U.S. settlement. Despite these victories, U.S. efforts to capture Canada ended in stalemate.
The British land offensive. In April 1814, Napoleon abdicated the French throne and went into exile on the island of Elba, allowing Great Britain to devote its full attention to the war in the United States. The British sent a fleet to Chesapeake Bay and landed an army at Bladensburg, Maryland, on August 24, 1814. The American militia troops fled before the British, who then headed for the U.S. capital. Madison fled Washington, D.C., along with the militia, while his wife Dolley rescued silverware, a bed, and a painting of Washington before leaving the presidential home at the last minute. The British burned the mansion and other public buildings, partly in retaliation for an American act of arson at the Canadian capital of York (now Toronto) during the previous year.
Continuing north in Chesapeake Bay, the British fleet intended to capture Baltimore after first taking Fort McHenry. The British bombarded the fort all through the night of September 13. Francis Scott Key, an American attorney who had boarded a British ship to negotiate the release of a civilian prisoner, watched the battle rage. At dawn, the British broke off the attack, unable to take the fort. Key scribbled down a poem about the event, which became the national anthem “The Star‐Spangled Banner.”
Almost simultaneously, a British naval force under General Sir George Prevost advanced from Canada along Lake Champlain. They met the Americans under Commander Thomas Macdonough at Platts‐burgh, New York, on September 11. Macdonough won a decisive victory, forcing Prevost to retreat to Canada. Earlier American victories near Niagara had halted a British offensive there.
The British also planned a major sea and land offensive at New Orleans. The plan stemmed from victories by Andrew Jackson's army against the Creek Indians in Florida in March 1814 and the subsequent capture of the Spanish fort at Pensacola in November, denying its use as a base to the British. A British force of more than seven thousand men landed near New Orleans in December with the goal of seizing Mississippi. Jackson's defensive strategy was excellent. By placing his outnumbered troops behind earthworks and cotton bales, he was able to cut down more than two thousand British soldiers in short order during their engagement on January 8, 1815. The Battle of New Orleans was seen as the victory that ended the war. In fact, a peace treaty had been signed several weeks earlier. A battle that never would have been fought if international communications had been faster made Andrew Jackson a national hero.
Ending the war. At about the same time the British were besieging Fort McHenry, American and British commissioners were meeting at Ghent, Belgium, to work out an agreement to end the war. With Napoleon out of the picture (he did not escape from Elba until March 1815), the British had little reason for continuing the war. While the British initially called for the surrender of some American territory, news of their loss in the Battle of Plattsburgh made them more conciliatory. The American commissioners, led by John Quincy Adams, hammered out the details of the peace settlement. Essentially, the treaty simply ended the conflict. It said nothing about the impressment of American sailors, freedom of the seas, or neutral rights, all of which had led to the war. The commissioners signed the Treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814, in time to celebrate Christmas Eve.
A Federalist error. The election of 1812 had seen a Federalist comeback in national politics. Although Madison won reelection against DeWitt Clinton, the electoral vote was the closest since 1800: 128 to 89. During the war, New England had become a Federalist stronghold. Federalists there had opposed the Louisiana Purchase for its potential threat to New England's economic importance. New England's commerce had been wrecked by the Embargo Act, and some unhappy New Englanders called the war “Mr. Madison's War.”
Despite the complaints, New Englanders had profited from the war, sending grain to feed the British army and building factories with war profits. New England banks refused to accept paper money and consequently amassed huge amounts of silver and gold, causing a scarcity of specie (hard money) in the rest of the United States.
New England's opposition to the war prompted the Federalists to call a special convention in Hartford, Connecticut, on December 15, 1814, where they proposed a series of constitutional amendments that would have severely limited the power of the national government. Their resolutions were badly timed, for hardly had they announced their proposals when news came that the war was over, making the Federalist resolutions seem unpatriotic at best and treasonable at worst. At the next presidential election (1816), voter rejection of the Federalist party was nearly complete. James Monroe, yet another Virginia Republican, defeated Rufus King by 183 electoral votes to 34. The Federalist party was through in national politics.