The War of 1812 was a war that was fought in North America which saw participation in three nations: the newly formed Americans, the Canadians, and lastly, the great British Empire. The war, having been dragged for more than two years was seen as a defining war for Canadians. However, for the Americans, it is a forgotten war, a war that is forgotten because of America’s defeat. There can be three main reasons why the Americans lost. The first reason was that the Americans had a divided opinion regarding the war. The second reason was poor military. The last reason was that the Americans alienated themselves from potential allies and underestimated Great Britain.
The United States of America in 1812 was a new country. It has been a mere 36 years since the Declaration of Independence was signed. There were many causes leading up to the War of 1812, with the most primary reason being the British impressment of American soldiers. At that time, Britain and France were fighting the Napoleonic Wars and in order to recruit soldiers, the British frequently stopped American ships and searched them for British naval deserters. This was a pain in the neck for the Americans since often, the British would seize actually Americans instead of deserters. The most famous of these incidents was the Chesapeake Incident of 1807. To search for potential deserters, the USS Chesapeake was boarded by the British, led by commander Salusbury Pryce Humphreys. The ship was searched and four members of the crew were captured. In addition to the British, the French also violated American neutrality by restricting and seizing American ships. In order to keep peace with these two superpowers, the president at the time, Thomas Jefferson issued an embargo which restricted trade between the Americans and foreign countries until the foreign countries respected America’s neutrality. This embargo created the first divide between Americans after the Revolutionary War. Because of the embargo’s nature, New England merchants were heavily affected. According to Dr. Danny Vickers from the Memorial University of New Found Land, “Dried codfish was the first of North America’s great export staples and no colony prospered as impressively from codfish as did Massachusetts. After the embargo of 1807, however, the ban on all naval export hurt the American economy, which was largely dependent on the export of produced goods at the time.” (Vickers)
In contrast with the Americans from the eastern border, the Americans who settled in the western parts had little to no connections with British. These westerners and southerners formed the main body of the War Hawks who advocated for war against the British. Since most of the westerners were native-born Americans, they felt a national integrity and felt that their rights should not be violated by other foreign countries. On June 1st, 1812, President James Madison initiated the debate over declaring war and over the next few weeks meetings were held to choose the fate of the war. On June 4, the House of Representatives voted 79 to 49 for war but in the next week, at the passing of the declaration, the vote was 19 to 13 for war. This closeness between the votes clearly exemplifies America’s internal rift between the issues of war. Therefore, as one can see, it was clear that America was divided between itself from the start. As Abraham Lincoln famously quoted, “A house divided against itself cannot stand” and can be seen as a factor to why America lost the War of 1812.
The second reason why America lost the war was because they had numerous faults and deficiencies in their military. In 1812, as stated earlier, there was a lack of union between the states and most citizen’s loyalty was to their state. There was not much of a sense of Americanism as of yet and because of this during the War of 1812, America’s military was consisted only from volunteers. These volunteers did not volunteer for the sake of patriotism. Instead, they took this as a financial opportunity. In 1812, the US government offered $31.00 and 160 acres of land and paid $5 per month to a private. By 1814, because a lack of soldiers, Congress was offering cash bounties of $124 and 320 acres of land. (Hickey) Because of this system of volunteering, the Americans were disadvantaged from the start with their military only having 35,800 men while Canada and its allies boasted a military of 48,000 men. Furthermore, there were many abuses of localism- favoring those from one area over another (Carleton 71). Election of military officers looked similar to that of a political campaign in many cases (Carleton 71).
To make matters worse, the militia men who did volunteer were of very poor quality. Over 70% of all the state’s militiamen were illiterate and had little to no formal education at all. (Morgan) In addition, because there was no central agency which governed America’s military at the time, often the states did not follow through with the training protocol which resulted in militia men who lacked discipline and any training. The commitment once one volunteered was often just for a year. Many would serve and then as soon as their term was over, would just leave. Enlistees believed, “I’ve served my time, now let the other fellow serve his” (Carleton, 71). This poor military can be attributed to why the Americans lost control of Fort Detroit. When General Hull took his forces to attack Upper Canada, it took him months to stage his men to leave Ohio for Michigan country. In consequence, supplies ran low, disease started to spread, and morale declined. (Hickey) When these men were near the border of Canada, they refused to move forward and this clearly shows the lack of discipline the American soldiers had at that time.
Not only did the Americans have a poor military, they also lacked the communication within their military. The most famous example of this was the Battle of New Orleans. On December 24, 1814 Britain and America signed the Treaty of Ghent which officially ended the war in a status quo ante bellum. However, the Battle of New Orleans was fought on January 8th, 1815. The battle, led by future American president, Andrew Jackson was one of the biggest battles in the War of 1812 with more than 3,000 casualties. If Andrew Jackson heard of the news that the War was over, the Americans would have had the opportunity to save their men and prevent needless deaths.
As seen, the American military lacked in many different aspects from discipline, training to communication between each other. This overall culminated to result in a catastrophic result for the Americans and can be seen as a pushing factor to why the Americans lost.
The last reason why the Americans lost the War of 1812 was because they alienated themselves from potential allies and underestimated the British. On the onset of the War of 1812, General William Henry Harrison decided to break up the large Shawnee confederacy that occupied present day Indiana. In the Battle of Tippecanoe, Harrison and his men fought against the Shawnees and captured Prophets Town, later burning it. When Tecumseh came back to the town he found, “the bodies of my friends laying in the dust, and our villages burnt to the ground, and all our kettles carried off.” This sparked fury within Tecumseh and was the key moment in which allowed the Shawnees to ally themselves with Canada and Britain. Even though the Shawnees were a tribe native to America and that which could have been a potential ally, because of America’s tendency for expansion under manifest destiny, the Americans lost a crucial ally which would later back fire at them when the Shawnees ally themselves with Britain.
At the start of the War of 1812, Britain was busy fighting the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. The Americans took this as an opportunity since Britain only considered the War of 1812 as a side war, a war that is not as important. The Americans took this chance to invade parts of Upper and Lower Canada but as the war dragged on, the tables started to turn in favor for the British. By 1814, Napoleon’s forces were diminishing and the British now had the supply and manpower to support the war effort in North America. In retaliation for the Americans’ attack on York, the British sent the troops to Washington where they burned the White House. Furthermore, the increase in British presence in North America strongly diminished American’s morale and this miscalculation of the British’s presence can be seen as one of the reasons why the Americans lost the War of 1812.
In conclusion, the Americans were fighting a losing war. With its people having divided opinions on the war, there was no unity within the country. Its military was of poor quality with many men serving for their own interests and lacking basic training. Furthermore, the miscalculation regarding the British and the alienation from potential native allies proved detrimental for the Americans as these became the driving factor for their defeat. There is a reason why the War of 1812 is a forgotten war. It is because it was a war in which Canada, a growing British colony defeated the Americans. The War of 1812 was a humiliating chapter in American history